Jesse Ventura first came to prominence in the glamorous world of professional wrestling. While his tenure as an active wrestler was undistinguished, a move into the announcing booth invigorated his career and revolutionized pro wrestling broadcasting. Seriously. In the childish fantasy world of the Hulk Hogan-era WWF, Ventura added a certain logic to the proceedings. He favored the heels but he did so with a strategic intelligence that often punctured the fictional rules of wrestling. Why would the good guy pose for the fans when he could just pin his opponent? Why would he be carrying an American flag to the ring? Is he not aware of burgeoning Iran-Contra scandal threatening to expose the darker corners of the Reagan administration? Ventura split with the WWF in the early nineties and moved on to WCW announcing duties, where he found himself mired in a product even more fractured and listless. His ambitions were leading him elsewhere.
His stint as governor of Minnesota was a natural progression from the world of professional wrestling. Fiercely independent, Ventura seemed to exude the same sort of tenacious morality in his approach to policy. Even the skeptical politicos would have to look past the gimmicky aspect of his persona to see the a certain level of savvy pragmatism to his approach. He made sense in interviews, evincing a common sense attitude and fierce loyalty to American ideals. He could hold his own in the political arena.
Then something happened: 9/11. Or to be more specific: 9/11 conspiracy theories. At some point Ventura was introduced to the seedy world of conspiratorial websites advertising all sorts of wild theories about the events. Fake planes, lasers, explosives, actors portraying passengers, dolphins with lasers on their heads, etc. No theory is too outlandish for this group of scholars.
Briefly: there were no explosives in the World Trade Center. There was no massive conspiracy involving switching passengers and planes and faking voice calls to relatives. No thermite paint. It may have been a fun diversion during the bumbling tyrannies of the Bush years to lay that tragedy on the doorstep of Cheney et al, but the movement attracted such a kook factor that it quickly crumbled under the weight of its own absurdities.
Unfortunately, Ventura not only fell for this madness but he adopted it as a personal crusade. Now, if this had been a career move designed to take advantage of this market, to become a conspiratorial spokesman in the way another celebrity might endorse a can of soup, then it might be understandable. It’s not as if the conspiracy community is a paragon of morality that should not itself be exploited. But Ventura was serious. Because based on his performances in the films Predator and The Running Man, he certainly doesn’t possess the acting ability to pull off a massive media deception like this one. So he really believes this stuff.
His admittedly entertaining interviews on radio and television about his conspiratorial revelations led to the creation of a television series, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura. The real question about this show is whether it was actually intended as a comedy or if the humor is simply an unintended consequence of its patent absurdity.
Most episodes follow the same formula. We open in Jesse’s war room, where he and his team of “experts” hash out the plan of attack for that week’s absurd subject. Most of the themes are riffs on the same paranoid fantasies – is there really much of a difference between devoting an episode to “Big Brother” and another to “Police State”? Not really, but that’s not the point. We just want to see Jesse lumber around and yell at people. “I’ve got a source that could break this case wide open,” he’ll inform the team at some point, which is usually the cue for a commercial. The narrator of the teaser clips before the breaks might be the best part of the show: “Up next, watch as Jesse Ventura goes Navy Seal on Area 51!”
Of course this is all overly staged and dramatic and somewhat silly. But we’re okay with that – any show that treats the subject of lizard people with even the vaguest notions of authenticity is clearly nothing more than mindless entertainment. But it’s as if the show itself doesn’t get the joke. It takes itself way too seriously as the episodes move into various interviews with “researchers” (read:lunatics) and “whistleblowers” (con artists). These meetings are always filmed with phony camera tricks and scary music. By now the already thinning strands of credibility are completely broken. For example, we’ll see Ventura creeping up toward a dangerous meeting with some unsavory character from the conspiratorial fringes, and then knocking on the door of a shabby apartment complex as his voiceover reinforces the obvious. We get it – we’re supposed to be scared. But then the next shot is a reverse angle from inside the apartment as the door opens. So the real danger – if there had been any at all – would have been encountered by the camera crew that set up the shot and prepared for Jesse’s arrival. This might seem like nitpicking, but for a show that takes itself so dreadfully seriously, lapses in credibility such as this are unforgivable.
The whole thing is just goofy. And it got worse as the show went on, delving into topics like time travel, wherein the team spends most of the episode realizing how stupid they are for even bothering. Ditto lizard people. It was just sad to see Jesse himself being duped by these conspiratorial con men each week. This was a man who could break down the internal logic of a wrestling match like no one else, which is no small feat when you take into account six-man tag matches and the nuanced stratagems of athletes like George “The Animal” Steele. Then he broke into politics and somehow managed to shake the cultural stigma of that wrestling association, which was itself something of a miracle. How many politicos really watch pro wrestling? I can imagine Pat Buchanan being a fan, and I bet Newt Gingrich has seen his share of Chief Jay Strongbow matches even if he might not publicly admit it. But it was a transition that required an admirable level of courage and skill, and Ventura’s unlikely move from the squared circle to the much more vicious political ring was like a real old fashioned American success story. But then he went and dove right back into madness, emerging with this conspiratorial persona that continued to erode the Ventura brand with every interview and episode. The show was thankfully canceled in 2012, saving us from any further ignominies. Besides, where else could he have gone? Once you’ve exposed the shapeshifting lizard people in Congress, it’s hard to ramp up to something more sensational.
So down went Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura like Building 7. A controlled demolition? Probably more like declining ratings and spiraling budgets with diminishing returns. Fortunately, the moment of Jesse Ventura’s fall from grace can be pinpointed to a single moment. During a particularly contentious visit to the Opie & Anthony radio show, his argument with cohost Lil’ Jimmy Norton culminated with a fierce exchange.
Watch the video: for a moment it seems like Ventura is really considering getting physical with the nervy comedian before settling for just an aggressive tap on the shoulder. Then Norton delivers the coup-de-grace, the Ether moment from which Ventura has never recovered. It happens at 3:30 in the video.
For visual reference:
Make no mistake: that was the end of Jesse Ventura’s conspiratorial career. That Riff Raff crack was the hidden object in the trunks that he never saw coming and the pin was quick and decisive. One can imagine those words haunting this proud, fiercely competitive man. Looking angrily in the mirror, muttering vain denials. It’s that Ether that makes your soul burn slow.
Jesse Ventura will always be around in some capacity – he’s a smart, charismatic guy with rebellious ideals that will always have relevance with regard to public policies. He’s hinted that he may even run for president in 2016 which at the very least would make for a more interesting debate cycle. But Conspiracy Jesse was over. Thank you for you service.