Brow Beat

“Mean” Gene Okerlund and Super Dave Osborne Were Reality TV’s Deadpan Pioneers

A faux daredevil and a pro wrestling announcer paved the way for postmodern TV.

“Mean” Gene Okerlund; Bob Einstein as Super Dave Osborne.
“Mean” Gene Okerlund; Bob Einstein as Super Dave Osborne. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by George Napolitano/Contributor and CTV Television Network.

In the wake of “Mean” Gene Okerlund’s passing, one video clip from the mid-1990s of the WWE’s longtime in-house anchor-interviewer has been making the rounds. Okerlund stands in his favored broadcast spot in front of the then-WWF’s production room, pausing and appearing to choke back tears while talking about his dear friend Hulk Hogan, who was faced with the possibility of a career-ending injury. “If there’s ever a time that Hulk Hogan needs your help, it’s now,” he solemnly intones. After directing fans to a P.O. Box where they could send supportive postcards, Okerlund appears deeply shaken up. “I can’t do this,” he sighs. The WWE’s archives hold thousands of hours of shocking footage—surprise victories, back-stabbing heel turns, blood-soaked marathon matches—but Okerlund’s emotion here is sui generis. In the fun-house mirror reality of pro wrestling, it’s the equivalent of Walter Cronkite breaking up while reporting JFK’s death.

It’s also supremely crafted bullshit; a bravura performance of pathos every bit as calculated and perfectly executed as Hogan himself writhing in pain after his ambush by the quarter-ton former sumo wrestler Earthquake. During his four decades with the WWE and WCW, Okerlund, who studied broadcast journalism at the University of Nebraska, was the straight man for feral, cartoonish figures as they bellowed into the cameras. In wrestling parlance, Okerlund’s performance of professional detachment was as crucial in getting wrestlers “over“—convincing the crowd to suspend their disbelief and love or hate the character—as their in-ring opponents. In that much-circulated clip, Okerlund appears to break kayfabe, another pro wrestling term of art for slipping out of character, but his spontaneous grief was really, or perhaps also, a consummate calculation.

Around the same time as Okerlund’s master class in studied melancholy, a Nike ad was airing on television, starring Sacramento Kings guard Kenny Smith engaged in a pitched battle for dunk supremacy against Super Dave Osborne, a comically inept Evel Knievel–type character portrayed by comedian Bob Einstein on a cultishly admired Showtime variety program from 1987–91. As on his show, Osborne comes prepared for the duel with a comically overwrought gadget—the “Super Dave Spring Shoe”—that winds up shooting him through the roof of the arena, Wile E. Coyote–style. Osborne, as always, is accompanied by Los Angeles broadcast legend Mike Walden, who left a career calling USC and UCLA sports to play Super Dave’s own “Mean” Gene–style straight man on the series and beyond. Each episode of Super Dave culminated in a stunt, which always ended up with Walden, mic in hand, running over to check on Osborne’s mangled body.

The son of radio comedian Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein, and older brother of Albert Brooks, Einstein, who also died on Wednesday, debuted Super Dave while writing for the short-lived Van Dyke and Company program in 1976. Growing up in Beverly Hills, Einstein was inured to showbiz bluster and developed Super Dave to parody the self-deluded entertainment lifer: “We wanted to create a character who was really confident for no reason,” he told one interviewer. Unlike his more cerebral brother, Einstein loved schticky physical comedy, and each stunt was as predictable as it was hilarious. The Nike ad recalled a bit from the very first Super Dave episode: Emceed by Walden, Osborne introduces the first graduating class from the “Super Dave Slam Dunk and Acrobatic School”—in reality a team of NBA halftime performers who use trampolines to pull off high-flying dunks. Osborne then introduces his stunt coordinator Fuji, who has invented a catapult that will shoot Dave 40 feet into the sky, allowing him to complete the highest-altitude dunk in history. Like every Super Dave stunt, it’s 98 percent setup and 2 percent punchline; after a lengthy buildup with plenty of scientific lingo, the catapult malfunctions and slams Osborne, who never so much as yells, face first into the backboard.

