Author's Note: The opinions expressed in this FanPost are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Cageside Seats, its authors, or its community. Also, I am only concentrating on the main shows (Raw and SmackDown). I will discuss Main Event, Superstars, and NXT at another time.
Commentary is something that has been a necessary aspect of sporting events since the inception of radio. It's purpose was to give an event's listeners a play-by-play breakdown of the event, whether it be a baseball game, football game, or boxing match. It remains a pivotal part of sporting events to this day despite the introduction of television in the late 1920s and it's meteoric popularization in the 1950s. The reasons for this continued use of commentary is not only to call the action of an event and also to share relevant anecdotes, but also to allow visually impaired people to enjoy the action of a sporting event.
Perhaps one of the most well-known and necessary applications of commentary is in the realm of professional wrestling. Not only is commentary necessary for calling moves executed by the in-ring performers, but it is also essential in telling the sometimes-convoluted stories surrounding a feud. In addition, commentary is absolutely essential in selling those absolutely insane moments that makes professional wrestling an entertaining attraction. To put it simply, if commentary was not present in professional wresting, then we would merely be watching men and women in their underwear throwing each other around a ring for pretty much no reason whatsoever.
Although being a wrestling commentator is a daunting task, several commentators have cemented their legacies as the absolute best commentators of all time. Names on this distinguished list include Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, Joey Styles, Paul Heyman (despite a short tenure) and Jim Ross. All of these men were not only able to call the match and tell a story, but they were also incredibly entertaining in doing so. Truth be told, we will probably never have commentators of this quality ever again.
That's not to say that we shouldn't have good commentary today, because we as an audience deserve some quality commentary to sell the big feuds that we are supposed to invest our time and energy in. However, the commentary of this era is undeniably horrible. In fact, it can be said that the commentary is the worst that it has ever been. Quality storytelling, selling, and match-calling has been replaced by ridiculously dumb "arguments", completely unfunny and sometimes blatantly offensive jokes, and miscellaneous segments (selfie-taking DURING a match?!?) that have served to completely distract the viewing audience from a match. Also, if you were a blind person that wanted to experience wrestling, then you would be completely screwed due to the incompetency of the commentary team to actually call the matches, which is their primary job in the first place.
Now with the scene set, let's discuss our commentary team:
Michael Cole, the so-called "Voice of WWE" is supposedly our play-by-play commentator. However, he is more often involved in complete idiocy in lieu of actually calling the matches. Also, save for a few occasions (Mick Foley's WWF Title win, CM Punk's WWE Title win at Money in the Bank 2011, CM Punk piledriving John Cena, and a couple others), Cole is completely inadequate at selling the intensity of a feud...or anything for that matter. And don't even get me started on his heel work, which was definitely one of the worst heel runs in wrestling history. If anything, I will praise Cole on his handling of Jerry Lawler's on-air heart attack in September 2012, where he showed legitimate emotion and was genuine in his statements.
Jerry Lawler is one of two color commentators, and has held that role for about 20 years. During his early commentary days in WWF, he was great as an asshole heel commentator. He was also an excellent color commentator in his time with Jim Ross (which is one of the all-time great commentary teams). However, it is clear that Lawler has passed his sell-by date years ago. His jokes are completely awful, and he generally sounds uninterested in whatever is going on. At times, he also delves into the realm of being a completely offensive asshole. And finally, he is used as WWE's resident burying person, as demonstrated when he failed miserably to shill "Fandangoing."
John "Bradshaw" Layfield (JBL)
JBL is the newest regular addition to the commentary team, joining right after Jerry Lawler's heart attack in 2012. However, he has had commentary experience prior to 2012 when he provided commentary on SmackDown. Although he was bearable (and actually funny) at the beginning of his most recent tenure, he has become incredibly unbearable VERY quickly. The problem is that he is often the instigator of the idiocy that regularly occurs at the commentary table. In addition, his regular yelling of random things is enough to make you want to destroy your hearing. He rarely calls the match aside from the occasional "WOW!", so he's incredibly useless there as well. In all honesty, I cannot think of a single redeeming factor for JBL at this time, so that certainly does not bode well for him.
Vince McMahon (via headset)
There is still a "fourth member" of the commentary team that we do not get to hear on a regular basis, and that member is none other than Vince McMahon. Vince, and probably some other members of the production team, are responsible for feeding the commentary team lines to say using those headsets. Do these improvised lines and commentary points often go according to plan? The answer is a resounding "NO!" Most of the time, these fed lines serve to drive the commentary deeper and deeper into hell. It is said that Vince often screams at the commentary team through those headsets for not calling the show "his way", which almost always leads to the commentary team grossly overcompensating for their own inadequacy with horrible results.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that is your primary commentary team, so now we can try to figure out exactly what the problems are, and there are quite a few of those. Most (but certainly not all) of the blame can be focused on the commentary team itself, which I discussed above. I completely understand that they have to work with what they're given, but does it really need to be this bad? Do Michael Cole, JBL, and Jerry Lawler really have to come off as complete morons on television to make a good show?
The answer to both questions is, of course, no, and this is how we'll examine and place the rest of the blame for the low quality of commentary. First, however, let's go back to the year 2000,when Jerry Lawler was paired with Jim Ross, and Michael Cole was paired with Jerry Lawler and then later Tazz. During this period in the WWF, the commentary was great because the commentary teams did their jobs: ACTUALLY CALLING THE MATCHES. In addition, the commentators of this period, especially Jim Ross, were exceptional in selling the action.
So, what has caused the devolution of commentary from 2000 to today? The answer is, of course, Vince McMahon. He is notorious for wanting complete complete control of the product, and will do pretty much anything to ensure that he remains in control. To accomplish this, he uses the aforementioned method of making the commentary spit out lines that are written in a quick and hasty manner, which completely goes against the laissez-faire aspect of the previous eras of WWF/WWE, which resulted in a consistently great product overall. The primary result of these ad hoc lines, as mentioned, is horrible commentary in this era of WWE, which is the reason that I am writing this article.
Now that we know the basis of the problem, let's try to fix it.
The first thing that must be done to restore the commentary to its old glory is to bring back the laissez-faire ideology that was prevalent in WWE during the Attitude Era and before. By returning to this mindset of minimal interference, the commentary team would be able to actually call the action and discuss the relevant storylines without needing to incorporate completely random and irrelevant lines into the commentary which lead to tangents, ruining the experience for those who rely on commentary to enjoy the show, and everyone else in general.
Another way to fix the problem (which directly connects to the last idea) is to not only reduce the number of commentators down to two, but also to replace the commentary team altogether. By bringing in two new commentators for the main show, then we could restore some of the order and goodness of the commentary that was present years ago. Who do I have in mind for a replacement team? Frankly, I don't know. One obvious candidate is William Regal, who has proven himself as an incredible asset on commentary due to his overall knowledge of wrestling and quick wit. The other commentator, for me at least, is still up in the air. However, this will all be for nothing if Vince McMahon is still the main voice of the shows, so removing him will be the first step to fixing WWE's broken commentary.
Keep in mind that I only covered a few problems and solutions in regards to WWE's commentary. There are definitely more problems and solutions that I have not touched on. However, no matter how you look at it, it will take a hell of a lot of work to fix the bad commentary that has plagued us for over four years.
I hope that you enjoyed this article and that it made you think, which is the purpose of these "The State of..." articles. I think that I will make this a weekly series because there are so many parts of WWE to examine and discuss. Next week, I will discuss the state of WWE's audio and visual presentation, so tune in for that!