Jerry “The King” Lawler and the Reality of Wrestling Announcers

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I’ve been thinking about writing something along these lines for some time now, longer even than I’ve been involved in wrestling in any capacity beyond mark proprietor of a small-time blog, and I suppose I’ve held off for exactly that reason—even though I’m incredibly new to this business, one of the things I was told early on was that respect didn’t come easily to new guys who wrote often ill-informed musings on what goes on behind the curtain or before the crowd. That, more than anything, explains why a formerly prodigious stream of wrestling-related content on this blog slowed to a trickle, but I continued (and continue) to read plenty of other people’s opinions on wrestling—professional or not—and have found an impressive amount of digital ink spilled on the subject of announcers in pro-wrestling. The two desk-jockeys receiving the most attention are the two who anchor the most important weekly wrestling broadcast in the world, Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler of WWE’s Monday Night Raw. It’s a funny thing about wrestling: When you’re new, everything is intimidating and you take advice from everybody. At the tail end of my career as an MFA student at Bowling Green State University, everybody I knew told me that it’d be great if I wrote about what it was like to train in that particular field, but three sentences into training, my trainer told me not to. Your trainer’s word, during and often after training, is gospel, so I listened, even after training left me exposed as a fat, concussion-prone kid who wasn’t quite ready to chase his dream. But I’ve always had another dream when it came to wrestling, and it’s one that I’m currently living, and it’s one that I wouldn’t be chasing were it not for men like Jerry Lawler. It’s often the reality of wrestling that most shakes fans and performers, and I suppose that’s why I’m finally writing about this topic.

Midway through WWE’s three-hour Raw broadcast this week, during a tag team match involving Kane, Daniel Bryan, and a team called the Prime Time Players, Jerry “The King” Lawler collapsed at ringside. This wasn’t planned or scripted, and Lawler received immediate medical attention thanks in large part to the WWE’s strict policy on blood and potential concussions, a system that was implemented partly as a response to the Chris Benoit incident and partly (cynics suggest) due to Linda McMahon’s wishes to run for the United States Senate and the WWE’s concurrent decision to market their shows as PG fare. Lawler was given CPR and taken to a hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is reportedly breathing on his own, responding to lights, and receiving a CT scan. But, on a night where Bret “Hitman” Hart was making his triumphant return to a city where he was screwed out of the WWF Title in a chaotic event that changed wrestling—and Hart’s life—forever, it was hard not to be reminded of a similar situation in 1999, when his brother, Owen, tragically died during a pay per view event as a result of a stunt gone wrong. In a move that has been roundly criticized since, the Over the Edge pay per view continued, even after Jim Ross (with Lawler, who was one of the first men to tend to Owen in the ring, sitting beside him) informed the home audience of Owen Hart’s death.

A lot has changed since 1999, and the immediacy of social media made it such that the world knew about what happened to Lawler tonight before the WWE acknowledged it on the air. In a move that will likely draw no small amount of criticism, the WWE informed the home audience of the situation, then continued on with the show. In perhaps the boldest, least predictable move a publicly traded multi-million dollar business predicated on its image and its ability to package itself around video and soundbytes could make, Monday Night Raw continued without a presence at the announcer’s table for at least one of its three hours, meaning that the only sounds those watching at home could hear were those the same as the live audience: bodies hitting the mat, flesh smacking flesh, and the voices of CM Punk, Bret Hart, and John Cena, who closed the show with one of the most astounding verbal arguments the WWE has staged in some time, especially considering the circumstances. The decision to continue the show was an easy one to make: The WWE has an upcoming pay per view to sell, and obligations to keep with the USA Network and dozens of other television channels that air Monday Night Raw. The decision to do it silently, however, was one borne purely of respect to Jerry Lawler and what he represents not only to the WWE, but to the whole of professional wrestling.

