Who Reviews the Comedy Reviewers?
Comedy reviewing is considered something of a hobbyist’s pursuit. It doesn’t pay, and when it does it’s not much, so those that do it are generally stable middle-aged, middle-class folk with a bit of spare time or young upstarts looking to see things for free. Those who are paid are usually journalists from other fields (say, Sport) filling in some time while the football season warms up. It is understandable then, perhaps, that comedy reviews are all over the place.
Recently, experienced comedy reviewer and general commentator Helen Razer published a piece on Crikey’s Daily Review essentially decrying the comedy review as a form of legitimate criticism. Razer equated it to reviewing porn, stating that the physical reaction comedy aims to elicit from its audience makes it utterly personal and impossible to comment on objectively. If anything, it feels like Razer is trying to defend her own opinions by shouting “ART IS SUBJECTIVE”. She claims that to understand why something is gut wrenchingly funny is to undergo some written psychoanalysis that results in a wank of a review that no one wants to read. Comedy reviews don’t add to anyone’s appreciation of the art, Razer says, and as such “in comedy, there can never been need for connoisseurs”.
In some ways, I vaguely agree with Razer. There is not an immediate need for comedy connoisseurs, and currently comedy reviews don’t function like literature reviews. This is because comedy has a much more scattered ‘canon’ – select works held up as classics – than literature or even Razer’s example of theatre. Comedy is a much more accessible art form. Comedy is for everyone in a way that some literature, some theatre, isn’t, and its critical culture reflects that. Currently, reviews are designed to tell a wider audience whether or why to go and see something. A good review isn’t unpacking the material to understand where the humour comes from, but rather pin pointing the topics, describing the style, noting the responses of the rest of the audience and then aligning it with their own personal response. There are just as many technical specifics that a reviewer can focus on in a comedy show as there are in a theatrical one (and the same can be said of porn, which surely can be reviewed as easily as any horror film).
Of course, comedy is somewhat more variable than theatre. Shows change from year to year, or even night to night, and there is no textual baseline to compare to. Comparisons might have to be drawn, for better or worse, to the current pop culture zeitgeist. This changeability is in part why the discourse surrounding comedy isn’t as flooded with fan analysis as say television. Comedy isn’t wanting for obsessed fans, after all, but it’s more difficult to indulge an analytic compulsion when the art isn’t easily repeated.
Impermanence isn’t an excuse for a lack of critical discourse though. In order to engage with one, we need to get over our fear that analysis will make something less funny. Comedians are already critically interpreting their work as well as their peers’. It’s an observationally analytic art form, something which Razer seems to forget. There are plenty of texts, academic, industrial and general, written on comedy, ripe with a language that deconstructs and informs comedy. Whether this is the role of reviewers, I’m not sure. After all, a good review doesn’t give away the jokes.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of bad reviews out there, especially during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. ‘Bad’, as in, poorly written, judgemental and misleading, rather than negative about the show in question. This is especially true of this year’s Herald Sun coverage, which has been downright disrespectful. What kind of self important paper creates a ‘worst’ list? There’s no comedy equivalent of the Razzies (Golden Raspberry Awards) and there doesn’t need to be, because a less than funny comedy show can’t revel in its failure. Comedy doesn’t get to be ‘so bad it’s good’, because its aiming to be funny. If there are no laughs, the comedian learns, and hopefully improves.
Obviously, I think reviews are necessary. Important, maybe not, but necessary. I really, really love comedy. I think it plays a major way in the way a culture self reflects, and any form of self reflection, any form of art, should be commented on. I’m also generally pretty positive. This festival I have written two vaguely negative reviews, both of which took a great deal of time and effort, not least because I know people involved in both shows. I don’t want to actively discourage people from seeing comedy, or even these particular acts, I just didn’t think either show was very strong. Both shows went on to get mostly positive reviews, so I’m not sure what that says about me. I try to be honest, but maybe I was wrong. I think that it’s this attitude that means comedians and producers are willing to give me the time of day and some insight into the industry, which goes on to inform the way I write about it. There is a subjective element to reviewing, but that’s not exclusive to comedy reviewing. That subjectivity is part of why I stopped writing for Heckler, a website where all reviews are published anonymously. These are my thoughts, not objective observations, and that should be made clear.
There’s a weekend of MICF left. So go and see comedy. Laugh, or don’t laugh, and think about why. Write about it on Twitter, on your blog, in an essay. Read a book about comedy (maybe Mike Sack’s Poking a Dead Frog) or a comedy book. Comedy is about engagement and communication, just as much as any other art form. It is intensely personal in both its delivery and its reception, and we should not bemoan it for that.
Ryan Coffey, who directed my attention to Razer’s article via Facebook, had this to say about it, and I think it sums up my general sentiment well: “I don’t like this article. At best it is Razer undermining her profession (one I think she’s pretty good at), and at worst she’s undermining comedy as an art form – one worthy of critical analysis. The inevitable subjectivity does not negate a need for communication – to share the experience of being human in a world full of art and beauty.”
Yes, Ryan Coffey does have a show at MICF. It’s called Heartbreaker and it’s on at the Forum until the 19th. Tickets are available online and at the door.
Other recommendations include Ben Russell’s show Tokyo Hotel and Laura Davis’ Ghost Machine, both of which have been nominated for the Golden Gibbo award. Michael Hing’s Much Ado About Not Hing is also worth checking out, as is Penny Greenhalgh. I guess these are my picks of the festival (or at least, the ones that are still on and who I’m not friends with on Facebook).