Off Commentary: What’s happened to the spokesmen of the industry?

Pro Wrestling can be a hard medium for a newcomer to get into. Like comic books and daytime soap operas, the stories that are currently ongoing have been ongoing—by a kind of chain reaction storytelling—since 1964. Sure there’s little connection between the saga of John Cena vs Brock Lesnar and Buddy Rogers breaking his NWA World Championship away to become the first WWWF World Champion. But the feuds in which Rogers—or, more accurately, his immediate successor, Bruno Sammartino, was engaged, certainly did lead to the happenings of today.

Just as some are able to trace their family lineage back to the middle ages, intrepid WWE scholars can trace the current Brock Lesnar vs John Cena feud back to see it was the offspring of the John Cena vs the Authority Feud. That feud happened as a result of the Authority’s feud with Daniel Bryan, which happened as a result of Bryan’s feud with Randy Orton, and before that his feud with John Cena. The Bryan v Cena feud came on the heels of Cena’s feud with Ryback, which had its roots in Ryback’s feud with the Shield, which dates back to his fight with CM Punk over the WWE Championship. CM Punk’s feud with Ryback happened because Cena (with whom Punk had been feuding off and on since 2011) had gotten injured.

You see? There’s a lineage—a built-in continuity to the big stories of the show. If you jump in right around Summerslam of 2013 you can get invested in the Bryan vs Cena story, but in so doing you might want to know why Cena was allowed to pick his own challenger (because he had essentially beaten every other major challenge over the years). Before you know it, you find yourself watching Pro Wrestling backwards trying to learn the backstory of everything.

It can be daunting to be a first time watcher. The first episode I watched was right after Triple H had reformed DX after this second WWF Championship win. I had no idea who anyone was, why “DX” was a big deal and why anything mattered. I was fortunate then, back in the days before high speed internet and instant access to Wikipedia, to have an invaluable resource filling me in on the important details: Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler.

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There once was a time when WWF/E commentary was a compliment to the action in the ring. Even during the peak of the Attitude Era, with its crash TV writing, nonsensical storylines, rapid-fire plot twists, and 5 minute matches, WWF programming was rarely a challenge to follow.

Don’t know who Stone Cold is? Listen to JR give you all the relevant information as he walks to the ring. Sure you’ll be in dark about his King of the Ring win that started his path to superstardom, there’ll be no mention to the Submission match with Bret Hart that solidified him as the next big thing, but whatever you need to know that pertains to his feud of the moment JR can fill you in.

Listen this ovation” (draw attention to Austin as the top babyface)

the former WWF champion” (pertinent information)

lost it at SummerSlam, and has been screwed out of every opportunity to regain it” (now we have stakes and a reason to be invested in this guy. He’s the top of the food chain but isn’t invincible; he’s on a journey).

At this point Jerry Lawler would offer some sarcastic comment, establishing himself as the contrarian on the side of the bad guys, which puts a voice to the villains and subconsciously turns us further against them even when they’re not even on the screen.

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Throughout the broadcast, there would be discussion about the biggest stories going on and what was upcoming on the show—naturally, since those are the reasons people tune in and the reasons they will stay tuned in. Apart from that, there was emphasis on what was happening in front of them. If Val Venis was in the ring, commentary was telling us why. They would fill us in on who he had a beef with, and provide minor quips to compliment Venis’ own promo. Even though it’s a meaningless segment 20 minutes after the hour, you still feel like it meant something, because everyone on the TV screen acted as though it did.

Fast forward 15 years and things have drastically changed. The flagship show is longer (3 hours instead of 2), there are more hours of programming a week than ever, and there’s a bigger and deeper roster of talent than the Attitude Era ever had (not as many iconic superstars on the top, but many more potential main-eventers from top to bottom), with much better and longer matches happening on free TV than ever before. Despite those “improvements,” the program has not been this unpopular since the mid-90’s when it was regularly getting crushed by WCW Monday Nitro.

Obviously there are many reasons for WWE’s struggles, but to boil it down: No one cares. Other than a very small handful of popular superstars and a few who are cheered ironically and not because of their creative direction, the majority of WWE superstars are not loved or hated: They are ignored.

When New Day comes out a first time viewer would have a hard time knowing whether to root for them or boo them. Commentary mostly craps on them en mass. JBL mocks them, King (now Booker T) laughs and Cole rambles on about something other than what’s right in front of him (usually it’s something about what John Cena is dealing with later that evening, or what from the last segment is trending on twitter). The audience in the crowd doesn’t know what to do with them because they’ve been given nothing to feed off of in the weeks leading up to WWE’s arrival in their hometown. It creates a cycle of apathy that leads to promising talent being prematurely scrapped.

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The case with the Ascension is the latest and among the most egregious examples of failed commentary. Here’s a team that was the most dominating force in NXT since the Wyatt family, having the longest tag reign of any team in the developmental league. They moved to the A-team both because there were no more worlds to conquer in Florida, and also because the WWE is always in need of true blue tag teams. Upon arriving they cut a scathing promo comparing themselves to the legendary Road Warriors (perhaps the greatest tag team of all time), and then exalted themselves as superior. Commentary was quick to attack, with JBL acting like these newcomers were disrespectful nobodies and wondering aloud where they got off being so arrogant. His attack was odd, not only because JBL is supposed to be a heel (and thus should root for the bad guys), but also considering he spent almost a year along side Ascension as the NXT General Manager. If anyone should know who they were and why they had a right to (arrogantly, prematurely, heelishly) proclaim themselves as the greatest tag team ever, it should be JBL. But he acted like their appearance on Raw was the first time he’d ever laid eyes on them.

