Critics are often told that we’re the eunuchs at an orgy, and actors and creative people routinely like to say that they don’t read us, either: the two hours we spend scribbling in the dark doesn’t truly reflect the weeks they’ve been stumbling around in the dark trying to put the thing on, and in any case, it’s only one person’s opinion that they take on board at their peril, whether favourable (in which case they become self-conscious about the moments we isolate) or critical (in which case they feel undermined).
But even if they don’t read us, we read them when they take the trouble to reply to what is written about them, and comedian Robert Newman got a full page in the Guardian last week to launch a broadside attack on comedy critics and their own failure to have evolved what he calls “a critical language” to discuss the art form, as the rock music press he says evolved 30 years ago. “They have no critique with which to tell the readers how one gag is exquisite and one trite when both are ostensibly about the same subject matter. When they are watching Bill Bailey or Daniel Kitson, the comedy reviewers may sense, correctly, that they are in the presence of greatness, but they can’t begin to tell you why.”
Is there method in the comic madness? Of course there is – just as drama or music or art moves you and our job is to say why. But somehow it’s easier to describe what makes you cry than what makes you laugh. And besides, you run the danger of giving away the punchline if you quote the joke; or undermine it if you deconstruct it too closely. Instead, comedy critics take the fall-back position of quoting particular moments. But, says Newman, this isn’t good enough: “A reviewer might give an example of a bit that they noticed went down well, and which seems somehow representative of the sort of thing this performer does best, but no one ever analyses a routine or sketch in the way that music reviewers absolutely insist on having you understand just why the inverted chords in Joy Division’s Atmosphere or the flattened fifths in Louis Armstrong’s Strutting with Barbecue are meaningful or original, or why the middle eight of a Joni Mitchell song is wrong because it’s bucking against the lyrics. But why go to such absurd lengths with comedy? I mean, it’s only comedy, right? It’s not as if it were something important like a play.”
That’s Newman’s own self-esteem issues talking, I fear, rather than the critic’s alleged failure, for which there may be a far more practical reason why it doesn’t happen: deconstructing an entire routine or sketch takes space – which most journalists don’t have the luxury of being given. Nor is it a critic’s fault that the press night wasn’t full and that it didn’t get as many laughs as the previous show that the critic had seen had done. Newman petulantly asks: “Why didn’t the reviewer come when the audience came?” (Answer: he came when he was invited to do so. It was the management’s job to fill the place). Newman goes on, “If he had, then he’d have known what a graphic equaliser knows, which is that the audience made three times as many vocal eruptions of that inchoate kind known in the biz as ‘laughter’ than in the previous show.” Comedy, like theatre, is in the moment; and there’s an implicit understanding that the review is of a particular performance. Critics, too, are often attacked for raving about something that, the night a reader goes, doesn’t fly. “Did the critic see the same show?”, they ask. The answer of course is that you never do. That’s the nature of live performance.
All of which is about to be put to the test later this week when this year’s Edinburgh Fringe starts, and comedy – a Cinderella of the arts pages – finally gets to come to the ball and is treated to the kind of column inches in the papers that it fails to get the rest of the year. No doubt there will be many more disgruntled comics complaining about the reviewers missing the point of their shows – but at least they’ll be getting written about. Which is something they spend the rest of the time complaining about failing to be.