Monday, April 14, 2014

The Dark Hell of Reviews

OK, so here I am, performing in my show Trigger Warning at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (for which tickets are STILL AVAILABLE by the way) and I am reading reviews.

Some of the reviews are for my show, which frankly aren't all that great. Some are for other shows, and are fantastic. Some are for other shows, and are dreadful. What I'm getting at is, across the festival as a whole, reviews vary. So you might say comedy is like everything else that gets reviewed.

Every year the festival brings complaints about reviews, but this year the complaints seem to have been a little bit louder and more vehement, ranging from negative reviews to poorly written reviews to sexist reviews to reviews that seem to miss the point of the show entirely.

The Herald Sun is the target of many of these complaints, as, by now, might be expected, and they ended up biting back, in this piece by Mikey Cahill in which he argues that comics need to harden the F up and learn to take the rough with the smooth. Though there are some of us who would love to see a bit of smooth to take with the rough.

Now, I am in an interesting little position here. As a comedian I am the subject of reviews. As a TV writer I am the creator of reviews. Although I've never reviewed live comedy - because what sort of weirdo wants to do THAT, am I right guys? Hahaha - I know a little of both sides. And I say "both sides" because comics definitely see reviewers as the enemy.

Anyway, from my vantage point, as a guy whose job is, at least partially, to pass judgment upon the artistic endeavours of others, and whose other job is to try to make people laugh, I just thought I'd say a few things to both comics and critics.

TO THE COMICS:

You're gonna get bad reviews sometimes. No comedian in the history of comedy, no matter how brilliant, was so good that everyone liked them, and it's an unfortunate fact that sometimes among the number who don't like you will be someone who's been hired to review you. So you're going to get bad reviews. Sometimes this will be because the reviewer is an idiot, or because the reviewer has an unreasonable grudge against you, or because the reviewer didn't understand what they were watching. But sometimes it's going to be because a perfectly intelligent person saw you, got all the jokes, and just didn't think you were funny. It happens.

And it is entirely your prerogative to complain about reviews - as I say, often those complaints will be justified. But also remember that a reviewer's job is just to give an opinion, and sometimes their opinion will honestly and without malice be that you suck. It doesn't mean you do, though - you're probably great. Never forget: the only truly accurate review is "did they laugh?"

TO THE CRITICS:

First of all, remember this: you're a writer. You're an artist. Your review is, in itself, a performance, and your job is to write well, just as much as the comic's job is to tell jokes well. And just as the comic needs to be able to take criticism of their artform, you need to be able to take criticism of yours. So don't write articles about how precious comedians who can't take criticism are, while demonstrating just how poorly you take it yourself. And keep alive the possibility that criticism, even of a critic, can be justified. Maybe, if you're being slammed, it really IS because you're not writing very well. 

A review of Alice Fraser's show was very positive, but its focus on her appearance and clothes was dreadful. Later on Twitter, the author tried to explain that focus - but if there is a good reason to focus on a comic's appearance, that's the sort of thing that should maybe be IN the review, if you're going to go on about how they're dressed. Otherwise the reader doesn't know why the hell you're talking about it. And that's bad writing. 

So if you're a critic, please do not forget that you should be trying to write something good here. Whatever opinion you have of the show you're reviewing, put that opinion across clearly, compellingly, entertainingly. And don't be as precious as the comic who whines that you didn't give them enough stars.

Fact is, most bitching about critics from comics I hear isn't about a bald opinion, it's about the way reviewers go about their jobs. So look, here's a few things I think comedy critics need to do to do their jobs well:

- Let the reader know what actually went on. By which I mean, don't make your review simply a recitation of your own feelings. Every critic needs a keen awareness of the fact that they are passing opinion on a subjective art form, and seeing as their view is simply one of many, it's entirely possible that readers of your review might enjoy what you hated, or vice versa. With this in mind, please attempt to give a sense of what the show was about, the style and the tone and the feel of the thing, as well as your good/bad judgment. What did you like, what did you hate, why did it work, why did it fail. There's not much space to cover all bases, but there should be some kind of effort made to make the review as informative as possible. In particular, the audience reaction is quite important - if you hated it, but everyone else there loved it, that's worth mentioning; in fact, it's pretty necessary to mention it.

