Monday night on “Raw,” the WWE’s commentating team of Michael Cole, John Bradshaw Layfield (JBL), and Jerry “The King” Lawler decided they needed to take a selfie. In the middle of a match. I attended the show in person, and was wondering why at one point during the Cody Rhodes and Golddust vs. Big Show and Rey Mysterio tag team contest, one of the cameramen turned his attention away from the ring and started shooting the announce table instead. After I got home, I found out why.
The team tasked with broadcasting matches and offering analysis was busy taking the picture you see at the top of this post.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it’s a perfect snapshot of the two things ruining WWE announcing: Vince McMahon’s endless control freak mentality, and a group of announcers that can’t deal with it accordingly. There’s no question that the WWE is Vince McMahon, and he has every right to rule its production with an iron fist, as he alone did a hell of a lot of work to bring the company up from the small regional promotion it was when he bought it from his father to the global powerhouse it is today. And McMahon is no stranger to the commentary team, as he did a heck of a lot of play-by-play in his early years running the WWE. But, behind the scenes, he’s a notorious bastard to the announcers, constantly screaming at them from the gorilla position[ref]The location just inside the curtain where performers enter into the arena, where McMahon and COO Triple H direct the production of the show[/ref] about what to say, and berating them if they mess up–sometimes actual flubs, other times things McMahon simply thought was wrong. Mick Foley spent very little time as an announcer and decided not to go into that role with the company because he couldn’t take McMahon’s tirades in his ear every night.
The taking of a selfie during a “serious” event is McMahon’s attempt to play on the story that broke last week of President Obama taking a selfie during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Reports say McMahon is not an Obama fan, so instructing his announcers to re-enact the situation was an insult rather than a playful reference. Either way, it was stupid. Pro wrestling isn’t the forum for McMahon to air his political views, be they hidden behind a taken photo or said outright. It’s not uncommon for theater and entertainment to reflect political and social issues, and the WWE did this in the early ’90s with the feud between the all-American Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter, who returned to the company with a character change that had him sympathizing with Iraq, just as the U.S. entered the conflict that would lead to Operation Desert Storm. But this is nothing like that. All the WWE’s selfiegate boils down to is a pointless exercise undertaken simply to satisfy one enemy-oriented personal whim of the WWE’s top dog.
Even worse, it’s disrespectful to the performers. Much like the Obama incident caused a ruckus because folks felt it showed a lack of respect, the commentary trio taking a break from calling a match showed a similar attitude toward its hottest tag team at the moment. Obviously, a wrestling match doesn’t hold the same significance as a memorial service, but you get my point. The job of an announce team, especially one in the fictional world of professional wrestling, is to enhance the feel of the broadcast and inform viewers about what’s going on. Instead, they let us know they don’t care. “Raw” already teeters on a dangerous precipice of mediocrity every week due to the fact that it’s a three-hour show, whereas it used to be two, and for those watching at home, we need the announcers to be “in it” for every segment, lest we drift off. Cole, Layfield, and Lawler basically mimicked the way most people watch TV: Glued to their phone and not absorbing anything that’s happening on the telecast. In a sense, they encapsulated the modern era perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way they should operate.
There’s a fine line between strategically hyping what’s to come later in the show, and simply talking only about the main event and ignoring everything leading up to it. Unfortunately, the latter is how the WWE’s announcing crew tends to go about their business. More often than not, matches are filled with endless gushing about a match that was made in a previous segment, or what they think is going to happen later in the main event. Sometimes, particularly with the often quality-challenged women’s division, it’s the time to make jokes, many of which end up belittling and burying the characters rather than playing up the storylines they’re involved in.
At the core of the problem, this all goes back to McMahon. We can’t really be sure what kind of announcers Cole, Layfield, and Lawler really are, because we know so many of their lines come from backstage. And the three of them aren’t quite talented enough to make these given lines their own and take them in an organic direction.
For those that grew up in the Attitude Era, Cole will forever be a smarmy punk who’s better at getting insulted by The Rock than he is leading an announce team. The measuring stick for wrestling announcers is Jim Ross, who approached his job with the meticulousness and knowledge of a statistician coupled with a genuine excitement and love for the business. He went through the same trials today’s crew does, with McMahon in his ear, but JR’s lines never seemed to come from anywhere but his own mind, and his famous calls will be forever associated with wrestling’s heyday.
In the end, the selfie taken Monday night is an insignificant piece of the total WWE puzzle, but it it’s an unfortunate reminder that McMahon still runs the show, and more often than not, at least in terms of television commentary, he has no idea what’s best for business.