The inconsistent world of comedy and the Herald-Sun

Is it just us or have this year’s MICF reviews on the Herald-Sun website been really positive? A bit too positive? Check out their page’s Laugh-O-Meter, which shows that the average rating for shows is 4 stars. Seriously? Even assuming that different reviewers will rate shows on slightly different scales, and that all comedians performing will be doing their best material because MICF is an internationally-renowned showcase event, and that Australia being a relatively small place some reviewers will have industry connections or interests which may cause them to score the acts more highly than others, shouldn’t the average show rating still be more like 2½ or 3 stars? What could be going on here?

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with last year’s Herald-Sun/MICF reviewing “fiasco” (if not, this blog post gives a good run down), for which the Herald-Sun received a lot of industry flack. Could this be our nation’s largest newspaper attempting to redress the balance, to protect their sponsorship investment in one Australia’s largest cultural events? A sponsorship which we’re guessing was intended to draw a slightly different audience to their core readership.

It could equally be the result of inexperienced reviewers. The Herald-Sun is not exactly noted for its arts coverage, nor is there any major publication in this country which has a dedicated live comedy reviewer. And indeed, if there was a dedicated live comedy reviewer what exactly would they review? Despite a number of people keeping the Melbourne live scene going, it can hardly be said to thrive at any other time of the year. So how can reviewers be expected to keep churning out fair and balanced reviews of a style of performance they rarely see? Better be nice and score them higher to be on the safe side.

(in case you were wondering, the Herald-Sun’s rival newspaper and former MICF media partner The Age has also been reviewing the fest in somewhat glowing terms. While a lot of shows are getting three stars from them, you have to be pretty bad to do worse and a lot of shows have done better. So while they’re not as bad as the Herald-Sun – their reviewers generally have more live reviewing experience as well – the general consensus again seems to be “better-than-average”.)

Not that any of the acts can be worrying too much about this. As a recent blog post demonstrates, there’s a great deal at stake for anyone putting on a MICF show…

They’ve got an average of $8,000 on the line.

…especially if you don’t have much of a profile. In this context word of mouth and good reviews are vital. As is profile-raising, which possibly explains why comedians – who by virtue of their profession should be above this sort of thing – are increasingly prepared to turn up on, for example, morning television, even when they’ve got nothing to plug.

And who can blame them for trying to get their faces out there? Much as everyone involved – apart from the audience – is a winner when comedy shows get glowing reviews (the sponsors – which includes the Herald-Sun – know good reviews help drag in punters who don’t know any better, the organisers can claim the festival was a success because everything was “well-reviewed”, and the performers can put the star ratings on their posters as promotional tools), this kind of constant praise ends up hurting comedians because it leads to disgruntled and distrusting audiences.

Take us for example, for we are the prime market for MICF: people who are interested in comedy. But because we don’t see a lot of live comedy – which makes us like everyone else, because outside of MICF there really isn’t much live comedy on offer in Melbourne (and what there is, is short sets, not 50 minute solo shows) – we have to rely on reviews. And because we can’t trust the reviewers – everything can’t possibly be three stars or better unless three stars doesn’t actually mean “three stars”* – we stay at home unless it’s someone we know about from outside sources. Like television appearances.

Which means comedians will do anything these days, they kind of have to. Over the past decade or so comedy has morphed from something which was almost pure and isolated from other artforms – like a loner standing in a corner at a party, cynically analysing what all the cool, popular people are doing – to a mere ingredient in any number of creative enterprises. Apparently, audiences don’t really want proper news any more, or indeed proper comedy, hence The Project. It’s a situation which frustrates a lot of comedians, who would quite rightly prefer to be off creating comedy than appear on, say, The Circle, for which they don’t make much money anyway.

So, it’s no wonder that comedians (and all the management companies and promoters who grew up around and professionalised the comedy industry in the 90s) get so stressed about people bagging them, or even re-telling their gags, online. Remember, there’s lots of money at stake, and reputations, and indeed an entire career path and industry. But as we’ve argued before, for a bunch of people who are professional funny buggers and want to spend their lives telling edgy gags – gags which out of context can sound like personal attacks and which are liable to be controversialised by newspapers like the Herald-Sun – comedians have a remarkably thin skin and a staggering lack of insight.

