Article // A critical conundrum: reviewing comedy

‘Offence’ and ‘comedy’ are once again tiredly paired together, forced to hold hands and swing dance in the middle of a circle of shouty pitchfork brandishing tweeters. Louis CK’s SNL monologue is the talk of the town, with people tweeting almost obediently about the in-built controversy. He talks about mild racism, Israel and Palestine and child molestation, and even me mentioning these topics is making your eyebrows snap into diagonals like an unfolding deck chair. You all have your opinions (some formed even before watching it), so what role does the comedy critic have in this situation? Soon I will be reviewing a stand-up comedy on the regular, so I’m finger-drumming my desk thinking how I can use this opportunity to help comedy rather than slander it.

I’ve been a full-time professional Emotional Support Provider for comedian friends for years, so I’m used to being a fierce critic of critics. It’s one of my wicked skillz to rip up a reviewer’s opinion and throw it to the ceiling, creating a cloud of defiant confetti. In my kitchen cupboard I have a full first aid kit of soothing creams for damaged egos, a bottle of antiseptic spray to prevent the bitterness from infecting their outlook on their whole career, and some Calpol to take the edge off, why not (I’ve heard if you down a bottle it makes you hallucinate – cheeky). From this perspective, the reviewer is saturated in unearned power, entering a venue silently with a clipboard and a solidified frown, making the performer’s blood run cold. Aside from my childlike dimpled face preventing me from ever commanding that kind of authority, that’s a power I’m not interested in gaining.

If you remove the reviewer from the equation, the pastel shades of watery relativity start to swill together like a runny Turner painting. Comedy is underpinned by the certainty that whether its good or bad is a matter of personal taste, so there will always be a slipperiness to its perceived quality. Stand-up comedy is also an unbridled expression of free speech, so there’s no point clutching on to the handles of this ship’s wheel trying to steer it. If the role of the reviewer is to give creators feedback on their work, the comedy critic’s role seems redundant; there’s a room full of people either howling and thigh-slapping or sitting enveloped in unrippled silence to give you quite clear feedback. I’ve only experienced the latter when I did my three stand-up gigs. I’m not ready to talk about it yet.

Sun Setting over a Lake circa 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Maybe then a comedy review shouldn’t be written to give unwelcome career guidance to professional comedians, but it should be aimed at the general public. The comedy review should be a state-funded independent objective introduction to the style of comedy performed by each act, administered with efficient sterility. The author should be invisible, hiding their tastes either way, like in a BBC News article. Reviewing comedy in and of itself isn’t an art form, it’s a public service. It shouldn’t be made grubby by the overspilling ego of a reviewer trying to be sassy.

The challenge seems to be admiring skill and talent that exists outside the reviewer’s own personal measurements of quality. Someone might turn their nose up at vulgarity, but because their nose is in the way of their eyes, they can’t see the relevance of the impact that vulgarity had. You’d risk overlooking acts like Louis CK, Joan Rivers and Frankie Boyle due to hypersonic sensitivity, with your face stiffening in to an icy glower of righteous outrage every time anyone even discusses racism, even if it’s mild.

It may just be me, but I’m bored of listening to the desperately creative ways people say something is shit. I’ll admit it’s funny to be snidey and scornful, but that’s the fast food option. It’s so easy to be dismissive. It’s actually a bit of a psychological strain trying to focus your lens to see the good in something, to respect it on its own terms. Plus, stand-up comedy gets a tough deal. As a performance style, it’s designed to underplay the artifice: make it look natural, easy, smooth, like the soft jazz they play over a montage scene in the beginning of a rom com. Usually the less written a joke sounds, the more spontaneous it seems, the funnier it is. The only problem with this mechanism is it means everyone thinks they could do comedy because it looks easy squeezy, mate. Comedy is almost exactly the same as breast implants: they’re meant to look natural, but really it’s the outcome of tedious administration, booking appointments, spending money and masochism.

Comedy reviews should be a directory for use by the general public to find the comedians to suit their sense of humour. I really am sacrificing my rep on the streets as being super wicked cool when I say this, but I want to inspire the same brand of gushy teenage romance that I feel for stand-up comedy in other people. That’s why I’ll write reviews: not to encourage people to follow my tastes, but to guide people to find the comedy that suits theirs. Comedy match-making, if you will. Y’welcome.


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