5 Lessons I Learned As A Pro Wrestling Announcer
Like many Cracked writers and readers, I grew up a large fan of comedy and professional wrestling. This will age me profusely, but one of my comedy/wrestling idols growing up was pro wrestling manager turned commentator Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. Heenan just had a quick wit and got me invested in the matches as he praised the heels and made fun of the babyfaces. He's one of the reasons I pursued comedy and wrestling in general.
While I did some mild pro wrestling training early in my youth, my physical limitations had me stop training after a handful of months. I dropped my pursuit in the theatrical combative arts and moved towards comedy. I would still love wrestling, but just as a fan. However, there was an itch to be a "broadcast journalist" for pro wrestling like my idol "The Brain."
A couple of years ago, my friend hit me up to sub-in as a play-by-play commentator for Brian Kendrick's comedy wrestling promotion, Wrestling Pro Wrestling.
WPW is a promotion that does offer good in-ring action but mostly focuses on the goofier aspects of pro wrestling with weird costumed gimmicks and monsters. I'm mean stuff like "The Cultured Boy" Ricotta Flair, Cereal Man, and King Giraffeadorah (He's Godzilla's three-headed King Ghidorah as a giraffe; get it?) among many other talents/characters.
After that day, I was brought in on occasion as a ring announcer then back to the commentary booth as a substitute whenever the regulars were unavailable. Over time, I was offered the role outright. I became established as their lead commentator, learning the job on the spot and getting immediate feedback from the fans.
I say "immediate feedback" because Wrestling Pro Wrestling has their commentary heard by the live crowd over the loudspeakers of the venue, which isn't typically common. Every move called, quip uttered, and story beat explained was heard by the live audience in real-time, similar to a pay-per-view at home but with a live audience (and match participants) that could talk back to my commentary partner and me at any moment.
As an insufferable Internet wrestling nerd, I knew a lot about the ins and outs of The Business™, or at least I thought I did. So if you want a better understanding of wrestling, I'd love to share with you what I have learned. However, keep in mind that this is an opinion piece. Other folks who have done this longer have had different experiences than me or learned different lessons that could contradict me. Hell, there are several who may not be able to look at wrestling through a rosy lens like I can.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here's what I picked up over the past few years of calling out insane moves that have pun names into a microphone as they are performed by grown people in their underwear and/or foam rubber suits ...
Pro Wrestling Is A Team Sport
I cannot speak for World Wrestling Entertainment, All Elite Wrestling, or any other major wrestling promotion, but everyone does more than their part to make the show work in the independent wrestling scene. Young, old, new, veteran, everyone chips in to help put together the ring, decorate, take tickets, help with production, sell merch, and do any other job that needs doing for the show.
While it isn't expected of them, even some of the main attractions/talent that are famous or paid their dues a long time ago throw in a helping hand. Our promotion's champion and I gather up chairs to set up for the audience or for production to sit in. My boss, the aforementioned Brian Kendrick, a former WWE tag team champion and cruiserweight champion, gets on a step-ladder to set up the entrance arch for the wrestlers. Hell, David Arquette still has Scream money and is in his 50s, yet he still helps carry in wooden slats to help construct the ring. He also does a great Bob Ross impression:
While most know that wrestlers are working together to make mat magic happen in the ring, there are many more people involved. For a single, successfully recorded wrestling match to happen, it requires the following:
– The ring and entranceway getting set up correctly and safely.
– The sound engineer monitoring music cues and leveling the microphones
-- Camera operators being at the right place at the right time so they don't miss any action or important close-up details.
– A referee properly coordinating the match without becoming the focus of it.
-- Wrestlers executing their match and performing it well.
– Commentator(s) interpreting all of the action correctly and highlighting the main story points of the bout.
– The editor putting it all together to make sense for the video release or the director coordinating everything in real-time for the masses watching a live stream.
That's not to say that there are no dark underbellies, backstabbings, and selfishness in wrestling. Dark Side of the Ring makes that perfectly clear.
