Heel Honor Roll #4: Bobby "The Brain" Heenan
Every great hero needs a villain, and Heel Honor Roll is a column in which we take a look at some of the most effective heels in the business from history and today. Each week we'll discuss one of the many miscreants, jerks, and all around bad guys that we have (at least at some point) come to love in wrestling, and examine how they got doing wrong so very right.
The Vince McMahon character was a product of prosperity. To the financial boom of the late 80's, 90's, and early 00's, the image of corporate villainy was embodied by the swaggering titan of industry, a pillar of success whose evil flowed from a place of undeniable power turned toward selfish ambition and megalomaniacal ends. America was, for the time, a nation of millionaires racing to be the next billionaires, and our villain was a warped funhouse mirror turned on our own success.
Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was no less a manifestation of the ills of corporate culture, but unlike McMahon, his is a timeless character. Only a particular era of success and excess could produce the villain Mr. McMahon, which is probably at least part of the reason why that character feels out of place on WWE TV these days.
Heenan, by contrast, could walk onto Friday Night Smackdown tonight and fit right in, with the audience immediately able to recognize his character as one with which they are all too familiar. Even if you didn’t grow up watching Heenan, it's impossible to have stepped into an office and not met his type, superficial confidence poorly masking a subtle thread of incompetence. Heenan was not a powerhouse or a titan of industry; he was the middle manager who succeeded less by work than by deceit and manipulation. In short, Heenan wasn't Mr. McMahon; he was David Brent from "The Office".
As with most hated middle managers, we hated Heenan less for the actual power he had than the way he was able to maneuver it into success beyond his actual capabilities. Again, a parallel to Mr. McMahon serves to highlight the nature of Heenan's effectiveness as a villain: McMahon was a physical specimen, a fact made apparent even as he paraded around in expensive suits. Heenan was, for lack of a better word, a schlub. He was overweight, not particularly tall, and frequently found in the outfits that were no less out of sync with their time as they are with our own. Yet for all of the obvious, readily apparent incompetence, there Heenan was, surrounding himself with talents like Andre the Giant, John Studd, and Rick Rude, paragons of athletic success to whom Heenan could attach himself, parasitically making his protégés vehicles to the top.
The result was both comical and immensely frustrating, with Heenan playing the perfect weasel (a nickname he bristled at constantly, giving it even greater effect). With his veneer of power, Heenan blustered with all the bravado of a self-made man with none of the bona fides, which made his frequent cowering at the thought of actual confrontation with his enemies such an effective tool for audience satisfaction, a ready source of comeuppance for a man we all wanted to see get what he deserved, precisely because we were constantly watching this fraud get what he distinctly did not deserve.
Heenan was a portrait of all of the negatives we once and currently have come to associate with the term "manager". Heenan is the coworker who occupies a higher position only by their willingness to throw scruples and dignity to the side. Heenan is the sycophant who owes his position more to attaching himself to someone truly capable than he does to anything he has or will ever accomplish by his own merits.
Indeed, Heenan could step seamlessly into our culture today and become the face of corporate greed and incompetence that represents our modern financial downfall, one engineered by men like Heenan, fast talking charlatans that we always knew had no firm foundation from which they could or should be drawing their apparent authority and riches. We've always had a radar for these types, and Heenan fed into this perfectly. He was a man we recognized and immediately hated.
If professional wrestling is a world with heroes and villains achieving success based on their accomplishments in victory and defeat, Heenan was a direct contradiction to the values of that system, gaining his success by drafting off of others and masquerading as though their achievements were his own. Returning to the contrast, McMahon was an evil emperor, but at least his was an empire build on things that were real; Heenan was essentially running a Ponzi scheme of success, and yet he kept skating away to find new talents to parasitically "manage" to their success, but mostly to his own vicarious arrogance.
Heenan drew our ire because it was an ire with the culture permeating our everyday lives, one where people value manipulation over hard work. In short, Mr. McMahon may have been the corporate villain we aspired to, but Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was the corporate villain we deserved.