Pro wrestling is art
Scrolling Twitter during a break in the action of the World Series, a video caught my eye that was definitely worth ignoring the baseball game for three minutes to watch. Over on TNT, during AEW Dynamite, wrestlers Chris Jericho and MJF had just broken out into a song and dance.
Jericho and MJF have been engaged in a storyline for a few weeks now in which MJF has been (very sheepishly) making his pitch to join Jericho’s “Inner Circle” faction. That’s a standard wrestling plot but when Jericho invited MJF last week to a steak dinner so they could talk it over, you knew it was going to be something off the wall. Nobody could have expected this, though. It was amazingly silly.
The thing that makes AEW—the year-old promotion funded by the Khan family—unique is its winking approach to wrestling. Jericho’s current gimmick is calling himself the “Demo God,” a reference to AEW’s sustained TV ratings dominance over WWE’s NXT, particularly in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. (MJF, attempting to get on Jericho’s good side, has given himself another Nielsen-inspired nickname: the “Ratings Ruler.”) The company also has a character named Orange Cassidy who totally eschews the hard-hitting realism other companies pursue so tirelessly and instead spends most of his time in the ring giving minimal effort. AEW knows its fans are aware they’re watching a TV show and embraces that rather than insult their intelligence.
The Jericho-MJF segment was an example of AEW’s willingness to take risks. A goofy scene like that isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and AEW seems fine with that. The segment elicited plenty of eye rolls from fans, but it also drew praise from Mick Foley, the legendary hardcore wrestler who made a name for himself being punctured with thumbtacks and thrown to the floor from extreme heights.
It’s also an example of what can happen when wrestling companies give performers the freedom to do what they want. In WWE, TV programming is tightly controlled by a large team of writers, all reporting to Vince McMahon. AEW, for better or worse, lets its top names chart their own courses, though AEW president Tony Khan has to sign off on it.
“I like to write weeks at a time,” Jericho told Sports Illustrated’s Justin Barrasso in September. “I just wrote the next 10 weeks of TV that starts on Sept. 9, right after All Out is done. I write down some ideas, show them to Tony , he approves and off we go. Of course, that always morphs and changes over the course of those 10 weeks. That’s something we didn’t have in WWE. They wanted me to draw a picture, but I didn’t know what it was a picture of. In AEW, we always know what the picture is supposed to look like at the end, and we fill in the details as we go. That’s what good wrestling and good wrestling booking is all about.”
Jericho has been wrestling for 30 years and is clearly enjoying the creative freedom afforded to him in AEW after spending most of his career in WWE. MJF, although only 24 years old, is one of AEW’s most charismatic presences. They both know how to connect with an audience. That’s how you end up with two guys who have musical backgrounds—Jericho is the lead singer of the metal band Fozzy and MJF was in his high school’s a cappella group, the Acafellas—singing a Frank Sinatra–Sammy Davis Jr. song in tuxedos in between wrestling matches.
AEW is currently building toward the Full Gear pay-per-view on Nov. 7, where the Jericho-MJF story will surely be advanced in some way. The payoff won’t be as avant-garde as Wednesday night’s segment, but it’s nice to know they’re capable of thinking outside the box.
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