I know the tone of that question well -- especially when the person asking is looking up from a newspaper, Twitter feed, or news website. It always means the same thing, too -- no matter the name.
That question means someone has died.
As soon as I heard the question, and before the follow-up, no matter how much the name was botched, I knew: Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of the greatest entertainment villains of all time to an era of 40-somethings, had died
. Worse, the person who first asked if I knew Piper clearly had never heard of him. I had to accept that yet another prominent figure from the zeitgeist of my youth ... was completely unknown to an average millennial today.
If you're a male in your late 30s or early 40s, professional wrestling, and the "Hot Rod," likely influenced your childhood, along with Atari, a malfunctioning Slinky
, and that lousy electronic football game that just vibrated the plastic players on a tin tray. Yes, entertainment and television in the early '80s was arguably at a nadir, especially for children. But even in the TV wasteland that was Sunday morning, professional wrestling was a sweaty juggernaut of juvenile entertainment.
While the golden boy of professional wrestling was Hulk Hogan, its most charismatic star was unquestionably Rowdy Roddy. Hogan was a good guy, known as a "babyface" in wrestling lingo. The term for a guy like Piper was a "heel," or a bad guy.
He was the greatest heel of all time, too, according to a WWE ranking
. Roderick George Toombs, a Canadian replete with an accent, somehow convinced us all he was a Scottish Highlander named Roddy, with only a kilt and some real-life bagpipe-playing skills. Other than that, he was pure chutzpah.
Piper played such an unabashed, cowardly scoundrel that he was actually lovable. He was a master of the cheap shot, the sucker punch, and the surprise folding chair from behind. His dishonesty was so consistent as to be honest. But Piper didn't just make wrestling history -- he also made TV history, with the greatest low-budget talk show of all time: "Piper's Pit."
Forget Johnny Carson. Forget Phil Donahue. Forget Merv Griffin. The talk show in the 1980s for many kids was "Piper's Pit." The set was always hastily-constructed somewhere off to the side of the wrestling ring/stage, in whatever city the WWF tent was pitched that weekend. The "sound stage" was just a cardboard wall painted to look like some kind of paneling, adorned with preening portraits of its titular host. The format was simple, yet brilliant.
Piper, armed with the only microphone on-set, would invite guests -- usually good guys -- onto his set, and berate them, insult them, goad them, and even simply blindside them with a forearm or a chair when they weren't expecting it. And, really, every guest on "Piper's Pit" should have been expecting it. Often you never even heard from the guests, who mostly sat there, un-mic-ed, silently fuming at the indignities to which they were subjected -- if they were lucky, they were not sucker-punched and thrown
through the cardboard wall behind them.
In a time of rabbit ears and three channels of boring adult programming, "Piper's Pit" was adolescent television gold. Moreover, it was a harbinger of things to come, for better or worse.
If Sunday morning wrestling could be compared to a sketch show, then "Piper's Pit" fit in like Weekend Update is now inserted into Saturday Night Live. Its legacy has been echoed ever since.
Piper was screaming at guests before Morton Downey Jr. (now the subject of a documentary soon to air on CNN) mainstreamed verbal guest abuse. He brought talk show fisticuffs to television long before Jerry Springer syndicated the practice. He was destroying his own fake wood panel set decades before Eric Andre, of the "Eric Andre Show," dove into his first wall on Adult Swim. Piper did it all, and did it first. Whatever WWF paid him back then, it probably wasn't enough -- he was anchor, host, writer, and warrior of a show that probably cost $50 -- albeit 1980s dollars -- to produce.
Would "Piper's Pit" survive today? Probably not. Even in the '80s, parents were concerned that watching wrestling made kids more violent. I have to concede that my brothers and I probably would have hit each other with a lot fewer folding chairs if we'd never watched wrestling. That kind of child behavior would get a parent locked up, and DHS involved today.
The violence on "Piper's Pit" would not even be the most objectionable behavior on the show today, though. In playing his role, Piper routinely hurled racial epithets and mocked the cultural stereotypes of his guests, like Fijian babyface Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka. If he wasn't doing that, he was mocking the military service of Sgt. Slaughter -- who had actually served in the Marines.
There's no way that would fly today -- even knowing that Piper was just playing a role. More than that, through his diabolical character, he was holding that kind of deplorable behavior up to scorn. Ironic that that kind of extreme character would actually be too nuanced to escape today's environment of social censorship.
But back then it was the '80s -- the age of single moms, and latchkey kids. Kids were on their own in the '80s, and staring at the tube was where we got most of our childrearing. TV was more than a diversion. For many, it was a parent. It had custody of me more than my Dad did, and TV spent less time at work hammering out overtime than my Mom did.
Television is where we got a lot of our ideas. Now, kids are watching other things too, like YouTube, Netflix, and Vines, but that same diversity of entertainment means less commonality.
Admittedly, Toombs's legacy is more cult than mainstream, but he's proof that our childhood heroes influence our thought and style well into adulthood. Sure, folding chairs and forearms are not good lessons for conflict resolution as grownups. But Hot Rod's legacy is more than that: He showed us that we all, in some way, at different times, enjoy the brash, selfish villain more than the bland, selfless hero. And that then, like today, the villain usually gets better ratings.