After weeks of build-up, the series of bizarre inexplicable promos airing on Monday Night Raw were finally paid off with the return of Chris Jericho. As quite possibly my favorite wrestler of all time, whatever Jericho did, I was pretty much guaranteed to be delighted, but his appearance on Raw was even better than I had hoped, as he made steps to becoming a fascinating, brilliant and largely new kind of wrestling villain in an absolutely stunning blast of genius post-modern meta-wrestling.
For those who missed it (shame on you), the best segment from Raw this week began with the final wackadoo school kid promo, promising the coming of a familiar force, a type of rebirth, someone reclaiming what is his, and other generic return-type language coupled with creepy, ominous imagery. Then, things got interesting, as Jericho entered the arena, not in the angry, monotone, Anton Chigurh mode we last saw him in, but in his glitzy, glammed out rock star gimmick, soliciting applause and basking in the crowd’s ebullient adulation (it’s a Jericho article – I’m legally obliged to bust out the vocab). But don’t just take my word for it, watch it now, through the magic of the Internet:[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmhS3YhER9w” showinfo=”0″]
As fans, we were so excited to have Jericho back that we went along with the seeming incongruousness between the promo videos and the wrestler’s actual return. In fact, despite my better judgment, knowing that Jericho always works best as a heel, I was still beside myself with excitement about him returning as a fan-favorite. But then, from a wrestling point of view, things got really nuts: after a legit ten minutes of charging around the ring, banging on the announce table, high-fiving fans and soliciting cheers from the audience, all the while screaming “COME ON, YEAH!”, “EVERYBODY!”, “OH YEAH, BABY!” and my personal favorite, “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!” Jericho, instead of delivering the triumphant return promo absolutely everyone watching wanted, left. He just left.
I’m not alone in being impressed by Jericho’s new gimmick. As soon as it became clear that Jericho was playing the bad guy by bating the audience and punishing them for being so excited for his return, Twitter immediately started to light up with people praising the apparent heel turn. But still, some poor misguided souls were confused, frustrated and even angered by Jericho’s non-promo, all the while failing to realize that was exactly the reaction that Jericho wanted from them. Jericho wanted you to cheer for him, but most importantly, he wanted you to be angry about it afterward.
Jericho’s January 2, 2012 return.
A quote that has stuck in my head ever since first reading it on the back of an Eros Comix collection of Black Kiss (by one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Howard Chaykin), comes from Sam Hamm, the screenwriter of the Tim Burton Batman film. Hamm refers to Chaykin as “a perennial Bad Boy who, like all good gladiators, seeks only to give the people what they want.”
I think about the quote often in the context of wrestling, because what are professional wrestlers if not gladiators? They habitually put their bodies and health on the line in order to get a reaction out of the crowd and give them what they want to see, whether it’s a triumphant hero or a vanquished villain. But when Chris Jericho made an amazingly well received return and subsequently left without cutting any kind of real promo, he committed one of wrestling’s most unforgivable sins: he refused to give the people what they wanted.
Jericho’s return was going to be a hard thing for the wrestler to navigate, largely because of how much people were aching for it. Not only were expectations absurdly high, but outside of simultaneously kicking a puppy and urinating on the grave of Lou Thesz, there was no real way for Jericho to come out as a heel, due to fans’ desire to see him as well as the increasing difficulty wrestlers have in garnering and maintaining heel heat as they transition into the “elder statesman” part of their career (See: Edge). Sure, Y2J could have just come out as a straight-up face and beat up Jinder Mahal or whatever other no-consequence midcard heel was hanging around backstage, but where do you go from there? That kind of easy pop yields drastically diminishing returns, as evidenced by when Jericho returned as a face back in 2007.
Jericho as a face back in 2007
No, Jericho needed to be a heel, not just because Raw is sorely lacking a top-tier villain, but because that’s how he’s best utilized. When it comes to retaining his heat even in the face of countless losses, keeping people booing him even while they’re dying to hear him speak, Jericho is, in the words of the bard, the absolute swinging dick. And with his 1/2/12 non-promo, he proved it once again.
Using no real dialogue, Jericho got an entire audience to continually cheer him for 10 straight thrilling minutes, earning himself one of the biggest and without a doubt longest pops of the night. Then, in an even more impressive feat, still without delivering any kind of message, Jericho turned those cheers into boos, as the audience realized that their returning hero was going to leave without even so much as a single “Raw is Jericho” or joking “parasite” reference. This isn’t like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show where they don’t play “Free Bird” – it’s like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show where the band nails the noodling slow open but cuts the amps before the bitching guitar solo kicks in. In other words, it’s completely, utterly reprehensible and despicable.
What made Jericho’s return non-promo such a smart piece of work is that it managed to get absolutely everyone against him. No matter what Jericho did, there were going to be some people (OK, me and people like me), who were going to cheer for him just because we’re so glad to have him back. By first getting everyone on his side and then ignoring their wishes, Jericho managed to alienate even the smarkiest of internet commentators, because even while we respect and admire what he’s done, truth be told, we still would have really liked to hear that guy speak, even if it was just to insult us.
Lots of pointing, not so much talking.
