May 20, 2022

La Mancha Screwjob

All the world’s a stage. Or, sometimes it feels that way, especially these days. In this episode, originally aired in 2015, we push through the fourth wall, pierce the spandex-ed heart of professional wrestling, and travel 400 years into the past to unmask our obsession with authenticity and our desire to walk the line between reality and fantasy.

Thanks to Nick Hakim for the use of his song "The Light". 

Support Radiolab by becoming a member of The Lab today.    

Radiolab is on YouTube! Catch up with new episodes and hear classics from our archive. Plus, find other cool things we did in the past — like miniseries, music videos, short films and animations, behind-the-scenes features, Radiolab live shows, and more. Take a look, explore and subscribe!

 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

LATIF NASSER: Hey, it's Latif. This is Radiolab. A few nights ago I was watching television I'm not gonna tell you what show—fine, I will tell you what show. It was Station Eleven on HBO. It's a great show. It's a show about a fictional global pandemic, and there's this scene in the first episode where—it's not even a major scene or anything, but there's, like, a—there's a doctor, an ER doctor, she, like, exits a room and goes into a hall in the hospital, and she takes off her mask, and then she starts coughing. She has, like, a coughing fit. And just for, like, a split second I got very mad because I was like, "A doctor in a hospital, like, not wearing a mask! Coughing!" And then I just got confused because I was like, "Wait a second. When did they shoot this? Was this shot during the actual global pandemic?

LATIF: I just got confused in a way. Like, my brain short-circuited, and the place it took me to, exactly to this old Radiolab episode from 2015 called "La Mancha Screwjob," which is about this very thing: the way that kind of reality sort of pokes into fiction and changes the way we see it, which is like—I feel like COVID has completely changed the way that I see characters relate to each other in space on a screen.

LATIF: Anyway, this episode is from before all that, but I think—yeah, I could not help but think about it and I wanted to play it for all of you. So enjoy!

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Hello?

JAD ABUMRAD: Is this Jonathan?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Yes, it is.

JAD: Hello, this is Jad from—from New York. And Robert, my co-host, is here as well.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Yes, hi.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Hi, Jad. Hi, Robert. How are you doing?

JAD: I'm doing okay. How are you doing?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Very good, thank you. Very good.

JAD: So this is Jonathan.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: My name is Jonathan Goodwin.

ROBERT: And Jonathan …

JAD: We've been watching your harrowing videos all morning.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Oh, dear. I'm so sorry.

ROBERT: ... he's an escape artist.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: You all right?]

ROBERT: Sort of.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: No.]

ROBERT: Jonathan had a show for a while on the Discovery Channel. It was called One Way Out.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Yeah.

ROBERT: But he actually started out …

JONATHAN GOODWIN: The very first thing that I did ...

ROBERT: ... just doing these home videos that you can see on YouTube.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Hello, and welcome to Jonathan's Escapes.]

ROBERT: And they are nothing like any escape artist video we have ever seen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: I'm gonna be trying an escape here in a minute. I need ...]

JAD: Just as an example, the first one we saw, he—it starts with he's in his bedroom. He's wearing jeans and no shirt. The room is messy, the whole thing is super awkward. And then …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Dad!]

ROBERT: He calls in his dad.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: What are you up to?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: I'm gonna escape from here.]

ROBERT: Who walks in looking, by the way, totally confused.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Could you tie my wrist to there?]

ROBERT: Jonathan then convinces him to tie his wrists to the frame of his bed.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: And I'm tied to the bed bare-chested.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Wrap that around.]

JONATHAN GOODWIN: And I tied a bedsheet above my bed, about sort of three feet above my bed spread out.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Can you come around here and pick up this iron?]

ROBERT: Then he has his dad grab a hot iron, and he puts it on the bed sheet which is hovering just a few feet above his bare chest.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: And I have to escape before it burns through and hits me in the chest.

JAD: Oh!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Quickly. Here, this one, this one. Because the iron's going through.]

ROBERT: Now the thing about Jonathan's escapes is he doesn't have a knife up his sleeve, a trick rope. This is—this is real.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: And because it's real, sometimes I escape and sometimes I don't. And in that instance I didn't, actually.

ROBERT: You didn't?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: No.

JAD: Wait, so you did not escape, meaning you were on the bed bare-chested, and the iron fell through the sheet above you onto your chest?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Onto my chest.

JAD: What—how bad was it? I mean, was it …

JONATHAN GOODWIN: It was—it was a very healthy second-degree burn. I had to go to the emergency room. The doctor thought I had some sort of weird fetish. And I'm like, No, no, no. I'm an escape—I'm an escape artist, honestly."

ROBERT: I think you do. I think you have a very weird fetish. I think your father should also be brought there for a close and careful examination.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Well, in that instance, I think he genuinely believed that I was going to escape.

JAD: I'm always wondering about your dad when watching these videos. Does he know …

ROBERT: I am more than wondering.

JAD: How prepped is your dad at what's about to unfold?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Not at all.

JAD: Not at all?

JONATHAN GOODWIN: I will bring—I will bring him in and say it on camera for the first time.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: And then douse my legs with petrol as well, okay?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: You really want to do this?]

JONATHAN GOODWIN: All right, Dad. This is what we're gonna do.

ROBERT: And then half the time, Jonathan will fail to escape from the elaborate situation he's put himself into, and he will …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Oh! Oh! Oh!]

ROBERT: ... have his eyebrows torn off.

JAD: Or land in a bathtub full of thumbtacks.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: [screaming]]

JAD: Or a scorpion will sting the inside of his mouth.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Ahh!]

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Yeah. Yeah.

ROBERT: Maybe your problem is that you would like to experience what everybody else wants to avoid experiencing. Like, "I wonder what it would like to be burned alive? I wonder what it would be like to have my nipples ripped off?" I mean, these are not things that I wake up myself asking.

JAD: Is it a "I wonder?"

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Here's the thing, though. I think that we do want to know those things. I think that's the reason why we go to movies and watch action films, because it—we do have a fascination with stuff like that.

ROBERT: No, I'm happy to have you have the power. I do not wake up thinking I want to have the experience. I want to watch you—no, I don't even want to watch you.

