Last week, Alfonso Castillo had the opportunity to sit down with Manhasset’s own Chris Jericho in New York City – just hours before the premiere of his reality show, “Redemption Song,” which airs Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. on the Fuse network. Here are some highlights from the interview.
While I should disclose that Fuse and Newsday are both owned by Cablevision, I can honestly give “Redemption Song” a confident thumbs up. While the formula may be familiar (a group of 11 women competing for a recording contract with one contestant being eliminated each week) the show has enough unique twists – including the full-out beligerant tyrades of a few young ladies who would likely be clinically diagnosed as alcoholics – to make it an entertaining watch. And, as host, Jericho brings his usual wit and charm.
In a time when WWE seems as stale as it has in recent memory, one of the few conistent right spots has been the work of Jericho, who for my money, is the very best thing in WWE today. In this interview, Jericho discusses his historic feud with Shawn Michaels, the truth about WWE writers’ involvement in it, why it stood out from everything else on WWE, what it meant to win a world title at this stage in his career, and how he got his smile back – literally – after his particularly violent ladder match with HBK.
AC: Explain a little about your new show, “Redemption Song,” and how you were intrigued by the concept.
CJ: It was an interesting concept when it was first brought to me, because it’s different from the typical reality show fare. You have 11 girls who are all singers, but they’ve all had checkered pasts, troubled pasts, whether it be addictions to different chemicals or sexual issues, or bad relationships or bad decisions that they’ve made. So this is their chance to kind of redeem themselves, and in some cases, the last chance to really use this talent and try to make it in the music business. The winner of the show gets a contract with Geffen, which is one of the biggest record companies in the world. So there was real prize at stake. It wasn’t just a matter of 11 girls fighting it out to win a date with Jericho. This was not “Jericho of Love.” It was more than that. And even more than that, there was a real heart to the show in the fact that these girls were getting a chance to pull themselves out of this hole they found themselves in and to change their lives and do more positive things. I think that, to me, was the secret to it. There was a real heart behind it and I was really attracted to that.
AC: With your schedule in WWE, how were you able to fit this in?
CJ: We were able to work it out. I got permission from WWE, but they actually wouldn’t give me any shows off to do it. So we kind of had to do a little juggling and then make sure that over the course of the three or four weeks that we filmed it, I would go to LA and do the show, fly back to wherever the WWE shows were, fly back to LA. And it just so happened that there were some empty spaces in our schedule during that time. So it was really easy to figure it out and make it roll.
AC: So this theme of redemption, I wanted to kind of ask you about. I imagine it’s something that you’ve felt in your career. In the last couple years of your career you’ve gone a lot of different places. You left wrestling to pursue acting, to pursue some of your music, and then came back to wrestling. Have you felt that sort of need for redemption anywhere in your own career, whether it was making it as a musician and showing that you could be a musician, or returning to wrestling after taking a few years off and showing that you still had a passion for wrestling?
CJ: Well, I didn’t leave wrestling to pursue those things. I did those things because I had the time to do it. I left wrestling because I was just mentally burned out. It didn’t matter if I had anything else to pursue or not. I was just fried after 15 years straight. And there were other opportunities that were on the table that I wanted to look into, especially with the band. There was a lot of touring overseas that we did, and writing the book that I did, and doing some of the roles that I played and just studying acting, which is something I enjoyed – just studying the craft of it. I did that stuff because I’m a creative person, but it didn’t matter if I had that on the table or not. I still would have taken a break from the WWE and I always knew that I’d come back. I just wasn’t sure when. My mission when I was ready to come back was to come back and be better than ever. So it was nothing that I was taking lightly. And it was great to get that break to kind of clear my mind, to work on some of these other things. And it was great with the band. We got a lot of success, especially overseas. We did great in the UK – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We went back there over, and over again. They kept bringing us back. And we were doing 90 percent sell-outs in all the tours we did. And that was really, really fun – to be able to say that, after just starting the band as just a fun project and then taking it to a serious level and having people get into tunes that we were playing. And then writing the book and seeing that go on the New York Times bestseller list was also another feather in my cap, because that was a big goal for me, as well. And all those things were made possible by the fact that I stepped back from wrestling. But also, my return to wrestling was made possible by the fact that I did these other things. So, when it was time to come back, I was ready and I knew it, and my mindset was there. And it was really kind of easy to step back in. So I don’t think I really needed any redemption. It was just more that I needed a break.
AC: I think people are surprised for somebody who admittedly was burned out on the business to come back so strong. People talk about some of the stuff you’ve done with Shawn Michaels being the best that wrestling has seen in many, many years. What do you think was behind it? Why did that stand out from everything else that wrestling is seeing?
CJ: Shawn and I, we worked a program back in 2003 for WrestleMania, which worked out great, but there was still so much untapped potential in what we could do. We had great chemistry as friends, as promo adversaries, and especially in the ring. I mean, I’ve never had a bad match with Shawn Michaels and I’ve had, probably, actually four classics in a row for this. I think there’s just great chemistry – both of us just on the same wavelength of, “Let’s just do the best we can in making each other look good.” And we put a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of effort in this storylines. And I think people got into it so much because it was real to them. They weren’t quite sure exactly what was going, because we played it off so differently. I made a real conscious effort to change my entire character, to reinvent myself, to use some of the things that I’d learned over the years, form acting and from all these things that I’ve done, to really drop into this character that I had created that was very different from what I’ve done before, which a lot of people didn’t like. They wanted me to just be Y2J – the fun guy, the jokes. And it was like, I was done with that. It was the new Chris Jericho. No more Y2J. And I was very specific – Take all the Y2J’s out of my “Tron,” don’t ever call me Y2J on a broadcast again. I told Lawler and Michael Cole, don’t ever call me that. Y2J is dead. And as far as I was concerned, he’s gone. He’s dead. This is Chris Jericho in 2008. And I was very specific in playing it a very certain way and never taking my eye off the ball of what this character would do, and really feeling this character. And as a result, the people in the audience really felt it as well, and didn’t like it. I mean, it’s very hard to get true heat as a heel. I think I’ve achieved that. People legitimately don’t like this character, Chris Jericho, which is mission accomplished for me.
