May 22, 2009

Comedy reviewing

Sonal Patel          posted 6 May 2009, 08:26 PM

I’m moved to post this topic after Simon Sweetman’s recent blog post on Flight of the Conchords.

In his opinion piece about the Conchords second series, Mr Sweetman takes a shot at various aspects of NZ comedy like calling NZ female comics “interchangeable” and “referring to her genitalia a lot?” and refererring to the Billy T wins of NZ comics Mrs Mrs Peacock as proof of “how bad the state of NZ comedy is”.

Unfortunate and as unnecessary as these asides are, his statements appear to show how infrequently Mr Sweetman attends local comedy.  And while I don’t know about this year, in the past, Sweetman has acted as a reviewer of comedy for Fairfax during the Festival.

The comedy festival rolls around once a year and outside of this, the majority of comedians are doing club sets, a very different beast requiring different skills to mounting a full show.

In light of this, should we as audiences expect that our reviewers have a full understanding or grounding in comedy, as we do with those who review theatre and film (so an idea of the history, the different and evolving styles, themes etc.)?  Or do we want our reviewers to take on a more casual ‘drop in to see comedy only at Festival time as some punters do?  What perspective do the reviewers on Theatreview take when they walk into a gig?  What do comics hope for when a review comes out and it’s not good?

I’m genuinely curious.

(Full disclosure: I have worked/currently work in the comedy industry both locally and internationally and have many colleagues and friends who are comics and promotors)

Isabel    posted 7 May 2009, 11:12 PM / edited 8 May 2009, 09:59 AM

I have to agree with Simon, New Zealand comedy overall is of a very low standard. Having been to a couple of Billy T prelims and watching the awards on TV i was shocked at how bad the compeditiors were. There are of course a few genuine exceptions but overall i’d say the NZ comedy scene is not in a thriving place.

John Smythe      posted 8 May 2009, 10:01 AM

The first thing to realise is that the international acts that make it to our shores are at the top of their games, or were when entrepreneurial producers invested in them, allowing them to make good full-time livings pursuing their craft. Back where they come from the full range of talent is undoubtedly on show, at various stages of their development or decline.

The second thing to note is that the Dominion Post and/or Simon Sweetman have, in their wisdom, decided that he will only review international acts this year. I have not yet seen DomPost reviews from anyone else. So here is the question: if the NZ media doesn’t review NZ acts, who else will? Are they participants in our community or merely profit-driven consumers who don’t think twice about their role and potential contribution to the lives they report on, and for?

What is likely, in part, to challenge our comedians to improve is a sense that someone out there gives a shit, and that they are accountable to those who invest their time, money and trust in giving them a go. None of the international acts didn’t get there the hard way – and presumably public accountability has been (and remains) a key factor in the development of their skills.

Here at Theatreview we are doing our best to cover the field with 9 critics in Auckland and 7 in Wellington, all working for comps and no other payment. Even so we haven’t been able to score 100% coverage (apologies to those who have missed out), due in part to one falling ill and some booking stuff-ups seeing our people turned away (despite our comprehensive endeavours to book according to the instructions of the Fringe people).

I venture to add that on the evidence so far, on this site, NZ comedy is in pretty good shape. And where performers and productions have a way to go yet, the feedback and opportunity for comment this site provides will have some value.

Jerome Chandrahasen   posted 8 May 2009, 10:07 AM

I think to help further this discussion a quantitative survey would be necessary.

If twenty of us each agree to see 5 shows by New Zealand comedians this festival that would be a survey sample of 100, which would be a reasonable size from which to draw further conclusions. I’ve seen two NZ shows so far in James Keating and Chris Brain, so three more to fill my quota. If we all pull together we can settle this matter of the state of NZ comedy scientifically. Sound reasonable?

I go into the opening night of a show by a local comedian knowing that this is probably the first time they would have performed the whole hour in public, not from lack of preparation or rehearsal but simply there are few opportunities to have an hour of stage time, unless you’re smart like the Comediettes, Chris Brain, Wrigley, McKinney, Crellin etc. who do the Fringe Festival circuits or head overseas first. Even then, I saw Jason Cook last night in Joy and he would have performed that show about 70 times before he hit New Zealand, naturally I’ve got different expectations to going along to a show that’s had a three night run in the Dunedin Fringe before the festival.

