ON THE ART OF PRO-WRESTLING COMMENTARY: OR "VETERAN INSTINCTS" IN THE WWE
On the April 18th, 2016 episode of Monday Night Raw, Chris Jericho fought Sami Zayn in the opening match of the night.
The match itself, given the basic setup, was a good contest that played to the strengths of both performers. And from a pro-wrestling fan's point of view, Jericho vs Zayn is an incredibly enticing, almost surreal match-up; an exemplar from pro-wrestling's past taking on the bright beacon of pro-wrestling's future. If the two were feuding it's a match that could easily headline a pay-per-view.
On this RAW, there weren't any narrative stakes for Jericho or Zayn; no title shot would be given to the winner, no apparent trajectory for either combatant regardless of the outcome. It was a match born out of an opening skit that devolved into a brawl - so the conceit of the contest was more a booking device than a story, a natural transition from scripted segment to simulated battle. Such a scenario is common on RAW and not at all inherently bad. It makes sense that if two athletes suddenly broke into an unsanctioned contest while in the presence of referees that their sport would intervene and give the fight some structure (a kind of old-fashioned "meet me by the flagpole" schoolyard bout supervised by elder class-men).
The match ended with Chris Jericho poking Sami Zayn in the eye while the referee was distracted, and then, in the midst of Sami's disorientation, hitting Sami with his finishing move (The Code-Breaker, in which he applied his knees directly to Sami's wounded eye), and then covering Sami for the pin. This is one of pro-wrestling's most traditional heel tactics, and it can be executed to great dramatic effect. It's very easy to botch this kind of moment, though. It's such a familiar moment to pro-wrestling fans (especially those hip to the nuances of such a "heat-seeking", villainous act) that it runs the risk of playing like an empty trope.
From a very literal, technical perspective, it's difficult to physically make an eye-poke appear legitimate. The more specific pro-wrestling-violence gets, the less room there is for error; there's a greater degree of physical danger to the participants and there's a greater chance of compromising the fiction of wrestling should the move fail to properly land. The wrestler needs to accentuate the motion of their hand or thumb and drive it with believable force into an area of their opponent's head or near their opponent's head in an attempt to replicate the reality of an eye-poke. The wrestler does this while purposefully trying to avoid legitimately poking their opponent in the eye. A bad eye-poke, like any move, relies too heavily upon one person's ability to convincingly "sell" it. The aggressor will quickly jab the victim's head, but the victim won't react realistically to someone's fingers being shoved into their eyeballs. Conversely, the aggressor's fingers might blatantly bounce off the victim's forehead (Three Stooges-style) and then the victim over-sells to compensate. Those examples of disconnect break the theater of wrestling, break the emotional investment of the viewer, and fail to tell the story professional wrestling attempts to tell. For a move to work, both wrestlers have to literally execute it in a believable, non-transparent fashion, and then they also have to "sell" (act out) the damage that the move has supposedly done. It is a collaborative process.
Chris Jericho and Sami Zayn performed an absolutely perfect eye-poke.
It's a moment most viewers have likely forgotten because the WWE's audience, at this time, consists mostly of people who are immune to the value of such a basic heel action (seeing people leap over the top rope, crash through tables and ladders, and get beaten with repeated chairshots will do that to you). But this moment epitomizes the beauty of professional wrestling, and the effectiveness of good, basic storytelling more than any pyrotechnic or suicide dive we witnessed on this April 18th episode of RAW.
Sami Zayn is the babyface (hero) and Chris Jericho is the heel (villain). That basic relationship establishes some potential outcomes before the match even begins. In opting to end the match in such a traditional fashion with a sequence that directly correlates to the roles Sami Zayn and Chris Jericho play, the two performers are "protecting their characters".
"Protecting your character" means your real-world choices in performance (behavior, action, reaction, and morality) do not contradict the fundamental nature of the character you're playing. For example, Sami Zayn would never try to beat Chris Jericho with an eye-poke, and if he did, then it would necessitate a fundamental change in his character; this is commonly described as a "heel-turn".
