GOOD NIGHT IRENE: The Origins of a Catch Cry – Michael Schiavello

GOOD NIGHT IRENE

The Origins of a Catch Cry

By Michael “The Voice” Schiavello

Itʼs one of the most well-known catch cries in the world of sports announcing. When thereʼs a knockout or a tapout and you hear “Goodnight Irene” you know youʼre hearing none other than “The Voice” Michael Schiavello. How did he coin this most recognizable of catch-cries? Wind the clock back some 19 years…

THE DEBUT OF GOOD NIGHT IRENE

1991, Olympic Park, Melbourne: The midday sun blazes in a clear blue sky. Itʼs an uncomfortable heat, the type that pulls salty sweat from your pores and turns your forehead lobster-red within minutes. Itʼs the type of heat that would send most running for the refuge of shadows, but itʼs not enough to dissuade the enthusiasm of the near six-thousand spectators who cram the grandstands for the preeminent day on the Melbourne private schools sporting calendar: the APS Track and Field Championships.

The upper-tier of the main grandstand houses family and friends. Itʼs packed. Everyone is grinding shoulders in sweaty wetness. Iʼm in the middle of it all holding a microphone attached to a large camera. Somehow Iʼve ended up as part of the Xavier College APS commentary team even though I have never commentated in my life and know nothing about track and field. Our commentary team is made up of four. Thereʼs David, the leader, a slick and eloquent future prefect of Italian descent whose older brother, Justin, is running second leg in Xavierʼs superstar 4 x 100 relay team. “The 4 x 100 is mine to call,” he constantly reminds us, which is fine by me as I donʼt want the pressure of the marquee final race.

Next is David B, who had no real place on our commentary team though none of us has the courage to boot him off. Heʼs a loose cannon full of insecurity and paranoia. School legend has it he once carried a 15 inch kitchen knife up the sleeve of his guernsey during a soccer match. I played in the same soccer match. The legend was true.

Then there was Paul. He was a star long-distance track athlete who never quitetranscended his grunge demeanour to take his rightful place among the jock elite. A laid-back, messy-haired, bare-footed type, he never had much to say but what he said was golden. Then there was me, the boy everyone called “Shiv.” I was a high school debating powerhouse, the best third speaker for the negative of my era. But Iʼd never commentated a sports event and knew nothing about track and field. Nobody knew what role I should take other than to “hand Shiv the microphone during one of the races nobody cares about.”  Itʼs not long into the event that one of those races comes to fruition. Itʼs the 800 metre final, a race too long for impact and too short for the glories attached to the 1500 metre.

“Itʼs all yours Shiv,” says David, handing me the microphone. I take a quick look over the names of the runners. I donʼt know any of them. Nerves set in. My stomach turns. Iʼm not sure how many laps comprises the 800 metre and the school colours confuse me. I donʼt know who the favourite is or any personal best times. Thereʼs a runner in lane eight from Caulfield Grammar who isnʼt even listed. I dub him “The Phantom”, a man unknown.

The starterʼs gun fires and Iʼm commentating a sports event for the first time ever.  Iʼm slower out of the gate than the runner in lane five. Iʼm stumbling over my sentences like a failed hurdler. My thoughts are faster than my words; my words donʼt resemble my thoughts. With four hundred metres already run Iʼm all over the place, a mumbling, stumbling, bumbling mess. Iʼm not sure who is who. Iʼm getting names and colours confused. This is awkward. Iʼm awful. Itʼs embarrassing. What the hell am I doing here?

As the runners turn into the home straight something happens. Four runners are dead even at the front of the pack and the crowd all around me is going wild. What began as a throwaway race for “Shiv to call” has turned into the most thrilling race of the day. Out of the corner of my eye I see David leaning across, trying to snatch the microphone so he can bring home the glory leg. Itʼs a make or break moment for me: do I hand the microphone to David and let him put his vocal stamp on this amazing race or do I go within myself and try something completely left of centre.

I get to my feet. I bring the microphone right up to my lips. I become one with therunners and the crowd. Iʼm vocalised energy. The conduit for excitement. I bring home the final two hundred metres of the race at a fever pitch and as the winning runner edges his chin over the line in a photo-finish I scream: “Good night Irene!”

GORILLA IN MY MIDST

Many people have asked where my knockout catch-cry “Good night Irene” stems from. The simple answer is my love of professional wrestling. One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting in my living room as a 10 year old, with my mum, watching Wrestlemania live on television. I had never watched professional wrestling before but over those few hours I was intoxicated.

