Professional wrestling is a fascinating industry. From my perspective as someone who does research on organizations, professional wrestling doesn’t work the way a successful industry is supposed to work, but it somehow manages to survive. There’s practices within the industry that are questionable – such as World Wrestling Entertainment’s classifying its “Superstars” as independent contractors rather than employees – and there’s things that happen in wrestling that shouldn’t happen in any kind of organization. And even though there’s a fair amount of regular turnover, as some wrestling companies close and others start up, and as wrestlers move from company to company, there always seems to be enough devoted fans for professional wrestling to keep on going.
As a kid, Al Snow was one of those devoted fans – and he went on to spend more than 35 years in the wrestling industry. I’m really happy that he’s written an autobiography, because I loved his work as a performer. However, Snow’s story is particularly intriguing, because in addition to being a wrestler he’s worked in many other parts of the industry; he’s been a promoter, a trainer, a TV commentator, a wrestling school owner, and a storyline writer. As a wrestler, his career never reached the same heights as, say, The Rock or Stone Cold Steve Austin, but being in the trenches rather than being a high-profile celebrity gives him a unique view of professional wrestling, and gives him some great stories to tell.
The book’s title, Self Help: Life Lessons from the Bizarre Wrestling Career of Al Snow, and its cover art refer to Snow’s most memorable character, which was one of the best parts of the WWE “Attitude Era” and ended up generating controversy outside of the wrestling world. In Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) and then in WWE, Snow pretended to be a “lunatic” and came to the ring with a mannequin head, which he talked to during matches. “Head” and Snow also usually had words like “Help Me” written backwards in big letters on their foreheads. Absurd as this sounds – or maybe because it was so absurd, and Snow’s acting was so appropriately over-the-top – this gimmick was hugely popular with wrestling fans.
But when WWE released an action figure of Snow and “Head”, a university professor saw it on sale in Wal-Mart and complained that it promoted “spousal abuse”. Snow points out that “Head” was deliberately genderless – he always referred to “Head” as “it” because “I didn’t want a promoter to assume the head was female and ask me to make out with it” – and notes that it was clearly a Styrofoam mannequin part that never resembled an actual disembodied head. Nevertheless, the controversy caused the action figure to be taken off the market, and as far as Snow knows, he’s still on “the list of 21 things that Wal-Mart will not carry”.
The title also reflects the book’s structure, which borrows the general format of “life lesson” books. Snow and his co-writer, Ross Owen Williams, assume that readers have some familiarity with professional wrestling terminology, but the “life lessons” format will be recognizable to any reader that has skimmed through a self-help, business, or how-to book. Peppered throughout the text are “life lessons” sidebars: short pithy observations drawn from Snow’s experiences.
The stories that Snow tells are thoroughly engaging – some to the extent of “you couldn’t make this stuff up”. However, the “life lessons” format has its pluses and minuses. The short “lessons” work quite well as a consistent element linking a wide range of stories about vastly different topics, but the tone of the “life lessons” themselves is inconsistent. Some are really solid advice (“Being happy in your workplace is ultimately more important than what you’re paid”) and some are silly (“Beer and midgets don’t mix well”). That left me as a reader wondering whether I was supposed to take the “life lessons” seriously, or just laugh at them. Toward the end of the book, when the stories became less chronological, I felt that the “life lessons” were less successful as a common feature across the chapters – at times, it felt like some of the “life lessons” were there because they had to be there for continuity, not because they enhanced the content.
Nevertheless, Snow comes across in the book as a really thoughtful, smart guy, with a good sense of humour and a great deal of respect and love for the wrestling business. He’s quite honest in describing how his ego and impatience sabotaged opportunities that might have made him more popular more quickly. Admittedly, anyone might get frustrated being stuck with horrible character ideas like teen-idol wannabe “Leif Cassidy”, but he admits that he might have been treated more favourably if he hadn’t complained so much about what he had been given, or if he had worked harder to use whatever was usable in a lame character idea. He also makes it clear that he’s not a backstage politician, and accepts that refusing to please powerful people also hampered his career progress.
I particularly enjoyed the part of Self Help where Snow discusses his experiences in the early 2000s as a trainer on the first three seasons of Tough Enough. This TV show was WWE’s attempt to capitalize on the reality show craze, featuring a group of aspiring wrestlers all competing for a WWE contract. This section of the book will likely be most interesting to readers who saw the show back in the day, but it’s intriguing to read about how Snow genuinely wanted to help the Tough Enough contestants develop as athletes and learn what it really took to be a successful professional wrestler. However, his supportive attitude frequently brought him into conflict with the showrunners, who wanted lots of drama and physical confrontations. The clashes between real reality, TV-reality-show reality, and professional wrestling reality resulted in some truly surreal situations, and it’s astonishing that Tough Enough lasted as long as it did when so many bad decisions were being made.
Self Help has some structural flaws, but overall it’s a very entertaining look at professional wrestling from someone who’s done pretty much everything there is to do in the industry – an industry where, in Snow’s words, “what we do for a living is bizarre. We’re being paid to fake fight each other in our underwear”. But he’s proud to proclaim that he’s still a fan, and that straightforward perspective makes Self Help worth reading.
Thanks to ECW Press for providing me with a review copy of the book.