The Curtain Call Incident | Breaking Down Wrestling’s 4th Wall

The Curtain Call Incident. On May 19th, 1996, pro wrestling in North America changed in a major way. This was because four wrestlers decided to break the sacred, time-honored tradition of protecting pro-wrestling’s code of secrecy for their own personal self-satisfaction. And in doing so, they changed the future of the pro-wrestling industry, for better or worse. Twenty-six years ago today, the Curtain Call, a.k.a. The Madison Square Garden Incident, took place.

Who was involved?

The Curtain Call/MSG Incident took place at an untelevised WWF/E event and involved four wrestlers: Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon (Scott Hall), Diesel (Kevin Nash), and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. At the time, these four wrestlers (alongside Sean ‘1-2-3 Kid’ Waltman) were known as ‘The Kliq’. As a group, they kept to themselves backstage in WWE and wielded considerable influence on WWE’s creative direction. It was said that they used that influence to advantage themselves, at times at the expense of other wrestlers within the company.

It wasn’t long before the Kliq had alienated themselves from the rest of the WWE locker room by putting their own interests above the company’s.

What happened?

WWE The Kliq and the “curtain call”: How one moment killed kayfabe and kickstarted Stone Cold Steve Austin's push
Photo / TheSun.Co.UK

On May 19th, 1996, Hall’s and Nash’s WWE contracts ended, and they wrestled their last match for the company. But because those two had formed such close bonds with Michaels and HHH, they wanted to have one last moment together as friends before Hall and Nash left the company. Thus, on an untelevised live event, Michaels (the babyface) and Nash (the heel) fought in a Steel Cage match.

After it was over, Hall (who was also a babyface) hugged Michaels. This was not considered an issue because two babyfaces/heroes doing this made sense to a degree in-universe. However, then came Helmsley/Triple H (a heel), and he also hugged Hall (a babyface). And then to close, all four of them group hugged.

At the time, this amounted to a small scandal in the world of pro-wrestling. In 1996, both WWE and WCW operated with the notion of kayfabe, pro wrestling’s unique code of secrecy. Shows, angles, storylines, matches, and rivalries were presented as real, or at least as realistic and legit as possible. To break kayfabe was considered sacrilegious, a major faux-pas in that industry.

Even worse for WWE was that two fans snuck in a camcorder and recorded the incident and then shared it far and wide. There were no internet dirt sheet sites or social media at the time, but magazines, hotlines, and word of mouth were enough for this story to become the biggest news story in wrestling within days.

The Curtain Call Incident – Why is it important?

The Curtain Call
Photo / Cageside Seats

There were two implications from this incident, a short-term one and a long-term one. The short-term one concerned how these four wrestlers were punished. Since Hall and Nash were no longer employed by WWE, they escaped punishment from Vince McMahon. Michaels was the world champion at the time and arguably the company’s biggest draw. So his punishment amounted to a fine. Thus, most of the punishment fell on Triple H, who was ‘demoted’ and made to endure embarrassing wrestling storylines and saw his career progression stall.

But there was a key component of Triple H’s punishment. He was the wrestler that was originally scheduled to win the 1996 King of the Ring tournament (back when that actually meant something). But since he was being punished for his involvement in the Curtain Call, that tournament’s winner was changed.

To ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin.

With his victory, Austin was able to give his famous ‘Austin 3:16’ speech and change the course of wrestling history. Instead of the KORT winner being a prim and proper Connecticut aristocrat, it was a surly badass Texan. This win was the first step to Steve Austin going from perpetual midcarder to the biggest and most lucrative pro wrestler to ever live.

Austin’s momentum started with this victory and continued well into 1998 and 1999 and even into 2000. Those were some of the WWE’s most financially successful years ever, and it was with Austin as their top star that they were able to end the Monday Night Wars and defeat WCW once and for all.

Had the Curtain Hall not happened, things would have turned out very differently for WWE. Sure, Austin would’ve likely become a main-eventer eventually. But some of his most important moments likely wouldn’t’ve happened. Without that victory promo, there likely wouldn’t’ve been the Austin 3:16 catchphrase being plastered on countless merchandise items.

Austin wouldn’t’ve gone into WrestleMania 13 as a heel and left as a new hero for fans to cheer for. And his involvement with D-Generation X would’ve likely not happened because Shawn Michaels would’ve been feuding with Triple H in 1997 and 1998 instead.

The long-term impact of this event has been a bit more nuanced. The Curtain Call was the first time that WWE acknowledged or used ‘real-life’ events as for storylines. They didn’t try to sweep this event under the rug; they couldn’t. Everyone was talking about it. It was like trying to put the genie back into the bottle: it was an impossible task.

The Curtain Call Incident

From this point on, the days of over-the-top and unrealistic storylines were largely over. WWE shifted into a more reality-centric and ‘line blurring’ creative direction, which was further influenced by a writer named Vince Russo. Russo was part of the ‘smart’ subculture at the time and wanted WWE to go in a more realistic direction that blurred the lines between scripted and reality like the Curtain Call did. And his influence on WWE’s creative vision, for better or worse, was an integral part of WWE’s Attitude Era.

That era peaked in 2000, which was, up until recently, WWE’s most profitable year ever. Those more realistic storylines and a more ‘boundary-pushing product brought WWE into the forefront of American culture for the first time since Hulkamania. Wrestling was popular again. Millions of people were watching it. It was no longer something kitschy and niche. The new reality-driven direction and more ‘grounded’ personalities were more relatable to the average fan. People could relate to more human characters instead of over-the-top cartoon characters.

This newfound sense of commonality between wrestlers and fans likely wouldn’t’ve happened had the Kliq not blurred the lines between real and kayfabe on May 19th, 1996. So even though it was scandalous at the time, it actually helped WWE in the long run.