I’m thirty-five years old, and there have been some aspects of or influences in my life that have been around for nearly as long as I can remember. They’ve been there, in some cases, going back to when I was growing up in a lower-middle class section of Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, as I’m approaching middle age, I find myself reflecting more and more on the fate of some of those things that have for so long been a part of my life, because, in all probability, they’re not going to be around for much longer. One of those things to which I’m referring is a television show…The Simpsons…and another is professional wrestler the Undertaker.
Now, at first glance, these appear to be completely disparate things, with nothing that could possibly link them, Mark Calaway, the WWE wrestler known as the Undertaker, and the beloved Matt Groening television show featuring Homer, Bart, and the other classic characters that has been a part of the American consciousness even before it officially debuted in 1990. But, if we are to pause right there for a moment, the time of the debut of Undertaker can be seen as corresponding almost exactly to The Simpsons‘ first appearance as an episodic half-hour television show. Calaway made his debut as the Undertaker character in 1990 as well, as a heel, or bad guy, feuding with Hulk Hogan in what was at that point the World Wrestling Federation. With his menacing stare, his black funereal attire, and his manager with the sing-song voice, the inimitable Paul Bearer, it wasn’t long before he made the transition to baby face (good guy), and was a huge draw for master carnival barker Vince McMahon. It so happened that I got into wrestling, and The Simpsons, right at the same time, not just because they burst onto the scene simultaneously, but because at that point my family didn’t own a television. I don’t want to imply that we were too poor to afford one, or something. My father, an English professor at nearby Xavier University, wanted his children to live “the life of the mind,” so he refused to buy us one, instead giving us books and telling us to play outside. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that anything that is taboo is desirable, and this meant that I had to go across the street to sleep over at my friend Mike’s house and get my fix of the warmly flickering idiot box. What was on the screen, more times than not, was what Mike was into…new sensation The Simpsons, and professional wrestling, specifically the WWF, which was at that point in the middle of the Federation Years, with Taker, Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, and other larger-than-life personalities that I came to know and love.
My interest in professional wrestling, and The Simpsons, never completely went away, not when I moved from across the street from Mike in that same year, 1990, not when my father finally relented and let me get that TV for which I’d been pining, not even when I slogged my way through high school, went off to college in Pittsburgh, then graduated and joined the “real world,” and the work force. My time and inclination to keep up with both went through its ebbs and flows. In high school I was obsessed with the NWO and the Monday Night Wars, in what would later come to be known as the Attitude Era in the WWF. In college, I lost interest in much of anything other than drugs and trying to get laid. When I came out of the drug haze and my hormones had calmed down a little, Vince McMahon had just finalized a deal to buy WCW, and the landscape of professional wrestling had changed in earnest. The Simpsons had gone through a number of creative teams, the Undertaker had gone through a number of “turns,” having successful runs as both a face and heel, but always remained a top star in Vince’s stable, as his bearing and physical stature, not to mention his tendency to have consistently top quality matches with all sorts of different opponents, made sure to keep him relevant. As for me, I lived in a number of different cities, had a number of different jobs, eventually got married, and have come at last to the age of thirty-five, which is somewhat surrealistic to me, but hey, such is life.
What’s also surrealistic to me is the fact that the Undertaker still hasn’t retired, and The Simpsons is still going strong. Mark Calaway, the man, is now 51. He looks good for his age, and obviously keeps himself in great shape. Still, this is a guy who has been walloped in the head with steel chairs and squashed by four and five hundred pound men countless times, and in your fifties your age starts to tell on you even if you haven’t lived a particularly physical lifestyle. The Undertaker now wrestles only once or twice a year, and it’s rumored that the upcoming Wrestlemania 33, in Florida, might be his last match. But then again, the last two or three years he’s been dogged by retirement rumors, and he’s still going strong. But it all has to end sometime, and it seems clear that at his age, even though he obviously loves the business and never wants to leave it, he’s going to have to hang the boots up at some juncture.
As for The Simpsons, it recently began its 28th season, and, just as I have for so many other season debuts, I was sitting smack-dab on my couch, ready to welcome this oldest and most venerable one of my friends back into my home. I consider The Simpsons to be, without a doubt, unequivocally, the greatest and best show, ever, in the history of television. There are literally dozens of classic characters and episodes. That show made me aware of concepts that I had been ignorant of before, improved my vocabulary, and lights up a special part of my brain that no other imitation has ever quite duplicated. Since first watching The Simpsons, I’ve been introduced to and become a fan of South Park, Futurama, Family Guy, and others, but there’s nothing quite like the original. Even if the quality of some episodes has dipped, now that it’s in its freaking 28th season, I have come to the understanding that I’m never going to stop watching it, until they stop making it. It’s that simple.
I’m a fairly cynical guy, but there are certain things that are always going to be magical for me, and instill in me once again that sense of childlike wonder. The Simpsons, even once they ride off into the sunset, probably some day soon, will have reruns going probably until the end of time, which is great, because nearly any time I flip on the boob tube, if an episode is on, that’s right where I’m going to set down the remote. As far as Mark Calaway, known to not one but several generations as the Undertaker, one of the best of all time, a first ballot Hall of Famer, he’ll always be a guy that captures my imagination. I’ve seen him numerous times in person…I was there in New Orleans, watching in stunned silence as Brock Lesnar broke the streak at Wrestlemania 30…and every time I hear that gong, I know I’m going to get those shivers up my spine that only the Dead Man, unafraid to wear eye liner at his age, can deliver. These are simple pleasures for me, broadcast into my living room over the years regardless of what city, or state, I was calling home. I know that, due to the simple age of both of these institutions, I will probably have to say goodbye to them very soon. That’s unavoidable, I’m afraid; nothing lasts forever. But both of them have made an indelible impression on me, and my life is richer for them. The Undertaker’s music is always going to be my ring tone, even if I live to be a hundred, and I’m always up for arguing the cultural merits of The Simpsons with any stranger on the street. Some people have Don Giovanni and Tchaikovsky. I have cartoons and musclebound guys in tights. To each their own.