Reviewing Comedy Reviewers
It’s nearly that time of year, that wonderful period where brisk autumnal winds gust through the green streets of Melbourne, sweeping up discarded leaves and even more discarded flyers, whispering “debt” as they flutter past. That magical month when the inner city of Melbourne comes alive with hordes of excited people eager to be audiences for the three or four comedians they’ve seen on a car commercial or TV panel show.
The rest of us lacking that unquantifiable on-screen X-Factor are desperately pitching shows to people who are overwhelmed by the 800 or so acts they’ve never heard of. Couples gripped by FOMO insist on seeing something, anything, yet still recoil as we hand them a flyer that may as well be printed on thrush.
The handful of strangers who see our performance, buy us post-show drinks and say things like “How have we never heard of you?” and “I couldn’t get up and do what you do!” and we look at our negative bank accounts and agree that, technically, even we can’t do what we do.
If all the time, energy, money, and heartbreak we inject into a show pays off and the audience truly get what we’re laying down, there’s always the reviews to contend with. To be fair, I’m beginning to think only comedians read reviews. They’ve become more of a measuring stick for where you sit on the comical hierarchy. We cheer ourselves up after a mediocre gig by schaden-wanking over a devastating review that confirms our own opinion that certain comedians are unmitigated fucktards.
Still, being able to add a great poster quote or throw up four or more stars on your poster is a huge help in convincing the unconvinced to see a show. However, more often than not, these reviews are written by someone who has never critiqued any kind of live performance. So to help my lovely community of friends and weirdos, I thought why not write one of those self-serving open letters that are a thinly veiled method of showing off how funny and clever I am while vaguely dealing with an issue I don’t really give two shits about.
So to all the reviewers out there, consider this your comedy reviewing bible. Don’t repeat the following mistakes and you’re golden, five stars all the way.
Let’s get into it.
• DON’T REVEAL PUNCHLINES
When a reviewer can’t quite communicate the themes, social commentary or ideas behind a show, they tend to just rattle off a list of the bits the comedians do like a track listing on one of those CD things the kids used to listen to. It’s like when your dad tries to tell you a joke he heard about three decades ago, so he ends up trampling all over the phrasing by saying something like “Please take my wife!” Phrasing is everything, we strive to hit just the exact wording to make something funny become truly hilarious. For example, it’s totally fine to have “shits and giggles” but no one wants to have “giggles and shits”, that just sounds creepy as fuck.
• MATCH YOUR STARS TO YOUR REVIEW
The rule tends to be that the publications which don’t use stars are far more critical and thorough in their reviews, they tend to be better written too. Having said that, it’s not a reviewer’s cunning linguistics that get people to take note of a show, it’s all about the stars. The most common problem is when a review in no way matches the star rating. I’ve read countless critiques extolling how hilarious, charming and wonderful a comedian was, only to see them get three stars or less. Three stars is the worst, there’s nothing you can do with it. You can’t be a comedy rebel and claim they didn’t ‘get’ your material and you can’t put it on a poster either. It’s the participation trophy of comedy, a condescending little pat on the head that says “Hey, at least you showed up”. Be harsh or generous, just don’t be indifferent.
• REVIEW THE COMEDIAN, NOT THE VENUE
Why oh why does nearly every review talk about the venue? I just turn up and do my show, I’m not responsible for how comfy the chairs are or how many they’ve crammed into a space, nor am I at fault if the air-conditioning was a little too robust. I’m not even responsible if a show starts late, that’s the jerk on before me who pushes everyone else’s show out by ten minutes. This isn’t a restaurant review, no one gives two veiny dicks about the ambience, what was the comedian like?
• EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG
There are always a butt load of reviews that talk about how the audience all seemed to be dying from constant laughter seizures, but the reviewer simply couldn’t see why they liked it. Look into that, try to put yourself in their shoes, what was it you think everyone saw in the performance that you didn’t? When you publish a review claiming you didn’t understand it when everyone else clearly did, you come off as both clueless and arrogant. You’re effectively saying “everyone loved this comedian, everyone else is wrong”. Even if you truly believe the audience was wrong, at least try to verbalise why you think that’s the case, don’t just throw out blanket statements. Use your empathy, or if you’re from a Murdoch publication, practice smiling into a mirror until you’re almost a human.
• WHAT WAS THE COMEDIAN WEARING?
Literally no one gives a fuck, unless it’s a costume integral to the show, don’t bring it up. Don’t discuss our appearance unless you absolutely have to, and make sure you do it in an amusing way, you’re allegedly a writer – prove it. Especially don’t talk appearances if the comedian happens to own a vagina, then you are in deep trouble.
• DON’T REVIEW WHAT HAPPENS IN IMPROV
It’s not going to happen again, why are you telling us? Talk about the wit and skill of the performers or at the very least, talk about how wacky their poster with five white people doing jazz hands looks.
• NO SPOILERS
Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. If I had read that in 1999 I would have punched you in the throat. If there is a M. Night. Shyamalama-Ding-Dong style twist, hint at it, but don’t reveal it. Don’t spoil a show for everyone, just to show how clever you are.
• BE BRUTALLY HONEST
If you think a show sucked, that’s totally fine, it likely did suck. There are a plethora of comedians who don’t have a good five minutes of material, let alone an entire hour. The most brutal review I ever got is also my most favourite, because they clearly explained what I did wrong. They gave real constructive criticism and I was able to grow as a performer because of it. That’s when a reviewer really comes into their own, when they have a true impact on the art form. THAT is what you should strive for.
• LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR
Say, for example, some cocky comic feels the need to write a review of your reviews and you want to tear them a new one come festival time. You should be a professional, don’t let their arrogance taint your perspective of their work. Hate them all you want, but once you’re inside that tiny fire hazard of a room leave the hate outside and let their hour long show speak for itself or give them three stars and talk exclusively about their hair and the wallpaper in the venue, just to really fuck them right off.