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 Joke. You 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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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 …