You know what comedy needs? More critics

Donnchadh O Conaill wants comedy to be taken seriously

Critics are often thought of as being to comedy what a vendor hawking pork pies is to an orthodox Jewish wedding – unwelcome intruders offering unpalatable goods.

Joe Daniels, in his recent article on the perils of being both critic and comedian, mentioned quite a few of the usual points raised against comedy criticism. Humour is mostly subjective, so reviews can never be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; much of the time, reviewers can’t even reach a consensus; many critics are either failed comedians or are really writing about themselves. There are some important points here, but I don’t think they show comedy criticism can be dispensed with. If anything, they show that the real problem is that there isn’t enough criticism in the world of comedy, and not enough of what might be called a culture of criticism.

It’s worth briefly comparing comedy with music in this regard. Most people have a highly developed sense of genre, of what kind of music they’re interested in. We aren’t just music fans, we like jazz or indie or contemporary classical. The point isn’t that these genres are exclusive, that you can’t or ought not to like Franz Schubert if you’re a fan of Franz Ferdinand. Rather, people have expectations about what they want to hear, and relatively sophisticated criteria for distinguishing what they like from what they don’t.

This, in the main, is not the case with comedy. In general, genres here are less clearly demarcated than they are in music, and people have less well developed criteria for judging acts (though regular readers of this website may be an exception). In part this is down to the fact that in comedy, if you laugh at it, you usually like it. There is no single equivalent criterion in music, with the possible exception of dance music, where you can always ask whether it makes you move your feet or not.

But even here, we laugh at different things, and in different ways. This is one of the jobs comedy critics ought to be doing – providing a better developed sense of what different acts are trying to do, and letting the public know how successful they are in this task. If a sketch group is ‘revolutionising the form’, as one seems to do every 18 months or so, it’s interesting to know how they’re achieving this. If a stand-up is ‘taking comedy to places it’s never been before’, the critic ought to provide us with some sort of a map of where it’s headed. We may or may not want to jump on board, but at least we’ll have some idea of the destination.

Another job for the critic is to provide a sort of formalised feedback for the acts themselves, concerning the craftsmanship of a show, or how interesting the idea behind it is, or whether the whole thing has already been done by Stewart Lee. It’s understandable that comics are sensitive to criticism. Stand-up in particular is a uniquely direct form of expression, and it can be very difficult to separate criticism of what one does on stage from criticism of oneself as a person.

But comedy, like any other form of entertainment, is a public performance, one that the performer relinquishes their unique control over when it is staged. As such, other people are entitled to their opinions on the show – that’s the whole point of performing it for them. A culture of criticism, at its best, allows for an informed exchange of opinions, some of which might not have occurred to the performer. In principle, any comic who asks their friends for suggestions about their material or gigs should be interested in reading their own reviews. They might even improve as a result.

None of this is to question the claim that in comedy criticism, there is no ultimately objective right or wrong. This is perhaps more obvious in comedy than in other entertainment forms, but it applies to a greater or lesser degree to all forms of artistic expression. It doesn’t follow that you can’t have better or worse reviews, sharper or blunter sensibilities, more or less informed opinions. It would seem very odd to dismiss respected critics such as Alex Ross, Ian MacDonald or Anthony Lane on the grounds that what they are doing is ultimately subjective and therefore worthless.

There may or may not be comedy critics worthy of being mentioned alongside these names, but I can see no reason in principle why comedy criticism cannot aspire to their levels of insight. Even the self-obsessed and bitter failures among us should be allowed to dream, shouldn’t we?

Published: 15 Sep 2009

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