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In a critical condition

Steve Bennett defends the role of the reviewer

This is a response to Ed O'Meara's article: What's The Point Of Comedy Critics?

Criticising the critics has, quite understandably, long been a hobby of anyone artistic – as Sibelius famously said: ‘Pay no attention to what critics say, no statue has ever been put up to a critic.’

But a more pertinent quote here would surely be ‘everyone’s a critic’. Whenever anyone puts their head above the parapet in a public arena, they are immediately judged by their audience. Listening to many post-gig discussions, or plunging into some of the nether reaches of the internet, you’ll encounter much harsher comments than even the most stinging Chortle review, even at gigs that went reasonably well. It’s comes with the job of being a comedian – a job, incidentally, that no one is forced into.

It would be preposterous for me to claim reviewing comedy is a hugely significant or worthy calling. Come the inevitable collapse of civilisation, comedy critics won’t exactly be first in the queue to join the escape ark, but I would – obviously – argue that critics do have a valuable role in comedy. Because this is a great and noble artform, and as such it should be open to intelligent critical analysis.

We’ve got laughter to tell us whether we’re doing a good job, says Ed O’Meara. But surely that’s the very least a comedian should do. As I’ve said before – the laugh should be the start of a comedian’s job, not the end.

A comedian can take audiences on great journeys, whether it’s into their puerile world of silly jokes, surreal fantasies or powerful political polemic. This is clearly as different from triggering a laugh with a knob gag. It’s the same as the difference between a pub-rock covers band doing the job of entertaining their audience, and, say, Gorillaz, who you can see are doing something artistically more worthwhile while still achieving the same end.

You may think my choice of Gorillaz as an example is ill-judged; that’s going down to your individual taste and opinion. But when you’re passionate about something, be it music or comedy, discussing your views with others fuels that passion; and you start absorbing – or taking issue with – other opinions; and that’s where a reviewer (like most people who do this job, I prefer that term to the more negative ‘critic’) can be the spark for a debate. I love comedy, so like to spread the world when I encounter something amazing… or express my disappointment at something lazy.

Comedy is still under-rated, and under-understood as an artform. So many people go out for a night of ‘comedy’, yet no one would similarly go out to a similarly generic night of ‘music’, never mind whether it’s jazz or grindcore.

The more people think about what sort of comedy they want to see, the better for the industry. And there’s lots of evidence that it happening, with increasing numbers of acts, even relatively little-known ones, able to sustain tours under their own name. That’s down to everyone in the industry taking comedy more seriously, if you like, than simply ‘having a laugh’.

Our comedy circuit is the envy of the world because of this. It’s a combination of economics and geography – towns only a few miles apart can each have thriving comedy clubs – which makes stand-up a viable career option, and of the Edinburgh Fringe, where fierce competition to stand out forced comedians to perform at the top of the game.

And, like it or not, critics are an important part of this. Ed O’Meara asserts that ‘comics aren’t desperate for a reviewer's feedback’ – in which case why the army of publicists at the Fringe, begging for reviews? It’s no exaggeration to say could get hundreds and hundreds of calls and emails over the fringe from PR companies, producers and acts asking if I would review them. Sure they hope for positive comments, but empty praise means nothing.

And that’s the one thing I would agree with O’Meara on; the quality of reviewing at Edinburgh is vastly inconsistent. Contrary to what he suggests, however, any reviewer’s authority *is* earned. It comes from past form, and the coherence of what they write. I think that’s more important than the reductive star rating, but that is so ingrained in the jungle of Edinburgh reviews, it’s almost obligatory

While comics would clearly like the praise, it’s also an exaggeration to suggest we have the life or death over a comedians’ career. Only they have that power. The long climb to success as a comic is a series of small victories and setbacks, and you have to hope the former outweigh the latter. A good or bad review is a small boost or disappointment, for sure, but in the long term, it’s a comic’s talent and hard work that defines everything. And if you are charging the public money for something, or even asking them to spare you an hour of their time, surely it’s only fair that reviewers should pass comment on whether, in their view, that’s an investment worth making.

But in the end, O’Meara’s article boils down to ‘well, if you’re such a bloody know-it-all, you give it a go’; an argument that’s ridiculously easy to dismiss. You don’t need to know a diminished seventh from a secundal harmony to know, say, that the Beatles are more artistically valid than JLS.

And, guess what. If I gave it go, I know I’d be shit. I’d be the first to admit that. As Kenneth Tynan – a reviewer who did a great deal of good for the theatre world – said, ‘a critic is a man who knows the way, but can’t drive the car’. It would take months, if not years, of schlepping around the country, taking every gig going and really working on the act to be able to pass my comedy driving test. Comics who put in such work to improve their act, honestly have my every respect.

Plus I’ve no desire to. The other common criticism of reviewers is ‘you’re just failed performers’. No, no I’m not. Well, only in the same way I’m a failed mental health nurse or corporate accountant. I, obviously, consider myself to have done reasonably well in the field I’ve chosen, isn’t that enough? Perhaps it’s something about the twin neurosis of insecurity and arrogance that many comics possess that leads them to think everyone else MUST desperately want to do what they do.

Ironically, of course, comedians are often harsh critics themselves, coming on stage to slag off celebrities, politicians, the front row, anyone who doesn’t share their values. There’s never a question of whether they have the ‘authority’ to be so judgmental, it’s all about how entertaining and insightful they are in doing so. The same should surely be true for reviewers.

  • Steve Bennett is editor of Chortle – and once gave Ed O'Meara a bad review

Posted: 15 Sep 2010

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