Last week, before Triple H was the special guest referee in the WWE Championship match between John Cena and Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam, before Bryan beat Cena cleanly in a magnificent match, before Triple H turned heel on Bryan and helped Randy Orton cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase to win Bryan's title, he sat down for an interview with Bill Simmons and me. The WWE superstar and real-life front-office executive gave us a peek behind the curtain and into the head of the man who might be professional wrestling's biggest enigma — as well as its future.
So how's your job?
I'm in the office full-time. I work more now than I ever did. I'm not on the road full-time — I'm at every TV, every pay-per-view, but not traveling, not making live events. I just do occasional [on-camera] stuff when it works for the story line.
Who decides to put you in a story line? Does it come from the creative team?
Yeah, it can come out of creative,1 but the ultimate sign-off is Vince.2 Technically, creative reports to Steph,3 but Steph is kind of the aggregator. Her office does everything from the magazine to digital to the shows, so it's funny when people will say, "Oh, Steph and the creatives." She really doesn't have anything to do with the day-to-day. I mean, she'll weigh in on something if Vince asks or if the writers ask her what she thinks before they bring something to Vince.
So she's mainly big-picture?
Yeah. And because she's not on the road as much, she'll watch the shows from home and give us a completely different perspective. We say it all the time: It's the hardest thing to see everything. You're in the foxhole. We'll do Raw and I won't even see the whole show because from Gorilla Position,4 I'm that filter before it gets to Vince. So Vince sits in one seat and he talks to the truck and stuff, and I'm in the seat next to him talking to the truck and talking to the ring, and if something just changed in Segment 1, I've got to nip up5 and go get the change to everybody else, or I'll call a writer in and say, "This just went down, we gotta go here." It's live TV. But when you're at home watching it, it's a completely different perspective. Sometimes we don't see all the video packages or the commercials. You lose perspective. So Steph will see something and say "Hey, guys, I think you're losing the plot here."
But for the most part, she controls the gigantic entity that creative is so that there's continuity between the digital and the magazine, continuity between the domestic shows or the shows that run internationally, all of those components and those teams, which is a massive amount of people. But creatively, the final sign-off is Vince.
Some people might be amazed that he's still so involved. What is this, like, 35 years for him?
That's what he loves to do. It's funny. I often think to myself, he's a promoter and creative guy that somehow got caught up running a corporation. All the other stuff is like his day job, it's "This is the shit I gotta do" — talk to finance people, see to this and that. But at the end of the day, he really likes to sit down in the room with the creative people and talk about creative.
It reminds me of Lorne Michaels at SNL. He doesn't seem like he'll ever leave. He just loves being in the middle of it.
When we did SNL, it was what I thought when I met Lorne. I'll never forget it. When they showed us the script, Vince was like, "Lorne, this doesn't work. I'm going to go upstairs with your writers and rewrite this." That's how he is, and that's how Lorne is. I don't care how big they are, they're still going to have that — because that's what they like to do. And I can relate. I don't necessarily like sitting in a room talking about budgets for live events.
We have a saying in the business:6 "I do this because of the 20 minutes in the ring I get every night. It's the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day that I just put up with to get there." Like, getting on a plane and flying 16 hours and riding in a car and in a bus, and traveling and being in a hotel every night — this is the stuff you put up with to get the opportunity to get in the ring and do what you do in front of a crowd. It's the same with the business part. All the stuff you have to do to have a business that runs.
Do you find yourself getting a similar rush in the Gorilla Position role that you used to get in those 20 minutes?
Yeah. Honestly, that's how I got in this role anyway. If you go back to the Clique,7 why were we all in the same car? Because all we talked about was business. All five guys, we obsessed about it. Not in a bad way; we just loved the business. We constantly talked about it and constantly were coming up with ideas, even if they weren't for us.
Starting a year after I got to the WWF, Vince would say, "Hey, you have an opinion on this, what's your opinion?" And I'd give Vince my opinions. Sometimes he liked it, sometimes he didn't, but we kind of established that working relationship so that when Russo left in the middle of the night to go to WCW,8 I went to Vince and I just said, "I understand how creative works. You can't bounce ideas off yourself. So if you want to bounce ideas off me, I'm happy to just hear you out and give you my opinion. Not saying you need it, just saying it's there."
So two days later, my phone rang, and Vince said "Hey, pal, you got a minute? You talked to me about bouncing around some ideas. Can I run a couple things by you? See what you think?'' And that started it. Shortly thereafter, it was, "You want to start coming to production meetings? I could really use you in there." And I've been doing it since probably '98, '99.
