For me and many other viewers, Jake The Snake Roberts’s speech at the 2014 WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony was far and away the highlight of the show. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he tried to stifle our inappropriate applause, and along the way, he even shared a rather original metaphor for working a crowd.
Jake Roberts could say more in a single minute of his Hall of Fame speech than Lita could in her entire 28, or Razor Ramon could in his entire, uh, 3.
But WWE didn’t always take addiction and recovery so seriously.
At the 2014 Hall of Fame induction, Jake spoke about finally conquering decades of addiction, and in 1996, Jake Roberts returned to the ring after overcoming his demons and getting a new lease on life. You might notice that 1996 occurred before 2014. In fact, it was almost two whole decades before 2014. Yeah, when I said, “decades of addiction,” most of that took place after his first comeback.
In retrospect, you’re probably thinking, there would have been only one thing worse than having his “gimmick” be that of a new, sober man only for him to relapse into addiction in real life, and that would have been for the WWF to book him into an angle ridiculing him for his struggles.
Which brings me to today’s induction…
|As anyone who has watched WWE’s Monday Night War series already knows, by early 1996, the WWF was starting to lose the ratings war due to WCW’s talent raids. In order to combat the influx of washed-up has-beens like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage into WCW, the WWF had to rely on new, exciting young stars. Stars like Roddy Piper, Ultimate Warrior, and Jake Roberts.|
|This time around, Jake wasn’t just “The Snake.” He was also an outspoken recovering addict who beat his demons by finding God. He even carried an albino python named, “Revelations,” as in the biblical Book of Revelation. (The extra “s” was for “snake”!)|
|Shockingly, it took Jerry Lawler an entire five months to start mocking Roberts relentlessly for this fact. The King was, after all, involved in a feud with the Ultimate Warrior. Fun fact: of the three past-their-prime stars listed in the previous paragraph, each one had a pay-per-view match with Lawler during the so-called “New Generation” era.|
|The feud started off innocuously enough, with Lawler calling Roberts, “boring” while The Snake did guest commentary. But this wasn’t enough fuel for a months-long feud, so the writers had Jerry start pushing the alcoholism button. Soon, Lawler started messing with Aldo Montoya, who turned out to be Jake Roberts’s good friend — or, as Lawler would end up calling him, his designated driver. Lawler started sneaking more and more cheap shots in on Roberts, first accusing him of drinking champagne at Ahmed Johnson’s victory celebration.|
|Soon, Roberts was back at the commentary desk, and Lawler cut loose with jokes such as the idea that Jake didn’t “lick” his alcohol problem, he drank it. Lawler then told Roberts that “people like you are supposed to turn the other cheek” before he decided to test that theory by slapping him.|
|To his credit, Roberts did, in fact, turn the other cheek, but only before strangling Lawler, which I don’t remember from Sunday school.|
|For the next two months, no matter who was actually in the ring, Lawler tried to squeeze in as many jokes about Jake the Snake being a drunk as possible, like how his “tag team partner” was Jim Beam. Actually, he used that same joke more than a few times.|
|The same thing goes for Roberts seeing the “handwriting on the floor”…|
|…or how Jake married his wife because she had kisses sweeter than wine…|
|…or how Ahmed Johnson needed a kidney transplant, and the donor was Jake Roberts. He used that joke three weeks in a row, and it didn’t even make sense the first time. Why would Jake donate his kidney in the first place? Did he get cut up by organ thieves?|
|Once, and try to follow me here, Lawler said that he was glad Jake’s match ended so quickly, because otherwise he would have wanted overtime pay. And how much would his overtime pay have been? Not time and a half, but time and a fifth. That’s what’s called “reaching,” ladies and gentlemen.|
|Then there was Lawler’s joke about Roberts writing an autobiography (which, before Have A Nice Day, was again a far-fetched premise to begin with) called, Who The Hell’s Gonna Buy This?.|
|(Right now, 18 years later, Jake actually is writing an autobiography, so if he does end up calling it, Who The Hell’s Gonna Buy This?, I suppose I’ll have to take back what I said about Lawler’s joke)|
|There was one joke that I got a chuckle out of while researching this induction, and that was the one where Jake went north of the border because a billboard told him, “Drink Canada dry.” Later, I found out that that joke dated back to the Hoover administration.|