There's also a lot of work to be done in wrestling to showcase more LGBTQIA+, POC, and women talent throughout the industry. However, from my experience as a commentator and even just as a modern fan, the current indie wrestling scene is doing its best to scrub out the bad and boost the good, realizing that a high tide raises all ships.
Personal issues or grudges aside, it's generally accepted that if everyone makes everyone look their best, more opportunities will present themselves to all who are involved. People who are just generally assholes aren't worth working with, and performers who compromise their coworkers' safety are typically blackballed altogether. While "protecting your spot" is necessary in this industry, long-term success is focused on "help yourself" rather than "hurt the other."
Commentators: You Are The Seasoning, Not The Meal
Make no mistake: Commentators are NOT a requirement in pro wrestling. If you only speak English and are a fan of Mexican Lucha libre, Japanese puroresu, or any other non-English grapple content, you realize that you can mostly enjoy the action without really needing commentary in your native tongue. If you've ever attended a live wrestling event in the U.S., you've also experienced a show without commentary and followed the action easily. Lastly, no wrestling fan has paid for a live show ticket, bought a DVD/Blu-Ray, or ordered a pay-per-view for the commentary alone.
Play-by-play commentators and color commentators in pro wrestling are equal parts Greek chorus and sportscasting team. They not only identify the moves and why they're effective in the match but also provide backstory to the action and other details to help the audience get even more invested in what they are seeing.
While commentators have never been, nor should they be, the main dish of the show, they add spice, sweetness, heat, and whatever other cooking terms to the experience. Good seasoning enhances a dish's flavor, i.e., getting the fans more engaged in the talent and the in-ring stories, while bad seasoning can ruin the meal entirely. Just like no one wants their meal to taste like a salt lick, no fan wants their announcer to overshadow things.
While no one pays for wrestling commentary, good commentary can help get repeat customers. McDonald's fries are good, but they are undeniable when they have the right amount of salt on them. Or, in Jim Ross' case, sauce.
My Improv Classes Paid Off
Like many comedians, actors forced by their management, and lonely people that hate money in Los Angeles, I took improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. While many justifiably poke fun at the goofier aspects of improv training and shows (including me), it personally prepared me for a lot of non-comedy/theater stuff. There is a lot in common between pro wrestling commentary and improv aside from both art forms being predominantly white, straight, cis, and male.
Just like in an improv scene, you learn when to pick your spots and "build a scene" during a match. Improv training helped me to know how to think on my feet to cover up a botch, toss in a joke when appropriate, make offers to my commentating partner to make them look good, and set up the match's premise. Learning how to "rest the game," as improvisers call it, built an instinct to know when to shut up and let the match breathe, build tension, or allow the crowd to recover from the tension's release.
The benefits aren't just limited to commentators. While some matches can be scripted down to the move, there are also several wrestlers who are improvisers themselves, "calling it in the ring" and listening to the crowd to dictate what to do next in their match while still hitting the main scripted story beats.
What I thought was an overpriced avenue to break into comedy writing and acting was actually preparation for me to be tossed into the deep end of this wrestling gig. You also become more flexible with life as a whole when you learn to "yes and" situations. Just don't use the money you budgeted for actual therapy, actual friends, and an actual education for improv classes like so many broken-hearted next-Amy-Poehlers I've seen come and go.
Related: So You Want to Take an Improv Class?
Your Criticism Will Soften (And It Should)
Before I got into wrestling commentary, I wasn't a total d-bag fan, but I could be kind of a dick. If there was a wrestler I didn't like, a match I didn't care for, a show that I thought sucked, etc. I would tweet those thoughts out and tweet them out harshly. I was still empathetic and not as highly critical as others, but man, I didn't fully appreciate all the steps it took for even an awful wrestling match to get produced. When you are a fan-turned-performer, you find that your complaints have a softer edge, and your appreciation for everyone in wrestling increases exponentially.
While there have been plenty of behind-the-scenes documentaries and reality shows that reveal what wrestlers put their bodies through, it still feels like "just TV" until you firsthand see the actual bruises, cuts, and injuries after the show ends. It's a real wake-up call when your coworker greets you with a hug at the start of the event and then greets you with a stumble and slurred speech afterward because they got their bell rung from a bad bump.
