Forget comics vs critics, it's the punters who count

John Owen on who wields the real power

The recent debate on this website on the role of critics seems to ignore the most important group associated with the comedy industry: the punters.

Comedian Ed O’Meara suggests (flippantly, I accept) that comics and critics should be from the same group; people who have performed onstage.  But it takes only the most basic of comedy knowledge to know that comics themselves do not always subscribe to the belief that a gig stormed is a great gig.

Take Michael McIntyre. For your average punter there is nothing funnier than a Michael McIntyre show, yet critics and comics seem to hold him in utter contempt.  Here is a classic example of a punter-led sensation, McIntyre has won his fair share of good reviews in his career but even as he was rapidly rising through the ranks he failed to receive more than three stars from Chortle in 2008 for his Edinburgh show.

Equally someone like Reginald D Hunter has failed to receive many reviews for Edinburgh shows that have earned him more than three stars in the last few years and yet in the same timeframe he has become one of comedy’s most well-known faces and voices and a regular on all forms of television comedy.  This suggests that we, the punters, can decide to follow and support acts without the help of critics or comics.

And this is perhaps most true on the regular club circuit.  Many comedians who make manageable livings never need criticism, as club owners and promoters know they can be relied upon to please a crowd for 20 minutes without ever aiming to move into the arts pages of the broadsheets.

And yet it also seems obvious to me, as a punter, that success in comedy should not purely be judged on laughs alone.  The acts that I would pay money to see are often those who are deliberately not guaranteed to storm a show and leave the audience paralysed with laughter.  Comics like Stewart Lee, Josie Long and Paul Sinha are capable of writing that rises above the simple concerns of getting a big laugh and so construct shows that are intelligent and informative as well as funny.

Such comedians would never be able to sell out arena tours and would, I am sure, put a lot of their career enhancement down to the critics who have continuously backed them. Indeed the one-man show format is often fully reliant on criticism.  Acts like Rhod Gilbert and John Bishop have seen rapid rises in the last couple of years thanks to extremely favourable reviews.  These kind of acts often rely largely on critical acclaim to build up their fan base and success.

Furthermore it seems to me that Ed O’Meara seems to miss the point of a bad review.  Out of interest, after having read his piece, I did some research and discovered that an act now as nationally important as Russell Howard has not been immune to a bad review or two in his time.  On Chortle, Steve Bennett rubbished his Edinburgh show of 2002 and yet by 2007 he gained a more than respectable four-star review.  This clearly shows that critics are prepared to alter perceptions and that one bad review need not ruin a comic’s career. The Russell Howard of 2002 might have failed to sell any tickets at all, and yet by 2007 he was about to achieve massive fame through Mock The Week, which has allowed him to be one of the few current arena-filling acts. Surely here we can see the clear development of someone becoming more appealing to punters over time, partly aided by a reaction to critics.

And it’s not just that whether either group has more or less influence and importance.  In the end the whole comedy industry relies on punters. It is the punters that have allowed the industry to broaden in the way it has, the huge variety of acts working in the UK at the moment relies not just on critics praising them or their own skills but on the simple truth that they are able to sell tickets.  Even a great show in an almost empty room leaves the audience and comic feeling unsatisfied. The audience is vital for every gig no matter how big the venue or great the material.

This can perhaps be most clearly seen in those acts that, despite critical acclaim, great skill and even comics’ support struggle to achieve success.  An act like Hans Teeuwen illustrates this, his show at Edinburgh this year was offering cheaper or free tickets every night of the week I was there and yet he was still getting good reviews. On the night I went, the biggest and loudest laughs in the room were coming from Russell Kane.  And someone like Brendon Burns, winner of comedy’s most important award, still struggles to break down the final barriers on the road to stardom, while his less-experienced and –lauded compatriot Jim Jefferies who has a similar style and humour is on the way to international renown.  There is clearly something about these two very different acts –Teeuwen and Burns – that fails to quite grab and excite the public and, apparently inexplicably, they fail to rise to the top (and have recently both received downturns in their popularities amongst critics) with the ease of a McIntyre or Jefferies.

Ultimately the gloriously broad comedy arena that we have in this country needs all three interested parties.  Obviously we need comics, comics who represent all kinds of interests and styles but who all have the skill to make a room of people laugh.  We need critics to find and promote these acts or to help them, as experienced audience members, to enhance the techniques and styles that may ultimately make them successful.  But we also need us, the punters.  So let’s stop this silly fight between comics and critics.

 You each rely heavily, nay, almost entirely on one another but you must always remember it is us who judge you, who pay your bills and who judge you all. And although our experience of comedy is enhanced by both of you, we can, and do, often ignore all your advice and hard work and, seemingly, randomly raise acts hated by comics and critics alike to superstardom.

Published: 29 Sep 2010

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