JAD: Well, I watch and I'm completely riveted, and I'm wondering why. Which I think is connected to why you would …

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Do it in the first place.

JAD: Yeah.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: Because it just flies in the face of everything that you've ever seen an escape artist do.

JAD: Jonathan says take someone like David Blaine. You know, there you've got a guy who's probably standing on a post, he's surrounded by flames. The flames are getting higher and higher. It's super dramatic. But in those kind of situations …

JONATHAN GOODWIN: They always escape, and just in the nick of time. And they take what should be an incredibly dramatic art form and make it kind of a cliche.

JAD: But because Jonathan's escapes are totally real, you really have no idea what's gonna happen.

JONATHAN GOODWIN: And the—you know, the reason why I want to do it is because I think I would enjoy watching it, because I think it's entertaining. And unfortunately, I'm the guy who had the idea for it. Do you know what I mean? It's like, nobody else is going to do this, so I better do it so it happens.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. And today on Radiolab, we're gonna take a cue from Jonathan. We are going to, in our own way, get real. And we're gonna start with a story that's about pretty much the least real thing I can think of.

PETER ROSENBERG: All right. Hey, guys. Sorry. We're here now.

SIMON ADLER: Peter.

PETER ROSENBERG: Yo!

SIMON: I'm Simon. Good to meet you.

PETER ROSENBERG: Simon, how are you, man?

SIMON: I'm doing well. And yourself?

PETER ROSENBERG: Good.

JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, who's who? Peter is a DJ. Peter Rosenberg from Hot 97. Simon Adler is a journalist. Our pal Andrew Marantz from The New Yorker is also in the room. And Robert and I are in the back.

SIMON: Good. Well, we have all gathered here today to talk about the wonderful world of professional wrestling.

PETER ROSENBERG: My favorite world.

JAD: So yes, we're gonna talk about professional wrestling for the first half of the show. And we realize there's probably a lot of you out there listening right now who are like ...

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Seriously, guys?"

PETER ROSENBERG: There are people who are like, "You're 35 years old. You love wrestling?" You know, I get this a lot. If I'm tweeting about it a lot, I get tweets that go, "You know it's fake, right?"

JAD: [laughs]

PETER ROSENBERG: It's like, "Well, do I write you that when you tweet about your favorite movie? It's entertainment." The awesome thing about wrestling is that there are these random things that are a little bit real.

JAD: And sometimes those moments of realness can just be like—kaboom! They can change everything. Now if you're like me and you grew up in the '80s, you might remember wrestling as, like, you know, Hulk Hogan versus Andre The Giant. These epic matchups that were kind of great but also sort of ridiculous and cartoonish. Well, according to Peter Rosenberg, there was a moment where wrestling started to sort of tinker with reality in a much more nuanced and fascinating way.

ROBERT: In fact, you could argue that pro-wrestling became a reinstantiation of the Baroque movement of the 16th century but with a postmodern twist.

JAD: You can't.

ROBERT: I know people who would. You're gonna meet them.

JAD: I'm Jad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And according to Peter, this whole thing where we're gonna start, this whole thing goes back to this moment called ...

PETER ROSENBERG: The Montreal Screwjob.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: The Montreal Screwjob was above anything else that had ever happened, or that will ever—probably ever happen again, because it was utter reality transpiring right there in the ring. I mean, it was when real life just came and tore a hole in the fiction.

JAD: That guy you just heard is David Shoemaker.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: I write about professional wrestling for Grantland.

JAD: And the guy you're about to hear is journalist Simon Adler. He will take the story from here.

SIMON: Okay, so the moment in question really centers around this one guy named Bret.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, crowd: Bret!]

SIMON: Bret "The Hitman" Hart.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: Bret Hart is seen by many to be the greatest in-ring performer of all time.

SIMON: He was one of the good guys.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I am the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.]

SIMON: In the business, they call him a baby face.

JAD: Is that what you call the good guys?

SIMON: A good guy in wrestling is a baby face.

PETER ROSENBERG: He was my favorite wrestler as a kid. I didn't understand why at the time, but now I do. It's because he did everything so well. And in that era, the mid to late '80s when I fell in love with him, so many guys were just big and hulking and a little bit clumsy, but Bret did the kind of work that you could show to someone who's never watched wrestling. I think they could see the art in it, and I think they could see how it's like ballet or a million other art forms.

SIMON: What he means, and you can kind of see this when you watch old Bret Hart matches on YouTube, he's gliding through the air, bouncing off the mat, off the ropes.

PETER ROSENBERG: He tells stories brilliantly within the way he executes a match.

SIMON: So wrestling is scripted, but there's a lot of improv going on. There are these set beats, he knew how to take those moments and in that improv make you think, "Oh, shoot, he's about to lose," and then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Oh, he gave up! We've seen history made!]

PETER ROSENBERG: He was a natural-born wrestler.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: You know, his father was a legendary wrestler.

PETER ROSENBERG: His brother Owen ...

DAVID SHOEMAKER: Legendary wrestler. He comes from this Canadian wrestling royalty.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: Me as a kid growing up, I had the ability to watch the—or had the fortune to watch these varied wrestling styles and techniques and stuff.]

SIMON: That's Bret Hart in an interview in 2000 on Fresh Air. And he says that some of his earliest memories as a kid were these massive dudes showing up to his house and hanging out in his basement with his dad.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: You know, even then my dad was, you know, say 60.]

SIMON: Who was teaching them how to be wrestlers.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: He would pull on these old wooly tights, and then he would wrestle with these guys. And he would literally put them in wrestling holds, these submission wrestling holds, which is his obsession. And he would torture these big, huge football players for hours and they would scream. Literally, these high-pitched screams. It was terrifying. I'd be upstairs in the room above it. And as I got older, I would go down and actually venture into the room and sit on the bench and watch. And sometimes these wrestlers would run out when my dad finally let them go. They'd actually run out, tear out of the doorway and out the—outside, sometimes in the snow and run out in their bare feet and you wouldn't even see them again.]

PETER ROSENBERG: I mean, there's a legendary—so many legendary stories about the Hart family but, you know, my favorite among many is the bear that lived in their backyard during summers. Because at the time, wrestling a bear was a thing that would actually happen from time to time.