"Protecting your character" also has a more literal meaning for performers as it relates to their standing in the promotion they're working for. If their character is booked to constantly lose or booked to be publicly shamed or booked to constantly undermine their validity as a competitor in an athletic contest then their character will lose credibility in the eyes of the viewer. When that credibility is lost, it's near-impossible for a wrestler to convincingly rebuild themselves and maintain a believable, consistent, entertaining personae. The crowd sees them as a "loser" or a "joke" and it's precisely because the booking conditioned the crowd to think that. On the flip-side of that coin, regardless of how strongly a wrestler might be booked & presented, if their ability to portray human emotion or athletic excellence is unconvincing then the crowd will also disregard that wrestler.
Pro-wrestling thrives when the booking is equal to the talent and when the talent is equal to the booking.
In this scene where Jericho pokes Sami Zayn in the eye and Sami loses, both Jericho and Sami are protecting the integrity of the Sami Zayn character. While Sami was booked to lose, the way he lost does not compromise the character's talent nor his potential as a viable threat in the future. He only lost because his opponent cheated in an incredibly sneaky, violent, and dishonorable way. The fans watching in the arena intuit that, recognize that, and feel sympathy for Sami while their hatred for Chris Jericho intensifies. Sami was going to win the match with The Helluva Kick when Jericho cowered in the corner and came up with the eye-poke in a moment of desperation.
Losing in that way is not really losing, and that's incredibly important given how new Sami is to the Monday Night Raw roster. The character is still making a first impression to the widest audience he has ever had. All those WWE fans who don't have the Network or don't religiously watch NXT or never had access to any sort of independent wrestling are slowly formulating an opinion of Sami Zayn every time he appears on-screen and every time he wins or loses a match.
This is a reality Sami Zayn fans take for granted. Sami Zayn fans instantly see the guy they already love, and he can do no wrong and he can overcome any wrong done to him. Even if Sami lost in a way that didn't protect his character, his fans would still love him and root for him.
But for the uninitiated, that's not the case. It's very easy to become "the guy who always loses" in the eyes of most television viewers. And in today's hyper-competitive, brass-ring, glass-ceiling environment, it's also very easy for even the most beloved of "underdog" talents to gradually lose their cache; the smart fan gets smarter, realizing their chosen guy just isn't "going anywhere" in the company, and so it's easier to sever that tie than remain on the receiving end of a relentless emotional beating.
In winning with an eyepoke and then quickly retreating from the ring, utterly exhausted, Chris Jericho reveals the rising desperation of his character. The character sees this young, incredibly athletic roster potentially unseating him as "the best in the world", and it's driving him mad. He's becoming more violent, more vicious, and more narcissistic than he's ever been. The performer is allowing himself to be the despicable, delusional heel. The more underhanded and ridiculous he is, the more credibility he gives to the young, hopeful athletes striving to outshine him. In resorting to an eye-poke to win, he's helping to convince the audience that Sami Zayn is an honorable, credible athlete in a highly competitive industry. Put in the simplest of pro-wrestling terms, that eye-poke "puts Sami over" despite the fact that Sami didn't "go over" as the winner of the match.
On Sami's end, he protects his character by "selling" the eyepoke as hard as he possibly can. If he can emphasize to the audience how disoriented and damaged he is as a result of this despicable act, then he can convince the audience to disregard the loss. He was teary-eyed and gasping for breath, cradling the side of his head after the three count.
Sami didn't even appear angry at Jericho. He was just worried about his eyeball, exactly the way anyone would in real-life. Your first instinct is to make sure you're okay when a vulnerable part of your body (like an eye) is attacked. You're not going to stare dramatically at your nemesis as they slink away. The realism of Sami's performance enhances the emotional intensity of the scene, sells Jericho's deceitfulness, and ensures that the Sami Zayn character doesn't appear too weak or too stupid as he's attempting to build a relationship with the audience.
Jericho was perfect in his performance and execution. Sami was perfect in his performance and execution. Their years and years of dedication to the art of pro-wrestling is made clear in just a few minutes through a few simple yet remarkably complex creative decisions. So much work and thought goes into a single moment like this, and the storytelling philosophy behind this kind of device is so reliable that one would think when it's executed perfectly by two veterans that anyone who sees it will respond exactly the way Jericho and Sami intended.
