Wednesday, 07 September 2011 09:10
July 21, 1950 – September 4, 2011
As I write this, it’s been less than 48 hours since I learned that one of my best friends in the world, Bill “Potshot” Kunkel has passed away.
Wasn’t it just a few days ago that local news had broken out into a full-blown frenzy reporting the mysterious death of our friend, wrestling promoter Jim Barrier (a.k.a. “Buffalo Jim”)?
For that matter, wasn’t it just a couple days before THAT I learned that our friend Ric “Hotline” Carter tragically perished after he stopped to help a stranded driver in need?
Hell, wasn’t it just yesterday that WCW Halloween Havoc 95 aired live on PPV, and while The Giant was falling off the roof of Cobo Hall, I was bonding with some of the best friends I would ever meet, getting locked and loaded for the ride of my life?
Because that’s sure how it feels.
In the short time since the news broke, there are already a ton of tributes to Bill on pretty much every type of website imaginable. It’s no coincidence that there are even more personal testimonies written by people who have had their lives enriched simply by knowing him. Given the staggering quantity (and quality) of the love that has already been shared, what really is left to say about the guy?
The first time Bill ribbed me was vis-à-vis the fact that we lived in the same gated community for six years before we officially met. No, not Rikers. It was actually a quaint little housing complex in Las Vegas. One night, I discovered the radio program WrestleTalk, hosted by Ric and Bill. Before internets and YouShoots and Matt Hardy’s criminal abuse of social media, Ric and Bill pulled no punches doling out the wrestling news of the day. The guys had the passion of fans, the skepticism of journalists, and the banter of two comedians stuck together in a car with no air conditioning on a long road trip. WrestleTalk was also one of the first forums for a local kid named Mike Tenay. I heard he did all right for himself.
I first met the guys on October 29, 1994. It was an indy show at the Silver Nugget casino, headlined by Sabu vs. Cactus Jack in a famous falls-count-anywhere match. (Check out Ric’s tribute for that story.)
As Ric saw that I was a regular around Vegas wrestling shows at the time, we got to talking. Eventually, that snowballed into myself, Ric, and our friend Roman Gomez being granted an audience with the enigmatic Potshot as we watched WCW Halloween Havoc 95 on live PPV, blissfully unaware of the raining Giants and Hogan-humping Yetis that were about to scar us for life. Fortunately, we got each other through it with a wisecrack jam-session that made the Gods themselves weep with absurd laughter. Or maybe that was just us. Regardless, we hit it off and life was good.
As the years went by and Bill and I got to know each other better, it was downright scary how much I had in common with this amazing man who described his last name as “the sound of two beer bottles rattling together in the back of a truck.” To find someone who was into wrestling, comic books and video games as much as myself would have been my blueprint for creating the perfect friend. Then I met someone whose shameless enthusiasm didn’t just match mine; It left me in the dust.
Whereas I wrote goofy tongue-in-cheek fanboy letters to the Apter mags, Bill was a serious groundbreaker in wrestling journalism, both as a writer and as a cartoonist. Bill always spoke reverently of Mr. Mike, who had inspired him to become a cartoonist. My favorite edition of the “Potshots” comic strip was Bill’s depiction of an embittered Ole Anderson growling “Piss on you!” Still cracks me up every time I think about it. My second-favorite “Potshots” was an exchange where Jim Ross slowly realized that Bob Caudle simply repeats everything Jim had already said, and had been doing so for years. On the writing front, Bill’s longtime rapport with the famous Phantom Of The Ring is the stuff of legends. Two hilarious take-no-prisoners vets going after everything in the business? Including each other? As the kids say today, “~!”. Bill was also a rockstar in the early days of the Pro Wrestling Torch, and came dangerously close to writing a book with Barry Orton (Randy’s uncle, who wrestled as Barry O in the 80s) that would have ripped the lid off the WWF in the early-90s.
I also wrote goofy tongue-in-cheek fanboy letters to comic book lettercolumns, but Bill had actually written the adventures of Superman, Spider-Man, and Richie Rich, among others. Bill’s stories from working in the comic book industry were so zany, they even rivaled those from the rasslin’ biz. “All the good villains were reserved and off-limits for various reasons,” Bill laughed. “They said, ‘You can have Plantman.’” (Fun fact: Plantman is a terrible character who nobody likes.)
I was pretty good at “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out” for NES, but get this, Bill and his longtime friend and creative partner Arnie Katz actually founded “Electronic Games” magazine in 1981, the first video game magazine published in the United States. The word “trailblazer” doesn’t seem to be strong enough considering the guys invented an industry, but the fact that Bill was later widely-known as “The Game Doctor” and “The Grandfather Of Video Game Journalism” ought to give you some idea as to the roads they paved for a generations of video game fans.
