Category Archives: Critics

Comedy critic Kate Copstick on what she likes and giving 1 & 2-star reviews

Copstickeither yawning or orgasming on a tow horse. It is difficult to be conclusive

Copstick in her Mama Biashara charity shop in London, either yawning or orgasming on a toy horse.

Comedy critic Kate Copstick and I are reviving our Grouchy Club chat show at the Edinburgh Fringe this August and also doing it as a one-off in London on 22nd February during a Jewish Comedy Day. (Neither of us is Jewish, but we are both Scottish and they are paying a fee).

“Initially, I wanted to be an actress,” Copstick told me this week, “because then I would never need to be myself. But I have never wanted to be a stand-up comic.

“Why?”

“Because a good stand-up comic is about being yourself. In the very short time that I did try stand-up, the primary thing that was wrong with me was there was nobody there.”

“Well,” I told her: “You say you didn’t want to be yourself, but you are the most opinionated, apparently-self-confident big-mouth in town. Your reviews are full of your own character. You would admit your reviews can be acerbic?”

“Yes.”

“So isn’t that cowardly? You don’t want to be yourself as a stand-up comedian to say what you think to people’s faces; but you can acerbic behind a pen”

“Maybe it is cowardly,” replied Copstick, “but, if someone gave me the chance to do a live review show I would happily do that. I happily sit in The Grouchy Club and rip into shows and criticise people. But that’s not stand-up. Stand-up is self-motivating and, the older I get, the more I realise not everyone is remotely interested in what I want to chunter on about.”

“Why are they interested?” I asked. “You clearly are the most influential and feared critic at the Edinburgh Fringe. Is it because you’ve been around so long? – You started in 1999.”

“No,” said Copstick, “I’m a good critic because I’m honest – sometimes brutally. I know what I’m talking about. I can communicate my thoughts well.”

“You say you know what you’re talking about,” I argued, “but you’ve not done stand-up properly. “

“I know enough about stand-up as the audience and about comedy in general. I think it’s a good thing to be able to criticise with inside knowledge but, on the other hand, there is absolutely no point saying: This guy was absolutely dreadful, but I feel his pain and I know what it’s like and, frankly, the audience was dreadful. That is not a valid critique.”

“Are you open-minded?” I asked.

“Very open-minded. Much more than I used to be. I’m happy to give anything a chance.”

“What did you used to be closed-minded about?”

“I used to be much more likely to go folded-armed and pursed-lipped at some free-form craziness. I used to require ‘form’. I used to think: I want to see this is a show. I want to see you’ve thought about this. I want to see you have not just wandered on-stage and are burbling to me.”

“And now you like Lewis Schaffer,” I said.

“Yes. Quite possibly Lewis Schaffer in 1999 might have driven me absolutely crazy.”

“At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “I know you saw Njambi McGrath’s show Bongolicious, but decided not to review it. Why?”

Njambi McGrath - Bongolicious

Njambi McGrath -“Brilliant” Fringe show

“It was listed in the Comedy section of the Fringe Programme and it wasn’t a comedy show. I thought it was a brilliant show, but not a comedy show. In the criminal areas of auto-theft, they call it a cut-and-shunt: you take the front half of one car and the back end of another car and slam them together. She had a strange little 10-minute warm-up at the start and then this EXTRAORDINARILY powerful piece of theatre about the atrocities perpetrated by white colonists in Kenya. I wrote little bits about it elsewhere, where I was not required to put a star-count on it… It was a brilliant show, but was not a 5-star comedy show. It was in the wrong section of the Fringe Programme and it would have been unfair to review it as Comedy.”

“You were telling me at the Fringe,” I said, “what you sometimes do when you write a 1-star or 2-star review of a comedy show.”

“I am hired as a critic,” said Copstick. “I have to say what I think and feel, otherwise I would just be a PR. But I think all performers deserve a fighting chance and I am, after all, only one person. If I really loathe the show, I try to make my review as entertaining as possible and as polemical as possible because I know a 1-star review will sell almost as many tickets as a 5-star review and, if you make your 1-star review polemical enough, people will go Oh my God! I have to see that! because everyone wants to see a car crash.”

“So,” I said, “in a way, a 2-star review could be worse than a 1-star review.”

“What I try to do in a 2-star review,” explained Copstick, “is seed it with combinations of words or even just one word which, if the performer is smart, they can ‘pull’ a quote from that I am happy for them to mis-use.

