Comedy: It Only Works If You’re Funny

So it seems Helen Razer has quit the high-stress world of online op-ed writing:

I have written capably to a large audience for some time for next-to-nothing. I made a contribution that was not without merit. And one to which you are no longer entitled. Because you give me shit and pay me shit.

Wait, why do we care about yet another internet flounce? Well, because of this:

In my head, it was nothing but a reasonably considered jocular urging to the left to hone its thinking and find its focus.

Thing is, what she actually wrote was more like this:

But can Mirabella be so bad and vexing as your stupid Facebook groups and your idiot opinion pieces suggest? And if she is, as seems to be the consensus on the lazy-left, a warmongering succubus who reproduces hate with her devil-vulva, then where is the evidence?

This is relevant to our concerns here because Razer got her start – well, not her start-start, that was hosting the heavy metal show on Triple J (hence the name “Helen Razer”) – as a wacky breakfast radio DJ alongside Mikey Robbins. Whatever she might be now, she started out as a comedian, and it seems she still thinks like a comedian when it comes to writing op-ed pieces – only, you know, instead of jokes she says “stupid” and “idiot” and “lazy-left”.

Razer is her own creature and what’s happening here has only limited relevance to the wider world of comedy, but it is worth mentioning as an example of what happens when you think you can do “comedy” without having to be “funny”. Comedians are allowed a certain leeway that more serious forms of discussion / entertainment aren’t because we all understand that making us laugh is a worthwhile end. If you don’t actually make us laugh – or even try to – you’re abusing this trust.

For example: Chris Lilley couldn’t make a drama series where he played all the main characters in drag / silly outfits / by pretending to be half his age. He might increasingly want to (just look at the growing level of dramatic moments in his “comedy” series), but even he knows that people won’t accept him playing, say, a teenage girl, unless it’s in a series clearly marked comedy. So he throws in enough snarky lines and bitchy hair-tossing to make sure it’s filed under comedy and then gives everyone terminal cancer or some other excuse to get all serious in the final two episodes.

Razer seems to have been under the impression that even though she wasn’t making any jokes (aside from insulting her readership) she was still covered by the rules of comedy. And maybe she should have been: her hyperbolic style is a difficult one to take seriously, even when she’s clearly trying to make a serious point. But if you’re going to try and (re-re-) build your career around insulting the only people paying any attention to you, then being a metric shitload funnier certainly couldn’t hurt. No doubt a lot of the backlash she experienced was due to people disliking her opinions, but we think there was at least a little of Homer Simpson hitting his TV set while shouting “Be more funny!” mixed in there.


Slightly more predictably (at least from our end), is this:

The pilot for Australian actress Rebel Wilson’s new TV comedy, Super Fun Night, does not live up to its title, according to critics in the US.

The pilot for Rebel Wilson’s new TV comedy hasn’t given critics much to laugh about.

The Australian actress is preparing to debut Super Fun Night in the US on October 2.

But even before its premiere the pilot has been panned by a number of US critics.

“Super fright night is more like it. This show is so painful and cringe-inducing that it’s scary,” writes Chuck Barney for the Contra Costa Times.

How is this a surprise? In every single movie role she’s had she’s had the easiest job in Hollywood: the person who drops the occasional funny line to get laughs. She hasn’t carried a film and she hasn’t even been important to the plot of any of her films – she’s played the kind of roles where if her lines don’t work they can be cut and no-one will notice. So all that gets left in the film is the good stuff… and from that she’s got her own sitcom?

Last time this happened we got Bogan Pride, which was, um, not good. Ever since then we’ve been arguing that a little goes a very long way with Wilson and that over-exposure (or just plain regular exposure) would be the quickest way to kill her career stone dead. Not that we didn’t want her to get that exposure: having her career fizzle out wouldn’t shade our day in the slightest.

But if her US career dies then she’ll come back here and we all know the Australian networks would be falling over themselves for at least a decade to give work to someone who starred in even one half-successful US film. So while we hope Super Fun Night tanks because it sounds like the usual thing Wilson does and that thing doesn’t fall under “funny” in our book, we don’t want it to tank so badly she comes back to Australia looking to “reconnect with her roots” or whatever. Stay overseas, keep plugging away, make appearances in movies we never see and sitcoms we never watch: hey, if it’s good enough for Jason Gann…

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  • Andrew says:

    I’ve never read any of Helen Razer’s work before, but if her “I Quit” rant is indicative of her past track record then perhaps it’s a good thing she’s quitting. I gave up about half-way through it.

  • BIlly C says:

    She’ll almost certainly be back. She quite Twitter once too. As long as she stops reviewing stand-up I’ll be pleased.

    I was staggered to see her admit to not being able to make any money.
    Not surprised, just surprised she’d tell every one. Anyone trying to earn a living writing
    opinion pieces should have seen the writing on the wall the second blogger started up.