Jerry Lawler has been shipped down to Smackdown where JR before him spent his final months with the company. That’s where the comparisons between the two former colleagues ends, however. While JR has continued to be among the very best in calling matches, Lawler has regressed from the smarmy heel persona he perfected in the late 90’s to become a corny, horny creepy old man who clearly doesn’t know anything that’s going on with the product beyond what is right in front of him. He does no homework, isn’t aware of what moves are finishers, what history new wrestlers have with one another, and usually offers nothing of value besides some of the worst pun-filled jokes your ears will hear all week.

Michael Cole is another matter entirely. Always in JR’s shadow, first as his emergency replacement following Ross’ bell’s palsy attack in 1999, and later following his switch from Smackdown to Raw in 2008. Whereas Ross seems to have a genuine passion for the art of wrestling, Cole comes off as a bland, emotionless robot. He can laugh, smile, yell, decry the evil ways of the heel and cheer for the hero, but all of it comes off as…corporate. It comes off as fake. When JR raised his voice to curse the misdeeds of Triple H, you felt the revulsion. When Cole bemoans the misdeeds of the Authority, he raises his voice but the tenor of his voice doesn’t change. It’s like the difference between a real smile and a fake one. You can raise the corners of your mouth and show your teeth, but people can tell when you’re sincere. There’s a softness to the eyes that gives away a true smile. Cole has no such softness. He has no sincerity. JR lived and died with every babyface victory and defeat; Cole calls them all like he’s repeating the order back to you at McDonalds.

JR was 24/7; Cole is 9-to-5.

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And yet, despite the individual flaws of the people manning the commentary booth, together the personalities only constitute half the problem. Only the very best of the best can rise above the real issue at hand and present a call of the action that brings the viewer into the program. Unfortunately, JR isn’t walking through that door and Gorilla Monsoon has been body slamming angels for over fifteen years. We’re stuck with Michael Cole and unfortunately he doesn’t have the skill to excel beyond who is the real problem with commentary: Vince McMahon.

Both in his approach to commentary (which has been revised over the years) and his need to nitpick every tiny expression and turn of phrase used by his team (which has been going on since the mid-90’s), Vince McMahon is single handedly the reason why new viewers are nearly impossible to come by for WWE. How can anyone become part of the fanbase when commentary—the only guide they have to navigate the murky forest of the myriad of plotlines—is being instructed by the man in the back to run down new talent, mock the struggling talent in need all the help it can get, insult the fans with lowbrow humor and embarrass themselves with an obvious lack of awareness concerning the events in front of them.

When the literal spokesmen for your enterprise show an obvious disdain for 90% of what’s around them, why be surprised that the average autumn viewer spends most of his time only watching RAW during the commercials of Monday Night Football?

Today the commentary’s focus is on showing how many fingers WWE has in the social media, general entertainment pie. It’s a move that reeks of desperation, but being desperate for mainstream acceptance has been par for the course in WWE from the beginning; can’t fault the owner there. Where the fault lies is how much it has overtaken every aspect of the production. At some point in the past ten years, and especially coinciding with move of Michael Cole to the Raw booth, the focus of commentary has shifted from “what’s happening in the ring” to “what’s happening on twitter.” This has happened, in spite of the fact that, with RAW’s move to 3 hours, there are more and longer matches on free TV than ever before. Somehow things got so backwards, that the more they show wrestling on TV the less they talk about it.

It used to be asked only jokingly “does WWE hate their core audience” but it becomes less and less of a joke as the years go on. Whereas in the old days, every character from bottom feeder to main event superstar had a gimmick, a hook, a storyline, something to make their appearance on TV worthwhile (and thus something relative to them for commentary to “comment” on), today only a handful of performers have any distinguishing traits. Things have started to get better, with the influx of NXT callups, but it was especially bad during the years where everyone looked like Randy Orton (tall, tan, lots of abs) and had Orton’s personality to boot. Those were the days when a strong commentating force was crucial to help those guys get over. Instead people like Chris Masters, Drew McIntyre, Tyler Reks floundered and fell away, while people like Zach Ryder and Dolph Ziggler only found success through their own stubborn will and in spite of what seemed to be WWE’s best efforts to stop them from making the company any money.

Today there are starting to be more colorful personalities—the likes of Bray Wyatt, Adam Rose, Bo Dallas—but their success rate is not great. There’s an obvious correlation between the way Vince personally feels about certain characters and the way commentary responds to them. He seems high on Bray, so there’s little mocking going on. He’s down on Adam Rose, so all three men spend the entirety of his segments mocking him and slamming him, making it impossible for the viewer to care about him at all. It makes no sense and seems to be a purposeful attempt to avoid making money.

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We’ve gone from the days when people would openly praise the commentary in a big match (like in the olden days of Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan, or my favorite color man Jesse Ventura) to an era where people’s disgust with the commentary is making them change the channel. It’s gotten so bad that fans are clamoring for a sound option on the WWE Network to turn off commentary, and just let the sounds in the ring and crowd carry their enjoyment. Sure such an option wouldn’t allow newer fans a chance to learn what was going on, but it’s not like commentary today is doing that either.

Old talent isn’t enhanced, new talent is pulled down, overall there’s a banal quality to WWE’s booth. We’re dealing with a 3 hour show, with a 3 man crew consisting of insufferable has-beens and ear-straining never-weres; no one cares about what’s happening at the moment, only what Hollywood Hog…I mean, John Cena is up to.  RAW has become that which it once vanquished: It has become the very worst of Nitro. All we need is Sting to show up occasionally to chase away the bad guys.

Oh wait…

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