JAD: Come on!

PETER ROSENBERG: No, really! And Bret tells a story in his book about, you know, just sitting there and letting the bear lick his toes. I mean, like, this is a life that he lived. And he was—it was so ingrained in him.

SIMON: So in the early '80s, Bret was working for his dad's company up in Canada. And while that's going on in Canada, there's this guy, Vince McMahon back in the US, who is building kind of this wrestling empire. And basically, he's buying up all of these small promoters from across the country. And eventually, goes up into Canada and buys out Bret's dad's company.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: He bought it in 1984. They paid him a certain amount of money to stop running. Like, to just kind of go out of business, and then they took on some of his better wrestlers at the time, which was myself, and I had a couple of brother-in-laws.]

SIMON: And shortly thereafter, the WWF comes under fire.

[NEWS CLIP: Hulk Hogan and other World Wrestling Federation stars have taken the offensive against accusations that many have been steroid abusers.]

[NEWS CLIP: McMahon's monster mentality led to widespread steroid abuse in the World Wrestling Federation.]

SIMON: So there's this big steroid crisis. Vince has to deal with all of this litigation, and he kind of needs to rebrand his organization. He needs a new good-guy, a new champion, a new baby face. And he looks to Bret for that for a couple of reasons, according to David Shoemaker.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: One is that he's a traditionalist.

SIMON: Sort of a throwback to an earlier time. Two, he's not that big, so when you see him, you don't think ...

JAD: Steroids.

SIMON: That guy's definitely—yeah, 'roid rage. And so he saw all that in Bret Hart. So during the '90s, Vince makes Bret a really big star.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: He's got it! He's got it! We've got a new champion!]

SIMON: The new face of the company.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: I mean, he was on The Simpsons. He was a really, really big star. You know, there are people who criticize Bret for saying he wasn't that fun or he took himself too seriously, but he was a serious worker. He took wrestling very seriously.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I found myself really fighting hard to actually survive, and come out of it. Actually, to come out of the wrestling profession someday as a success rather than a wrestling tragedy, which is what so many of them turn out.]

SIMON: Okay, so fast forward to 1995, 1996.

PETER ROSENBERG: At the time, a major rivalry was starting between the WWF ...

SIMON: That is Vince McMahon's company.

PETER ROSENBERG: And the WCW, which was Ted Turner's company.

SIMON: Ted Turner, multi-kajillionaire. And one of his big tactics is, I'm just gonna start buying all of the wrestlers from the WWF, from Vince McMahon's organization. So he's offering them more money, he's offering them longer contracts.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: And he was just, like, flooding it with money to steal all the stars from WWF.

SIMON: And then in late 1996 ...

PETER ROSENBERG: Bret got an offer ...

SIMON: ... Turner really went in for the kill.

PETER ROSENBERG: ... from WCW that was huge.

SIMON: $2.8-million.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I mean, you have to show some common sense. You know, first of all you have to do what is right for your family. But I mean, how much money do you need, sometimes? I found myself torn between trying to do the right thing for my family, and at the same time, show my loyalties.]

SIMON: That's a clip of Bret talking in a documentary that was being filmed at the time.

PETER ROSENBERG: Called Wrestling with Shadows, which is fantastic.

SIMON: The filmmaker Paul Jay was nice enough to let us play some clips. In any case, Bret gets this offer, and he's got kind of this terrible decision to make.

PETER ROSENBERG: Because Vince gave him a lot. You know, he really gave him his life.

SIMON: And initially, Brett decides there's no way I'm gonna leave.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: You know, I think, like, my relationship with Vince McMahon was always sort of like a father. And I sort of saw myself if I left, it would have been a little bit like leaving my dad, especially when the chips are down.]

PETER ROSENBERG: He really did see Vince as a father figure.

SIMON: So Bret goes to Vince and basically says, "Convince me to stay."

PETER ROSENBERG: They went back and forth. There was conversation about him signing a long-term deal, a 20-year deal with WWF, not for as much money, but for guaranteed security. Vince said, "I can't afford to pay you that."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: Just talked to Vince.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julie Hart: Did you?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: Yup.]

SIMON: In the documentary, Bret and his wife, they're sitting at a kitchen table.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julie Hart: What did he say?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: He goes, "Nobody wants Bret Hart more than Vince McMahon."]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julie Hart: Then why is he letting you go?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: He can't afford to compete with Turner. He says Turner's hell-bent on trying to put him out of business. I got to think about everything. I got to think about everything just to see what makes sense. I'll call Eric maybe. I don't know. Can we cut this off now, for a little while?]

PETER ROSENBERG: Ultimately, it became clear that Bret would have to go take the money.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I can't help but feel really heartbroke and disappointed that—that I left this company.]

SIMON: So this really gets to the heart of it. Once Bret decides he's going to leave, they have to figure out how. How are they going to make his exit? This is really the pivotal question behind all of this.

VINCE RUSSO: You know, it's a very, very delicate situation.

SIMON: That's Vince Russo. And this was sort of his problem to solve because he worked for Vince McMahon.

VINCE RUSSO: You know, you could say I was his right-hand man because I was writing the show.

SIMON: He was part of the team that scripted who would win, who would lose, how it would happen.

VINCE RUSSO: You know, I mean, I was, you know, literally putting the show on paper, you know, once a week.

JAD: Wait, why is this a hard question? I mean, can't he just pick up and leave?

SIMON: Well, because he's the champion. He has the belt.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: The physical belt. The giant golden, like, belt buckle thing.

SIMON: And that belt is the symbol of the company.

VINCE RUSSO: And everybody in it, everybody working behind the scenes, everybody who was trying to support their family, that belt was a representation of all that.

PETER ROSENBERG: The worst thing that could happen is your champion walking away with the belt.

VINCE RUSSO: Showing up to the new company holding up the championship from the old company.

SIMON: Where they could just defile it if they wanted to.

VINCE RUSSO: That was not an option for Vince McMahon.

SIMON: This isn't a perfect comparison, but the closest thing I've come up to in my mind is it would be like LeBron James quitting his contract with Nike, and then showing up in an Adidas commercial and taking a piss into a pair of Nikes.