All the best wrestlers in the company have input on some level, right?
Depends on the guy. You know, Austin — I don't mean this in a disparaging way — Austin would look at something and go, "That sucks, I ain't doing that. Come back when you get something better."9 But I would go, "Well, what are we trying to get out of this? What if we did this?" And then Vince would be like, "That's a decent idea, but what if we took that, but did this?" I like that process. I think that was what worked with Vince.
Did the other wrestlers get competitive? Like, why this guy and not me?
There were guys that looked at it like, "Well, that's bullshit." There were a few guys who went to Vince and said, "Hey, I'd like to be involved like that too." What they didn't get was — I'm not trying to put myself over,10 but there's a level of additional work that comes with it. So when everyone else's call time is one o'clock, I'd be there at 10 o'clock. Even if we had to drive in from the last show and I got in at four in the morning, if I told Vince I'd be at that production meeting at 10 a.m., I was at that production meeting at 10 a.m., bleary-eyed but ready to go. And those other guys would do that once or twice and be like, "Well, I'm not doing that. I'm not making more money from that, no one's paying me extra." I never looked at it that way. I've heard this saying before: Success is not a destination, success is what happens along the way. I dig what I do every single day. Everything else takes care of itself.
When you came to WWF, creative was just Vince and Pat Patterson, right?
Pull back to before Raw. Go back to Superstars and Challenge.11 You come up with one match or angle that's the focal point in the show. Everything else is just "who needs the love, who needs an enhancement match."12 When I first came in there, you'd wrestle four times in one taping. Sometimes you'd wrestle a fifth time for a Coliseum Home Video13 exclusive. You'd get there early, do some print stuff, take pictures, whatever. Maybe you'd shoot an angle.14 And after your matches you'd go downstairs and you'd wait your turn to do your market-specific promos.15 You'd be in there until three in the morning and then you'd move on to the next day. But with Raw16 everything was different.
Bad for the jobbers.
Bad for the jobbers, yeah, but the show became the draw. It wasn't just a promotional vehicle to get you to go to live shows anymore. And even then there were a lot less pay-per-views. Now the drive is every four weeks.
That was 1995. It's 18 years later, and the writing team is, what, 10 or 15 people now? Marketing, PR — there are a lot of people involved.
There's a lot of people involved, but a lot of it is throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks to Vince. It's just what resonates with him. He'll take a lot of creative direction, though sometimes he does it kicking and screaming. Maybe he'll disagree with something, but then the crowd seems to be buying it and he'll change his mind. Other times he feels strongly about something and that's the way we go. But at the end of the day it's his sign-off.
But a lot of people weigh in on stuff. Talent17 weighs in. The agents18 have to go through the process. I always laugh when the fans or writers say, "It's so simple; I don't know why they don't just do this with the story." Well, there are 20 factors why you can't even come close to doing that, from talent going "I'm not doing that" to "I hate that guy, I don't want to do that with him." I hear things all the time like, "Why don't they just do this with Taker?"19 Well, he physically can't. He's beat up. There are so many factors. It's really like putting together a massive puzzle with pieces that move. It's a massive undertaking.
Speaking of writers, when do you first remember the Internet becoming a factor? There were dirt sheets before then, but they really blew up on the web. I know you guys pretend you're not listening to it, but come on.
When I got into the business, obviously the dirt sheets were there. In my mind, it was like a gossip column. I remember Dallas Page20 coming in. I used to go to the Power Plant21 every day just to train with Terry Taylor.22 Page would come in and he'd be so upset because the dirt sheets were ripping him apart all the time. Especially Wade Keller,23 who was fucking brutal: "Page is a waste of skin. I don't even know why he has a job there." Stuff like that. Page could do no right and it really bothered him. I would say "What do you care? Who cares what he thinks? Just do what you do, man, and worry about if they're cheering or not." But he'd say to me, "You don't understand, man. Bischoff24
[Editor's note: Wade Keller contacted Grantland after the publication of this interview and insisted, plausibly, that the writer Triple H was referring to is not Keller, but rather Bruce Mitchell, then a writer for Keller's newsletter. Keller wrote a full response at his website.]