The effect was eerie. Televised wrestling isn’t meant to go down in silence, and even the briefest spot of dead air is usually indicative of a problem. As Twitter sprung into action, keeping everybody up to date on Lawler’s status—hypothetical and “sourced” though many of those reports were—there was an outpouring of emotion and well-wishing The King’s way. I don’t want to say that I was irked by this, because “irked” is the wrong word and its the nature of both human beings and social media to flip-flop when the status quo is upset, but many of the tweets I saw were coming from folks who decry Lawler’s very presence behind the desk. The first tweet from any one of these individuals started out something like “I know I’ve said some bad things about Jerry Lawler, but…” followed by any number of tweets about how gut-wrenching the lack of announcing was, how tenuous any of the facts surrounding Lawler’s condition were, and variations on the now-trending #PrayForLawler hashtag. I’m not calling bullshit, because no matter how vitriolic a “GET RID OF LAWLER” blog post is, I’m sure only the scummiest wrestling writer would accept Jerry Lawler’s death, should it come before his resignation, and because I’ve written, voiced, tweeted, texted, and otherwise shared my distaste for any number of Lawler’s attributes myself. But, as an announcer, Raw’s hour of silence gave me a lot of time to think on the subject of announcing, and I’ve come to two conclusions: 1. That professional wrestling announcers are some of the most unfairly criticized people in the industry. 2. That most of the complaints come from a place of relative ignorance.

My second conclusion may seem unduly harsh, but I truly believe that much of the criticism that’s been leveled at Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler (and every broadcast team in the history of wrestling) over the past year is due to the wrestling fan’s inability to separate Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, television personalities, from Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, human beings. The announce desk is the one place in pro-wrestling where kayfabe is alive and well, where a respected war journalist like Cole is really a snide, bullying jerk and a genuine wrestling legend like Lawler is a vacuous,  objectifying idiot. Forget that there’s a difference, however slight, between “John Cena” and John Cena, or “C.M. Punk” and Phil Brooks: The announcer is our guide, our lifeline in this outsized, exaggerated world, and are thus not just the only real figures on the show, but the ones most accountable for the failure (but almost never the success) of a given match or segment.

In 2010, Mick Foley released Countdown to Lockdown, his fourth autobiography, and, other than being notable for its relative lack of success, what people most took away from that book was a chapter dedicated to the experience of being an announcer on a Vince McMahon produced wrestling show. If you’ve seen Vince McMahon’s wrestling persona during its most cartoonishly evil, then picture him, unseen by the announcer, yelling instructions and expletives into the headset. To get a sense of what that’d be like while trying to talk about a live wrestling match, try patting your head while someone punches you in the stomach. Though wrestling fans took this information and used it in ammunition in their ongoing, fruitless war against McMahon, few considered the other implication of Foley’s words: That the wrestling announcer, much like the wrestler, is a character, and that all characters in wrestling are, at some point, shaped by outside influences.

I’ve been catching up on a lot of the wrestling I missed in high school, and much of the good stuff from that period aired on WWE SmackDown!, which was a Paul Heyman booked show featuring Eddie and Chavo Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and a cadre of lesser talent that put any other wrestling show, including those run concurrently by the WWE, to shame. Michael Cole was the lead announcer of SmackDown!, and what I’ve come to learn about him is that, for all the exclamations of “OH MY” that typified him then (and his overuse of the word “VINTAGE!” that marks him now), he’s actually a very good announcer. He has had good to great chemistry with every color commentator he’s worked with, had an uncanny ability to keep up with the pace and flow of every kind of contest SmackDown! featured, and was good at advancing storylines without taking away from the action in the ring. This is hard, folks. Nearly impossible, as I found out during a six person match where my broadcast colleague’s stories were often interrupted or punctuated by one huge, breathtaking move or another. The Michael Cole of SmackDown! was a vanilla face, a dutiful correspondent who kind of rooted for the good guys while pointing out how the bad guys cheated, often to the consternation of Tazz or JBL, his partners in the booth. I’m not slogging through the bogs of the internet to see if and how people complained about Cole then, but I suspect he was too vanilla—too boring—for many people’s tastes.

So it didn’t escape notice when Cole began subtly—and then overtly—cheering for the villainous Miz, a reality TV show star turned WWE Champion. This led to Cole favoring most of the heels on the WWE roster, which led him to clash with Jerry “The King” Lawler. The two had a mediocre, sometimes tasteless feud that culminated in a too-long match at WrestleMania and further punishment when long-time WWE announcer Jim Ross was inserted into the feud. The complaints about Michael Cole then and since have been vitriolic, summed up by Daniel Bryan on an episode of NXT where he told Cole that he was “a poor man’s Jim Ross.” But that’s only half of the problem with Michael Cole. The other half has to do with his character. “He’s calling Daniel Bryan boring!” and “He’s demeaning the Diva’s Division!” were common message board posts at the time. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but Michael Cole wasn’t saying any of those things because he really felt them, but because he was in character, and that’s what his character was made to say. Granted, we live in a culture where Joe Buck is an awful human being because he’s not “properly emotional” at the right moments of a football or baseball game, but the difference between Joe Buck and Michael Cole is that Buck isn’t actually a part of the narrative being presented to the public, but is just a man being paid to comment on said narrative. There was a brief period during Cole’s run as Jerry Lawler’s antagonist and as the spokesperson for the unseen Raw General Manager where he was hated more than any wrestler on the roster, and his only crime was speaking.