AC: Some people have suspected that one of the reasons that this has gone over so well – what you did with Michaels – is that you guys really took this by the reigns and handled it yourself and maybe took the writers out of it a bit. What’s the truth behind that? How much of it was you and Shawn behind this yourself?
CJ: Well, we were behind a lot of it, but to be honest with you, Brian Gewirtz and Ed Kosky – the writers in WWE that I work with the most, especially Brian – were very, very into it, and very helpful. And we couldn’t have done it without those guys, without Brian. He was awesome for it. I think the writers a lot of time get bad ink. It’s like, “Well, take the writers out the equation and let the wrestlers do it.” That’s not the case. I always work with the writers. They never tell me what to do. I never tell them what to do. We work together. We’re co-writing a song, co-writing it together. And Brian is a great writer. Once he tapped into what we were doing, he’d come up with stuff, and I would come up with stuff, and Shawn would come up with stuff, and we’d go over stuff together and Vince would get involved. Everybody was on board because it was working so well. And the more collaborators you could have who understand what you need to do, the better it is. So we had a lot of input into it, but we were still very open into receiving input from the guys whose job it is to do that. And I was very happy with the team effort we came up with. It would be nice to say that I thought of everything 100 percent and I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread, but that’s not the case. It was a real team effort that really showed on screen. Everybody hit a home run on every single segment that we did for seven months. In my opinion there wasn’t one bad part of that entire seven-month angle. And if I was WWE I’d put that all on a DVD and release it “Jericho vs. Michaels.” You want to know how to put on a story, here’s the DVD. Check it out from beginning to end.
AC: Is it sort of bittersweet that it’s come to an end?
CJ: No, because, I mean the last thing we had was the ladder match. Jericho vs. Michaels in a ladder match. What else could you do? We beat the crap out of each other in an unsanctioned match. We had classic wrestling matches. We had technical wrestling. We had street fighting. Everything you could do with it, we did. And so there comes a time. You can’t stay with it forever, because then you jump the shark and it’s like, “OK, more of this?” But I think we kept it exciting all the way through, culminating in the ladder match, which a lot of people say was the best ladder match they had ever seen. And to me, that’s a pat on the back, too – especially in this day and age when you’ve seen every single thing you can do in that type of match. We went the opposite way – How can we tell a story? What kind of finish can we do that’s never been done that doesn’t involve one of us setting ourselves on fire and falling through a plate glass window with spikes underneath it?
AC: After you mentioned the ladder match, I couldn’t help but look at your teeth and make sure they were all there. What was the story there? Did you go to the dentist the next day?
CJ: I went to the dentist later that week and got the cap put in there and got it done. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons people enjoyed that match. It was apropos. It was real. I lost a tooth. People ask me, “Was that real?” Yeah, it was real. I lost a tooth. Watch it. I should have lost four of them, according to the dentist. It’s not something that I’d ever want to go through again, but the fact that a month later I have all my teeth, everyone’s happy, and everything’s cool – it just adds to the whole intensity of it.
AC: Is it some sort of an indictment on WWE that that stood out so much – your whole feud with Shawn? I mean, you talk about releasing a DVD. On one hand, you’re right – it was that good. But why isn’t everything else that good?
CJ: Because you can’t teach experience. You have two guys with 35, 40 years experience between us that know how to tap into a story, know how to get a crowd involved in it, know how to engage the people. You just don’t have a lot of guys who know how to do that just from the fact that there aren’t a lot of experienced guys. That’s nothing against the young guys. That’s just the way it is. It’s true. He and I have been around for many years, and have a lot of different places to draw from. And I think that’s the reason why it worked out so good. We had a lot of different attitudes, and mindsets, and ideas – constantly batting ideas back and forth – and were completely confident in each other’s abilities. And also the boss being completely confident in what we could do. There’s not a lot of trust for the younger guys because they haven’t proven themselves to be able to carry something like that. And we did. It started just as one-month side angle that ended up being a seven-month cornerstone of the show that ended with me winning the world title. So, I mean anytime that happens it’s kind of a pat on the back to all of us involved.
AC: Six years after you last wore a world title and after taking a couple of years off from the business and wanting to come back better than ever – what did it to you to have a world title around your waist again?
CJ: It meant a lot. Any time you can win a world title, it’s like winning an Oscar or something like that. It’s a very important thing because you’re carrying the show. You’re the champion. And the first time I had the title, it was cool. But this time, I really felt like I was the top heel on the show. Nobody could touch me – in the ring, promo-wise outside the ring. And that was a good position to be in – knowing that nobody else should be holding this other than me. And I still feel that way. And the big picture will show. Will I win it again? I don’t know, but I think that I probably will, and when I do, it’ll be the exact same thing as when I had it last. And if I don’t win it again, I’ll still be the most hated heel in the company because I know how to play it at this point in time.