I guess we just need to leave NZ not because we’re underappreciated but because we need the experience. (I should replace that ‘we’ with ‘I’). 

Simon Sweetman             posted 11 May 2009, 11:45 AM

As a freelance writer I get told what to do for the Dominion Post; so I had no say in whether local acts were reviewed this year. The decision was made for me that the focus would be on internationals. Having said that, I’m pleased because it means I get to see the decent stuff, generally. And I’m sure most of the Kiwi comics will be doing the same routines next year anyway…thanks for reading my blog though and I’m glad if provided a talking point.


John Smythe      posted 11 May 2009, 12:12 PM / edited 11 May 2009, 06:17 PM

Thanks for the clarification, Simon. Given Rhys Darby’s view that comedian’s are wary of speaking out against critics for fear of getting bad reviews (which could be construed as an insult to the integrity of critics) let me repeat: if the NZ media doesn’t let its critics play their role in reviewing local acts, who else in the world is going to?

There is a process by which creative talent develops and public acknowledgement, feedback, criticism and accountability plays some part in this.  The Dominion Post choosing to focus on big ticket international shows is closely related to the mentality that makes film producers take our films to overseas festivals before opening them in NZ, because NZ audiences will apparently respond better if it’s billed as an international award-winning film. Pathetic.

As for implying our hard-working comedians, working in a highly competitive environment, will be trotting out the same material again next year … that too is an insult, surely. Certainly there have been isolated cases but to say it as a generalisation … You are being purposely provocative, eh. 

nik smythe          posted 11 May 2009, 04:39 PM / edited 11 May 2009, 06:18 PM

On the topic of Kiwi comedy, I concur with John and further contend that this is a well-worn debate on the subject of all the local arts.  As well as the fact that any local artistic body in any country will span the spectrum of quality compared to the more distilled (one would hope) export choices, we also struggle with having a far smaller market due to our diminutive population size.  So without leaving the country we have a very limited audience to ‘train’ on.

I’ve seen four shows so far this festival, one British and the rest Kiwi.  The brits were excellent, the kiwis more varied but one in particular, 18 year old Rhys Mathewson who I’ve raved about so incessantly it probably sounds like I’m in love with him.  Whatever the ‘it’ is that many visiting standups possess, he’s got it for sure.  With another ten or so to cover, mostly local I think, I’m not at all concerned by the notion of having to ‘endure’ NZ comedy.  I think its in a good state generally, as the veterans mature and the up-and-comers show a great deal of promise.  And in line with John’s query on who else will review them, what other comedians are going to comment in-depth on the culture and current affairs of my own country?

On the topic of Mr. Darby’s issue, I have scanned over my recent reviews to see whether I am the sort of critic he’s addressing….  Generally reviewing anything I am very mindful of spoilers and tend to avoid them, or else highlight as such where needed.  Often reviewing standup I’ll include a favourite line or concept as an example, reasoning that one gag among the plethora (hopefully) served up by any given comic will provide a teasing sort of taste without wrecking the whole gig; indeed, the intention is to generate more interest, when it’s something I enjoyed.

If any comedians flatly disagree with this reasoning and assert that no jokes whatsoever should ever be repeated in a review, please advise.

Moody Hikmet posted 19 May 2009, 10:41 PM

I’d like to offer my two-cents into this discussion also.

For a comedian to take their act overseas and do a show outside their region, they would have to have some sort of amazing merit and experience. You will find that many of the internationals have spent many years working on their performing skills and material before heading out of their towns to try it all in a new country. Sure, there is the odd exception – but many of us will have to work on it. Having said that – the people who come to New Zealand from overseas, clearly are good performers. Otherwise they wouldn’t be travelling overseas.

When you look at local comedy – you see the full spectrum. From the Class Comedians who have just been picked out of High School and gone onstage, or the Open Micers/Big Wednesday performers who want to try a showcase show in the festival to see what it’s like to the seasoned veterans who have been in comedy since the dawn of the 90s or even before. I’m not making any excuses for bad acts, here, I’m just saying that there is a broad range of experience in local shows.

So maybe it’s unfair to judge the state of New Zealand comedy against international standards by putting a middle-of-the-range local show against an experienced international act. I’m sure if you travel overseas to Edinburgh or Montreal (both places absolutely swarming with comedians) you’ll see that there is such a thing as inexperienced performers from overseas.