JAD: [laughs]

VINCE RUSSO: So, you know, Vince, at the end of the day, he just had to get that belt off of Bret.

SIMON: So their initial thought, their first plan was probably the simplest option: there was a match coming up, this big event, a pay-per-view event in Montreal. Bret being the champion of the company, he should just lose to the number two guy in the company.

VINCE RUSSO: Shawn Michaels. Vince loved Shawn. I mean, really thought Shawn was a mega star, which he was right about.

SIMON: Clearly, Shawn was next in line, so they pitched this idea to Bret, and Bret was like ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I can't do that. I can't.]

SIMON: For one, he thinks Shawn's an idiot.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: He's got this prima donna personality, and he thinks he's better than everyone else. And there's something very arrogant and obnoxious about him.]

SIMON: Because he was a showman. He would hump the ring, just, like, do ridiculous things. And, like, to Bret, Shawn was the triumph of style over substance.

VINCE RUSSO: Also, you're asking Bret to wrap up his career in the WWE with a loss in Montreal. In Canada.

SIMON: Where he is a national hero.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I described it to Vince. I'd just as soon blow my brains out would be the same, what you're asking me to do. From a character standpoint that's what I would be doing. Bret "The Hitman" Hart would blow his brains out. The whole thing's been hard.]

SIMON: Day of the match, still nothing has been decided as to how the match is going to end. Bret is backstage, and eventually he goes to Vince to have a conversation.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: All right, I gotta just talk.]

SIMON: The documentary crew is filming all of this. And at this point, Vince says, "No, I don't want any cameras in here. Get those out of here." And so Bret actually ends up wearing a wire to document the conversation that's about to happen.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I never ever wanted to leave here with any kind of bad feeling, but this week has been a bad week for me. I feel kind of betrayed a little bit.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: Well, I do too, a little bit. And again all we're talking about really is Ted Turner. That's what's coming between you and me. That's all. I can't tell you how appreciative I will always be for everything you've done.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I didn't want to leave with any problems. I actually didn't want to leave it all, and then it's at the point where there was no other choice but to go. The way this whole thing has been depicted, it's really hard for me as a hero here to come up short this weekend. What would you want to do today then?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: I'm open to anything.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I think what I'd like to do is get through today. I think tomorrow I should just go in and do my speech.]

SIMON: So Bret suggests that this ends in a disqualification. And usually what that means is something called a schmoz. Typically in a schmoz, the ring is just flooded with a bunch of wrestlers and chaos ensues. The referee usually is thrown out of the ring.

PETER ROSENBERG: And it ends in some sort of draw. Bret would then appear on Monday Night Raw the next day and turn over the belt. That is what he planned on doing.

JAD: So that way he could turn over the belt but not lose?

PETER ROSENBERG: Exactly.

SIMON: And eventually Vince says, "Okay, fine."

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: I'm open. I'm open to anything. Like I said before, I'm determined that this is going to wind up quite well.]

JAD: Coming up, it all goes wrong. Radiolab will continue in a moment.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

JAD: This is Radiolab. Let's get back to Simon Adler's story of the moment that changed wrestling forever. You'll also hear Peter Rosenberg from Hot 97 in just a moment as well. He's the first voice you'll hear. But we'll pick up the action with the big match. The moment we've all been waiting for.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: And now, Milton Bradley's Electronic Karate Fighters presents The 1997 Survivor Series!]

PETER ROSENBERG: Okay, here we go. So Survivor Series, 1997, Montreal.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: For tonight, it will finally be settled: who is the man?]

SIMON: Oh, the drama!

SIMON: So around 9:20 pm, 20,000 people in the stands, countless television screens across the country, Shawn Michaels comes out. And he comes out singing his own theme song, "I Think I'm Cute, I know I'm Sexy."

JAD: Like, singing karaoke style?

SIMON: It's pre-recorded of him singing.

JAD: [laughs] That's an approach.

SIMON: Yeah. He's got his hair in a ponytail. He's wearing his trademark black spandex pants with hearts all over them. Like, he is the manifestation of everything that Bret despises. And then out comes Bret Hart, waving a Canadian flag. And he walks into the ring, he gets in, takes off the championship belt, hands it to the ref. And before the match even officially begins ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Look out! And Shawn Michaels is in. And Shawn Michaels has got him by the waist.]

SIMON: ... Shawn flies at Bret and just starts whaling on him.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Bret Hart will win a fistfight.]

PETER ROSENBERG: Shawn and Bret, they're going at each other with a sort of like real ferocity.

SIMON: Pretty quick, they're outside the ring.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: at the far end of the railing. And here comes Bret Hart right after him!]

SIMON: Bret picks up Shawn, chucks him over the security railing into the crowd.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: My God! Shawn Michaels is in no-man's-land! And Michaels is being pummeled!]

SIMON: Then there's this moment where Bret picks Shawn up so that Shawn's legs are straight up in the air, and then Bret just slams him on his back.

JAD: And all of this is scripted?

SIMON: Yeah, everything I know about it is, like, they're following the narrative arc but, like, they know okay, we're gonna fight outside the ring for a while and then XYZ will happen. And so eventually, Bret throws Shawn back into the ring.

PETER ROSENBERG: And then you get to a point in the match, which feels very early in the match ...

SIMON: Where Bret climbs onto the turnbuckle, which is the corner post of the ring. He gets up on top of that, catapults himself off the turnbuckle, through the air towards Shawn Michaels. It's super dramatic. He's kind of floating in the air there for a moment. And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Oh! Michael's just pulled the referee right in front of the Hitman!]

SIMON: What Shawn does right before Bret is about to come and hit him, he pulls the referee in between Bret and Shawn, a human shield of sorts. Bret hits the referee, the referee hits Shawn, and all three men are lying on the mat.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Is that a disqualification? It might be, if he could get up and call it.]

JAD: Oh, here we are.

SIMON: Right. This could be the moment. But no, before the referee can get up, Shawn gets up. He walks over to Bret.

PETER ROSENBERG: And then Shawn puts Bret in the Sharpshooter, which is Bret's signature finishing move.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Are you kidding me? Are you gonna beat Bret Hart with a Sharpshooter? Yes he is!]

