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Saturday, May 9, 2009

The role of the critic

Came across a very interesting article in the New Zealand Herald today. In it, comic Rhys Darby takes comedy reviewers to task for giving away the punchlines in their reviews.

Darby, who plays the manager on Flight of the Conchords, called the practice "rude" and "lazy" and the reviewers plagiarists.

Let's see. Rude? Not unless their fans are, too, for repeating a good bit by a comic they like. You can talk all you want about why a comic is funny, but unless you can illustrate by way of example, you're not going to win any converts over.

Lazy? It depends on the review and reviewer, I'd think. If all they did was itemize the gags without any other insight, then I'd agree with Darby. But if they use one or two or three punchlines, with the precise wording the comic used while providing ample context, to demonstrate how and why the comedy worked, I wouldn't call them lazy at all.

Plagiarists? Uh, hardly. Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. Just like I did there with the dictionary definition. If the critic is citing the comedian, it can't be plagiarism.

But the subject is a fascinating one. Many times, it's the editors who demand specific examples of the jokes. My own rule of thumb is that unless I've got the wording exactly right, I won't quote a joke. And I don't want to give away too much. I don't think citing – at most – three jokes from a headliner is egregious. Presumably they have more than a handful of jokes in a set. The goal is to take a representative sample and also, if you can, show why it works or doesn't work for you.

Key words: "for you". It should never be forgotten, by either the critic, the comic or the crowd, that a review is just one person's opinion. It may be a slightly more informed opinion, but an opinion none the same. When I see a show that does nothing for me, but I'm sitting around hundreds of people who are all laughing hysterically, I feel it's incumbent upon me to mention that so the reader can think, "Hmm, it doesn't sound like it was a very good show. On the other hand, everyone else seemed to love it, so maybe the answer is somewhere in between." And then they can decide for themselves whether to check out that artist the next chance they get or not.

Check out this quote from Darby:
"There is a way to review live comedy and that's not the way. If I don't stand up and say it no one will. Comedians won't say it because they'll end up getting a bad review, or they'll be too scared."
I can't speak for other critics, but there's no way anything personal should ever get in the way of a professional review. Whether I like or dislike a comic personally has no effect whatsoever on what I think of their act. If someone wants to criticise me (and they have), I totally get it. Anyone who puts himself out there in the public eye, whether it be standup or critic, has to expect that not everyone's going to love what they do. Of course, I'll defend myself if I think they're wrong about what I do, but I appreciate the fact they're open with me about their opinions.

Here's an example. I once gave a stinky review to Brad Garrett. He then went on the Tonight Show and quoted from my review, and went on to make fun of me. I actually thought that was way funnier than his act. But if he comes to town again, I'd love to see him. He's a naturally funny guy and I've liked him for a long time. There was nothing personal about my review of his show. (See my rebuttal to his Tonight Show appearance here.)

Similarly I gave a less than positive review to one standup show by David Cross, while, at the same time, giving him kind words about his sketch show. He took me to task in a blog he wrote. Okay, he disagreed with me. Big whup. I like David Cross and have liked his standup. If he comes again, I'd hope I like his new show.

What's your opinion on what Darby said? Or Cross or Garrett, for that matter? Are they just overly-sensitive artists? Or do they have a point? What do you like to see in a comedy review?

Anybody? You there, in the back...

1 comment:

Little Jackie Showers said...

Huh, what me? .... Well.... I guess I want a review to give me a sense of what kind of comedy to expect from the comedian. And yes, I'd like the reviewer's opinion. I don't necessarily base me decisions to go to the show on that one review, but if I don't get any opinion at all that's not helpful.

I don't like a review to go on a bashing spree. Whether it is a movie review or any other commentary. No need to be like that grumpy radio guy, Macrae? is it.