    Her main problem is that many people writing opinion pieces have other jobs. They are happy to write for very little money as publicity. Or they figure out a way to make their profile pay through live work or books or whatever they can manage. Ban Pobjie has recently tried cyber begging and managed to get 4k out of it.
    I do however have a degree of sympathy for some one who writes and article and then has 500 comments under it slagging her off. Then again you don’t have to read it.

    Also I’m predicting A League of their own will be 4th in it’s time slot tomorrow around the 500,000 mark.

  • urinal cake says:

    I agree politically with a lot of what Razer says but her ‘conversational’ style is off putting. Doing funny op-eds is quite difficult though only Brooker seems to do with consistency ( though I find his style overplayed now). Brand also seems to do well at them though the prose is so purple you feel you need to hold an ice pack to the screen. Lee is quite difficult because half the time I think he’s doing a shit job on purpose.

    The thing is what’s happened to columnists vs bloggers is now happening with stand-ups vs internet comedians. communitychannel, superwog (probably) etc have normal jobs but supplement their income and gain fame using their youtube channel. The Janoskians are the only one off the top of my head trying to parlay youtube hits into a full time career BUT they have the backing of Sony. No Australian act has the numbers to do a sxephil, rwj yet.

    Wilson like Lilley is primarily an actor. Lilley can write but he has one trick. The shame about SFN is that as a premise it really had potential.

  • Billy C says:

    I agree. I think Brooker said what a lot of people were thinking in a funnier way than most other commentators. Yes it’s over played a little but he does less now.
    Razer liked to call people fools and that’s going to alienate people.

    Superwog and Mychonny sold some pretty big shows early this year. Not sure if they could do it again and I didn’t read any reviews. If they were could they’ll sell again. I would think Community Channel potentially be a full time gig. That guy who is absolutely terrible, Alex Williamson? sold some shows earlier this year. I saw his audience about to go in one night and they looked like the biggest collection of drop kicks I’d ever seen. Still he got a crowd. It’s interesting to see people like Sam Pang and Adam Zwar doing stand-up one would assume because they’ve realised it’s a good way to do what you want when you want to a paying audience instead of being at the whim of networks.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    For those guys stand-up probably works the same way as blogging does for other people in the media – it’s a good way to build up (or maintain) a fanbase and connect with people on a smaller, more intimate scale. The big plus being, you can make money doing stand-up if you’ve got the name recognition they have.

    Razer’s stated wage doing op-ed work was – for a professional journalist, even in this day and age – pretty low. There are a lot of people no-one’s ever heard of doing better than that at writing. Knowing nothing more about her situation than what she’s said, it seems likely that she was quoting *only* the money she was making from writing op-eds, not her income from reviewing / columns (she’s a columnist in The Big Issue for one thing) and other writing. She’s also written longer-form traditional journalism for Fairfax recently, which pays pretty well.

    Basically, she flounced because people didn’t love her enough. Which is an odd attitude to have when you write opinion pieces.

  • urinal cake says:

    I forgot about the live shows- it’s be interesting how superwog translated on the stage. And of course Janoskians got in the news because they were able to make some teenage girls scream. I think communitychannel has stayed away from a live show because let’s be honest she’d attract a lot of stalky types.

    True enough re: stand-up. I guess it’s similar to how Cleese did stand-up to pay some bills. Though I can’t really imagine Pang’s awkward, hesitant style (as opposed to Thomas’s self-conscious fauxward style) really going down with a crowd.

    The thing with Razer was if she felt she was getting abused rather than criticised. I thought the Grauniad is pretty good at moderating so the ‘abuse’ must’ve been on twitter.

  • Baudolino says:

    “Basically, she flounced because people didn’t love her enough. Which is an odd attitude to have when you write opinion pieces.”

    To an extent. I think it’s fairly clear that Razer’s objection to the dissent stems from exasperation at the disingenuous and often scurrilous nature of the criticism that has been aimed at her. I agree with her on this one; dislike for a columnist predicated on a considered evaluation of their work is perfectly acceptable, but misrepresenting the author’s opinions and then taking issue with something they never said is undoubtedly pretty egregious in the way it lowers the standard of discourse.

    As a writer, I can’t imagine there are many things worse than people erroneously attributing certain ideas or comments to your name.

    From what I can gather, Razer is mostly sick of the conversations she has tried to facilitate – I’ll be generous to her and assume she allows for differences of opinion within that conversation – being hijacked by arguments that make no sense as a response to what she is actually trying to say. Call it death by non-sequitur, if you will.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    I haven’t been following her op-ed stuff that closely, but it largely seemed to be increasingly strident claims that much of the world of online feminism is “doing it wrong” by not doing it her way. Again, I’m not across it all but the longer pieces on her – she specifically mentioned this one in her farewell – have seemed fairly moderate.

    When someone like Clementine Ford writes “I’m left to wonder if even Razer knows what it is she wants from feminists other than to have them quietly listen while she admonishes them for doing it wrong.”, there’s a good chance Razer wasn’t that interested in allowing difference of opinion within the conversation.