SIMON: Basically, Shawn pretzels up Bret's legs and sits on them.

PETER ROSENBERG: And within seconds the bell rings. Shawn slides out of the ring, grabs the belt, runs to the back, takes off. Things work a certain way in wrestling matches, right? Like, no one gets the first pin the second a match starts, and no one puts someone in a submission hold and they instantly submit—especially not Bret Hart. And it just did not appear like the time the match was supposed to end.

SIMON: The crowd is kind of shocked. It's strangely quiet. And there's this one moment where the camera zooms in on Bret's face while he's lying chest down on the map looking up. And there is just this bizarre, amazing look on his face.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: Confusion is an emotion that almost never exists in pro wrestling. There's the cartoon confusion of, like, everything's crazy, and your arms are going, like, wild, your eyeballs pop out of your head. But real confusion is one of the most compelling emotions of all.

SIMON: That's what you see on his face in its most pure form: genuine confusion. And then anger.

PETER ROSENBERG: Bret gets up, puts his arms on the rope. Looks down, sees Vince McMahon and spits right in Vince's face. He then proceeds to get out of the ring and basically destroy everything in sight.

SIMON: He goes over to the announcers' table, starts ripping it apart.

PETER ROSENBERG: He destroys the monitors.

SIMON: Throws the headphones out into the crowd.

PETER ROSENBERG: He goes pretty nuts. And in maybe the moment that truly made you go, "What is happening?"

SIMON: Bret gets back into the ring.

PETER ROSENBERG: He takes his hand in the air and draws with his finger in the air as big as he can W-C-W, which is where he was gonna be leaving to go work. W-C-W. And keeps doing that, walking across the ring just signaling W-C-W to the crowd.

SIMON: After the match, Bret heads back into the locker room looking for Vince. Bret tells the cameras to shut off, and then to make a long story short, he clocks Vince in the face. Knocks him out. Now the WWF has a real problem on their hands. Vince has a black eye, and the fourth wall has just been torn down, and they need to figure out how or if they're going to build it back up.

VINCE RUSSO: And the next day ...

SIMON: This again was the head writer at the time, Vince Russo.

VINCE RUSSO: We had a television taping right after that. You know, you have Raw on Monday. You know, you do your pay-per-view on Sunday, you have Raw on Monday.

SIMON: So they all huddle in a room to discuss their options, and Vince says that everybody in that room ...

VINCE RUSSO: Their first knee-jerk reaction is, well, we're gonna sweep this under the rug and not even talk about it. I mean, that was almost just assumed.

SIMON: Because you have to understand there's this old principle in wrestling called kayfabe. And basically what this is is this law of the wrestling gods passed down since time eternal that says you don't talk about the fact that it's fake. Everyone knows that it's scripted and that it's fake, but you damn well better not mention that ever.

JAD: Why?

SIMON: Because everybody has a better time when everyone is under the spell of it.

JAD: Oh.

VINCE RUSSO: And I was like, wait a minute, Vince is walking around with a black eye. The boss has a black eye and one of the boys punched him in the face.

SIMON: Russo is saying, I understand kayfabe, but we have to address this. We can't not acknowledge this. And that doesn't have to be a problem. That can be an opportunity for us.

VINCE RUSSO: I mean it. Like, I hate to say this but, like, it doesn't get any better than this.

SIMON: Russo says this discussion got very heated.

VINCE RUSSO: It was passion-filled.

SIMON: And in the end, nobody really knew what Vince McMahon was going to do.

[NEWS CLIP: By the time Bret Hart steps center stage for his matchup with Shawn Michaels ...]

SIMON: And eventually, Vince McMahon decides, "I'm going to break with kayfabe." Now keep in mind, he's always been the owner of the organization, but very few people actually knew that. To most fans of professional wrestling, he was just an announcer. That night on his own TV show, he comes out, not as Vince McMahon the ringside announcer, but as Vince McMahon the owner of the company.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Let's cut right to the chase. Seven days ago at the Survivor series, did you or did you not screw Bret Hart?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: Some would say I screwed Bret Hart. Bret Hart would definitely tell you I screwed him. I look at it from a different standpoint. I look at it from the standpoint of the referee did not screw Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels certainly did not screw Bret Hart, nor did Vince McMahon screw Bret Hart. I truly believe that Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart. And he can look in the mirror and know that.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: I'm sure in some parts of the country right now, there's a collective groan that you orchestrated the situation, and the fact that people are not going to understand what you mean by "Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart." So what do you mean by that?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: There's a time-honored tradition in the wrestling business that when someone is leaving, they show the right amount of respect to the WWF superstars in this case who helped make you that superstar. You show the proper respect to the organization that helped you become who you are today. It's a time-honored tradition, and Bret Hart didn't want to honor that tradition. And now that's Bret's decision. Bret screwed Bret.]

VINCE RUSSO: And everything changed from that point on.

SIMON: And according to Peter, after the Montreal screwjob and after this speech, the writers of the WWF started blurring the lines ...

PETER ROSENBERG: On a different level. Vince McMahon, the chairman of the WWE ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Ladies and gentlemen ...]

PETER ROSENBERG: ... he became ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Mr. McMahon!]

PETER ROSENBERG: Mr. McMahon, the character. The number one villain in the company.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Vince McMahon: You're fired!]

VINCE RUSSO: There were no more ridiculous, you know, stupid, unbelievable, childish, ignorant, immature characters. Every character we had was basically an extension of themselves. You know, Stone Cold Steve Austin was Steve Austin one thousand times magnified. You know, The Rock was Rocky Maivia one hundred times magnified. And as a result, that was the beginning of the biggest boom in the history of the wrestling business.

SIMON: As far as business goes, this was huge for the WWF and Vince McMahon. They came roaring back in the ratings war. They destroyed Ted Turner and the WCW. They won. And if you ask Vince Russo why this approach, this new aesthetic was so successful, he says simply ...

VINCE RUSSO: The truth? That was great TV.

SIMON: Plain and simple. The fans just want something true.

VINCE RUSSO: Just tell the fans what happened.

SIMON: But Peter says it's way more complicated than that. It's not just about the truth. You still have these writers who are scripting the show, and wrestlers who are getting that script and following it. So it's not like it's now a true world. I think it's something more like there are these tiny injections of truth into this world in really unexpected moments. What that does is it puts everyone on high alert all the time for those moments.