Okerlund and Einstein were born a month apart in 1942 and died on the same day in 2019. Their careers blossomed in the 1980s, when television started redefining the rest of popular culture in its own image. Syndication deals increasingly kept old favorites in circulation, while cable competition raised the stakes for viewer-acquiring novelties that could shock people or trigger a nostalgic connection. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” written in 1993, David Foster Wallace could look back and rightfully claim that “the best TV of the last five years has been about ironic self-reference like no previous species of postmodern art could have dreamed of.” Television was the perfect medium through which to turn professional wrestling—which already defined itself as an entertaining parody of real sport—into its own self-contained world of grotesque, hyperreal excess, complete with its own value system, popularity metrics, Saturday morning cartoons, and press corps. The same holds for Einstein, who merged the emergent genre of proto-reality/talent shows like Real People and That’s Incredible with the time-tested format of the evening variety show, one he knew well as a former writer and producer for the Smothers Brothers, Pat Paulsen, Redd Foxx, and Sonny and Cher. Is it surprising that in the fifth episode of his Showtime series, Osborne got mauled by a professional wrestler to hawk his fraudulent fitness program “Poundacise”?

While Super Dave was a comedic character created from whole cloth, Okerlund played it straight, delivering even the most ridiculous pre-bout hype with the integrity of a broadcast journalist. His frequent battles with Randy “Macho Man” Savage are legendary and also the closest that the WWE would get to Super Dave–level absurdism. They all followed a similar template: Savage enters dramatically, grunting threatening phrases like a constipated gorilla, complete with props—coffee creamer, a broom, candy, a trash can—while constantly accusing Okerlund of ogling his wife, the Lovely Elizabeth, instead of lauding his in-ring accomplishments. As Vince McMahon increasingly synchronized his wrestlers’ identities and storylines with real-life events, Okerlund was there to ground even the most batshit scenarios with his unflappable gravitas. When Saddam Hussein gifted Sgt. Slaughter—fresh from a Desert Storm–era heel turn that revealed him as a supporter of the Iraqi dictator—a pair of new wrestling boots to wear in his upcoming title match, Okerlund was on the scene. When Slaughter’s opponent the Ultimate Warrior issued his own ultimatum to Hussein, there was Okerlund, holding his mic.

Super Dave was hermetically sealed in his own world, by design: The only way the jokes (and Osborne’s limp body) could land was through camera trickery, and the point of the character was to star in his own self-aggrandizing variety show—the missing link between Fernwood 2 Night and Primetime Glick. But Einstein seems to have had much more trouble breaking free of his television persona, even off camera. “So closely wed to the character is Bob Einstein that a lot of people don’t even know there is a Bob Einstein,” reported a 1997 profile in the Vancouver Sun. “So duty-bound is he to Super Dave that at the beginning of the interview, he asks if he should be in or out of character.” Through all the character’s iterations after Super Dave left Showtime in 1991—a cartoon, a Las Vegas special, a feature film—Einstein was unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between his on- and off-camera personas. “He prefers to talk in character, he explains, because if there’s one thing he finds embarrassing, it’s a comedian who pontificates on his own talents,” the profile revealed. The Super Dave character, after all, was born from Einstein’s disdain for self-important celebrity culture, and when he did try to talk about his process, he failed: “I deal out of a reality that isn’t real. … I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means. I don’t really know what I do,” he confessed.

The election of the U.S.’s first professional wrestling president demonstrated in no uncertain terms that popular culture’s turn toward ersatz reality, once embodied by Okerlund and Einstein, is still accelerating, even as both men entered their twilight years. While Okerlund ascended to the WWE’s Valhalla, Einstein was traded Super Dave’s world for another simulation, playing Larry David’s frenemy Marty Funkhouser on the pseudo-autobiographical Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Marty, Einstein was responsible for one of the best bits in the show’s seventh and best season, in which David reunites his old Seinfeld cast for a one-off special. Right before a table read, Marty corners Jerry and tells him a minutelong joke whose NSFW punchline makes Jerry burst into laughter. Einstein later guested on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and as the two comedians rode around Los Angeles, Einstein regaled Seinfeld with stories from his own life in the entertainment business. For a fan of Super Dave’s postmodern innovations, it’s a unique pleasure to catch a glimpse of what might just be the real Bob Einstein—or at least as close as he ever came to performing it.