Vale Jim Schembri

Well, it’s not like Jim Schembri is dead exactly, but as Crikey reported on Friday he has left The Age:

Age film critic and senior writer Jim Schembri has been sacked from his position following revelations he had repeatedly dobbed on the employers of his Twitter critics and hinted at taking legal action under the auspices of Fairfax Media.

This came after a rough few weeks for Schembri, first having whipped up a fair amount of internet angst about a review of Outland where he said the show – about a group of gay science-fiction fans – was “too gay”, then being exposed by Crikey as… well, they said it best:

Age film critic Jim Schembri has repeatedly contacted the employers of Twitter critics — in some cases issuing them with veiled legal threats — in an apparent attempt to shut down dissent on the social networking site.

While this may have had its slightly silly side – Schembri went after people running comedy twitter accounts too – it seems many of his victims were less inclined to laugh it off. Neither, it seems, was Schembri’s boss at The Age.

Schembri first came to our notice as far as comedy is concerned on, of all places, the website for the Martin / Molloy radio show. Sadly, as far as we can find the relevant page has vanished, even from the wayback machine (though if you’re interested a few bits and pieces of their 1998-era site can be found though the remaining links here – the real interest being the cast bios and segment listings), but thanks to a printout we made a number of years back when there was a bit more to be found we can quote the following from a “Twenty things that had us giggling like schoolgirls this week” list:

20. Oh, and Jim Schembri – you’re still a sad bitter little troll (and always will be).

(personally, we’d be pretty happy to make it onto a list with entries like 8. “The Evil Beardo” and 12. Jugglin’ fool Paul Barry, but maybe that’s just us)

The point being, Schembri’s been attracting scorn for a fair while now. Most of that’s been for his film reviewing (who could forget this classic AFI Award acceptance speech?), but he’s also written a lot about comedy – largely for The Age‘s Green Guide. While his film reviews often read like the work of someone more interested in attracting attention for his controversial views than providing a useful service to his readers, at least as far as comedy goes he seemed to have both a serious interest and a serious desire to write about it. Even with his recent dismissive and controversy-seeking review of Outland he went back and wrote an extended version on-line to clarify some points – something he noticeably didn’t bother doing with his short, scathing review of the ‘unreleasable” A Few Best Men from around the same time.

While we almost never agreed with his opinions and found many of his views on comedy to be laughable (in a bad way) or downright stupid, even we can’t deny that he had a serious, long-term interest in the form. One that extended beyond his work as a reviewer: not only did he have a brief stint as a writer on Fast Forward (not, as we previously thought, Full Frontal), and write the light-hearted (but somewhat off-putting) memoir Room For One, but we’ve also heard rumours that he worked as a stand-up comic around Melbourne in the 1990s under the name “Jimbo”.

He was also personally supportive of a number of Melbourne television comedians when they were starting out: if nothing else, there’s a glowing quote from him on the cover of one of The Shambles‘ DVDs. Five years ago, what other Melbourne television critic would even bother to watch a sketch comedy show on Channel 31? Hell, who’s willing to do it now?

And that’s why we’re bothering to salute a critic we – for the most part – disliked and dismissed. Because while The Age‘s Melinda Houston often seems to just throw words together in the hope the end result will feel like a review:

that familiar, inspired collision of irreverence, LOL moments and tenderness that define this series at its best. (Angry Boys)

(“inspired collision”? You mean putting one scene after the other, right? Is “familiar” even a good thing in a comedy?)

and Ben Pobjie doesn’t seem to get that being a reviewer* means standing behind your opinion about the quality of a program and actually arguing about whether it achieves the goals it sets out for itself, even when it’s a comedy:

none of that actually means I’m ”right” and anyone else is ”wrong”. When you’re judging comedy, there’s no such thing as right or wrong – there’s just ”I laughed” or ”I didn’t”. Nothing is objectively good or bad, and anyone trying to convince you otherwise is kidding you and themselves.

at least Schembri would say what he thought in a relatively clear and straight-forward manner. We almost never agreed with what he said and occasionally we’d suspect his motives for saying it, but at least he seemed to actually be interested in comedy and the mechanics of getting a laugh. When he wrote a review, even if he was heaping crazy praise on some piece of absolute garbage, there was some awareness of how comedy comes together (in that wrong-headed Outland review he at least displayed a refreshing awareness of the need for tonal variety in comedy), some sense of engagement with the material beyond the most basic “I like this”. For that – and, it seems fairly safe to say considering the glee that the news of his axing received on twitter, that alone – he’ll be missed.



*Pobjie is clearly a talented writer, but when you’re writing a review and you find yourself actually spelling out “nothing is objectively good or bad” aren’t you writing yourself out of a job? Isn’t it fair to assume that this is something your readers a): already know and b): are willing to suspend their awareness of for the sake of hearing you argue your opinion on something? It’s not quite as obvious as putting “I think” at the start of every sentence you write, but it’s understood that you’re writing a review: constantly saying “hey, it’s just my opinion” is a bit of a cop-out. Especially when you don’t feel the need to remind us of that whenever you have something good to say about a show.



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1 Comment

  • gg says:

    The Martin/Molloy line is interesting given:
    Tony Martin ‏ @mrtonymartin
    Slagged off by Melinda Houston – the TV ‘expert’ who once claimed in ‘Age’ that ‘Seinfeld’ (1990) was a rip-off of ‘Mad About You’ (1992).