Jericho’s bizarre, promo-less face-to-heel return makes a lot of sense when you take it in the context of both his last run as a villain, which constituted the best work of his career, as well as more recent comments he has made both in interviews and on Twitter. A couple years ago, with the help of a three-piece suit and a cadence and approach obviously inspired by the villain of No Country for Old Men, Jericho became one of WWE’s top, most reliable heels, and one of its most watchable stars of any alignment. Since then, however, what started as a fascinating, unique counterpoint to the types of cackling villains frequently seen in WWE has become just another cliché.
Jericho harnessed the natural hatred that WWE’s audience has for guys in suits using big words, and numerous wrestlers, most notably the Miz and Cody Rhodes, have drawn from that well since. Having discussed this fact in the past, Jericho has claimed that if/when he returned to WWE it would be with something new, and as you might expect from one of the best, most intellectual wrestling minds currently working, he made good on the promise.
While shades of what Jericho is doing have been seen before (such as wrestlers failing to realize that they’re letting fans down), in the past, wrestlers would generally take the easy way out, grabbing the microphone and whipping up some cheap heat or maybe even attacking a fan-favorite midcarder before disappearing into the back. Jericho didn’t go that route though, and instead fully embraced a new, completely untested gimmick. What if he came out to crickets? It had been years since a WWE audience saw Jericho as a face, and months since they had seen him at all – what if the audience didn’t particularly want to cheer when he pointed at their section? As an artist and performer at the peak of his powers, these weren’t concerns of Jericho’s and as a result, he was completely fearless.
Jericho on his knees in 2009.
The fearlessness of Jericho’s wrestling performances is nothing new, however, with numerous examples cropping up in his last WWE run alone. Jericho screamed like a bitch when he lost, he got down on his knees and apologized to the WWE fans when commanded to and as World Heavyweight Champion he let midcarder Goldust and even utter newbie Daniel Bryan push him to the limit in competitive matches. Most impressively, however, when he was last seen in WWE he was getting punted in the head and subsequently carried out on a stretcher, not on a big pay-per-view befitting one of the most talented wrestlers of the current age, mind you, but on a regular old episode of Monday Night Raw. These are things that most top-level wrestlers wouldn’t be caught dead doing, because of the reasonable concern that it would absolutely kill their heat. Jericho is in full control of his craft, however, and needs little more than a few stolen moments to build his character back up to one of the best in the business.
Jericho’s great – I simply can’t say it enough. He could have returned doing the exact same gimmick, or even a winking face version of it, and he still would have been absolutely brilliant. What elevates this performance to the next level, however, is his willingness to continue evolving at 41 years of age and after over 20 years in the business. If Jericho and WWE stay the course, with Jericho coming out weekly and refusing to give fans what they want – getting more outrageous and lavish every time out – fans won’t just be frustrated, they’ll be furious. The most interesting thing of all, however, is the reason why: they’re being pandered to.
Along with “parasites” and “sycophants,” one of Jericho’s favorite go-to SAT words during his last heel run was “pandering.” He accused other wrestlers of pandering to the audience and trying to entertain them all the while refusing to do the same himself, knowing that what people wanted more than anything was the return of the happy, excited Y2J, and that by simultaneously reminding and denying them, he’d be sure to stay a heel. Now, in an indictment of wrestling clichés, Jericho has returned as the most pandering panderer of them all, spending a full 10 minutes doing nothing more than begging for applause and prancing around in an absolutely ridiculous sequined, light-up jacket and tight leather pants. Jericho is doing exactly what his previous character claimed we wanted, and in doing so, he’s proven himself right, after all, we did go absolutely apeshit bananas when he came back and told us to. In fact, I’m grinning right now just thinking about Jericho grabbing the camera the better to scream into it.
Jericho with the camera on January 2, 2012.
Starting with a series of promos that while heavily symbolic are (thus far at least) completely meaningless, Jericho has set about satirizing what it is to be a professional wrestler in a day and age when seemingly everyone is in on the gag. When he took to the arena, he didn’t just smile at the audience cheering him, he actively engaged them and begged for more. And he didn’t do it silently either, shouting out phrases that while they consisted of actual words, were, like the return videos, completely devoid of actual meaning. He wants your cheers and support and adulation, but he refuses to give you anything in return – it’s like that despicable girl in high school you obsessed over because she simultaneously encouraged and punished you for it. In a day and age when everyone knows that Alberto Del Rio is just a guy acting like an arrogant Mexican aristocrat, Jericho has uncovered a way to piss off even the most jaded dirt sheet-reading fans.
This is smart wrestling that we’re witnessing, as performed by a guy who understands not only the art form, but also people’s relationship to it and what his individual strengths within it are. Jericho’s new heel gimmick isn’t just wonderfully effective (which it is of course), it’s also a richer, fuller expression of the wrestling genre in that it simultaneously comments and builds upon what came before. This is post-modern meta-wrestling of the highest order. When people talk about how wrestling doesn’t have to be lowest common denominator entertainment, this is what they’re clamoring for. And if you still think that it was boring, irritating, inconsiderate, stupid, or even, godforbid gay, then you’re only proving my point: Jericho is a genius heel.
What did you think about Chris Jericho’s return promo? Was it as smart as I think it is, or am I giving Y2J too much credit for 10 minutes of shouting and pointing at the audience? Tell me in the comments below!