The Whys and Hows of Comedy Reviewing

Posted on 30 November 2010

I used to be a professional theatrical reviewer for first a newspaper, then a magazine in Seattle. It was a reasonable way to make money as a budding creative writer. I have a number of funny stories about my experiences in that position. Writing this blog has been a return to some of those experiences: the ups and downs of reviewing.

As a reviewer I receive free access to a large variety of shows. In this way I am exposed to many types of storytelling, many types of comedy, many styles of delivery, etc. It’s vital that good reviewers are broadminded: they don’t have to like everything they see, but they do have to have the capacity to understand when something is good, even if it isn’t to their taste. I have always used this access as a way to learn and expand my own skills.

It’s important as a creator/comedian to know what is current, what audiences are responding to, and to expand the realm of ideas from which I can draw to create the most potent and original work possible. You have to fully immerse yourself in the river to know how to swim it. So, it’s useful to all artists to at least review for themselves many other people’s works.

If you should make your reviewing a public act, I have some tips that are worth keeping in mind, particularly if you are doing this within the digital realm.

Reviewing and critiquing are two different things, but they are often blended. Reviews mostly give your readers an overview of a show, so they have an idea about whether they will like the material. Critiques are more about analyzing a work as to its creative merit. They are both valuable approaches in supporting either or both the audience and the creators.

Critiques often feel more satisfying because they place the writer in a position of power and judgement. However, if this is abused to satisfy the dictates of a less than mature ego, you are more likely to alienate people, particularly those who might be good networking connections.

Mature criticism will educate an audience to respect what skills and effort went into creating various works. You will help the audience to see the broader picture in relationship to creations of the past, creations in a variety of genres and media, and creations around the world.

Mature criticism will primarily point out where a performance works, as well as where it might have gone wrong, and what could potentially be done to improve. Of course if you find a show has serious flaws, but the audience seems to be getting into it, then make sure to report on that honestly. Things don’t always have to be perfect to work.

Personally, I feel it is much more constructive to review and critique the works you like, and leave alone those that are clearly wanting. Sometimes you can’t do this. Sometimes you are expected to have a say when it involves the big event of the season, such as a blockbuster film, an expensive touring production, and the like. However, with these you can freely say what you want about their quality. They should have the “oomph” to do a fully professional job.

For most other productions, it’s vital that you tread with care.

Everyone likes being connected with, reading about, or having a say about the success stories. I also find it’s important I review some of the A-list acts. It improves my skills when I analyze what is working for someone who has gained wide spread appeal. Also, it drives more readers to my blog, and I want my blog to be read.

Reviewing the up-and-comers does the most for supporting and developing new talent. These are the people who genuinely need your words and will be grateful for them. Audiences will also be grateful if you consistently point them to hidden gems.

Just remember, if you put your words on the Internet in particular, they will be seen for a very long time. Up-and-comers get few reviews. If yours is the sole review for some new comedian, and it is negative, you could seriously stall their career. People do Google about shows before giving them a go.

We all have to begin somewhere. None of us is perfect in any skill the moment we start. Performers are real human beings and imagine what it would be like if it were you, all wet behind the ears and doing your best, and someone rubbished your performance. It hurts emotionally, it hurts professionally. No critic looks smart pulling this sort of stunt.

On the other hand even when you are being positive, some performers can take your words the wrong way. I remember having an actor stalk up to me and shout in my face that I had no right to say something I thought was a compliment. Somehow I had touched off their personal criticisms. You can’t please everyone, but you can do your best to write with honesty and integrity.

One thing that’s fun to do if you really like a newcomer is make sure some of your compliments are quotable. This gives the newbie something they can put on their posters to promote their show. You then get to see yourself quoted on someone’s posters. Win-win.

Reviewing and critiquing are extremely useful acts when done thoughtfully. Go forth like a noble knight supporting what is good and true and honorable with your words.

Peace and kindness,


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