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.


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?"


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.


callumrobertsisgay said...

You are so insightful Ben! I wish I could see one of your shows, you should come to WA :)

Anonymous said...

Jesus, where have you been all my life? (Said in a secular, non-sexual, just kind of matey, but poetic. sitting at the computer in my own type of way). I love brackets, they should have brackets in real life. Yah, I have found a new website to hassle. Menzies House has got wise and boofy Andy is handling there comments and swtor rp all think I am a paedhile.

Happy Budget night
Shane Fisher