The backlash against Lawler is much trickier to pin down. To the broader WWE Universe, The King is a beloved figure because the company says he is, but in the hyper-intelligent, over-informed internet wrestling universe, Jerry Lawler is a creepy old uncle lusting after women he’s old enough to have fathered, a company shill who offers no almost insight for all his years between the ropes, a man preoccupied with jokes and puns when the focus should be on wrestling. What wrestling fans fail to realize is that Jerry Lawler is very much the monster they created during the Attitude Era, when Lawler’s horndog shtick made him not the creepy uncle, but the playful, boyish one, whose ringside banter with Jim Ross was held up as the ideal to WCW’s broadcast anathema. He’s the same Jerry Lawler you loved (or didn’t mind) in 1997, but since the show is PG he can’t just out and tell the world how much he loves Kelly Kelly’s breasts (as he did Sable’s), and since he’s been designated as the straight man at the booth, he’s not allowed to crack wise at the expense of the good guy. That’s the role he’s been designated by someone else, someone with much more power over Lawler, and if you’re upset about it, blame Vince McMahon, Kevin Dunn, the fans who go nuts for Lawler when his music hits before the show, or the inexorable march of time. The real Jerry Lawler is one of the ultimate fan-to-wrestler stories, a man who did more for professional wrestling than he will ever properly be given credit for, and, for whatever flaws he has, a person who deserves respect on more occasions than a very public health scare.

I think that the episode of Monday Night Raw two weeks ago, where Lawler was attacked by C.M. Punk and replaced at the announce desk with a not-ready-for-primetime Miz, was in part designed to remind fans what they’d be missing if the internet got its wish and Lawler were sent packing. Unintentionally, this week’s Raw really drove that point home. While this won’t change anybody’s opinion of Lawler, the reality of this situation and the evening’s images of a barely composed Michael Cole reporting on the condition of his friend should finally mark a clear distinction between the people behind the announcers’ table and the characters they inhabit. Though I highly doubt Lawler and Cole read the ad hominem attacks posted against them (beyond the odd one read at Cole’s expense on Raw to further his character), it’s an aspect of wrestling fandom that I have no use for.

It’s unlikely that Jerry Lawler will be back on the job anytime soon, and while I’m sure that many tributes will be written to Lawler in the coming days and weeks, in the interest of not coming off too negatively, I’ll add mine here. As a kid who grew up watching as much wrestling as possible, there were plenty of announcers and color commentators—some good, some bad—but there were only two broadcast teams: Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler. There is hardly a wrestling fan my age whose view of wrestling isn’t somehow distinctly colored by those duos, and hardly an announce crew today that isn’t somehow influenced by them. Lawler’s importance to my childhood is subtle—beyond his feud with Bret Hart (during which he authored some of the best insults in wrestling history), I didn’t see much of Lawler’s ring work or his feud with Andy Kaufman until the advent of YouTube—but he was, to me, what Hugh Hefner represented (and, I suppose, may still represent) to generations of young men: A winking, ridiculously-attired chaperone to the adult world lying just beyond adolescence.

As a performer, few men are as able to oscillate between engendering fan sympathy and outrage quite like Lawler, who, as evidenced most recently by his work as a secondary foil to C.M. Punk, is still capable of doing his share of heavy lifting in service to the right story. Thanks to the Internet, much of the work that defined his career in Memphis’ CWA promotion is available free of charge. Watch it, sometime. Not only will you see, in my opinion, the best punches and piledrivers in wrestling history, but a man who wasn’t a big fish in a small pond, as he was often accused of being. Jerry “The King” Lawler was a man brilliant for his ability to squeeze water from a stone. He wasn’t the focal point of wrestling’s last territory because his character wouldn’t have worked anywhere else, but because he was a chameleon, able to adapt and change as his market dictated. Given the family-friendly smuttiness he exudes on today’s Monday Night Raw broadcasts, it may not seem it, but Jerry “The King” Lawler is, in many ways, professional wrestling’s last outlaw, a man beyond replacement. It goes without saying, but I’m rooting for Lawler to continue fighting what ails him, and wish him a speedy recovery.