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It's still real to me, damn it!
—Dave Wills, the Crying Wrestling Fan
"Kayfabe" is a Carny term thought to have originated from the Pig Latin for "be fake", possibly originally by pronouncing it backward ("kay-feeb"). Professional Wrestling adopted the term as a reference to the standard Fourth Wall features of separating the audience from the action. It is meant to convey the idea that, yes, Pro Wrestling is a genuine sport, and yes, this is how these people act in real life. It is essentially Willing Suspension of Disbelief specifically for Pro Wrestling.
Back in the old days, though, Kayfabe was much more; it was pro wrestling's real-life Masquerade. Wrestlers, promoters, and everybody else involved with the business alike resorted to any means necessary to guard the secret that wrestling was rigged, from wrestlers roughing up any reporters who dared ask, "It's all fake, right?" to (alleged) death threats towards anybody who threatened to expose the secret, through contacts with the Mafia and other organized crime. Heels and faces weren't allowed to travel, eat, or be seen with their 'enemies' in public. Regardless, fans started to figure out the truth in the '70s (if indeed they ever really didn't know before--with any live TV audience there is a certain amount of kayfabe of a sort going on with them too, remember), and once Vince McMahon's WWF rose to prominence in the '80s, the secret was pretty much out for any but the most die-hard (and thick-headed) fans. And even they finally got it in the '90s, when Vince himself revealed it on Monday Night RAW.
"Breaking kayfabe", for a pro wrestler, is tantamount to "breaking character" for an actor.
Note that even in the current era, when pro wrestling is known to be staged, kayfabe is still a big deal; most wrestling organizations expect wrestlers to maintain kayfabe at all times, and one (Deep South Wrestling, one of WWE's farm leagues) levied substantial fines on its wrestlers for breaking kayfabe at public appearances, before it was shut down.
Some people compare 'modern' kayfabe to Penn & Teller's tricks which seem to give away the 'magic secret', while actually setting you up for a different, more impressive effect.
Kayfabe can be heavily bent, if not outright broken, by a Worked Shoot.
As a side note, if you happen to know anybody who claims to have been a wrestling fan "back when it was real", then unless Willard Scott announces their birthday on The Today Show, they were taken in by Kayfabe. By all accounts, wrestling was pretty much completely show within 10-15 years after the turn of the 20th century. This was necessary to compete with the emerging sport of boxing, which naturally lends itself to long, drama filled, multi-round fights, whereas a real wrestling match normally lasts about ten seconds. By the late 1930s, even Looney Tunes were making jokes about this, but many people themselves insisted on their own version of Kayfabe in asserting that it was real.
The late Gorilla Monsoon, one half of the best commentary duo of his era, had "KAYFABE" on his car's license plate.
The night after the Secrets of Pro Wrestling special came out (years after Kayfabe was 'exposed' in mainstream wrestling), Mick Foley was the only one to try to 'restore' kayfabe by claiming "I didn't do so well, last week -- but I was watching TV last night, and the Secrets of Pro Wrestling were revealed to me!" Although Mick was probably just taking the mickey (pardon the pun) out of the ridiculous show.
Conversely, some fans would prefer not to see "real" fighting, and prefer kayfabe. The arguments include:
- If it was real, it would be too disgusting to watch, like boxing or Joe Theisman's Squick moment on MNF.
- Being scripted doesn't prevent injuries. Sid Vicious (not to be confused with the deceased musician), for example, suffered a similar injury as Joe Theisman at a pay-per-view event.
- Real fights tend to be very short, as demonstrated by the UFC or MMA in general.
- Or, conversely, be very boring and go on for the full length of time. Since pro wrestling is scripted, boring matches should logically be less common.
- Real fights tend to be visually boring. Wrestling is more theatrical.
- Wrestling moves are like watching expert gymnasts combined with a little ballet, both skills in their own right, not weightlifting.
- Wrestling provides a story that is often more interesting than the match. Parodied in an episode of South Park where the kids think wrestling is only about the stories. (Season 13, Ep 10.)
- As demonstrated in the NFL, when the injuries are real, the quality of the games slowly degrades over the course of the season until it is not much higher than college games'. Kayfabe allows for (relatively) minimal injuries over a long period of time.
- By extension as well, the reduction of injuries also ensures a much longer career for professional wrestlers (20 years old to 40 years old as an active wrestler, longer if they continue on as agents and managers). Compare this to equally physical sports where a long career can be considered playing 8 to 10 years.
- Unlike actual sports, wrestling involves an underlying morality of good vs evil (or Face vs Heel) which has been a part of literature for centuries. These are powerful and primordial tropes, and most people find them deeply satisfying. In fact, tropes in general seep in much more easily and clearly in a fictional sport (with its own storylines and mythologies, no less) than a factual one, and human beings are often drawn to tropes.
- Audiences can be sure they will get a show - no disappointingly lacklustre play or no-score draws, and as mentioned above, a satisfying narrative to the match.
- Wrestling provides lots of good ol' fashioned, unabashed Narm Charm.
To put it another way, wrestling fans who treat the sport as if what we see on TV is real are not so different than people who talk about soap opera characters like they are real people. All fictional works require some suspense of disbelief to get the audience really connected. The only real difference between that and Kayfabe is that professional wrestling extends that fiction beyond the edge of the camera frame.
At the core, we all know that it's scripted, but knowing that doesn't stop you enjoying it. We know that movies and TV shows are 'fake' too, but a well told story, particularly one with lots of action, is well received regardless.
This also appears in other media. No-one sees The Muppets unless they're in action -- they do their own press conferences and when they cameo in other works, they're treated like regular people. Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor on Doctor Who kept up the pretense that he was The Doctor whenever he met fans, and would never be seen smoking or drinking in public to uphold this. More recently, this notion has branched out into Twitter with the rise of roleplayed Character Blogs. Some of the more hardcore roleplayers will refuse to break character, even though the fact that they are not an official Character Blog are plain to see. The degree of this practice is still pretty low, but it's there nonetheless.
This practice is also sometimes used in roller derby, but not always.
- In many cases, roller derby is an actual competition without a predetermined (read: rigged) outcome, instead of just being "sports entertainment" (examples of the latter include "Rollergames", and "Rollerjam").