On comedy reviews
I was going to send this in to Chortle, but wasn’t happy with it and never got around to fixing it up. Too many ideas clashing together and I couldn’t find a solid argument to frame them around. Anyway, since the moment has past, I figured I’d stick it up here for the curious
Ed O’Meara wrote a fantastic and thought provoking article on critics in comedy, but I can’t help but think his ire was somewhat misdirected. The problems he highlights are genuine, but they’re not caused by the fact that we have comedy reviewers. They’re caused by the fact that we don’t have enough of them.
I was going to start this piece with something trite like: “If you think it’s tough making a living as a professional comic, spare a thought for the professional comedy critics”, but then I realised: there are none. Granted, there is work available in that field, especially in August, but I’d wager there’s not a single person making a living in this country from comedy reviewing alone. Sure, you can be an ‘arts’ writer for a national paper and cover comedy as part of that. You can do a bit of freelance for the local papers and the few websites that will actually pay for content. You can run your own comedy blog and try and make a few pennies off the ads. You could even set up and run your own comedy news, reviews and listings website, though someone else may have beaten you to it. But no-one is making a living purely from writing about comedy.
That alone cuts the quality of your average critic. Why spend years honing your knowledge and critical appreciation of comedy when the rewards are so tiny?
And a lack of reviewers inevitably leads to a lack of reviews. There are so few places that actually review comics at the club level that a single bad review, written on an off-night, can have dire consequences. It can be on the front page of Google results for the next five years. But that’s why we need more critics, so that review has another review right next to it, and hopefully another one too. The more reviews, the less chance of them all covering a brilliant comic on a bad night. Or a bad comic having a momentary flash of brilliance. The world without critics isn’t any better, incidentally. With the reliable sources gone, all the punter has to rely on is a badly worded rant someone posted on a comedy forum after they saw a 30-second YouTube video of the act.
Ed makes the great point that some of the best analysis of an act can come from more experienced comics. I’d agree entirely, it’s probably the best way for new comics to get constructive feedback. Unfortunately what works one-on-one won’t work for the punter. I wish there was a way to harness the immense critical faculties of our top comics. Alas this is still a fairly tight-knit industry, and for a comic to start posting his own reviews of other comics is pretty much tantamount to career suicide. That’s also, incidentally, why you won’t see many critics ‘showing the comedians how it’s done’.
A professional comedy review isn’t just an opinion, it’s an informed opinion. This means that sometimes the audience reaction is not the be-all and end-all for judging a performance. Most comics would agree that part of a critic’s job is to look past the conditions on the night. If the audience are being unduly disruptive, if not many people turned up, if there are tech problems, and so on. It’s perfectly possible to get a good review while having a bad gig, if the critic can see that the material and performance has merit. It’s a fairly common occurrence. The flip-side, of course, is that just because you ‘stormed it’ by doing 20 minutes of cock gags to an audience of stag and hen parties does not guarantee you a good write-up. In both cases it is a factor: how you succeed or fail in working a room and reacting to the unexpected matters, but it’s far from the only criteria on which a critic will judge.
Still, it would be nice to see punters place a bit less emphasis on reviews and star-ratings. Turn them in to a guiding hand rather than the make-or-break of a show. One way to do that is to offer more and varied reviews, but another might be for shows to stop shouting quite so loudly on their publicity the second they get a four or five star review.