Michael Cole’s character – the heel announcer— seems to be the talk these days.
What began as an annoyance, then emerged as an actually deserving WrestleMania match with the Jerry Lawler feud, had seemingly ran its course months ago, but now persists through the return of Jim Ross to the microphone.
Like much of professional wrestling, it’s not a new concept, but like much of professional wrestling today, the concept isn’t exactly entertaining, clever or meaningful.
I’ll not pretend to know the history of every heel announcer ever known to wrestling fans, but let’s hit the obvious ones and think about the approach.
Most would go back to Roddy Piper teaming with the late, great Gordon Solie in terms of having an impact as a heel announcer. I believe there were others at the time, including Don Muraco, but Piper was around in the early 1980’s.
On the national scene, it was most likely Jesse Ventura – before he went over into kooksville – that started a trend of making heels hip and making wisecracks second nature to pro wrestling announcing. Playing off the otherwise overbearing but bland and often out of step Vince McMahon (yeah, those of us old enough knew VKM as an announcer first, owner second) and of course as a definite counter-point to Bruno Sammartino, Ventura was entertaining.
The way he rooted for the ‘bad guys’ was different, but there was typically a logic to his madness. He cheered less than subtly, but not like a real homer, for the heels, and it was amusing to realize that he could point out the hypocrisy of babyfaces cheating to win, or using heel tactics to overcome an opponent, or otherwise be dejected if his favorite was to fall.
Ventura always had that ego and always seemed to be more about putting himself over in the end, that sense of ‘look at me, I root for the bad guys because I’m a bad guy’ approach. Eventually, his role stalled when he went to WCW and seemed out of synch with the different roster, let alone the different styles.
Plus in WCW, the Southern Style Heel didn’t exactly need Jesse Ventura around, if you get my allusion.
There’s a tangent I’m mostly ignoring with the Memphis era stuff, and the ongoing Jerry Lawler and company styles, with the heel managers and their incessant talking up of their guys. And of course a heel manager chiming in on matches isn’t exactly unknown almost anywhere.
I think Bobby Heenan truly made the heel commentator work, and of course he was the heel manager first, and I believe because of that he was far more about getting guys over as well as a pure entertainment in and of himself.
The difference between Ventura and Heenan was that Jesse played off his counterparts, with a nod to the heels in the ring, where Heenan took the entertainment value up a few notches by being entertaining. Ventura became somewhat boring after a while, but Heenan was always able to crack jokes, be boisterous or otherwise change up his game.
Sure, he could be the center of attention, but so much of the ‘it’s all about me’ was overplayed to the point where his self-deprecating nature rarely became annoying.
Around the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, those two figures were still around, but some other guys came around. Scotty Flamingo and the “Uncle Gorilla” act was always awesome, just because the man who became Raven was super-annoying and far ‘smarter’ and far more of a smart-ass than wrestling fans were used to, and he sort of ushered in that new approach.
Flamingo wasn’t exactly mainstream, but he launched a career with his smug delivery and attitude and, well, his attitude was ahead of the WWF’s eventual Attitude era.
Around the same time, Larry Zbyszko began to pop up as an interesting alternative. He wasn’t quite as annoying, although many would dispute that, and he wasn’t so egotistical after all, although many would dispute that as well. I’ve always felt that Larry knew the psychology of pro wrestling like few others, and while he had a decided indifference to the entertainment factors, he always remained a personality.
But with Larry, his biggest fame came into being when he was less the heel, and more a very weird double-reverse heel that became baby-face when he took on the NWO. (what is it with that spell-checker?)
But before that, we roll into Eric Bischoff.
Bischoff was the higher profile heel ‘owner’ type before Vince dominated that role, and few guys exuded the arrogance and elitism of my buddy Eric. Even Vince has to work at it on-screen. Not Bischoff. He was annoying as hell before he turned heel, almost go-away heat, and was destined to morph into being the spokesman of the bad guys or blow up and go away, and anyone who thinks his heelness will turn him babyface, ever, is woefully uncomprehending of the business.