But there is a third creative element featured prominently in this scene that I have yet to describe. And this element has the power to taint, undermine, and even negate all of the hard work and excellence evident in a perfectly executed finish.
That destructive element is the commentary team.
For those watching in the arena, Jericho and Zayn's finish most likely played perfectly; because it was, very simply, perfect.
For those watching at home, listening to commentary's editorializing, the finish plays like Jericho being the smart veteran who won at any cost and Sami Zayn being that nice guy who finished last. Where Sami Zayn and Chris Jericho did everything they possibly could to protect their characters within the confines of the structure they were given, the commentary pair of John Bradshaw Layfield and Byron Saxton did the exact the opposite.
JBL is supposed to be the heel commentator. He plays a bombastic blowhard who endorses the villainous acts of morally corrupt pro-wrestlers. Everything he says is meant to be interpreted by the viewer as a lie - so if he hates someone, viewers are to love them and vice versa. He is grating, obnoxious and, at times, impossible to bear (to the point where it negatively affects the quality of the television show rather than serving as the trope it's designed to be). If he was consistent in that personae, and if he had a contrasting personality as strong and convincing as his own, then his statements would enhance the drama of wrestling the way they're meant to.
In this instance, he defended what Chris Jericho did despite how blatantly wrong it was, and he refused to relent on that stance despite Byron Saxton pointing out that the eye-poke occurred. That's perfectly fine. Given the character he's playing, JBL should endorse Chris Jericho. In fact, the more JBL celebrates Chris Jericho and condemns Sami Zayn the better because it's incredibly obvious to anyone watching and listening at home that everything JBL says is ridiculous, and that the wounded hero of the scene is Sami Zayn.
But no one on commentary viciously condemned the actions of Chris Jericho or passionately defended Sami Zayn in a way that counteracted JBL's point of view. Michael Cole was off-mic due to technical issues, but such a situation necessitates that Byron Saxton default to the babyface commentator or the play-by-play man who contradicts everything JBL says with a passion or sincerity equal to or greater than JBL's.
Byron did no such thing.
After Jericho pokes Zayn in the eye, Byron says, "Oh c'mon".
JBL responds, "Veteran instincts."
Byron quickly replies, "Yeah, the official didn't see it either."
Already, commentary has contradicted (and hurt) Sami and Jericho.
Firstly, Bryon's "Oh c'mon" was little more than a passive-aggressive aside entirely devoid of genuine shock or disgust. But the real failure here is in the way Byron affirms JBL's comment "Veteran instincts".
Byron says, "Yeah..."
That "Yeah" confirms that Jericho's action was not cheating, but rather, as JBL described it, a "Veteran instinct". Byron follows up his "Yeah" with "...the official didn't see it either". He says this without an ounce of anger, dismay, or seemingly much interest in what he's seeing. The fact that the official didn't see it just means that Jericho was good at what he did. The desire seems to be to point out that Jericho is cheating. The heart is in the right place, but the delivery, the word-choice, and the agreement between heel and play-by-play commentators defeats the very purpose of commentary altogether.
Several seconds of dead-air follow as the referee counts Jericho to victory - no reaction to the final moments of the contest or the underhanded act that led to its conclusion. As Jericho starts up the entrance ramp, Byron finally attempts to do what a babyface commentator must (protect the talent) with the statement, "You call it veteran instinct, I call it cutting corners".
Although Byron has already endorsed JBL's perspective (undermining any future attempt to contradict him) this attempt to reverse that endorsement and challenge JBL's perspective is inherently ineffective simply due to the phraseology.
"I call it cutting corners" is not as emotionally resonant or powerful as "I call it cheating!" The phrase "cutting corners" is limp, vague, and doesn't even apply to sport in this particular context. It's not even an accurate description of what Chris Jericho did. "Cutting corners" also implies a certain degree of savvy and foresight on the part of the person who does it - it's not really a disparaging remark that adequately encapsulates what Jericho did. And, most importantly, Sami Zayn and Chris Jericho were not telling a story about Jericho "cutting corners".
JBL then undermines Byron's comment with a decisive, "I call it winning matches, Byron, that's what I call it!"