“The late, usually-great, Jason Wood did a show once which I thought was just appalling. It was lazy, using old stuff – ten years after people had died, he was doing half-baked impressions of them – I was really angry because Jason was a funny, funny, clever, talented guy. I ripped into the show and gave him a 1-star review but, by midnight that night, the Assembly Rooms where he was performing (under its previous owners) had big banners all over the place saying:

“A STAR!” (KATE COPSTICK, THE SCOTSMAN)

Copstick does not mind taking the piss - in this case to her doctor

Copstick likes taking the piss – in this case to her own doctor

“It was brilliant! Brilliant! Just wonderful. I am devastated to say that The Scotsman made him take the quote down. But I thought it was brilliant. If performers can be creative with their show and I can be creative with my review, then why can’t they be creative with my review of their show?

“The FringePig website – which popped up last year and which reviewed the Fringe reviewers – they did a review of me and it was surprisingly accurate. One of the things they picked up on was that now I absolutely love a maverick – Johnny Sorrow, Bob Slayer, for godsake.

“Again, we’re back to honesty and passion. I would rather see Bob Slayer – honesty, passion and drink – than some pointless, say-nothing, manufactured wannabe. Now that comedy has become an industry, one of the things that is wrong is a load of people coming in thinking Oh! I can be the next Jack Whitehall! and they stand up and are a kind of manufactured persona. There’s no real person there.

“Someone like Simon Munnery ought to get a bloody knighthood. He’s been nurturing his crazy since most of the people on stage now were foetuses.”

“You should get back on stage,” I suggested.

“I am peripherally involved in a comedy show at the Fringe this year… as well as The Grouchy Club and The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show.”

“Are you?” I asked, surprised. “I didn’t know that.”

“It’s about assisted suicide.”

“Ah! The Exit guy!” I said.

“Yes. Philip Nitschke.”

Philip Nitschke

Philip Nitschke – ‘Dr Death’ does stand-up comedy

“Are you going to be killed every day?” I asked.

“No, I’m sort-of directing it. Philip is the most wonderful guy, though it’s very difficult to get him into the country because they ask: Have you come in to kill people? – No, I’m coming in to do a comedy show in Edinburgh.

“The show is Philip and female stand-up Mel Moon, who suffers from a horrible endocrine disorder. She joined Exit with a view to topping herself before she turned into a puddle.

“I love the idea, because it’s a way of using comedy to get across an incredibly powerful message. I think you can ‘kick a lot of ass’ comedically or satirically that you can’t do when presenting it straight. So we’re doing satirical sketches. Hopefully I’m also filming a documentary, looking at previews, people’s reactions, the creative process. It’s part of a bigger idea.”

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Bruce Dessau defends comedy critics and comedy agents and managers

Bruce Dessau, King of Comedy Critics

Bruce Dessau, King of Comedy Critics

Bruce Dessau is comedy critic for the London Evening Standard newspaper.

“So you’re a bastard,” I said to him, when we met for a chat. “You criticise these poor, hard-working comedians, you’ve got no talent yourself and you destroy them. What’s all that about?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever destroyed anyone in my life,” said mild-mannered and eternally polite Bruce. “I sometimes wish I had: there are probably a few who deserve to be destroyed. I can only speak for myself but, as a profession, I think critics try to be constructive. I almost see my role as an unpaid director and I see my reviews as maybe providing performers with directors’ notes without them actually paying me for them. There have been occasions – maybe not many – where comedians have changed their show because they’ve taken on board what I’ve said. It’s a funny dynamic between critics and performers. I suppose we’re obviously quite parasitical. We only exist because the performers exist. But I think comedians benefit from critics.”

“You have watched all levels of comedy for years,” I said. “You have chaired the Perrier Comedy Awards panel at the Edinburgh Fringe. You have written a dozen books including Beyond a Joke (on comedians’ dark side). You run the comedy website Beyond The JokeYou are very experienced. But why should anyone listen to the opinion of someone who is not a normal comedy-goer? Wouldn’t it be better to read 25 or 50 ordinary audience members’ thoughts on a website forum and take an average of those opinions rather than some professional critic?”

Bruce Dessau: prolific Evening Standard critic

Bruce: a prolific critic for Evening Standard

“I have a perspective on things.” replied Bruce. “I think that’s what a good critic does. Part of what we do is place something in a context, whether artistic or historical. That’s something a critic with a bit of experience can do.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe, you do have people who are frankly younger than me who sometimes get very excited about a comedian and I may go: Yeah, it’s alright, but it’s not new. I’m not saying it’s crap. They are saying it’s new. I’m saying it’s not new. I’m not saying their judgment that something is good is wrong. But I can give it context. I am a critic who goes to 2, 3, 4 gigs a week, sees a lot of comedy, digests a lot of comedy but, when I write for the Evening Standard, I try to write for people who only go to a couple of gigs a month, if that – maybe only a couple of gigs a year – or people who have only ever been to arena gigs.

“I’m so old, I have actually seen Bill Hicks perform live on stage. That wouldn’t give me a massive advantage if I were writing a piece about him, because there’s enough Bill Hicks on YouTube and DVDs and records for everyone to see.