Bill greatly encouraged my love of writing, leading me to brand him as my own personal Dr. Frankenstein. Bill hooked me up with several gigs and contacts in the small world of wrestling writers, which is yet another reason why I’ll be indebted to him forever. My grandmother was the first person to inspire me to write, but if she lit the spark, Bill dumped gasoline onto it until the very world itself was consumed by an inferno of my obscure trivia and questionable comedy. So if you’ve ever enjoyed any of my columns, you have Bill to thank. If you haven’t, then you can blame his ass, too. And good luck with that.
One of my favorite memories with Bill happened at the WCW Monday Nitro at Caesar's Palace on 1/22/96. Bill and I didn’t get floor seats for the premeditated purpose of messing with Hulk Hogan, but upon realizing we would have the chance to do just that, we felt it would have been rude not to. We had these gag pens that looked like hypodermic needles, complete with visible supply of red ink sloshing around. When the Hulkster came out for his match with The One Man Gang (a five-star classic, natch), Bill and I moved as close to the barrier as we could and held our needle-pens aloft as we shouted, "MR HOGAN! MR HOGAN! YOU DROPPED THIS!!!!" Of course, Hogan no-sold us, but the fans in our blast radius were laughing hysterically.
By 1999, local celebrity Buffalo Jim started his independent promotion, the Buffalo Wrestling Federation. Looking for someone who could match his own manic energy, Jim hired Bill as his play-by-play man. We’re all familiar with the ups and downs of a low-budget indy show, but Bill never gave less than 100%, always bringing his humor and knowledge to the product. Bill made BWF’s program so much more watchable than it truly was, it defied science.
Then one night, it was my turn. Bill had to go out of town the night of the next BWF show, so he asked me to fill in. Being a wrestling announcer was always a dream of mine, and thanks to my pal Potshot, it happened on September 11, 1999. Seriously, we even called it the event “BWF 9-1-1.” (Of course, my personal milestone was tainted by the biggest national tragedy of our generation two years later, but that’s beside the point for now.) I gave myself the nickname “Big Time,” and for three hours, I sat at a ringside table like an idiot, screaming “THIS IS BIG TIME” all damn night while the approximate 300 fans in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves in spite of it all. Hey, it wasn’t WrestleMania, but it was a dream fulfilled and I had the time of my life.
For my money, the only thing that would have been better was to actually call a show WITH Bill. He made it happen in February 2000, as part of Barry Orton’s “World Organized Wrestling” event put on by Compaq (remember them?). First, they brought out some cheerleaders from a local high school, then our three-match wrestling card, headlined by Kool And The Gang. I’m not going to say it was a disaster, but afterwards we received sympathy cards from Hindenburg survivors.
The power went out while Barry was trying to rally the troops before the show, leading to Bill and myself standing guard behind our trailer while Barry finished going over his preparations inside a Chevy Lumina. When we got to our ringside table, there were no headsets, leaving us to erroneously conclude that we were supposed to use the house mic to call matches over the P.A. system. After two matches, someone who unlike our generator, actually DID have power decided they had seen enough and shut us down. Barry’s assistant Suzette (who played a dominatrix valet in the first match) ran out and told us to wrap it up and clear out ASAP. The main event was supposed to be The Honky Tonk Man vs. Bob Orton Jr., who was going to claim injury and then be replaced by Barry. As the walls of Jericho were crumbling around us, me, being a wrestling fan first, could only think to ask Suzette, “So who wins the match then?” We looked at each other blankly for a minute before I offered, “Um, Bob is injured so Honky wins by forfeit?” Suzette’s face lit up and she replied, “Yeah, perfect!” She was just happy for an out, methinks. I announced the result to the crowd, but the problem was I forgot to tell Honky first. HTM’s head spun around “Exorcist”-style and his eyes zeroed in on me. I immediately stood up and apologized to him, then explained what happened and why we basically gave him a shoot-win. Understanding, HTM gave me a satisfied nod, knowing that while the show went tits up, at least he went over. See, if I had been in Honky’s corner at SummerSlam 88, he’d still be Intercontinental champion today. Just saying.
After the wrestlers cleared out, I asked, “Do you think we ought to do some kind of wrap-up, Bill? Um…Bill? BILL????” My pal Potshot had taken off like the damn Roadrunner. I couldn’t even be mad at him, because the whole thing was so absurd. Also, I hadn’t thought to ditch him first. I took the mic and mumbled out, “Thank you for coming out tonight! Goodnight Las Vegas!” and left ringside as fast as I could power-walk, with the crowd booing the hell out of me. As I passed the backstage area, Kool And The Gang were LAUGHING THEIR ASSES OFF AT US. With six inches between me and the door to freedom, I clapped one of them on the shoulder and said, “Okay, buddy, we warmed ‘em up for you. Go get ‘em!” Still not sure if he was Kool or The Gang.
I was the last one back in the trailer. I still don’t know the full story as to how or why everything went wrong, but Barry was not a happy camper. At one point, his gaze locked onto myself, Bill, and our ring announcer, Rusty. We were all trying to hide behind each other like a Three Stooges bit. Asking no one in particular, Barry demanded to know who told us to do the color commentary over the mic. Luckily, no one answered and Barry calmed down. As we were leaving, I mentioned to Bill that Barry specified “color commentary” and since I was play-by-play, the blame was entirely his to shoulder.
