On Jake “The Snake” Roberts (by new contributor Ryan Boyd)

I am excited to welcome new contributor Ryan Boyd to Notes on the Spectacle of Excess! Ryan has made a painstaking study of wrestling from the eighties, nineties, and Attitude Era (imagine the things he has seen!) and takes part in a podcast I love called Travesty of Justice, that is examining every single cringe-inducing Wrestlemania and the equally cringe-inducing and hilarious pop culture surrounding it. His first post here examines Jake the Snake’s dark intensity and how it resulted in one of wrestling’s most existentially complex characters. Enjoy!

The pro wrestlers of the 1980s were as loud as the decade itself – cartoon supervillains shouting out their promos like neon gymrat televangelists, drenching Mean Gene Okerlund’s microphone with a cascade of spit and sweat. At a certain point it all blended together, and the Legion of Doom sounded like Ultimate Warrior sounded like Hulk Hogan sounded like Demolition. Beneath all the static was Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a restrained but intensely cerebral guy who wasn’t afraid to cut his promos in a soft growl. According to Jake himself, “If a man has enough power, he can speak softly…and everyone will listen.” Other guys screamed about how they wanted to destroy their enemies’ bodies – Jake was a lot more interested in their souls.

So what? As cold as a razor blade, as tight as a turning key, like the skin on a dying man – Randy Savage, the last time I seen you, you were flailing like some helpless child, drowning. Drowning from what? Drowning from the very poison that was running through your veins after that snake had chewed on that arm. For some time he did chew. Now you look into my eyes Randy Savage, and you’ll see two black holes in the sky. But you look into that snake eyes and you’ll see something so cold, so devilish and so deliberate – yes, he takes care of what he has to. Does what he has to. Just like me. Your eyes? Your eyes weren’t even there man, you were out, you were gone. But you know whose eyes I enjoyed the most? Do you? Elizabeth’s! Pupils so small, so intent and so scared for the man that she loved. And what a rush I got, man. Up and down my back, it felt so good. My hair felt like it was tingling. I mean, I had goosebumps all over my body listening to you squeal for a man who could not do anything but flail around, and couldn’t help himself at all, you know? And see, the thing about Jack Tunney barring the snake from the corner … let me tell you something Jack Tunney. When I was brought into this world, I could not rob, I could not steal, I could not lie, I couldn’t even cheat. But boy, did I have some help learning – you have taught me so well. So you see, it is not my fault anything that I do out there. You have given me the right to. You have almost pushed the button to make me do it. You have pulled the trigger. So anything that I do… is your fault. Snake in the corner? Trust me… trust me.”

(source: Cagematch)

Holy shit, right?

If Hulk Hogan was a larger-than-life father figure who told the kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins, Jake was that weird, morbid uncle that nobody in the family kept in touch with because he said creepy things at barbecues. He wasn’t afraid to go to dark places, even amid the feel-good bombast of the 80s, and those cold eyes stayed with you once you went home from the arena. So how did he get into that headspace? How was he able to turn on that thousand-yard stare and look like the devil himself?

Short answer: he was terrified.

Jake Roberts had a brutal upbringing full of fear and deception. His father, pro wrestler Grizzly Smith, never smartened his kids up to the work of pro wrestling, and Jake spent much of his childhood scared to death that Grizzly was going to get killed in the ring. Jake had years of childhood nightmares over his father’s kayfabe feud with a tag team called The Assassins because he believed that they were chasing him from territory to territory, trying to kill him. Grizzly not only allowed his kids to believe that wrestling was real – he would come home covered in bandages and braces to convince them that he was getting the absolute hell beaten out of him every night. “It’s sickening,” Jake said years later. “How can you do that to your own child?”

Aside from being abusive to Jake in a plethora of ways, both mentally and physically, Grizzly Smith sexually abused Jake’s younger half-sister, Robin, for years. (Robin would go on to become wrestler Rockin’ Robin, and would share Jake’s lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol.) And when Jake’s other sister, JoLynn, was kidnapped and murdered, Grizzly was the main suspect, though the rest of the family made a point never to discuss it. It was a reality they weren’t willing to face, because they knew it was a very legitimate possibility.

With a father who was intermittently absent and abusively present, Jake decided that the only way to get Grizzly’s approval was to become a wrestler himself. “I was at a wrestling show watching [my dad] wrestle and decided in my idiot of a brain, mixed with a little beer, that if I was to ever get my father to love me, I would have to go in there and challenge one of those wrestlers…that’s when I gave up my dream of being an architect and chased my father’s dream. I’m still chasing it because I’ll never hear him say the words I want to hear.”

Jake didn’t have to stretch his imagination to portray a cold-blooded sadist – the impersonation came naturally to a kid who’d spent his life being physically and mentally abused. If he was surrounded by snakes, he had to learn how to hiss like one. You can’t fake the kind of sinister, intimately brutal promos that Jake was able to pull out on the fly in the days before heavily scripted backstage promos; his eyes bore through you like an icepick when he glared into the camera, and that mustachioed smile was a carnivore flashing its teeth. There was no need for shouting, because a genuine monster doesn’t need to raise its voice to frighten you.

Every promo Jake cut was the transmogrification of trauma into art, the same as Tori Amos or Alfred Hitchcock, and his famously deft ring psychology was the product of a man who knew what real pain looked like. When he sold an arm or a leg injury in the ring, he knew that no audience would believe it if he shrugged off a beatdown and hulked up for a comeback, because something that was truly damaging wasn’t going to stop hurting no matter how much the fans were clapping. He took his time in the ring, because he knew how patient a monster had to be.

Jake knew that the scariest thing a calculating, manipulative abuser could tell you is “Trust me.”

He never won any championships in either WWE or WCW, but he didn’t need to – he was there for catharsis, fighting the phantom of his father even while battling the impulse to turn into him. Fear brought him to the dance, but a genuine love for the business of pro wrestling made him stay, and he gained the respect of his peers, the adoration of fans, and the love of the wrestlers he trained. He did what his father never did: he smartened his protegees up to the work of pro wrestling, and he showed them how to do it right. He showed them how to hiss. To hell with Grizzly Smith’s approval.

Jake was also deathly afraid of snakes. Poor guy.

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