What's the point of comedy critics?

Ed O'Meara gives zero stars to the reviewers

The wonder and frustration of comedy is that you never really know what’s going to happen. Your performance may be affected by a thousand factors; some you can learn to do something about, others are out of your control: MC, venues, material, environment, lighting, delivery, audience, demographic, energy, fatigue, room shape, stress levels, disruption.

You can go to a gig where everything in the world seems wrong and yet you can deliver an exceptional performance. You can go to another where everything seems set to storm and yet have a bad gig. Aside from fundamentally being good (which helps) the way to get universally recognised as being good seems to lie in consistency.

To attain consistency you need hundreds or thousands of hours of stage time. These can be a hotchpotch of highs and lows, moments of massive inspiration or crushing doubt, a ramshackle collection of sporadic, feverish, half-remembered performance snapshots where to be summed up in a couple of sentences or a bunch of over-used adjectives would be unfathomable and unrealistic. It would be like trying to write a children’s book about an elephant with hiccups which effectively explains Quantum Mechanics (just checked Amazon to be on the safe – nope, doesn’t exist).

And yet we have comedy critics.

The wonder of the comedy critic is how protected they are. They have total freedom to write a review about someone and yet there is almost no recourse to properly challenge them. Once the review is written, it is attached to the comic and (no matter how inaccurate or outdated) is shackled to them through every Google search.

Any direct challenge will result in a disingenuous but muted defence of ‘well, it’s just my opinion’ – as if the opinions of a hallowed circle of desk jockeys doesn’t have clout throughout the entire comedy industry, doesn’t influence what people go and see, can’t make or break a comic.

During one career-threatening review, one reviewer blithely pointed out that comics were ‘all desperate for feedback and hoping for positive adjectives for that next Edinburgh poster’, except of course comics aren’t desperate for a reviewer's feedback. They have the means for instant feedback every single gig – by the oft overlooked tool of comedy criticism called the audience.

This isn’t puppet theatre. There is little ambiguity as to whether something is worthwhile or not. Generally speaking, if the comic gets it right, people laugh. If any more detailed analysis is required, ask a more experienced comic. That’s as much feedback as necessary. The rest is hard work.

Comics just want the quotable compliments. The reason that the reviewers comments are so highly prized is that most people in Britain couldn’t name three stand-up comics in one sitting, no matter how much money has been thrown at publicity.

What audiences want is some basic, reasonably official assurances that what they’re seeing won’t turn out to be shit. And now the review has led to a hyper-inflation of expectation. The star system has become some monstrous empirical categorisation of merit. I saw two people outside the Gilded Balloon comparing two Edinburgh posters. ‘Well, this one has 15 five-star reviews, whereas this one has only got 14 five-star reviews.’ But which to go with? The choice was clear.

As it happens, one highly decorated comic had a lousy gig, and audience members left the venue confused and disappointed. One of the audience members was heard to say ‘Five stars? For that?’ Because how can a reviewer be expected to anticipate the fluctuations of live comedy? They can't. One comic was complaining on-stage about getting a three star review, because three stars are ‘unusable’. Another was asking ‘Is a four-star review the new three-star review?’

Publications will soon have to stretch to six or seven star systems (just like the Gillette razor blades. That’s funny, eh?… ‘Life-changingly hilarious’ ********** TimeOut).

Of course critics could defend themselves by arguing that they’re more discerning than everyone else, that they can throw together some criticism where others fail, and that they’ve seen an awful lot of comedy.

I can write tolerably well, have an analytical mindset and have also been on a lot of planes, but this doesn’t make me an aviation expert. All I’ve had to do is sit back and enjoy the ride, only afterwards making sniping comments about the landing: ‘Bumpy **’.

If critics want to earn the authority that their opinions hold, they should have the good grace to get on stage and show comedians how it’s done. Just once. Just to show they know what they’re talking about. The audience should be made out of comics. Comics with notepads.

  • Click here to read Chortle editor Steve Bennett's response

Published: 15 Sep 2010

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