The craziness of the night had us laughing ourselves silly all the way home. And to his credit, Barry proved himself to be a stand-up guy when he absolutely made good on his word and paid us anyway. It really was one of the best nights of my life.
I’ve gotta say, given the circumstances, Bill and I made a great team. Just like how Bill and Arnie were a great team in their own right. So were Bill and Ric, Bill and Barry, Bill and Buffalo Jim, Bill and Phantom, and hell, Bill and anyone he worked with. Each team was hilarious and successful within their pocket universe, yet all were markedly different from one another.
Creative collaboration is rarely easy, especially since creative people tend to have so much energy and so many ideas that our canvas is perennially too small to contain everything. Plus, most of us are stubborn as hell and prone to arguing our case to the point of switchblades. So why did it always work so well when the very laws of physics tell us it shouldn’t? Because of Bill, of course.
Not only was Bill himself brilliant and talented, he could pinpoint and bring out the latent brilliance and talent in you. That was Bill’s true gift, and it was one he shared openly. When it was your time to deliver the punchline, Bill elegantly stepped aside and gave you the spotlight. If you fumbled the ball, Bill was right there to recover it and run it in for a touchdown with a wit so fast, you didn’t even fully get what he said until it circled the planet and smacked you in the back of the head. The definition of honor in the wrestling (or any other business) comes down to “Putting the other guy over,” and for Bill it was second nature.
Bill could effortlessly speak with wit and knowledge about any topic under the sun. A typical conversation for us would cover last week’s Monday Night Raw, the pros and cons of digital media replacing VCRs, our favorite “Simpsons” characters, why (insert politician name here) just couldn’t get his/her feces together, the jaw-dropping reveal in Doom Patrol #57, quantum physics, and a detailed discussion as to the quality of pizza places in our immediate vicinity. Bill loved creativity in all its forms, whether it was art, entertainment, technology, or best of all, just sitting around talking with folks.
Interacting with people was Bill’s lifeblood. I’d be happy to just sit there and listen to him talk for hours, but Bill thrived on the back-and-forth. Bill loved matching wits and exchanging ideas with people from all walks of life. Parties at Casa De Kunkel were a hodgepodge of humanity exchanging warm smiles and making unlikely connections. Bill and his wife Laurie weren’t TRYING to break down barriers and prove that the great cosmic prank known as the human race really can work, but damned if that isn’t exactly what happened. To be welcomed into a place where you could leave all your negativity and problems at the door was like a cross between the Cheers theme song and the Lost finale, only with better food.
If you were lucky enough to be part of our “Island Of Misfit Toys” (as Laurie affectionately referred to us), you know exactly what I’m talking about. Bill and Laurie never did buy the concept of the outcast, and a lot of us who thought just that (and worse) of ourselves were shown the light and became better people for the experience.
Bill had a candor and directness that could cut through crap like a laser beam cutting through…well, crap. To match wits with Bill was both a privilege and more terrifying than a thousand voice messages from the producers of The Jerry Springer Show. Bill was a diabolical genius in that he could casually vivisect your argument without ever looking up from his notepad, leaving you questioning everything you thought you ever knew about the universe. But if you could impress him, he was quick to sing your praises and commend you for thinking of something he hadn’t considered yet. Best of all, he wasn’t afraid to HOWL with laughter if you hit the right joke at the right moment. It always feels great when you successfully amuse someone on purpose, but when you got Bill to laugh, it was the ultimate win. You’d think, “This is the funniest guy in the world, and he’s laughing at ME??” That distinctive cackle of his is what I’m going to miss the most.
Speaking of Laurie, she and Bill were soulmates before they even met, and always will be. Yin to his yang, Laurie made the perfect foil and partner for Bill. Laurie harnessed Bill’s blitzkrieg of creativity and always kept the aforementioned crap-cutting laser beam focused in a positive direction. In fact, it’s not out of the question to suggest that Laurie basically saved the world from Bill on multiple occasions. For that alone, we all owe Laurie our undying gratitude along with our heartfelt sympathies.
Bill and Laurie aren’t “just like family”; They ARE family. The two of them opened their hearts and home to more people than most of us will ever even meet. You didn’t just love hanging out with them, you loved YOURSELF when you hung out with them. Bill and Laurie are loved so much by so many, that’s a bigger, better tribute than any of us can succinctly put into words, try as we might.
Speaking of which, I’m not even close to being done with this. Bill often described his musings as more stream-of-consciousness than actually shoehorning a preset number of words into a piece and calling it a day. A writer never truly stops writing, a thinker never really stops thinking, and a dreamer damn sure never stops dreaming. You see, a conversation with Bill never actually ended. Sure, we hung up, logged off, and went back to our corners for a bit, but when the bell rang again, we picked up right where we left off. So until our next round, I’m going to step aside and let someone else take a swing at the champ.
Watch out for the potshot, though. You’ll never see it coming.