A matter of opinions...

Barnaby Slater wishes critical comics would keep their traps shut...

I've realised that airing an opinion or offering advice in the comedy world is more dangerous than the time I admitted to liking Fleetwood Mac at one of my mother's New Year's Eve over-50's singles parties. After one gig I was once asked how I felt about a fellow stand up's set and I enthusiastically heard myself say: 'What I love about your comedy is that you don't feel the need to try and get belly laughs. It's all about your persona. And it's delicious"

To which she replied bluntly: 'I'm trying to get belly laughs.'

Cue awkward silence, back-tracking and me spending the next two hours on the Albert Bridge suicidally wondering why I open my mouth when it's clearly safer for me to live alone embracing my intrinsic banality. I knew what I was trying to say, and I was genuinely attempting to be complimentary, but my talent for descriptive dialogue deserted me at just the wrong time. Imagine seeing Liam Gallagher try to discuss the expository genius of The Usual Suspects. Yes, I looked that stupid.

Mind you, i've been at the wrong end of a few backhanded compliments myself. A guy I play football with once said to me: 'Oh, Barnaby, I watched some of your stand-up on Youtube. It was so much better than I thought it would be. I loved how you dealt with all those bits where nobody was laughing.'

I chose not to explain to him that it was an edited clip and in my mind there weren't any moments where nobody was laughing. I also once told a fellow stand-up of my excitement at having reached the latter stages of an important comedy competition, to which he replied: 'That's brilliant well done. Just make sure you have absolutely no expectation of getting any further. None whatsoever.' Which could have been a rallying call, but naturally didn't sound like one to me. It was enough to persuade me not to bother turning up.

At a a highly respected London new act show recently, I was party to a conversation between a budding young stand-up and the promoter where the comedian asked: 'What did you think of my set? I'd love to get booked for a ten if possible.'

To which the promoter replied: 'To be honest, you've got to completely change that material. It's not funny. You're not funny. The jokes are not funny.' I wanted the ground to swallow me up. And he wasn't even talking to me. I just so wished i'd not heard it. It gave me that unique punch in the stomach feeling you only feel when a) you relate to a fellow act having a 'death' moment or b) your girlfriend cheats on you.

But, this is the thing…. what do we actually want when we ask people for their opinions? I've heard myself enquire on numerous occasions: 'I'd love to know what you think. You know, some constructive criticism' when what I mean is: 'Tell me you loved it, tell me you idolised it, tell me you think the world has spent the last two millennia waiting for my comedy band's three-minute ode to assisted suicide.'

But, of course, that's very rarely how things work. And even when someone does give you exactly what you want to hear, they're either lying, or you can bet your bottom dollar that your comedic neuroses won't allow you to believe them anyway. 'He says he loves it. Why would he lie to me? He must mean he hates it. Why can't he just tell me the truth? I'm never doing it again. I'm going back to my tried and trusted syphilis material.' (Note: Barnaby Slater does NOT have any syphilis material. NOR talk about himself in the third person.)

Bizarrely, because of my newfound fear of having or hearing forthright comedic opinions, I now find myself living in a confusing comedy contradiction. That being a life where I spend every night onstage neutralising and burying my social editor, yet whenever i'm offstage I've had to start setting my trusty opinion gauge to zero.


A group of bitter comedians slag off the latest big-name TV comic. Barnaby nervously crunches the remnants of his packed lunch containing one (stale) cheese sandwich and a Club bar (mint).

Comic 1

So Barnaby, you haven't said much. What do you make of XXXX? He's awful isn't he. So obvious. So boring. What a sell-out.


I've never seen him, to be honest.

Comic 2

He's released six DVDs in the last three years, he has his own BBC TV show and his autobiography is top of the book charts.


Guess i've been too busy thinking about myself. Sorry.

And why am I like this? Because I fiercely don't believe in being another bitter, twisted comic who abuses their peers, and worse still - becomes a naysayer about those comics who've managed to trailblaze a path towards stand-up becoming big on prime-time television again, something that, lest we forget, wasn't happening for the last 20 years.

The truth is that we young(ish), aspiring comedians have a lot of reasons to be grateful to the TV comics of the past five years. They have proved that if you work hard enough, and are good enough - you can get to wherever you want to go, be that mainstream TV success, or more culty underground credibility that so many claim to prefer.

But, opinions make the world go round right? Well, maybe. But I personally think that you should be able spend a night in a comedy club alongside other comics without taking your bad day or miserable self-doubts out on someone who has been exactly where you are, doing exactly what you're trying to do, but worked harder than you have so is better than you and has therefore made you jealous of their success. That's it you see, when I hear a comic slagging off another comic, it's always based in resentment. Always. And it never comes across well. It's, dare I say it, quite childish.

I've left what I deem to be the worst for last though, and that's those comedians who use the stage to abuse other comedians. There's nothing more embarrassing then watching an open mic comic get up and spend their five minutes of hallowed stage time to tell us how terrible and unfunny another comedian is. And when it happens it always tends to be at the expense of a comic who is absolutely brilliant at what he or she does.

Of course, comedy is the most subjective of mediums, but I think it's fair to say that if someone is selling millions of tickets, DVDs and books then the chances are that, a fair number of people agree that he/she is funny in some way or other. So probably best concentrate on your own work and not that of others. You never know, you may get good one day and stand at the pinnacle… for the jealous young whippersnappers to be envious of. Now wouldn't that be delicious?

Now I realise that I have contradicted myself here, by saying I never air opinions about comedy anymore, and then telling you how I feel about comedians who air their opinions about comedy. But, in an attempt at putting up a defence - i've purposely named no names, and I happily admit that i'm very much an opinionated beast, it's just that I won't air my carnivorous beastly views about fellow comics out loud.

Published: 17 May 2011

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