Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can’t, Review

If you’re of a particular political bent, chances are you’ve been waiting for The Guardian to set up their Australian branch for a while now, what with Fairfax staggering around like a drunk at a child’s birthday party when it comes to providing a non-Rupert Murdoch perspective on things. Even we’ve been excited: in the UK The Guardian has Charlie Brooker as their humour columnist and he’s generally considered to be fairly competent at it. So naturally their Australian branch would be going after A-grade comedy writers, right? And so we waited.

And waited.

And now it’s here! And it’s hiring all the people sacked from Fairfax for being crap. Ha ha ha, this is what happens when you expect good things. If you read Andrew Bolt you’d know that.

To be fair, only Catherine Deveny was sacked from Fairfax for being crap – well, sacked for making sex tweets about a minor according to the official version, sacked for being too much for the old men at Fairfax to handle according to her and feel free to decide which version has more basis in reality ’cause we’re saying nothin’ – because while Helen Razer was dumped by The Age as a columnist in the 90s she’s been back writing reviews and opinions for them over the last decade. But she was dumped by the ABC in 2008:

In the September 15 episode of Media Watch, presenter Jonathan Holmes charged Razer with “patronising” Berkoff during the live interview on September 7. Less than a minute into the exchange, things became tense when Razer addressed Berkoff as “dear”. He told her he had trouble understanding her accent. Razer then called the playwright a “curmudgeon” and a “pugilist”, before abruptly terminating the interview.

Anyway, that’s all in the past, as they both now have regular gigs in the new left-wing voice of Australia. Razer is the local TV critic:

I’ve been meaning to have a word to my local Labor branch about the quality of their newsletter for some time. “Dear Comrade”, it begins; a salutation that now seems every bit as apt to me as “Yo, Bitch”. Comrade? I am no longer a comrade but lapsed rank-and-file who would rather stay at home and yell at the television that endure another moment spent in hopeless love with a vanished past.

And Deveny seems to be the food critic:

Perhaps it’s genetic. Mum tells a story of driving home late from work one night in the 70s after a long day and deciding to treat herself with a Choc Mint Drumstick on the drive home. It was a perfect summer night, no one on the road and she sang along with the Bee Gees, window wound down, Drumstick in hand, elbow hanging out the window. Luxury. Suddenly she heard through a megaphone: “Two hands on the steering wheel lady, this is the police.” Which it was. She got such a fright she dropped her ice cream on the road. Did it teach her a lesson? She just bought another one. STICKING IT TO THE MAN! YEAH

And The Guardian AU’s comedy? Oh look, it’s the team from The Roast. What, Rodney Rude wasn’t answering the phone?

We bring this up not to point out that despite the new venue these two are operating firmly according to type – Razer’s very first word is a reference to herself, Deveny is “STICKING IT TO THE MAN!” – nor to suggest that opinionated women by their very nature are going to have a rough ride in the Australian media. Nope, today we just want to talk about a sadly familiar wider trend: hiring people not for their expertise in a subject matter, but because they’re meant to be amusing.

We’ve written before on this “just add comedy” approach and why we don’t like it – see pretty much every post we’ve ever made about The Gruen Transfer and its offspring. Basically, if you’re going to be funny JUST BE FUNNY. And if you’re going to discuss a topic then said topic deserves to be treated with respect, not just as a launching point for a bunch of shithouse gags.

Put another way, people who are meant to be actually amusing write humour columns. They don’t need a wider hook to lure people in: they’re funny, and that’s enough. Unless they’re not funny, which is every single Australian humour columnist because it’s hard work writing 800 funny words a week and if you really are funny it’s much easier writing jokes for television. Or advertising.

On the other side, if you’re actually interested in television (we are) or food (kind of), then you want to read someone who knows what they’re talking about. Razer at least has a history of reviewing live shows – reviewing in a snarky, self-obsessed, look at me fashion yes, but she occasionally provides some insight into why something is or isn’t working that you couldn’t get just from reading the poster.

Deveny, on the other hand, seems to treat every single paid writing gig she gets as an opportunity to foist a bunch of her half-arsed stand-up material on her readership. At least when she was writing about television she had a history of writing for television that on the surface justified her employment; as for food, presumably she eats it. Like every single other human being on the planet.

By the way, The Checkout wrapped up its first series last night. Much as we usually hate that kind of thing we didn’t mind it for the most part, because when it tried to be funny it usually was and when it wasn’t trying it had real information to impart. We’re still going to file it under consumer affairs rather than comedy – there’s a comedy show to be made about consumer issues, but it probably wouldn’t have long segments explaining how extended warranties are a rort – but the comedy material was a lot stronger than many of the ‘straight’ local comedies we’ve seen of late.

Our point is, if you’re going to do two things you need to be good at both. To take a non-Checkout example, Clive James’ television reviews were both bang-on regarding the shows he was discussing and funny in their own right. And if you’re not good at two things, you should stick to just the one: if you’re reviewing television (or food), figure out how television (or food) works, figure out how to explain that intelligently to your readership, then JUST DO THAT. Don’t do a half-arsed job then think if you talk about yourself a lot it won’t matter because it’s not a “real” review anyway.