Without any pause or consideration, Byron immediately, almost happily, replies, "Well you're right. Jericho did just that. Just defeated Sami Zayn...and now Jericho can turn his attention toward Dean Ambrose at Payback."
Just reading their dialogue, one would think Chris Jericho was an athletic genius, perhaps even the babyface of the match. He succeeded in everything he set out to do. He was active, cunning, and he can segue into his feud with Dean Ambrose as a character with some power.
The story mutates into "Chris Jericho won and Sami Zayn lost", even though that's fundamentally not the story Chris Jericho and Sami Zayn told.
The real story (which is painfully obvious to anyone watching) is about how Chris Jericho needed to cheat in order to defeat Sami Zayn. That is the story commentary could have helped tell. That story builds Chris Jericho as a heel and Sami Zayn as a face. That's the story that protects both talents and, in particular, maintains the Zayn-character's credibility in the eyes of the observer. If that's not the story commentary also helps to tell, then commentary contradicts what the wrestlers are doing inside the squared circle and what the viewer is literally seeing and feeling as they watch the show.
That contradiction represents a breakdown in communication and a breakdown in storytelling.
Art, of any kind, is a relationship. For any relationship to work, open & effective communication is of the utmost importance. Human beings rely on their word-choice, their gestures, and their facial expressions in an effort to communicate their psychological state to another person. Pro-wrestling establishes a relationship with audiences by communicating through a variety of similarly established, easily comprehended devices; wrestling moves, promos, vignettes, and commentary. These are tools for communicating the story, the state of a character's mind, and effectively inspiring audiences to experience very specific emotions. When one of those tools isn't functioning properly, the ability to suspend disbelief and even enjoy what one is seeing is compromised. It's akin to flubbing a line, stumbling during a choreographed dance, or mistakenly shattering the forth wall. The audience feels, in their gut, that something is wrong, that something has failed, and that the presentation does not agree with their reality.
In order for the story of Jericho's eye-poke to really work for television viewers, Byron Saxton needed to shout into the microphone, "He poked him in the eye! Chris Jericho poked Sami Zayn in the eye!" and condemn the outcome of the match even as the referee was counting three.
"This is disgraceful. Absolutely disgusting that Chris Jericho needs to resort to these tactics. Why is he willing to throw away his legacy. What does he think he's proving here?"
"He's proving that he's a winner, Byron!"
"Win or lose with honor then. C'mon, Chris, you're better than this. Well...I guess he's not."
That kind of exchange also creates an opportunity for JBL to earn his awfulness. If JBL has a stronger counterpoint who is as passionate and unflappable as he is, then he can react to more than dead air. In his current form, he sounds like nothing more than an obnoxious mouth-piece for some phantom aggressor who seems hellbent on making RAW as miserable for the listening audience as possible. If there had been a calm, alternate point of view, a perspective that directly reflected and protected the story the wrestlers were telling and the story the viewers were witnessing, then not only would the outcome have been rewarding for all involved, an undercurrent of dramatic tension would exist at the commentator's desk, informing the tone of the entire broadcast, and helping to carry listeners through to the main event.
Commentary must help embellish the in-ring story, the dynamic of heel voice vs babyface voice serving as an auditory reflection of the heel and babyface wrestlers.
Good commentary can also serve as the conscious of the viewer and the moral compass of the entire promotion. When a commentator expresses disgust or joy, they can speak on behalf of the viewer at home and so reaffirm the emotions of the viewer. A good commentator is the little voice inside the viewer's head. If commentary praises a babyface, then commentary is subtly telling the viewer that they're right to love that particular babyface. That intensifies bonds between viewers and their favorite wrestlers, thereby easing the burden of "getting over" that every wrestler faces. This epitomizes the power of suggestion; it is an elaborate seduction leading viewers to believe exactly what the promotion wants them to believe in an effort to make them pop and then loosen their purse strings.
On today's RAW, not a single wrestler has the benefit of an auditory accompaniment that is actively working toward strengthening the natural bond a viewer might establish with a heel or a babyface. Every wrestler has a voice that's negating the meaning of their story and diminishing the value of their bodily sacrifice.