(Insert ongoing Vince Russo joke here).
But strangely enough, Bischoff was one of the archetypes of the heel announcer. While his arrogance, brashness, overwhelmingly supportive commentary and sheer power did put the focus on his ego, he was running the ship which contained a direction that he molded as he spoke.
There are of course a hundred million dollars of detraction for the success of that approach, but at some point the concept work.
At some point, however, history proves that the shelf life of the heel announcer simply must be observed.
The emergence of the influences of ECW… the Philly Original … did have some heel announcers in a sense. Tazz was this sort of bad-ass heel that revealed that he could talk. He was more of the subtle type, just enough of the bloodthirsty and the critical to keep an edge to his character and commentary. A lot less egotistical that Ventura, and yet more involved than Zbyszko would ever seem.
ECW also spawned that creature known as Joel Gertner, who’s vulgar limericks and over-the-top grossness (appearance, language) set a standard that unfortunately rarely gets mimicked. Then again, I can’t believe I said that.
If anyone ever does go that direction, and I’m sure someone will castigate me for overlooking XPW, but hey, I’m overlooking them and admitting it, then even a badly aging Gertner should be trotted back out for the sheer Rated-R entertainment of his schtick.
The WWE didn’t exactly tear up the world with heel announcers, and of course having the ultimate heel owner precluded a lot of that. But Jonathan Coachman had his run, forgettable despite how annoying he could be.
On the indy scene, the true master is Dave Prazak, who has shifted from over-the-top heel – because he was a heel manager, in Full Impact Pro, to various degrees in both Ring of Honor and yet he’s pretty close to the vest in SHIMMER, which is in itself weird.
By the way, the Lenny Leonard/Dave Prazak team is sorely missed in ROH.
Indy promotions and heel announcers run the gamut.
In many places ,they become run-of-the-mill, sort of like Michael Cole on his average day, where you just wish he’d shut up and stop distracting – the worst thing an announce can do.
CHIKARA has some interesting approaches, with bringing in heels to do commentary. The first time I heard CHIKARA, and not knowing the wrestlers, I was completely taken aback, with some of the crazed talk of Ultramantis Black and others.
But once the characters are known, it’s an approach that works.
Long term, however, CHIKARA is more about personalities and characters than getting over any one particular match, which allows them more leeway.
One recent example of a great heel is Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Aaron Bauer, who was/is a heel manager, but overshadowed by another heel manager. Bauer has a pretty good understanding of the role, more Heenan/Zbyszko, less Ventura and pretty much alien to the Bischoff approach.
But the underlying subtleties of being a sycophant and falling over himself to get on the bandwagon of the heels really made him stand out.
It brings me back to Michael Cole:
What is his role?
He’s pretty much a voice of Vince McMahon, pretty much there to be annoying, pretty much there to allow Vince to rip on people he wants to bury, embarrass or point out flaws.
Cole doesn’t add much to the entertainment value, and his shelf life was great leading up to WrestleMania, but every week now he’s just a distraction.
He’s already battled Lawler and Ross, and they’re back together in a three man booth that will only be awkward, even more distracting and even more unworkable as time goes on.
Perhaps Cole on Smackdown, if he mellows out but begrudges Jim Ross taking his slot, could be an interesting twist. Perhaps Cole, given that completely alien manager role, could be given new direction and he’s capable of talking guys up and drawing heat – even if that Jack Swagger thing was made nonsensical in a hearbeat.
But the point is what is the point of Michael Cole? Is he entertaining? Is he enhancing the heels on the show? Is he pointing out hypocrisy and making sort of a psychological appeal to disaffected fans? Or is he, in the least, showing an innate talent that needs to be revealed to the world?
Unfortunately, he’s Vince’s mouthpiece, and because of that, he’s unlikely to go away, especially since Vince has gone away and desperately needs that connection to what’s relevant.