If they’re so worried about things like their “personal brand” what the hell are they doing taking-on members of the public who dislike their work? When the public takes to Twitter to express their dislike of a comedian, 99.9999999% of the time they’re objecting to that comedian’s work, not to them personally. Even if in isolation their comments seem like a personal attack (such as “I could just kill Dave Hughes for that”). As Graeme Garden once said “irony doesn’t work in print”, or it least it doesn’t always work in print, and we all – audience members, comedians, promoters, media – need to accept that in all circumstances.

Which brings us back (slightly clunkily) to our friends at the Herald-Sun, a newspaper with an ever-changing and often contradictory set of business strategies, all of which are ultimately intended to make Rupert more money. And if making Rupert money can be achieved by wilfully misinterpreting a joke on one day to boost readership, and handing out four- or five-star reviews to MICF shows on the next to boost takings at an event they’re sponsoring, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s what they’ve always done, and will do for ever more. And it seems the MICF is just fine with that.

 

*Other artforms – music, movies and television – are measured against a much wider range of examples. A newspaper can give every album they review 3 stars or better and when pressed about their soft reviews counter with “we don’t review anything that gets less than 3 stars” because there’s no way they can review everything that comes out. Movie reviewers can give most movies 3 stars or better because there will be a handful of really, really horrible films released each year that deserve 1 star. But with MICF everything on offer is being reviewed and because it’s the only real source of live comedy for the year the only valid comparison for a show is with other shows on around it – which means that, ideally, a reviewer would see everything first then hand out star ratings. As this isn’t possible, the star ratings are close to useless… but sadly, are the only things anyone pays attention to.

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4 Comments

  • D says:

    I generally think this is a pretty well-informed and credible blog, but you lost a lot of credibility when you stated that,”outside of MICF there really isn’t much live comedy on offer in Melbourne”. Sure, you followed it up with, ” (and what there is, is short sets, not 50 minute solo shows)” but even that downplays how much live comedy there is in Melbourne during NOT March to April. There are multiple comedy showcases from Monday through Sunday every week in Melbourne. Every week.

    And if this – “comedians have a remarkably thin skin” – is news to you, you clearly don’t know any comedians.

    I don’t think you really have the authority to post on comedy if that’s your perspective on it. But that’s just my opinion.

  • sam says:

    Totally agreed, D.

    Tumbleweeds – you admitted in your more recent blog about the Raw Comedy winner that you guys don’t really get out and see live comedy (before making a series of “conclusions” based on something you hadn’t seen!). Sorry guys, but if you’re serious about providing analysis and opinion about comedy in Australia then you need to have at least some exposure to the wealth of live stuff that is going on all through the year from Comedy Festival to Melbourne Fringe in September/October to the regular full length shows at Bella Union, The Butterfly Club, The Quarterly Retort, and also any number of comedy nights most nights of the week. Some of the most interesting, creative emerging comedy is happening in the live scene. Sure, like any medium, there’s also plenty of not-too-great stuff too. But you’re really missing out a whole lot of content if you’re not even making the effort.

    Sure there is new comedy that finds its way to TV through means such as online videos (Danger 5) or community TV (Bazura, Twentysomething). But the fact is that many Australian TV comedians and writers find their feet in the live scene (stand up, comedy theatre, uni revues) or have at least some connection to live comedy. If you want to have your finger on the pulse, get to a few shows or comedy nights every now and then. You may even see some stuff that you like.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Thanks both of you for the feedback – we’d really like to get to see more live comedy, but various work / location pressures makes it somewhat difficult on a regular basis. Any suggestions? When we do make it out we usually find ourselves watching fairly trad stand-up, which isn’t really to our taste as – as hopefully this blog makes clear – our tastes lean more towards sketch / narrative comedy.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    You have a point – a good one – but as this is largely a blog about comedy on television, we hope we’d be forgiven for looking at live comedy in that light. That is, as a feeder to what we see on television rather than an end in itself. You’re perfectly entitled to disagree of course and we expect many would as there are numerous excellent performers out there whose work doesn’t translate to the small screen (and they may not even want to). But for us here, that’s the prism through which we view comedy.

    In that light then, we stand – to some extent – behind our comment. You’re 100% right that there’s loads of live comedy going on in Melbourne every day of the week, much like there’s plenty of local sketch comedy put up on youtube, people recording podcasts, DIY comedy magazines, websites, and so on. But as far as high profile, attention grabbing, shaping the mainstream conversation about comedy (like television does) gigs go, there’s isn’t much live comedy on at that level outside MICF.

    As for not realising comedians have thin skins, to be honest we did actually already know that. But in the light of at least one recent twitter rant against critics from a biggish name comedian, it doesn’t hurt to restate the facts.