Because just quietly, no-one gives a fuck about you.

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  • Urinal Cake says:

    Some Gruen thing won a Rose D’Or award which means Adam Hills is no longer the ABC’s premier comedic talent. It also means every infotainment program will have ‘Gruen’ in front of it now.

    I’m waiting to see their weekly comedian commentary. Tony Martin, one of FOAB guys etc could be good. But it will probably be Charlie Pickering.

  • PEntrove says:

    According to the guardian bio, “Helen Razer is a Melbourne writer whose primary interests include federal politics and yelling at both the television and the internet. She is a 44-year-old occasional broadcaster who smells faintly of cat.”

    The cat lady trope of the strategically self-deprecating… I wonder if these people consciously conform to these types, or if they do it unknowingly. But of course they do it consciously. All these writers are ‘operating firmly according to type’.

  • Billy C says:

    That’s a bold move on the Guardian to appoint a tv critic who is legally blind.

  • petehill says:

    Reminds me of columnist Dianne Butler who writes (I think they’re supposed to be) TV reviews for the Melbourne Herald-Sun but who tries desperately hard to be funny- in a really annoying, even childish, way- that suggests she would much rather a gig as a humourist writing a weekly column in a magazine’s lifestyle section- you know some breezy hilarity about being stuck in a supermarket queue or finding her pet kitten stuck in the toilet.
    Remember when Jane McGrath passed away? I’m not going to make any rude or funny comments about that but I do recall a newspaper column that appeared days later written by a well-known female TV celeb who wrote it as a tribute to the late Mrs McGrath….only she managed to insert ‘I’ or ‘Me’ or ‘My’ into the column about 47 times and I think the words ‘Jane’ or ‘McGrath’ appeared maybe three times….

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    Dianne Butler is History’s Greatest Monster. It’s not a crime to re-read your column before you hit “send”.

  • Andrew says:

    I stopped reading the Switched On guide in the Herald Sun based purely on Dianne Butler’s “writing”. Any time I started to read anything of hers I would tune out before the end, her writing was so dreadful. I figured I’m wasting my $$$ buying Wednesday’s paper for a weekly TV review/guide when most of it was illegible… and The Age needn’t look so smug… apart from Michael Idato, whose work I do appreciate even though he’s a SMH import, there’s not much to rave about there, either. Now The Age copy and pastes Tony Squires’ TV “review” from the SMH which is great when you want to know when the NRL Footy Show is going to be on in Sydney. And the Green Guide can be read cover-to-cover in about 5 minutes now, it’s very light on.

    Gone are the days when people who actually knew TV were employed to write about it in the print media. In Melbourne people like Robert Fidgeon in the Herald Sun or Ross Warneke in The Age. At least TV Tonight does much to fill that void.

  • petehill says:

    I stopped reading Butler’s column when she referred to Blackadder as ‘drivel’.

  • Andrew says:

    and she would have taken three paragraphs and a dozen topic changes before coming to that conclusion!

  • Jimbo says:

    She also took a dump on The Young Ones and Mr Bean. She must be the devil incarnate.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    Well now you have the Internet to stop all that.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    While we’re old enough to remember both Warneke and Fidgeon, we’re also old enough to remember we often disagreed – violently – with many of their views. That’s been the big problem with pretty much all kinds of critical discourse in Australia over the last 25 years or so: we’ve gone from old farts (whatever their age) who knew their job but held firmly retrograde opinions (Fidgeon would constantly claim that making television aimed at anyone under 40 was a waste of time, as they didn’t watch television) to young idiots (whatever their age) who hold the “right” opinions but have no idea why they’re right, let alone what they’re even talking about.

    Warneke notoriously loathed The Late Show, but at least he could explain why he disliked it; these days we have “critics” who praise pretty much everything local and can’t give you a single reason why.

  • petehill says:

    I certainly didn’t always agree with Robert Fidgeon’s reviews but I found that he knew the inside goings-on in the networks, especially Ch-9. Fidgeon was one of the few TV critics who understood the point of John Doyle’s ‘Changi’ in 2001 (ie, it was not intended to be a realistic docu-drama, people) and he rightly championed ‘Love My Way’ on Foxtel. A low point was his suspiciously gushing, cheer-squad-like reviews of Ch-9’s ‘The Block’ which made me suspect that he got slightly more than a free coffee-mug at the show’s launch-party. But it was good to read columns by people who had some degree of authority on what they were talking about….back when weather presenters actually knew about weather and film-critics knew more than how to come up with clever puns to title their articles.

  • Andrew says:

    As a reader I didn’t agree with everything that Robert Fidgeon or Ross Warneke wrote but you had to respect their views because at the end of the day they did know a thing or two about television… even if some of their views may have been a bit out-dated.

    I can’t respect anything that Dianne Butler or Tony Squires write about television.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    I know now Pickering is very intelligent.
    I know now Pickering is well read and versed in history.
    I know now Pickering is very pragmatic.
    I know now Pickering is more than just a comedian.
    I know now Pickering.