- Review the comedy. Unless the performer's appearance is part of the act, don't mention it. Their job is to be funny, and your job is to assess their job. Stuff that isn't part of their job, isn't part of yours. And while we're at it, don't write dumb stuff about what a comedian is like "for a female comedian" - women haven't been a novelty in comedy for some time now, try to keep up.

- No spoilers. Way, way, wayyyyy too many reviewers of comedy shows still quote punchlines verbatim in their reviews. Usually this is done as a recommendation - "Look how funny this was!" - but guess what? Comics quite like to keep their jokes a surprise. Because it's funnier that way. When you quote our lines in your reviews, you're cutting our jokes off at the knees. It's entirely possible to describe what the subject matter of a show was without sabotaging the act.

- Don't be a dick. At least one comedian I know was less irritated by getting a poor review than by the fact the reviewer tweeted the link to the review directly to him. This is a dick move. Don't do this. Any comedian seeing someone send them a link to a review is going to think it's positive, because why else would they be so eager for them to read it? And then to see it's a bad one is an absolute kick in the guts. You've got the right, and the responsibility, to call it as you see it, but it's an ignoble impulse to want to rub someone's face in your takedown of their work. 

In fact, it's really better not to send your review to the comic, no matter what it says. Some comics are like me, curiosity forever overcoming prudence, and would go mad knowing reviews exist and not knowing what's in them. Some, however, genuinely don't want to read reviews at all. Don't go trying to force them to. If we want to know what the reviews are, we'll find them. We don't need you pushing it in our faces. Please respect our right to avoid the reviews if we want to.

But most of all, write well. Write honestly and skilfully and with passion for your craft. And if you get criticised for what you write, do remember that at least you're not on stage for an hour every night, having a bunch of strangers write their own review with laughter or silence every few seconds. The most hurtful critic of all is a quiet room, which is why writing is such an attractive profession - you don't have to face that quiet.

Monday, March 10, 2014

An Elegant Solution

Isn't getting home from work just the WORST?

Having to fight the traffic, bumper-to-bumper, blood pressure rising as the cars in front of you lurch forward ten metres only to stop so abruptly you almost rear-end them, horns honking, trucks belching smoke, and your life slipping minute by wasteful minute.

Or sitting on an overcrowded, overheated train, breathing in a thousand bodies' end-of-day sweat, flabby moist bodies pressed up against you as you try to keep your footing on the stop-start journey, or else being pinned between a couple of human hogs on a seat, the one on the left's belly fat oozing against your elbow while the one on the right jabs you with their briefcase, and the one in front of you has their knee a centimetre from your groin and has their headphones up so loud the whole carriage can hear.

Man, it's a drag.

Wouldn't you love to be able to get away from all that, and make that after-work period a PLEASURE, instead of a nightmarishly smelly chore?

It can be done! From March 27-April 20 this year, there's a chance for all you working stiffs to spend the early evening relaxing in an atmosphere of fun and satirical hilarity, before heading home post-peak hour feeling refreshed and invigorated by the glorious experience of laughter.

How can this be DONE, Ben, you poor saps ask. HOW? How on Earth can we combine a marvellous night of entertainment with the convenience of avoiding rush-hour traffic?

BEHOLD!



Sunday, February 23, 2014

Charlotte

Charlotte loved our kids. When you're one of those people who come with miniature people as a non-optional extra, it's wonderful to have friends who are as delighted with your kids' company as they are with yours, and Charlotte always was.

My favourite memory of Charlotte is New Year's Eve 2012, when we went, with kids in tow, to a fantastic party at her house. It was very much a grown-up party, but she was overjoyed to see us all, and our three had the time of their lives dancing all night with models and paparazzi. Late in the evening my son broke his glowstick and the stuff inside got in his eyes, causing much pain and screaming. So at five minutes to midnight Charlotte was in the bathroom with me, looking as preternaturally glamorous as a person can look, trying to wash glowstick juice out of his eyes and telling him it was going to be OK.

That was Charlotte. She was just as you thought she'd be, and nothing like you expected. She looked like she came from another planet, where people were cooler and more beautiful and never sweated. But the minute you spoke to her you knew how wonderfully, gloriously of this earth she was.

She was smart and funny and passionate and kind and absolutely ferocious in everything she turned her extraordinary mind to: television, writing, charity, friendship. She stood up for what she believed in a way that most of us can only envy - there was courage in her beyond what I could ever hope to possess.

Charlotte hurled herself at life like a meteor, consuming it in all its beauty and terror and drama and heartbreak. Once you knew her, you couldn't help but want to know her more, talk to her more, learn more about her - she was addictive.