JAD: Hmm.

SIMON: And when everyone is on high alert for those moments all the time, every moment has the potential to be true, has the potential to have a little bit of that injection into it. And when you are watching for those injections, it completely changes how you are engaging with the art form with the entertainment. And that creates an entirely new type of fan.

PETER ROSENBERG: What they call a smart fan, a smart mark, a smark as they're known. People who love the wrestling business, but really love the behind the scenes of the business.

JAD: The what now? The what with the smark mark?

PETER ROSENBERG: Smart mark.

SIMON: Here's where you can get a little lingo crazy.

PETER ROSENBERG: The lingo part of wrestling is a huge, huge part of it.

SIMON: And a mark is someone who doesn't know that wrestling is fake, or using another piece of jargon here that it is a "work."

PETER ROSENBERG: Yes, a work is anything that's not real.

JAD: Okay.

PETER ROSENBERG: As opposed to a "shoot," which is something that's real.

SIMON: Like the Montreal screwjob.

PETER ROSENBERG: Yes.

JAD: Are shoots by definition something that's not supposed to happen?

PETER ROSENBERG: In the ring, a shoot should never happen. But then there's something called, of course, a "work shoot."

JAD: [laughs]

PETER ROSENBERG: And that's something that does happen.

JAD: Is that where you script it to seem like it's totally unscripted?

SIMON: And it may even be real life that they're injecting into it, but it was planned

PETER ROSENBERG: We'll still all discuss that this is what would happen.

SIMON: And so watching wrestling becomes this game of hunting for the truth, according to David Shoemaker. And not just any truths, but the authentic truths.

JAD: The true truths.

SIMON: The true truths.

DAVID SHOEMAKER: Even if you know that it's fake, there's some point where the guys are really going at it in the ring that you're just like, "Wow! Maybe it's real, just right there." And that's what makes wrestling so powerful, it's the neverending search for the reality within the unreal.

PETER ROSENBERG: The fact that we get to blend these things together. I mean, another example that's just fantastic is in the early 2000s, there was Edge, Matt Hardy and a girl named Lita. Lita and Matt Hardy were legitimately in love, dating for years. Edge and Matt Hardy were legitimately best friends. And then ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Matt Hardy: You bastard! I'm gonna make your life miserable!]

PETER ROSENBERG: Edge ended up with Lita, took his best friend's girl.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Matt Hardy: I'm gonna make your life miserable too!]

PETER ROSENBERG: Something that unfortunately happens in life sometimes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Matt Hardy: And the WWE can kiss my ass!]

PETER ROSENBERG: And it was turned into a storyline.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Men have fought over women since the beginning of time, and we are about to see an epic battle over one right now.]

PETER ROSENBERG: I find it incredible that you could go out into the ring and pretend to beat the hell out of someone you want to beat the hell out of.

ANDREW MARANTZ: Mm-hmm.

PETER ROSENBERG: To know that you have to go out there, work really hard against someone you legitimately hate and also absolutely have to protect, how can we not find that fascinating?

ANDREW MARANTZ: Yeah, that's awesome. That's incredible.

PETER ROSENBERG: That's like watching Fleetwood Mac go on tour.

ANDREW MARANTZ: Exactly! That's what I was gonna say next.

JAD: That's Andrew Marantz, by the way, from The New Yorker.

ANDREW MARANTZ: And play all their songs, because all their songs, they all had these love quadrangles. They all were married and left each other and wrote songs about "I'm so pissed off at you because you left me for the guy who's standing right there." And then they go out on tour, and Lindsey Buckingham is standing right next to Stevie Nicks playing the song that he wrote about, "You betrayed me. I hate you so much."

PETER ROSENBERG: It's crazy.

ANDREW MARANTZ: Night after night.

PETER ROSENBERG: Super fascinating.

ANDREW MARANTZ: Yeah. I just think there's a part of the human brain that wants to be confused between those boundaries, that wants to be slipping in between what's real, what's fake, to feel that confusion. I feel like that's why Jimmy Fallon was so successful on Saturday Night Live. Not because he was the greatest sketch comedian, but because he broke a lot.

PETER ROSENBERG: And you can't do that in wrestling because those moments are the best.

ANDREW MARANTZ: You have to save them.

PETER ROSENBERG: You have to save them. And when people acknowledge a moment, and you can tell. They look around at the crowd and they're acknowledging, like, this is—or someone says one line that everyone kind of knows is like, "Whoa, that's kind of real?" Those moments are special, and you have to save them. Hold on one sec, guys. Sorry. Hey, what's up? He's on the way? All right. I'll be leaving shortly. Peace. Sorry guys. Usher awaits. Come on.

JAD: Can I ask you one real quick question?

PETER ROSENBERG: Yeah, of course.

JAD: What happened to Peter—Bret Hart after this incident? Did he go off to WCW and have a big career?

PETER ROSENBERG: Well, that's sort of the interesting thing is that, after the Montreal screwjob, a few weeks later Bret showed up on WCW television, and it never really worked out for Bret.

SIMON: In 1999, just two years into his contract with WCW, during a match he got kicked in the head and suffered a severe concussion.

PETER ROSENBERG: And it was the beginning of the end.

SIMON: That same year ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone terribly wrong.]

SIMON: Bret's brother Owen Hart, who was wrestling for the WWF, during one of his entrances to the match, he was entering from the ceiling and something with the stunt went terribly wrong, and he fell 50 feet into the ring and he died.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, wrestling announcer: This is not a part of the show. This is real life. Owen Hart is being attended to right now by host ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: I went through a—right away, I said I could never—I don't think I can ever go back.]

SIMON: Bret Hart spoke with Terry Gross about a year after this incident.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bret "The Hitman" Hart: You think of all these sort of contrived storylines that they have in wrestling. You know, this guy's gonna come in and he's gonna do that and he's gonna—he's gonna say this about your—I just thought anything you could possibly imagine is so pathetically meaningless when you relate to the real life horror of what happened with my brother.]

SIMON: He would retire shortly after saying that.