“But, with someone like Daniel Kitson, of whom there isn’t much of online, I’ve seen pretty much everything he’s done for the last 12 or 13 years, so I’m in a good position to talk about him, because someone else who wasn’t physically there can’t access that.”

“When you talk to comedians…’ I started.

“I very rarely talk to comedians,” said Bruce. “The nature of my job is I arrive at a gig as it starts and, because I always have to do overnight reviews for the Evening Standard, I can never go to the after-show parties.”

“And it’s very difficult to review someone if you’re chummy with them,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” said Bruce. “Exactly. It’s very awkward if you get to know them.”

“But they’re interesting,” I said. “All comedians are frail little souls with frail little egos. Maybe you could unknowingly, unwittingly and unintentionally damage someone’s self-confidence?”

“By writing a damning review of them?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think their psychology is fascinating.”

John Bishop - famous in little Britain

John Bishop – more famous than many

“One of the many paradoxes of comedians,” said Bruce, “is that, on the one hand, there is this very supportive community – Yeah! Yeah! Go for it! Do it! Great gig! – but they’re also very competitive. If two people are sharing the bill at the Edinburgh Fringe and one gets a better review than the other – or they know one has gone down better than the other – that is quite hard to take. It must be quite a strange thing. I went to see (a well-known TV comedian) perform last night and he was talking about doing a gig at the Glee Club in Birmingham which John Bishop had compered. And it was a joke but (the well-known TV comedian) was still having a slight dig at the fact John Bishop is now much more successful than him and performing in arenas.

“It must be quite strange when you look back and think There were five of us on a bill at the Comedy Store and one is now a heroin addict, one is now doing the O2 Arena and I’m doing a gig at the Bearcat Club. At one point you’re all on the same level and then – particularly with what’s happened to comedy in the last 5 or 6 years – the fickle finger of fate can pluck someone.’

“And not always the best,” I said.

“But,” argued Bruce, “the thing about comedy is – up to a point – it is a meritocracy. If people are selling out the Hammersmith Apollo, they must be doing something right.”

“Or maybe,” I suggested, “they’re just lucky and a mate got them a regular spot on a TV panel show? There are probably 150 or 1,500 equally good comics out there.”

“I thought you were going to say Maybe they had the right manager,” said Bruce. These things are all connected. In defence of these much-criticised comedy agencies and managers. They are not scouring the circuit to turn rubbish acts into stars. They are looking for talented acts. It’s not quite the same as pop music, looking to put together a boy band, where you might say It doesn’t matter what his voice is like, he looks good.

News, comment & reviews: Beyond The Joke

News, comment & reviews: Beyond The Joke

“In comedy, I’m not saying what you look like is totally irrelevant but you do have to have the comedic equivalent of being able to sing, otherwise you’ll be found out. And that’s why, as a critic, I feel I’m not destroying people’s careers. I’m just doing a little pecking order of who is better than others. I’m not saying X, Y and Z comedians are rubbish, but I might be saying X is better at a certain type of humour or Y is better with a certain type of story. I’m describing their strengths and weaknesses, but I could never say anyone playing the O2 Arena was rubbish… Well, now I’m thinking, I’m sure there are exceptions.”

“I got told recently about a female comedian,” I said. “I don’t know this girl personally. But she is about 25 or 26 – and a talent scout for a big comedy agency told her: You’re too old for us. What they want is inexperienced 18 and 19 year olds they can mould.”

“I would accept that up to a point,” said Bruce. “They might be looking for raw talent and they might also think: Ah, yes, I can shape that person. But they are going to shape them from a point of having some basic talent. They are not going to take a completely blank slate, otherwise they might as well go to a model agency and look in a catalogue. If there’s a gap in the market for a sexy female comedian, there’s no point going to an escort agency or a glamour model agency and picking one out. You go to a comedy club and find a sexy comedian and hope they’ll improve.”

“But this mid-twenties comedian is dead in the water, yet she is probably as good as or better than an 18 year-old.”

“Well, in that sense,” said Bruce, “it’s only as brutal as Hollywood.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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What is the point of professional critics? Would airheaded amateurs be better?

Nick Awde on Skype from France this morning

Writer Nick Awde talking from France on Skype this morning

Yesterday, I got a message from writer Nick Awde in France asking if I wanted to be interviewed because, he said, “it might give you a blog and might give me a half page feature”.

So I Skyped him this morning.

“I’m now editor on a new international literary magazine called Font,” Nick told me. “I thought I’d write something about critics, but there aren’t really such things as literary critics – just people reviewing their mates’ books – so I thought I’d talk to you, given your overview of people doing creative things in general, and then we’ve both got something. You’ve got a blog. I’ve got a piece….”