The way commentary completely contradicted the story of Chris Jericho and Sami Zayn's finish is a pure example of how destructive this aspect of RAW can be. It hurts wrestlers. It hurts stories. It hurts the WWE's ability to consistently promote credible characters and, therefore, it hurts the WWE's ability to make money off of those characters. It's a style of commentary that even contradicts the booker.
It's an entirely counter-intuitive system that may seem harmless at face value, but, over time, has a damning effect on the entire product and its cast. Two completely contradictory tones and two completely contradictory stories are told throughout the course of almost every match. The viewer is forced to juggle these conflicting narratives in their mind as they watch, all while attempting to maintain their own, entirely separate interpretation of these events. It's an exhausting process made even more difficult by the fact that the show is three hours long and peppered with equally grating, unavoidable advertisements.
The only defense of this egregious system is that "most viewers aren't really going to notice it".
"Only a smart mark or an analyst would regard this as a problem and register this paradox in presentation."
Firstly, that simply isn't true; the tools of good storytelling do not exist for the people who will notice them. The tools of good storytelling exist precisely to hide the contrivances and devices of storytelling. The current dynamic of commentary represents a fundamental breakdown in pro-wrestling storytelling. It's a malfunctioning gear that's disrupting a much larger, more important narrative machine. Again, it's tantamount to a flubbed line, bad CGI, or a botched move. Everyone, no matter how "average" a viewer, recognizes a flubbed line. They see it, they hear it, they feel it and they know they don't like it. So the idea that a casual viewer isn't going to notice how RAW commentary undermines the larger WWE narrative and the efforts of the wrestlers is a self-serving, unrealistic excuse for wrong-thinking that severely underestimates the significance of commentary and severely underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. The viewer knows something has gone wrong and they know they've been taken out of the fictional world they want to believe in. They might not use words like "heel", "babyface", "heat", or "finish" to articulate that disconnect but they certainly experience it just as they roll their eyes at a bad special effect or bad performance in a big budget blockbuster.
Secondly, if a viewer is indeed so oblivious that they're not going to notice something like Byron Saxton and JBL destroying the story Sami & Jericho told, then that viewer is easily manipulated. That means that viewer is likely to believe what they're told and react according to what's presented to them. That kind of viewer was told, explicitly, that Sami Zayn is a loser and that Chris Jericho is a winner.
Is that the story the booker wanted to tell?
Is there any oversight in the WWE with regard to the interplay of these various storytelling mechanisms; how they interact with one another and how they can best serve the talent and the viewer at home? What casual viewer wants to watch a roster made up of losers? The potential casual viewer cannot see through the booking and cannot hear through the commentary in order to fully appreciate the nuance and the excellence of a match between Chris Jericho and Sami Zayn that ends with an eye-poke.
Why not use the tools at one's disposal to tell the most effective story possible? Why not manipulate the easily manipulated into believing Chris Jericho is a cheater and that Sami Zayn is a valiant competitor who would have beaten Jericho in a fair fight? Why not work with the wrestlers and help the wrestlers tell their story? It's hard to imagine how the WWE makes more money by not doing this. Commentary is the single-most controllable aspect of Monday Night Raw. It's the one part of the show that can be exactly what it's meant to be, and yet it's one of the most consistently reviled, errant aspects of the series.
Lastly, if commentary is so insignificant that its editorializing does not, in fact, taint the rise of young talent or negate the reality of an in-ring story as I'm suggesting, then why is it even there?
If commentary can't affect the listener then what purpose does commentary serve, other than fulfilling the viewer's simple expectation that it exist? Absolute radio silence would serve RAW's purpose far better than what JBL and Byron Saxton did to Sami and Jericho's match; the sound of the canvas as the wrestlers bump, the unfiltered reactions of the crowd, that conversation-hum that radiates throughout arenas, injecting those buildings with electricity and life - that's an auditory accompaniment that would help tell a story.
