Live broadcasts are taking on a new shape as sports and entertainment cancellations continue to pile up in the wake of the novel coronavirus. Last night’s debate, for example, unfolded before an empty studio, definitively proving that all debates should be that way. The same, however, can’t be said for the WWE, which tasked its talented roster with grappling and pontificating before hundreds of empty chairs during Friday’s Smackdown. They did their best with what’s an unprecedented situation, but it was...well, it was just really fuckin’ weird.
Wrestling, obviously, is scripted and choreographed, but the seams show a bit more when there isn’t a captive, roaring audience suspending its disbelief along with you. The sheer awkwardness of the taunts and grunts and the hollow thundering of the mat, all of echoing into a void, is both eerie and lonely. It’s like watching a stage play and you’re the only one in the audience.
A similar feeling accompanies the below in-ring interview with John Cena, a performer whose bombastic promos have always been tailored to arenas. Here, his rhythmic cadence and theatrical gesticulations—things one needs to play to the cheap seats—just look like bad acting. “Talk like a human, John,” we cry from our couches. “We saw Blockers. Do what you did in Blockers.”
We say all this with love, of course. And, to be honest, as much as the constant hum and raucous cheers of an audience are integral to wrestling’s appeal, it’s nice to not deal with the “what” chants that have plagued live shows since the late ‘90s. But, if we had to choose—and the wrestlers likely feel similar—we’ll take the live audience any day.
Tonight’s Raw and this Friday’s Smackdown, the latter of which will feature new WWE signee Rob Gronkowski, will also film without audiences, but, as of now at least, this month’s Wrestlemania 36 is still set to go as planned.