JAD: So thank you to Simon—what did we decide his wrestling name was? Simon ...

ROBERT: Simon the Growling Gruyere.

JAD: [laughs] Adler.

ROBERT: Adler. Because he's from Wisconsin, so you have to be like a fierce cheese, that's why.

JAD: Fierce cheese. And thank you also, a very special thanks to Fresh Air for letting us air their Bret Hart interview. And thank you also to Paul Jay for allowing us to play some clips from his documentary, Wrestling With Shadows.

JAD: Radiolab will continue in a moment.

ROBERT: Yeah.

JAD: We're back.

ROBERT: Well, tell us who you are.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I Am Bruce Burningham.

ROBERT: And where do you teach?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I teach at Illinois State University.

JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert. So Bruce? He's a scholar, a language professor. And I called him up because Jad and I were having a little disagreement.

JAD: A friendly one.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Okay.

ROBERT: Hmm. We're having an argument here. I said that when you get the hip hop and the wrestling and the novels and all that, you're getting a sort of a moment.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Mm-hmm.

ROBERT: A contemporary moment where people are fascinated by authenticity. And then Jad, my partner, said, "I don't know. Maybe people have always been interested in authenticity. And this just comes with being a human. It's nothing about now, it's just about us."

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I mean, it's new in the sense that this generation of which we belong has become very interested in these kind of questions.

ROBERT: But Bruce told me this preoccupation, it's not really new. In fact, at least in book form, it goes back way longer than you'd think.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: 1605.

JAD: Whoa!

ROBERT: Before wrestling and before Fleetwood Mac and before Jimmy Fallon began laughing at his own jokes, there was Miguel Cervantes's book, Don Quixote.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Yeah, so the first book really is about authenticity from the get-go.

ROBERT: You open this book ...

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.]

ROBERT: And right away, the narrator says, "I'm going to tell you a story which I actually gathered from other authors, from a bunch of different historical documents. So I'm not really the author."

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: He says things like, "While some books say the first adventure was this, and some say it was that." So even from the start, you have a very unreliable narrator.

ROBERT: Who then proceeds to tell the story of a very unreliable, if not completely crazy character.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Don Quixote.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: Who is dry, withered, capricious, and filled with inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else.]

ROBERT: So Don Quixote believes that he has been set on Earth to rescue widows, princesses and be kind to orphans.

JAD: He's like a delusional ...

ROBERT: Totally delusional.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Right? He is—he's essentially a guy who's read too many Zane Grey novels and decides he needs to be a cowboy.

ROBERT: He thinks herds of sheep are attacking armies. He thinks windmills are giants. At the same time, he has this savvy assistant, Sancho Panza, who seems to know what's really going on, and they're constantly arguing about what's real and what's not. And then in chapter eight, something really strange happens. One day, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are traveling down the road, and they see a carriage with a woman inside. Just an ordinary woman going, you know, to meet her husband. Don Quixote however, for no reason at all, decides that she is a woman in distress, needs to be rescued. And he spies this man standing right next to the carriage. He's a Basque guy.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: He sees this guy, and he decides that he's an enemy who needs to be confronted. And so they start fighting.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half. And The Basque was waiting for him, his sword also raised.]

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And in mid-swing when both swords are in the air, the narrator stops and says, "And I don't know where this goes from there. I've run out of material."

ROBERT: [laughs]

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And he just sort of stops narrating.

ROBERT: And this is, what, 16-oh-something?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: 1605.

JAD: And the book stops?

ROBERT: It just stops.

JAD: I mean, that's the end of the book?

ROBERT: Well, no.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: So you turn the page and you're in a new chapter. And now the narrator is telling you how, as luck would have it, he found this manuscript.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: One day when I was in the Alcaná Market in Toledo.]

ROBERT: Crazily enough, he's at a bazaar, like a sort of a, you know, shopping kind of place. And he sees this pile of old papers and books together in a basket. And he's rifling through it, and he sees a picture of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: I was astounded and filled with anticipation.]

ROBERT: There it was. Apparently, a real historical account.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: In which the stupendous battle between the gallant Basque and the valiant Manchigan is concluded.]

ROBERT: The problem was it was in Arabic.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And so then he hires a local Morisco, who is a Christianized Moor, to translate it for him.

ROBERT: All right, so you now got a guy who's writing a book from historical sources. He's run out of one. He's found another, but now that one has to be translated. And on top of that ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: He frequently inserts commentary about the translation, and will say stuff, like, "Well, Cide Hamete says this, but we all know that Arabs can't be trusted. So, you know, take that for what that's worth."

ROBERT: And as I'm reading it, I'm thinking wait a second. This was written in 1605? What did people make of a book that didn't seem to have any author? Or had author upon author upon author? Like, were they horrify ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I mean, the book was a best-seller. It was hugely popular.

ROBERT: Apparently, people found all these layers and these ambiguities a laugh riot.

HOWARD MANSING: Oh, yeah, they gobbled up and they laughed as hard as they could.

ROBERT: This is Howard Mansing, a Cervantes scholar at Purdue.

HOWARD MANSING: And Don Quixote was translated into English in 1612, into French in 1614, into Italian in 1622. Everybody read it, including in the New World, by the way. Many copies of the first edition of Don Quixote were shipped to the colonies.

ROBERT: Wow.

ROBERT: So the book is a worldwide bestseller, maybe the first of its kind. And then 10 years later—10 years later—Cervantes writes a sequel, which kicks up this narrative weirdness to a completely new level.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: In part two ...

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: Part Two, Don Quixote of La Mancha.]

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: ... he introduces a new character named Sansón Carrasco. He actually visits Don Quixote and Sancho to tell them that part one exists. It's a best-seller. And so in the very early chapters of part two, Don Quixote ...

ROBERT: This would be like walking up to Huckleberry Finn and saying, "Oh, by the way, you're living here in Hannibal, Missouri, but you're now a famous boy."

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: That's exactly what happened. Everybody he meets knows who he is because they've read part one.

ROBERT: And now it gets even stranger because in real life, during that 10 years that it took Cervantes to write his second book ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: A person who goes by the pseudonym of Alonzo Fernandez de Avellaneda published his own second part of Don Quixote before Cervantes could get his own second part out.

