Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Don't Cut Yourself on the Edge(Lord) of the Knife

Lambert has fire, but does he fit on a "progressive" show?
Screengrab courtesy of Wrestling Inc.

Personally, I've found Dan Lambert of American Top Team an entertaining part of any All Elite Wrestling show he's graced with his presence. I'm not rooting for him, obviously. He's basically taking Jim Cornette's real life criticisms of the show, which amount to an old man yelling at a cloud, and turning them into heel heat. At first, it was unclear which wrestler was going to take the bumps for him, although he took lumps his first appearance from an irate Lance Archer. His second appearance was a fakeout in that he had two UFC fighters, Andrei Arlovski and Junior dos Santos, flanking him but it was The Men of the Year, Ethan Page and Scorpio Sky, who laid in wait to ambush Archer as he predictably went to defend the honor of pro wrestling and his home company. Lambert appears to have taken on a regular role as Sky's and Page's manager, as he appeared in a pre-taped segment with the tag team flanking him.

The reason I like Lambert on the show isn't that I vibe with his material, hardly the case. If I heard those comments in a shoot setting, I would either post a ribald reaction picture in reply to the person making it on social media, or I would ignore them. These arguments are those of desperate dinosaurs whom the business has long passed by, no matter how many salient points they accidentally make in the process. It's more that I love his promo delivery, and I think he deals in the most effective kind of cheap heat. He's a guy who unequivocally inspires the audience to hate him. There are no shades of gray with him. You can't sympathize with him because he was a victim of circumstance like some heels. He's not cool in the least like others. He's detestable, from top to bottom, and he has been served up on every telecast upon which he's appeared as an out of touch loon who is going to get his ass handed to him with grave finality. I can take the jabs that I would think flimsy and tawdry if delivered by someone else with acceptance because I know he's not going to win unlike other heels on the roster.

Still, for as molten hot as Lambert has gotten audiences, the use of Cornette's cudgels, coupled with other transparently right wing jabs has turned people off. To be fair, the old canard complaints about people flipping too much or not "treating the business real enough" aren't the sticking points for most people. It's the use of terms like "snowflake" and "safe space," or the cliched baby boomer-created complaints about "millennials" that I've seen complaints about. For as much as I don't mind Lambert because he is not doing anything but serving him or the Men of the Year up to be lambasted in a big way, the sheer usage of that material is a sore spot for many, and I don't blame them.

The problem with having edgelord shit on your program is that when it's most effective, you might have the most vulnerable and marginalized people recoiling because they're legitimately triggered. Like, triggers are real, no matter how much one might want to make fun of them. The worst edgelord stuff? It comes off as weak and inauthentic, and there's wholesale rejection. Basically, there's a thin line to use that kind of material where you might get a positive consensus, and no matter how much it doesn't bother me, three shows where Lambert cuts pretty much the same promo is past that thin line. You need someone with the conviction, the passion, and the delivery of Lambert, but the half-life is an incomplete promo before someone comes and lays them out. From there, the invective has to move onto to a personal issue. You can't remain on a stream that will alienate people for hearing it, because if you have a wrestler say it enough, even if they're a heel, some members of the audience will start thinking you endorse that POV.

It's the same reason why you can't really run racist or sexist characters over the long term in a wrestling company. People with bigoted points of view tend not to be viewed as worthy of your employment, and it's in this instance where wrestling absolutely is not the same as a movie or other scripted media. Is it a double standard? Probably, but over the course of a movie or television show or play, no members of the cast will direct aspersions at the crowd. Kayfabe even now is such a weirdly natured thing where you want to keep the illusion that the wrestling company operates in reality even if the characters are, at their ideal, are playing a character. Nothing else really compares, which is why you can't have a Klansman as a prolonged character in a company. In this respect? No matter how many right-wing commentators and politicians spew this bullshit rhetoric, it's still not something you want a regular character in your company to espouse on a weekly basis, especially when you're taking up a "progressive" mantel.

In my blunt opinion, anyone who thinks AEW is a "progressive" company is a bigger mark than the kid showing up to their first wrestling show not really knowing if it's fake or not. Is it more progressive than WWE? Absolutely. "More progressive than the company whose chairman stands credibly accused of rape, obstruction of justice, and criminal negligence" is a subterranean bar to clear. You can't be content with being better than the other guys, especially when the other guys have such a checkered history regarding anyone who isn't white, male, or jacked to the fucking gills. You can't call yourself progressive and put Darby Allin in CM Punk's return match just because he swears to you he's been a good widdle boy even as more accusations surrounding him come out. You can't call yourself progressive and not cut bait with Justin Roberts, a piddling ring announcer, someone you can replace more easily than getting heartburn eating marinara sauce straight out of the pot, after it came to light he was sexting with minors. And you can't call yourself progressive when you play the edgelord card as much as AEW does.

Two of the company's most intensely pushed acts are/were Maxwell Jacob Friedman and The Acclaimed. The former is in position to headline All Out this Sunday in a match where Chris Jericho is putting up his in-ring career in AEW. The latter is currently shelved as an act, with Anthony Bowens getting singles matches on the Dark shows and Max Caster out because he pushed his edgelord shtick too hard during one of those Dark tapings, when he made light of the Duke Lacrosse case. I don't blame him too much, to be honest. If the reports are true that he's resisting sensitivity trainings, which are the slappiest slap on the wrist of a punishment I can think of, then yeah, that's on him, but he was goaded to make edgy comments with his pre-match raps by management. They paid him to do it, and the people who produced a pre-taped YouTube show didn't think to take the reference out. That's an institutional failure. MJF regularly skirts the line as well, and they push him hard for it. The only difference between the Maxes is Friedman hasn't crossed a line yet.

But what kind of message is Tony Khan sending by having all these edgelord acts already and then bringing in Lambert to fire off even more touchy rhetoric? What about Cody Rhodes and his wife Brandi? She's too busy on Twitter anymore yelling about how her company doesn't deserve to be criticized even after people tell her the areas they need to improve. I'm not saying AEW is a cesspool. They deserve credit for accommodating the neurodivergent, for signing Nyla Rose and then booking Veny as the second out-of-the-closet trans person to compete in their ring when the other company hasn't booked their first. They deserve credit for putting a title belt on a Black person, Sky, interestingly enough, within the first year of their company's existence when the other company waited nine years to do so.

But diversity is not a zero-sum game, nor is it one where you earn points to compete head-to-head. For everything good AEW has done, there are a lot of reasons you can ping them to do better. I am not going to list them all here, but for as much as Lambert has stoked the inner fan inside of me, I have to admit that maybe, he's not the kind of character AEW should be pushing right now. At least, if he's going to continue to be a character on the show, he should focus his grievances more at Archer than at the fans for being "soft." Being edgy is a dangerous game, and unless you're a skilled standup comedian walking that edge to get laughs for punching up, I'm not sure it's worth the risk, especially if you're a professional wrestling company.