Before jumping on the self-degradatiotory (sp?) bandwagon, maybe taking a look at acts outside the festival and getting to know local comedy a bit better is needed before one makes claims about the state of New Zealand comedy. Because, believe it or not, there are gigs happening all year round outside the festival. Maybe Mr Sweetman and Isabel would like to visit The Classic sometime outside the festival on a Thursday or Friday, or even Wednesday night and taste a bit of regular local comedy. Because watching it all on tv doesn’t do it any justice. I’m sure the same goes for theatre.

Thanks 🙂

Charles U. Farley              posted 22 May 2009, 03:21 AM

Sweetman, you’re an ass hat. As in a hat, that sits on an ass. I feel a great sense of euphoria  that your writing talents are reserved for reviewing shows instead of actual reporting. At least there, we know that people who read your drivel are few and far between and it saves the greater NZ public from having to endure your charmless wit. If the “spin doctors” working within the media are the merchants of major league BS – your writing is almost certainly the rank odour degloving the nostrils of the arts world.

As for anyone who is prepared to make a statement on the “state” of the NZ comedy scene being of a low standard, what exactly are you comparing it to? Have you lived the life? Have you got the balls to stand up in front of a room of strangers and try to create an environment where those strangers are content to laugh? Other than the one or two shows you might have been to, what exactly do you know about the industry? I’d wager that you (isabel) know sod all  and therefore are qualified only to comment on cooking, ironing, dishes etc.

When the Comedy festival  (seperate from the Fringe festival) was in it’s infancy, there were a large number of shows in a large number of venues, few international acts and it spread the audience out so that pretty much everyone who put a show on – lost money. Venues put their rates up and the same venues that charge $300 – $500 a night off festival all of a sudden charge $300 – $500 per hour, poster hounds wanted their money up front before any comedian had any idea of what their ticket sales were going to be like.

Comedians work hard, scraping a living doing what they love because they love the stage. Yet comedians are constantly the ones being financially raped. Comedians are the first to be called for “charity” gigs, where everyone else seems to make on the deal except the talent. Ticket money generated by the comedy shows is held in trust by the festival office for up to a month (who gets that interest on $250k +? NOT THE COMICS), while comedians struggle to pay their bills. Comedians work all year, any given night to put smiles on the faces of those people who come out and support the industry and indeed the comic themselves.

Kiwi comedians do exceptionally well overseas, Ewen Gilmour was the first kiwi comic to do the European circuit performing to sell out crowds, Brendhan Lovegrove the first kiwi comic to appear on Rove Live and has headlined at Jongluers, Bob McClaren is the head of Dutch Comedy Television, FOTC struggled to find audiences in NZ, took their idea for a TV show to Tony Holden who said “There’s no chics with big tits in it…. it can’t be funny?” Then went on to blow the world away via HBO. Rhys D’Arby has appeared in a hollywood feature film with Jim Carey and subsequently had sold out shows all over the USA, Ben Hurley spent 6 months working in England then was selected by Ed Byrne to be his opening act for his 2008 tour, yet still, despite the success many comedians achieve overseas, they still struggle to find an audience here, where they come from! Many of the international comics I’ve spoken to have said outright that the standard of comedy in NZ is very high, despite the opinions of those working at the coal face, there is still this ingrained attitude here in NZ that kiwi comedians are not worth seeing – they can’t be any good, if they were I would have heard of them.

It would appear that the best way to achieve fame and respect as a kiwi comedian is to go overseas and achieve over there before any media here will give you a second glance. There are oodles of solid kiwi acts that you’ve probably never heard of before, the media won’t tell you about them, they have more important things to talk about, like the Navy chasing Gin the otter around Rangitoto or the student who gets 1/2 a page dedicated to her because she takes 8 pens into her exams with her or Millie Elder’s got more legal woes.

Wake up New Zealand – entertainment is NOT limited to brown people running with a ball.

As for reviewers, you have a job to do, fair enough. Like a show, don’t like a show. But write your reviews with the knowledge of what these comics have lived through in order to get that show to you in the first place, if you didn’t like a particular show you have the opportunity to be constructive with your criticism, offer possible solutions to the things that hold the show back. Otherwise, like Sweetman, you could find yourself writing reviews for the rest of your career…surely anyone with any semblance of journalistic integrity yearns for more than that?

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