Even if you remove the physical tolls of wrestling out of the equation, have you ever had a bad day? So have they. Just like you, these folks show up to work even though they have an upset stomach, are fighting depression, got fired from their other job, are going through a break-up, had their car broken into, etc. Because I engaged with these people regularly outside of their wrestling personas, I naturally felt more empathy for them. Knowing that while they're fighting out of a figure-four leg lock during the match, they're also fighting to keep their child custody rights against a spiteful ex makes you cut them some slack.
I'm not saying this as a finger-wagging lecture to hyper-critical or hypocritical fans. They don't know this stuff, and how/why would they? But this gives additional perspective to when a match is wonky, a person takes a creative risk that doesn't pay off, or other puzzling in-ring moments. Also, and this is something most fans know, sometimes a spot, promo, or other parts of the show was someone else's idea that didn't pay off, and it may not be the fault of the performers involved.
Regarding criticism as a commentator, I am allowed to have my own opinions that I can share after the show if I wish. During the show? My opinions aren't my job. My job and my goal are to help incite excitement, assist the storytelling, and get the audience invested in the matches.
It's not being a pure Jake-the-Snake-oil salesman, though. Fans aren't stupid and can detect a commentator's phoniness easily. However, if I just call a match as "Meh, it's okay. 2 ½ stars," then that's the highest peak of enjoyment expected out of the fans. If the hired voices of the company downplay the action they're seeing, then why should the audience care either? Even if a match is objectionably bad, that's for the crowd to decide and deride, not the person who is trusted to help make the people on the show look their best.
I should mention that I was never instructed by anyone about this. My newly softened, nuanced criticism just came naturally after being exposed to everything and everyone involved, rather than just given the broadest views from an outside perspective. Plus, I screw up, too. Nobody's perfect.
Yeah, not even him.
You Will Become A Bigger Fan Than Ever Before
A diehard wrestling fan who gets a role on a wrestling show is like a movie buff finally getting a production assistant gig on a set. Teen movie nerds typically turn into critical college film students who then turn into even more appreciative film fans after being a part of a movie's production crew. It comes with realizing how much of a mini-miracle it is that anything gets made because of all the working parts needed to pull it off -- the rise and fall of budgets, egos, and that everything could fail at any time due to one error or omission.
You may not like You, Me, & Dupree, but since you've been around a movie set a few times, you know that the majority of potential movies, good and bad alike, fail to make it past pre-production or could get dropped midway through production. With that in mind, you can appreciate what everyone involved was trying to do and that the movie survived the odds of getting through the production gauntlet so it can be shown in theaters.
This is the same epiphany with fans-turned-performers in wrestling. Your appreciation of five-star classic matches goes through the roof because you know about all of the ways it could have failed and are further impressed that everyone involved not only pulled it all off but did it flawlessly. You have an appreciation for every match on the card, even the undercard ones that don't look appealing on paper or have stipulations/specialties that aren't your taste because you better understand their role in the overall show.
You may still laugh when a botch or a goof happens in wrestling, much like when a Starbucks cup is mistakenly left in an epic fantasy, but you end up finding yourself playfully ribbing wrestlers rather than chanting "YOU EFFED UP!" before moving on and rooting for them to succeed in their next spot.
When you watch movies with people who have directed/shot/edited/etc. on a film, they pick up on the sound cues, framing, blocking, the lighting of a scene, color schemes, and other stuff that helps strengthen the movie but is overlooked by the typical moviegoer (usually by design). When you watch wrestling with someone involved in it, they'll notice the small things a referee does, a good call a commentator makes to cover up a mistake, a wrestler potentially saving the career (sometimes life) of their coworker if a dive is miscalculated, and other such nuances. It can be equal parts fascinating and insufferable in equal measure.
You appreciate everything, botches and all, consuming wrestling with a different palate and itching to be a part of it again and again. I hope as I continue doing and growing into this position that I learn more and more.
See you next show.
Top image: Hugo Fernandes