It's not as though Cole, JBL, and Byron are amateurs who have no idea what they're doing. They are cognizant of the criticisms they face every week, and they're also attempting to operate within a highly constricted, incredibly intense environment. They are the primary gateway into the WWE-world and they're absolutely reviled for all the reasons outlined in this article. But they have to keep working and they have to keep doing exactly what they're told. What they're apparently told to do works against the basic intent of the person telling them what to do.
Cole and JBL are veterans. They're professionals who have the fundamentals of pro-wrestling storytelling coded into their DNA. They absolutely love professional wrestling. Cole, when given a modicum of freedom, can be a fascinating, empathetic figure. He knows how to embellish the emotions of a match. He knows how to be a heel, he knows how to be a babyface, and he also knows how to call the action right down the middle when he needs to, holding back any moral judgment and creating that aforementioned dramatic tension even within his own performance.
It's important for the audience to know what the play-by-play man genuinely thinks about what he's seeing, but to also know that he's refraining from editorial comment. This is something Jim Ross executed to perfection. Whenever the straight-laced, diplomatic Jim Ross purposefully broke his own kayfabe and reacted in absolute disgust or absolute ecstasy to the actions of professional wrestlers, it made those moments of villainy or triumph that much more palpable. If Jim Ross, the perennial play-by-play man, couldn't remain unbiased, then he must be seeing something really important and that means the viewer must be seeing something really important. He wasn't just a mouth and a mic; he was another character serving a purpose in a vast, intricate story.
The same is true of Jerry Lawler, who was the yin to Ross' yang; a decidedly un-serious, rude womanizer who delighted in the misfortune of others and disregarded the rules of the sport he loved. He would even attempt to help the heels win, occasionally shouting advice or pointing out a babyface's vulnerabilities simply because it pleased him to do so. He was greed, avarice, and gluttony rolled into a single chaotic voice and a happy, cartoonish face.
Imagine an episode of RAW commentated exclusively by Jerry Lawler for three full hours without the stern, sardonic, sport-focused drawl of Jim Ross to temper him. It wouldn't work. There must always be balance.
Despite critics, Cole has that knowledge, experience, and a unique perspective that could more directly inform his performance and help elevate the current show.
JBL clearly has an encyclopedic knowledge of professional wrestling. Pro-wrestling transforms into a legitimate sport during his calls. He compares displays of athleticism with moments and legends in pro-wrestling history that give the medium the historical gravitas of any other sport. He knows how to be loud, grating, and relentless the way any good heel commentator should. He knows how to transfer heat onto a heel and in so doing raise up the babyface. It's not as though he is objectively terrible at his job. The problem is that an essential component of his job is entirely nonexistent at this time; there is no yin to JBL's yang.
Byron seems to be performing from a place of absolute fear; entirely understandable given the way JBL consistently screams at him, bullies him, and renounces any call he makes. He's the newest member of the group, trying desperately to get ahead in the company, and so he has the most to lose. When he's the commentator on NXT, his enthusiasm is much more evident and he seems genuinely happy to be doing what he's doing. On RAW, his presence is not unlike a public hazing ritual. It seems like the other commentators, and whoever is running the show, wants to make the experience as difficult for Byron as possible. That situation may or may not be a reality, but that's certainly what it feels like to the viewers watching at home. This creates an unnecessarily contentious atmosphere that gets in the way of the viewer's ability to have a pleasant experience watching a long television show. Such continues to divert attention away from important character-building moments in the ring to a trio of loud, combative voices who sound more invested in their contradictory agendas than in servicing the talent who risk their lives in the ring.
This is not a pitch for JBL being a nice guy who rubs Byron's head every time Bryon manages to make a good call. This isn't even a pitch for replacing any of these voices. This is a sincere argument for creating a more entertaining and generally more inviting product that utilizes the tools of storytelling in a more efficient manner. This is an argument for the WWE to use commentary to once again assist its Superstars in telling their stories and forging stronger bonds with television viewers. Nothing can be gained by rigidly holding to an unproductive format simply because it's so familiar. The divisive atmosphere created by current RAW commentary must end, and there needs to be a concerted effort, at all levels of the production, to tell consistent, interesting stories that do not splinter into contradictions and paradoxes.
Fortunately for the WWE, its talent, and the viewers at home, this particular problem is easily identified, and that means it can be easily solved.