JAD: Wait. So this is—this is an unofficial part two?

ROBERT: Yeah.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Today, we'd recognize it as sort of fan fiction, or somebody attempting to steal George Lucas's idea and come up with their own Star Wars installment.

ROBERT: So there's this unauthorized part two floating around. Miguel Cervantes is very annoyed by it, I'm assuming, so in his official sequel to Don Quixote ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: There is this scene where Don Quixote is at an inn and he overhears a character talking about his relationship with this supposed Don Quixote.

SIMON: Wait. So this guy—this guy ...

ROBERT: That's Simon Adler, who sat in on the interview with me.

SIMON: This guy existed in the fake Quixote number two? He's a character in that, and is now appearing in the real Quixote number two?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Right. Cervantes steals him. If you're gonna steal my character, I'll steal yours back, right?

ROBERT: So now you've got the real Don Quixote. He's bumping into a character stolen from a fake book of Don Quixote.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: So Don Quixote then decides to confront this person.

ROBERT: He marches right up to the guy and he says ...

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: "I am Don Quixote of La Mancha, the same one who is on the lips of fame, and not that unfortunate man who has wanted to usurp my name and bring honor to himself with my thoughts.]

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And so—and it's the climax of that scene, which is just wonderful, is he forces this other character who he's stolen from the unauthorized sequel, who Cervantes has stolen, to admit that the Don Quixote he knows from the unauthorized sequel is not the real one, and that the one he's currently talking to is the real one.

[AUDIOBOOK NARRATOR: I implore your grace for the sake of what you owe to your being a gentleman, to please make a statement to the magistrate of this village.]

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And as a matter of fact, he forces him to sign an affidavit to that effect.

ROBERT: [laughs] So he busts him.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: He busts him. Right.

ROBERT: In the—in the novel.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: In the novel.

JAD: Wait. You got a story about a guy that then becomes in part two, a story about the story about the guy including false guys inside the story about the story.

ROBERT: Well, they're false guys from another book that ...

JAD: Right.

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: So why even bother trying to figure out what's real?

ROBERT: Well, exactly.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Right.

ROBERT: Has anything like this come before this?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: No. He's really sort of inventing this whole meta-narrative game that is so popular today.

SIMON: The meta-narrative. What—what does ...?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Well, up until that point, most stories are simply—they purport to be what they are. I'm telling you a story. But Don Quixote pretends to be something other than what it is. It really is the start of modernity, our modern sense of the world.

ROBERT: So you agree with Jad then, that this is—this has not waxed and waned, this particular era, or— because I think it has.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Well, it has waxed and waned. I mean, Don Quixote has been read by different generations for different reasons.

ROBERT: Bruce says he thinks the people who were reading the book originally at the time of Cervantes, they actually ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: ... reveled in the multi levels of fiction.

ROBERT: They loved the meta stuff.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: But during the Romantic Period and well into the early 20th century ...

ROBERT: People were less interested in all these narrative layers, and they were more just thrilled by the romantic Don Quixote or the dreamer Don Quixote.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: But this generation of which we belong has become very interested in this terrain that Cervantes charted a long time ago. You see it in the cinema of the late '90s.

ROBERT: In movies like The Matrix, and then later Adaptation and then Inception.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Inception: You're exploring the concept of a dream within a dream.]

ROBERT: You see it in Seinfeld.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Seinfeld: What's going on? We're gonna shoot the pilot and then it's gonna be on TV the following week?]

ROBERT: You know, there's this comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who's playing a character that happens to be called Jerry Seinfeld, who's making a show within the show about a character who's Jerry Seinfeld.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: And so you have reality nested three times.

SIMON: But I guess I'm interested in this idea of why is—how is this happening again, and why is it happening again?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Well, my sense of things is that both of these moments are moments of intellectual crisis.

ROBERT: Back in Cervantes time ...

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Coming out of the Renaissance, you have all of this new scientific knowledge that is calling into question the foundation that everybody was building their lives on. So suddenly, the Earth is no longer the center of the universe. It's now just one planet among several orbiting the Sun. So you have people coming to terms with a worldview that they can no longer sustain.

ROBERT: And as for us now?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: In the last hundred years you have Darwinism, you have relativity, you have quantum physics. I mean, cognitive scientists are telling us that we have no free will because they can sort of chart the chemical reaction that happens milliseconds before we think we decide to do something. All of these things tell us that the world that we think we see is not what it is. And I think that inspires people to then start asking these questions: "If what I'm seeing is not real, what is? Who am I?" And so I think to a great extent, it's a reaction to a moment of intellectual crisis.

SIMON: Wait. But okay, let's say that I like professional wrestling a lot. I don't know anything about any of the research you're telling me about. Why the hell do I like professional wrestling? And why did I like it more when they started blurring these lines?

ROBERT: Ooh, hard question.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: Well, I would say humans are humans. And one of the things that we do, as opposed to as far as we know what other animals on this planet do, is we are aware of our own contingency.

ROBERT: Meaning we can imagine radically different possibilities. We can imagine worlds where we don't exist, or maybe we only think we exist.

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I can remember being a child four and five years old, and going to a fabric store with my mother. And there were two mirrors set against opposite walls, and I was just fascinated at standing in between them and watching the infinite regress go in each direction, you know? And I had not even started kindergarten yet. So I think humans have this fascination with infinite regress and with embeddedness.

ROBERT: And with the questions that it forces you to consider, like where does everything begin? And where does it all come from?

BRUCE BURNINGHAM: I mean, the question at the heart of Don Quixote realizing that he's a character in a novel is: who stands above you? The author stands above you. And so that author has a kind of God-like relationship to you, but that very question starts to make you ask who stands above that author? And if you start asking that question, it goes on forever in every direction.

JAD: Thank you to Rupert Boyd for coming and playing the Spanish guitar for us in this piece on very short notice.

ROBERT: And to Recorded Books for giving us permission to use George Guidall's wonderful read of the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha. He's really good.

JAD: Okay. Well, I guess we should go, then. We should say goodbye.

ROBERT: Yes, we should go. We should say goodbye.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keele is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Carolyn McCusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

 

-30-

 

Copyright © 2022 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

 

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.