I knew her, perhaps, better than most, and not nearly as well as some. She was a thousand things to a thousand people, and everyone will have a different story about what she meant to them.

What she meant to me was simply this: she was my friend. It's my friend I'll remember, and cry for, and it's my friend I'll be forever grateful for having the chance to know and to love. And in this time of grief and pain, I know that the people who are hurting the most are also the luckiest people of all, because they knew her, and that was a privilege so precious, and so rare, we can rejoice in it, even as we mourn.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My Blocking Policy: A Public Information

A lot of people these days are on Twitter. And a lot of those people who are on Twitter can get very passionate about things. These people mostly look like this:



One of the things they get passionate bout is being blocked. For those of you who aren't on Twitter because you're on some kind of reality show where you're only allowed to use technology from the 17th century or something, being "blocked" means another Twitter user has decided that they wish not to see what you tweet, to not allow you to see what they tweet, and to, in a general sense, cut off communications between your account and theirs.

Blocking can be very upsetting, obviously. It's never nice to be told you're not wanted, and so I understand perfectly when people arc up and get snitty about being blocked. I understand why they say things like "Oh I was blocked by Ben Pobjie - turns out he's too precious to take criticism" or "Ben Pobjie claims to support free speech yet he blocks me #irony". They don't say these things just because they're cretins - they say them because they are in a state of high emotion that makes them act like cretins.

What they want, most of all, is to know why. It's agony to be blocked on Twitter and have no idea of the reason - it turns one's whole life into a desert of shifting sands. Certainty vanishes and all is a fog of mistrust and anxiety. I appreciate this.

This is why I have decided to lay out, here and now, my Blocking Policy.

That's right, all my Twitter blocking is done according to a strict charter, which governs my blocking activity. Once you know what this consists of, I'm sure you'll have a much better understanding of why I blocked you, or why I'm about to.

My Blocking Policy is a five-point policy. Every single block I engage in is done for one or more of these five points, which are, and I can't stress this enough, the ONLY reasons I ever block anyone.

So, you know, if you've been blocked by me, it was because:

1. I don't want to talk to you.

2. I don't want you to talk to me.

3. I don't want me to be talked to by you.

4. Talking, in terms of the two of us, has become undesirable to me.

5. What I want is to do things which aren't talking to you or being talked to by you.

So there you go. I hope that's clear.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thanks

So a few hours ago I walked out of the office that I first walked into in September, 2006.

It felt a bit like this:


Because unlike every other time I walked out of that office, I wasn't looking ahead to the next day, or the day after the day after tomorrow, when I'd have to walk back in again.

Thanks to my having fallen into a big sloshy barrel of good luck and snared the position of daily TV writer for the Fairfax newspapers, I'm now a full-time writer, and no longer a full-time not-writer. This not only means no more eight hour days of reading newspaper reports about suburban graffiti, rural bowls results and grey nomad caravan magazines, but it also means no more driving for 2-3 hours every day to get to work and back, all the time feeling a bit like this:


Such an earth-shaking epoch in one's life can't help but cause a bit of reflection. I started working at my "day job" in September 2006, which means I've been there for seven years and five months, approximately. As dedicated fans will know, my first published piece of writing appeared on November 8, 2007 - this means that my career as anonymous desk-slogger pre-dates my career as online opinion snarker by more than a year. I've been in that job considerably longer than I've been able, even in the loosest sense, to call myself a "professional writer". The fact that I can now not only call myself such, but not qualify it with, "oh but I also have..." is quite exhilarating and something of a relief.

Until 2011 my day job was actually a night job. This means that for around 3-4 years my writing was mainly done in the mornings, after staggering home after the 11pm-7am shift, or else hurriedly banged out at night, after I woke up, before 10pm, when I'd have to leave the wife and kids and drive to work.

Since I switched to days my writing has mainly been done in the evenings after a more civilised shift, but still. always, in the fog of after-work fatigue. I think it's a weariness a lot of writers know, of doing the job you care about in the little narrow slits of time in between the job that you need.

I'm hoping I can now be less tired, and more creative, and more energetic, and that therefore this year will bring forth many magical things from me, online, in print, and on stage and screen. Fingers crossed, anyway.

