Two nights ago, AEW Dynamite opened with an hour of television wrestling as good as any in recent memory. With that in mind, I suppose I could see how one could be thrown off by Chris Jericho and Maxwell Jacob Friedman following that with a fully choreographed performance of “Me and My Shadow” during a segment named Le Dinner Debonair. Before we continue, I insist you watch it one more time.
I guess I should preface this by telling you I’m largely a “no-fun” type when it comes to pro wrestling. I was a pig in shit watching the G1 Climax, N1 and Champion Carnival this past month, and I often dread instances where wrestlers are made to do things other than wrestle. There’s a very good reason for this: wrestlers aren’t funny.
There are exceptions, sure, but they’re few and far between. In American wrestling especially, we’re reminded of this all too often. Men and women whose primary training is in dropping one another on their heads are miscast as sketch performers, their material all funneled through the vision of a 75-year-old billionaire in Connecticut who’s been completely detached from the outside world for at least three decades. And that completely demented idea of what constitutes comedy has existed long enough that we’re now watching a generation of wrestlers who were largely raised on it.
That’s not meant to be an insult. I love pro wrestling, and I’m always grateful for the relief these people provide me – as professional wrestlers. I wouldn’t fault Emo Phillips for not being able to take a flat back bump. I certainly wouldn’t view PJ Black or Flip Gordon as epidemiologists (hell, I’d prefer to not view them at all).
That’s why I think Le Dinner Debonair is a small triumph. It achieved the peak accolade I could bestow on a pro wrestling comedy bit: it was kind of funny. And so, it’s unfortunate that I’m about to do the least funny thing imaginable and explain why.
One criticism I’ve often seen levied at this vignette is that it’s world-breaking. This is fair, and I think that’s always worth examining. In any mode of fiction, rules are established, and when they’re broken, we’re betrayed and/or insulted. When we’re insulted, making us laugh becomes a much taller task. But I don’t think this is breaking any rules, and it might be worth considering why you’d think it does.
For starters, where did an orchestral arrangement and backup dancers come from? Isn’t this a live look at two men eating dinner in a restaurant?
The question really is, why would you ever think that’s what this is? That’s clearly not a restaurant and that’s definitely not a waitress. And this is all before you consider how easily we accept an invisible camera filming the entire ordeal. We accept premises like this from wrestling and no other medium because American pro wrestling’s beat this sort of shit into us. AEW plays directly into that notion when the show cuts away an hour of closely emulating competitive sport for a segment titled Le Dinner Debonair. When they expect us to acknowledge those things without explicitly explaining them to us, they’re just respecting the viewer in a way we’re likely not used to.
And that’s why the bit works as a storyline piece.
Jericho and MJF built up what was promoted to be a tense meeting between two headstrong parties under ridiculous circumstances that only fans of pro wrestling would possibly accept. But they were in cahoots all along. They’ve lampooned the format entirely. They’ve turned in an edited and choreographed song and dance. Of course, they did – they’re total assholes, and nothing’s been more consistent about either since AEW’s inception. That’s also why the argument that pro wrestling is really a variety show doesn’t apply here; this is simply part of the main act.
And really, what would it take to break this universe? This is a company that’s had not one but two spooky cults, along Matt Hardy intermittently shattering the laws of space and time. Hell, just look at the two men involved. In the buildup to All Out, AEW’s most recent PPV, Chris Jericho blew off a blood feud with a “Mimosa Mayhem” match of his own creation. MJF on the other hand, spent the leadup to his first World Title match doing a month-long parody of a presidential campaign, complete with fake staffers and ham-fisted sloganeering. I’d argue that doing a Rat Pack routine over a cold steak isn’t even among the most absurd things either man’s done this year.
Detractors have also asked if antics like this help grow the sport. Whenever an AEW clip goes semi-viral, folks love to note that heavily-tweeted videos don’t convert people into regular viewers. Of course, they don’t! Consistency is what grows a fanbase. “Does this make new fans?” is too heavy a question to ask about a five-minute comedy routine. But isn’t it interesting that we’re having this dialogue so regularly? Whether it’s the Stadium Stampede, or Jericho’s “little bit of the bubbly”, or Trent’s mom flipping the bird from her minivan, or one of several Orange Cassidy appearances, we see the same tired dialogue.
Maybe we should be asking what it means that AEW’s succeeded in creating these moments so frequently in its first year. I’d cautiously argue that perhaps it’s a genuine grasp on what’s funny, relatable or even contemporary outside the confines of the ring ropes, something we may have forgotten could exist in televised American wrestling. We’ve seen it from the Young Bucks in Being The Elite’s better moments; from Chuck Taylor’s pristine twitter account; and even sprinkled through the last two-and-a-half decades of Chris Jericho’s career, against all odds.
And maybe that’s why similarly outlandish things like this year’s Money in the Bank Bank, or Street Profits/Viking Raiders, or any number of spooky Bray Wyatt routines don’t get passed around the same way, despite having bigger audiences. They exist in a strangely insular world, self-referential to the point of self-parody. The weird machinations of that same 75-year-old billionaire, tearing up and rewriting scripts in an endless search for that elusive “good shit”. It could also be that their target audience seems to be people who were just kicked in the head by a horse.
But really, if I could boil this down to one succinct point it would be this: When MJF first lets that rich and butter-smooth baritone fly, I’m still laughing two days later.
Thank you, cartoony muscle men, for making me laugh in the place where I expect it least.