Completely. I was like, "You just worked28 the dirt sheet guy!" It blew my mind that these guys don't even really have an honest opinion. There's a lot of guys over the years I've seen put over [in the dirt sheets] and I just didn't get it. But then I realized, those guys give them insider dirt. In the Attitude Era, we'd be on a plane and there'd be four of us traveling in first class or something, and a week later, I'd read the conversation verbatim in the dirt sheets. I'd be like "Fuck, how does that happen?" Because it had to be one of the four of us. I always thought, just do your job. If the crowd reacts to you, positively, negatively, if you're getting a reaction, they're going to push you. That's what nobody gets. We don't tell the fans who's going to be over. We put somebody on the table, fans react, and then we decide where to go with them. What people forget is we have a focus group every single night, 10,000 people somewhere. We didn't get Austin over. Austin got over with the fans.
There's been a lot written about you on the Internet over the years.
I wish I had the brainpower and the wherewithal and the drive to be as maniacal and devious as people fucking think I am. I'd be fucking Darth Vader. I'd run the Empire, and I guess maybe that's how some people see it, right? They'd say "Oh, he went in there and he buried29 this guy," and it's like, fuck, I had nothing to do with that. I didn't even know he was coming in until I saw him that day.
But they do get things right sometimes. There was this guy on Reddit posting results recently.
The night we brought Lesnar in,30 the fans were chanting his name, and Vince said to me, "How do they know we have Lesnar here?" They didn't! They'd heard rumors that Lesnar was a possibility. But if you watched that crowd, they were fucking blown away when he walked out there. And that's the difference. People think they know, but they really don't know any of the inner mechanics of what we do. Every now and then there's something in there that will be right on, and I think that's because talent put it out there. Talent hear things and that's fine. We don't really put much thought into it, to be quite honest. We just dislike when people ruin stuff for fans. It's like telling kids Santa Claus is fake. Why do it? It doesn't benefit anybody other than the ego of the person who put it out there. I never understood that. Why would you tell people what's going on? Isn't that the whole point of what we do, to keep them on the edge of their seats? I mean, yeah, we see where the Internet is going. We're giving fans more access now and doing shows like Total Divas. But I laugh, like, when writers say "Oh, CM Punk laid the pipe bomb and lifted the fourth wall in a promo."31 So let me get this straight, you think we put him out on TV, he broke fucking everything we were supposed to do, and then sat down Indian-style and started blistering everybody, and we didn't think Let's take him off the air? If that would've been a shoot, it would've been off the air the second he started.
You mention Total Divas. How do you decide how much of the real stuff to give away on that show?
Contrary to popular belief, we're not really trying to hide anything. People know what we are, they know what we do, but, you know, a magician is not really conjuring black arts. He's a magician. He gives you an illusion. I'm friends with Criss Angel. Criss has offered me a million times to go downstairs and see the setup. I don't want to see it. I just want to go, "God, how did you do that?" And that's all what we're trying to do. You can see everything else, that's cool. We just don't need you to see the piano wire that's holding up the girl that's levitating.
The reality shows are what they are. It's creative reality. In our business, they never know what's real and what's not. So, like, at WrestleMania when the girls on Total Divas got cut32 — I saw on the Internet, "Oh, isn't that horrible? They manufactured that whole thing to crush those girls' spirits." As if we thought that far in advance, that we thought, You know what we'll do? On the busiest day of the year for us, we'll play those girls all day and then pull it out from under them. No, the show is a fluid, live event. One match doesn't sound like a lot, but when you have an allotted amount of time for a show, if one thing goes two minutes heavy, and one thing goes one minute heavy, the third one goes a minute heavy, another one goes two minutes heavy, you're six minutes heavy and all of a sudden a match is gone. Nobody wanted that to happen. They prepared as hard as anybody else, they were as excited as anybody else, but it's part of the show, right? So what do we do? Do we cut Rock-Cena in half, or do we eliminate the Divas match? It's unfair, but if I'm a fan, I think I'll pass on the Divas match and watch the entire Rock-Cena match.
It's funny. I think there was a point where I scoffed at the idea of the palate-cleanser match33 to go between the main events, but right then at 'Mania, I missed it.
Vince has this saying, and I hate when I quote him because it makes me feel like he's right, but everything we do is storytelling. You can't keep people way up here the whole time. You've got to sit people down to make them stand back up. Otherwise they get tired of just standing up. There's a reason there was a popcorn matchup during intermission during the old days, to get people back in their seats. It's crowd interaction. When you don't have that, when you give them a match where they are physically screaming for 30 minutes, you can't keep it going. They have to exhale at some point. And if you don't give them that, you hurt the overall flow of the show. Nothing we do exists by itself.