I marveled as King Kong Bundy — the subject of many a later childhood nightmare — tapped Special Delivery Jones in nine seconds and asked the referee to count to five instead of three.

I rejoiced as Andre The Giant slammed Big John Stud and threw his winnings into the audience.

I was spellbound as The Junkyard Dog — who I would interview years later — defeated Greg The Hammer Valentine via count out.

And I found myself on my feet as Mr T and Hulk Hogan defeated Paul Orndorff and Rowdy Roddy Piper (with a little help from Cowboy Bob Orton) in the nightʼs main event.

Of all the colourful characters in professional wrestling, my favourite was the commentator Gorilla Monsoon. Perhaps it was being an older man of Italian descent who had a booming voice like my grandfather that made me feel a special connection to  Monsoon, but there was something about him I always loved. Even today when I watch old wrestling videos, I get all warm and fuzzy at the sound of Monsoonʼs voice.

One of my favourite wrestlers to watch was Adorable Adrian Adonis, the cross-dressing behemoth (6ʼ 1”, 338lb) who defeated Uncle Elmer at Wrestlemania II and had extensive feuds with George “The Animal” Steele, The Junkyard Dog and Hulk Hogan. For a big man Adonis had an amazing repertoire of techniques including a sleeper hold finish called “Good Night Irene.” Nothing gave me more pleasure during my days of wrestling fanaticism than seeing Adonis put an opponent in a sleeper and hearing Gorilla Monsoon announce “he slaps on Good Night Irene.”

To this day Iʼm not really sure what caused those words to come out of my mouth while commentating the APS Track and Field Championships as a 16 year old. I would later use the phrase when commentating Victorian Premier League soccer on radio, and eventually made it my fight sports catch-cry when I began commentating Muay Thai and kickboxing as a 21 year old on Fox Sports.

MORE THAN JUST A CATCH CRY

What began as a catch cry in homage to my love of professional wrestling, and adoration of the late Gorilla Monsoon, has become, to me at least, much more than merely the name of Adrian Adonis’ sleeper hold. Good Night Irene represents what watching sports should be about. It represents moments of orgasmic joy, profound sadness and the entire spectrum of emotions in between. It is the throat-choking, nail-biting, hair-pulling, toe-curling, jumping-for-joy, head-hung-low, fist-pumping gamut of feelings which you as viewer is entitled to experience with every television event.

As a commentator I’m priveleged to be the funnel through which excitement of the game flows from the television screen to your eyes and ears at home. My voice is an accompaniment to the action, not unlike a feature film score. Great composers such as John Williams (Indiana Jones, Superman, Jaws, Star Wars) and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Twilight Zone) have the ability through their music to heighten the emotion of a film’s visual splendour to an aural level of pure titillation. Any commentator worth his salt, I believe, should provide the same aural accompaniment, never the star but always an integral part of the entire viewing experience.

CATCH CRIES COMETH

Iʼve always been a fan of commentators and catch-cries. Each sports commentator should have his own identity that sets him apart from others, and a catch cry is an important part of that identity. From Dave Johnsonʼs “And down the stretch they come” to Andres Cantorʼs drawn out “Goooooooooooal”; Dave Niehausʼ “My oh my” to Dick Vitaleʼs “Itʼs great bay-bee!” Mike Goldbergʼs “It is aaaaaall over!” and Phil Rizuttoʼs “Holy Cow!” Cricket commentator Bill Lawryʼs “got him yes!” and Jim Rossʼ “slobberknocker”. The pantheon of commentator catch cries is a large one to which I am glad to add “Good Night Irene” as my long-time own.

A NOTE ON IRONY… OR IRENEY?

As Alanis Morissette once sung, life is full of ironic moments. Of all the names of women I could have ended up with, the greatest irony is that my girlfriendʼs name is Irene. People assume my screaming “Good Night Irene” on a broadcast is a reference to my girlfriend. As you have seen from the story above, this is not true. But itʼs strange how the universe works, isnʼt it?

Itʼs believed that that the universe brings you exactly what you ask for. Iʼve been screaming the name Irene for 19 years… which leads me to wonder: do I really have the power to manifest my words into a physical reality? Can I use this power to bring forth other things I desire?

What if I start a catch cry for a new house? A new wardrobe? Or for a new car?

“Good night Bentley GT!”

Hmmm, doesnʼt quite have the same ring to it.

Check out Gorilla Monsoon, and Jesse Ventura, commentating Adorable Adrian Adonis vs Rowdy Roddy Piper from Wrestlemania III, and see Adonis put Piper in the “Good Night Irene” sleeper hold at the 41 second mark.

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