“Well,” I said, “there’s the argument that Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, become critics. Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are always complaining about inexperienced critics reviewing their shows. Bob Slayer talked to one comedy critic this year who had never heard of Morecambe & Wise – not just never seen them, but never heard of them. I guess it’s happening because more and more – to save money – newspapers are not having staff critics.”

The Independent on Sunday,” Nick reminded me, “recently re-launched, with all of its staff arts writers sacked.”

“And some newspapers,” I said, “have now started using readers who write or Tweet in with their opinions. It’s ironic that newspapers are sacking staff critics to save money because, if you’re a newspaper owner, you should be building up reviewers as personalities.

“As far as I understand it, with The Times and other newspapers which are behind paywalls, one of the attractions to the paying public is not that they can read news on the website – you can get that 24-hours-a-day on TV – The attraction is you can read features written by known columnists.

“So presumably if you have a critic whose opinions you trust – it used to be Dilys Powell on British cinema or Clive Barnes on the New York theatre scene and now maybe it’s Bruce Dessau on London comedy and Kate Copstick on Edinburgh comedy – if you have an ongoing, named, trusted critic, then that’s going to increase your brand awareness and get more punters reading your product.

“The counter-argument is that the audience is not made up of people who have been going to comedy shows four times a week for the last 15 years. You read reviews to decide whether or not to go to a show or a film or to buy a book. Do you actually want to read reviews written by people you actually share nothing with – they live in Islington in three-storey Georgian houses – or do you want to hear the views of the sort of people you might actually go to the performance with?

“Why are professional critics writing reviews? Is it because they want to sound very knowledgable and refer to arcane events 35 years ago at the London Palladium when they should be telling you I thought this new show was quite good and you should go? Maybe the more experienced critics get, the more out-of-touch they get with the people they’re writing for.

“The comedy audience is mostly maybe between 19 and 30. So maybe you want those sort of people writing reviews.

“The argument against that is you will then have 1,000 opinions by people who may not know what the hell they’re talking about and may actually just be friends of the performer who are ‘bigging’ him or her up.

“I would argue that having ongoing, paid, Big Name critics is better but it IS arguable. You could equally argue that having 100 different people will average out to what the punter may like or not like.”

“Also, in Britain,” said Nick, “we’ve got different words. We’ve got ‘critic’, ‘reviewer’, ‘pundit’.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “When people talk about critics, they’re mostly talking about reviewers. There are very few critics who analyse things.”

“We don’t like that any more, do we?” asked Nick.

Jerry Lewis - viewed as comedy genius in France

Jerry Lewis – hailed as a true comedy genius in France

“Well, that’s too French for us,” I said. “It’s too intellectual. The British are suspicious of intellectualising. If someone writes a critique – which is a French word – it’s viewed as someone being up their own arse. Whereas a ‘reviewer’ is just someone saying Oh, this is quite good. The British don’t like intellectualising… Having said that, yesterday I went to a lecture on The Science of Laughter at University College, London. And, this afternoon, I’m going to the launch of the Centre For Comedy Studies Research at Brunel University. What are critics like in France?”

“They still have a big newspaper industry here,” said Nick, “and you can have about four pages of daily opinions and two pages of that you can give over to your theatre critic, because he will work in a mention of the President’s latest hairstyle or a politician’s toilet habits. This is permitted… plus they all fucking know their philosophy. So they just throw that into it. They can do it. Whereas in Britain, as we all know, no-one will pay you to do that. Our ‘opinion pieces’ are people talking about the size of Katie Price’s tits or the width of her latest autobiography.”

“This interview,” I asked, “is possibly going to appear where?”

“In Font magazine,” said Nick. “It’s a literary magazine but really about the Arts in general – from a UK perspective but on what the rest of the world are doing.”

“Does Font have a website?” I asked.

“It should be up by the end of this week, I think,” said Nick, “at www.fontmagazine.org.”

“But I have a much bigger project called Open Theatres, which I’ve been working on for about five years. It would work for comedy or anything. You have a sort of shop window website in which everyone puts up what they do with their contact details and they just update it occasionally. It’s not Facebook, it’s not pretending to be any of that. There’s no privacy, no chats but if someone gets a mention in your blog, for example, they can add a link. It’s just that, on one site, you find all of it. For international theatre, there’s nothing like that out there. For international comedy and for the book world, there’s nothing like that out there.

“You can be a performer, a pundit, a critic, a production company, a physical venue and you just put everything up there. The thing to do is to work out the search patterns for it.”

“Presumably,” I said, “you don’t want me to mention that, though, because someone may steal the idea.”

“Well,” replied Nick, “I’ve been telling everyone about it and no-one’s done it so far, because it needs someone insane like you or me or Bob Slayer to do it.”

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