Criticing the critics

Originally published on chortle on 11th April 2012, I wrote this piece as a blatant plug for my book

Correspondents piece

Fringe season is looming, when comics pick up more press than at any other time of the year. As the subject of a review it’s pretty much impossible to reply to any negative comments without it sounding like sour grapes or it seeming like just generally a whining git, even if you’ve got a perfectly valid criticism of your write-up.

So in no particular order here are some observations from comics I’ve spoken to on the subject.

Comics are quite often criticised for using stereotypes, yet reviewers don’t seem to have any objections to using them at all. The term ‘northern comic’ implies an act is wearing a frilly shirt and leaning against a mic stand with a pint of beer in one hand, and keeps mentioning their partner’s female parent. If the comic just happens to be from the north, that’s completely different. I doubt you’d use the term southern comic to describe anyone, or southern banter. In fact it’s hard to see why the term is used at all in write-ups.

If a performer is from the same city as someone more famous than them, and therefore has a similar accent, it doesn’t mean they sound the same. This is implies they’re copying or mimicking someone else’s style and material. Comics have their own individual voices, just sometimes with a regional twang.

Trying to make a name for yourself by writing a scathing review of someone is an approach often employed by new critics and it doesn’t work. It is also a double standard as you’d criticise a comedian for trying to copy another act rather than find their own voice. So new critics should be themselves. They shouldn’t be trying to be Kate Copstick, by which I mean copying her review style not hanging around late night bars and trying to pick up comics.

Including one or two jokes from a show that has nearly 200 can be helpful, it gives the reader an idea of the type of humour and whether or not it’s likely to be their cup of tea. But giving away the best jokes or the ending of the show is quite frankly just ruining the show for anyone who reads the review. It’s also pretty lazy and you can’t help but think that all the reviewer has done is plagiarise some material to try to liven up their write-up. I urge any comic who spots their material being used in a review to send them an invoice. You’ve written the best bits so demand a 60/40 split of the payment.

If a show isn’t your cup of tea, then acknowledge up front that it’s not your thing. There is no need to give someone a bad write-up if they’re actually putting on a decent show that they have clearly worked on. I don’t like Daniel O’Donnell but I’m not about to tell a million grannies they’re wrong.

If you don’t know what to make of a show and you can’t make your mind up if someone is a genius or requires full-time care, then be honest and just say that. You don’t have choose a side of a fence – the main question is did you laugh at any of it?

Saying a show was different from what you expected is fair comment, but comparing two shows and saying you wanted one show to be more like another, shows that you went in there without an open mind. You’d wouldn’t say that a Picasso painting should look more like a Da Vinci, so why should one show be more like another. Getting the details right about a show and performer is important. If you’re self conscious about taking out a notepad to record the names of the performers pretend you’re writing a text message and make a note of it on your phone. Last year a review for one show I was in slated a performer wo wasn’t actually in the show – they had used the name of different comic entirely. Another year Ashley Frieze was referred to solely as a ‘plump, bald man’ the critic had not made any attempt to write down the names of the performers.

I also read a gig review recently that described a comic as ‘a fat, hairy Scotsman’. The act in question turned out to be Martin ‘Bigpig’ Mor, who is neither Scottish – a big clue here is his Northern Irish accent and the opening line “I’m Martin from Northern Ireland – or fat. In fact I’d wager the man could bench press a Honda engine.

Insulting descriptions about a performer’s physical appearance, such as fat or ugly, have no place in a review and are effectively a printed version of playground bullying. If a performer is 20 stone and the show is about how they went on learning how to ballet dance, then their weight is relevant. If it’s a show of political satire then the performer’s physical attributes aren’t relevant at all.

Overly insulting or inappropriate comments about a show aren’t on either. One Fringe review from 2011 included the line: ‘Would I see the show again? Frankly I’d rather jam a pool cue up my urethra.’ Clearly that’s unnecessary, specifically when you consider the show in question was a children’s show. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to say that, not when you consider that the bargain shops in Edinburgh stock sporting equipment and that performers aren’t the most balanced of individuals at the best of times.

In the pool cue case the performers quite rightly complained and the review was removed from the publication’s website shortly afterwards, which would suggest those higher up the ladder disagreed with the duty editor’s decision to publish it. The review is, of course, still accessible through Google.

Making statements that can’t possibly be verified have no place in reviews. An example of one I read recently that said: ‘The show would have been better if it was on later in the day’ and another which proclaimed that ‘it was unlikely the performer would ever improve’. Neither of those statements can be proved and therefore shouldn’t go into print.

These are the points I’ve come across recently but I’m sure there are more I’ve missed and that comics will be more than happy to add to them. To close I’d like to wish all reviewers a nice festival and say in fairness it’s a job I wouldn’t want to do. Sitting through hour upon hour of Facebook jokes in those plastic seats most venues have that appear to have been designed specifically for torture in mind is my idea of hell on Earth.

  • Ian Fox has just written a book about producing fringe shows, available in paperback here.
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