It is in my nature to forever be pushing to achieve more, so I see this as another step forward, but nowhere near a final destination. But it's a big deal, a huge deal, for me, and I am very very fortunate to find myself in this new position. And if you have ever read, laughed at, linked to, retweeted, listened to, watched, or commented on anything I've done, you've helped me find this stroke of luck. 

I'm really, really grateful to you all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ballad Of The Skeletons (Australia Day Remix)

Said the prime minister skeleton, watch me gloat
Said the immigration skeleton, stop that boat
Said the education skeleton, kids are dumb
Said the Treasurer skeleton, I want my mum
Said the broadband skeleton, these wires are fine
Said the iron ore skeleton, it's all fucking mine
Said the medical skeleton, pay these fees
Said the backbencher skeleton, take my wife - please!

Said the talkback skeleton, it's an outrage
Said the Centrelink skeleton, that's a living wage
Said the editorial skeleton, stop this stuff
Said the columnist skeleton, you're not angry enough
Said the detention centre skeleton, it's for your own good
Said the press release skeleton, if only you understood
Said the grown-up skeleton, kids have lost control
Said the children skeleton, I can't hear you, LOL




Appropriate thanks to Allen Ginsberg





Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Benefits of Cowardice

The other day I wanted to die.

I didn't try to die, mind you, for two reasons: firstly because I am a coward; and secondly because I retained the ability to recognise that my death would affect people other than myself adversely.

But goodness I wanted to. To the point where I felt quite resentful of those people, whose wellbeing I felt responsible for - if it weren't for them my conscience would be much clearer if I could work up the courage to hasten my own demise. Which I probably couldn't, being a coward.

Killing yourself is, of course, illegal: one of those rare crimes that you only get punished for if you fail to commit it. The police can even arrest you if they think you might kill yourself. I found that out when it happened to me, the night they came to my house, threatened to pepper spray me, and took me to hospital in handcuffs.

I think about that night once or twice every day - it's a good way to bring myself back down to earth whenever I start to feel like I might not be a failure. I'm not sure there's any success I could achieve in life that would overwhelm the self-annihilation of that experience. It was a powerful sign of how badly I'd fucked up at life, and my capability for such monumental fuck-ups is something I carry with me, as a caution to not get too cocky.

Now there are people who will say to me, "You're not a failure, you're not a fuck-up, you're not a terrible person". But then they don't know me like I do, do they? It's my fundamental problem with taking advice on mental health from anyone - I know me better than you do, and if I tell you that my depression is, essentially, no more than I deserve, shouldn't I be trusted? You can tell me that my depression is an illness, but I might tell you that it's a perfectly reasonable response to the fact of my own existence, and I've got a lot of fieldwork on my side. And I know this, and I know that no matter how many times someone tells me otherwise, I'll have that knowledge in the back of my mind, and nobody can help me with that; nobody can take that away; and nobody can fully understand it, because nobody can ever fully understand what's going on inside another person. I, like everyone else, am alone.

This is what I have been trying to express: depression is loneliness. Utter, utter loneliness. And if I tweet about it, Facebook post about it, or blog about it, it's all an attempt to find some relief from that loneliness. Which can be found - comfort from other people, affirmations and sympathies help. But not for long. That stuff fades, because you know the only person who knows the whole truth about yourself is you. And you know that when words of comfort have been forgotten, you'll be left to keep company with yourself, and the words of hatred that you keep inside you and that are the only permanent thing you've got.

It's the loneliness that eats you away: not lonely because nobody cares, but lonely because nobody can help, and lonely because you know, deep down, that you don't deserve any help anyway. And lonely because you know that those times you don't feel lonely are just preludes to more loneliness.

And most of all lonely because this flaw, this production error, this mistake in manufacture that crept in when you were made, has done nothing but cause trouble and sadness to the people you care about, and because they'd be better off without you, but if you left you'd just be causing more trouble and sadness. And you can't be fixed, so you can look forward to spreading more trouble and sadness around for many years, until finally, you slink off and die. And as you lived alone, alone you will die.

I am not the only person to think the world would be better off without me in it. There are many of us. And though our friends will deny it, some of us right. And some of us are wrong. Some of us live in unremitting agony, unable to ever shake the obsessive conviction. And some of us swing back and forth, believing in a lighter world with a rightful place for us in it, until inevitably remembering the handcuffs and the slow shuffle out the door as the children watched. Some us are trapped, and after searching their prison desperately for false walls and hidden doors, take the only reasonable way out.

And some of us find ourselves thankful that we are cowards.