|I’m surprised Jerry didn’t just go on the air and literally beat a dead horse (perhaps a Budweiser Clydesdale).|
|And what did Jake have to say about all this? Nothing much, especially considering that, due to being briefly sidelined by an injury, he missed an entire month’s worth of tapings (on a Monday and Tuesday) and had to enlist Aldo Montoya as his surrogate in the already one-sided feud with Lawler. Jerry proceeded to pour whiskey down a young and innocent Peter Polaco’s throat.|
|With Roberts unable to appear at the tapings, the best the WWF could do was put him on the phone in post-production. Once, Lawler wondered how Vince managed to get Roberts on the phone, suggesting that he pretended to be a bartender. I don’t know where Jerry got the idea that bartenders regularly call their patrons at home, but I’d guess he recently watched a Simpsons episode with the sound off and got confused.|
|The feud looked to come to a head at Summerslam ’96, but not before Lawler rehashed another five minutes’ worth of drunk jokes that nobody found funny except Mr. Perfect and, occasionally, Olympic hero Mark Henry.|
|Somehow, the crowd in the Gund Arena (including Vladimir the Superfan and the bowl-cut kid) was still pumped up for the match…|
|…until Jerry spent most of the four-minute bout stalling and offering Jake alcohol…|
|…including this wine bottle that weighed more than Hornswoggle…|
|…and won by hitting Jake in the throat with a bottle of whiskey…|
|…which he then poured on him.|
|Even after Lawler defeated Roberts at Summerslam, the horrendous jokes kept on coming. For instance, do you know what the Olympics and Jake The Snake have in common? They both got bombed! Ah, the innocent days of 1996, when one could tell an hilarious terrorism joke.|
|Continuing with the Jake The Snake-Olympics connection, Lawler said Roberts was disappointed at the Summer Games when he found out that the “parallel bars” weren’t like he envisioned them. That joke was pretty good, but the fact that it came two months after the closing ceremonies in Atlanta leads me to believe Lawler was kicking himself for coming up with that one too late. At least he didn’t try to drag the feud out another four years until the Sydney Games in 2000 just to have an excuse to use it, although looking back at all these Lawler one-liners, it certainly feels like this angle ran for a whole olympiad.|
|Lawler also connected Jake The Snake to Tupac Shakur, saying the rapper had even more “shots” in him than Jake Roberts. Really, the fact that Tupac would die a few days later from those same gunshot wounds couldn’t make this angle any more tasteless than it already was.|
|Finally, in a match that was such an afterthought that it wasn’t aired until three weeks after it was filmed, Jake got his revenge. All week long, Jerry had been spreading rumors about Roberts falling off the wagon, which The Snake’s stumbling entrance seemed to confirm…|
|…which Jerry, in turn, found hilarious. Laughing about Roberts’s former problems was obnoxious and tasteless, but delighting over his return to addiction was a kind of evil known only to the animated marijuana smoke voiced by |
|Not that the supposedly sympathetic Jim Ross helped matters with his jokes about Jake being “dropkicked off the wagon.”|
|So Jake showed up in a stupor, complete with an actual liquor bottle in a brown bag that he decided to bring with him in front of thousands of people (but don’t worry! He kept it hidden behind his back so no one could see it!).|
|However, it turned out to be a ruse, and Jake dropped Lawler with a DDT for a victory in mere seconds.|
|Then, in a bit of poetic justice, the man who toured the country warning people of the dangers of alcohol got to pour alcohol down the throat of a man who had never had a drink in his life. Poetic justice, hypocrisy — they’re pretty much the same thing, right?|
|This angle gets several order of magnitude more distasteful in retrospect, as Roberts would soon fall back into addiction in real life — a risk that Vince McMahon really should have considered before teasing tragedy on-screen (see also: Vince McMahon’s “death” and tribute vs. Chris Benoit incident).|
|And how long did it take WWE to learn this valuable lesson in sensitivity? Long enough for an inebriated and suicidal Road Warrior Hawk to fall off the Titantron, and long enough for Jeff Hardy to be found unconscious in a hotel stairwell under mysterious circumstances.|
|Given that Roberts would spend most of the next two decades re-enacting the “drunken” entrance from his last match against Lawler (most notably at Heroes of Wrestling), it’s safe to say that Jake’s mock-relapse fakeout was wrestling’s worst “happy ending” of all time.|
Fortunately, eighteen years later, the saga of Jake Roberts appears to have a happy ending — which, you’ll recall, has always been Jake The Snake’s specialty.