Talking to Jason Zinoman, the New Comedy Critic for the New York Times

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times debuted its newest column, one focusing on comedy. Previously, the paper’s coverage of comedy generally stuck to major TV and film releases, with the occasional profile or trend piece throwing a bone to other performers. Outside the world of TV and movies, comedy has gotten a short shrift.

But now theater critic Jason Zinoman is covering comedy full-time for the Times, filing a column about everything from standup to improv every other week. I talked to him about why it took so damned long to get a comedy critic at the Times, what he’s looking forward to covering, and how covering comedy differs from covering other art forms.

So how did you get started writing about comedy for the Times?

The job came about in the early summer. Jon Landman, who’s the culture editor at the Times, called me up and asked how I would feel about writing about and reviewing comedy. It was his idea and I thought it was a fantastic one. He said in that early conversation that we can’t do this in the way that I usually review theater, movies, opera, or dance, that covering discrete shows is not gonna work. So I said, “Well can I have a few months to go and see a bunch of shows, talk to people, think about how to attack it?” I wrote a memo outlining how I saw it, looking at what wasn’t gonna work and what would work.

First of all, I thought we needed to have something regular, like every other week. I thought it needed to be really interdisciplinary and I wanted it to reflect the actual comedy scene, which is really fragmented and is not just about a few clubs or a few TV shows. It’s very sprawling, and I think it would be a mistake to think about it rigidly.

The reason I think the comedy review column is a great idea is that there are people performing every night in New York who are doing great work. Some are interesting artists, some are not successful artists, some are doing outrageous work, some are not, but there’s a huge audience of people watching this stuff. There are a lot of really wonderful performers doing it. And unlike almost every other field, no one’s covering it. Or no one’s reviewing it, I should say. And if you compare that to fields like opera, theater, and dance, it makes comedy seem much more marginal to popular culture, and that’s simply not the case.

So in the past where we’ve just covered Jerry Seinfeld or Louis CK when they’ve been on TV, I hope to cover these artists before that, when they’re doing their work in clubs or on the Internet or elsewhere. So that’s what happened, I sent a memo and then we had some meetings and a few conversations about how to do this and it happened pretty quickly. I think there’s been a lot of discussion about this and I think it’s actually a weird thing that more big newspapers don’t have a more regular comedy critic.

So do you see this primarily as being local to New York, or are you looking to cover the comedy world as a whole?

I think this has a really wide reach. It will include TV, it can include books, it can include theater, and it can even include stuff on the web. I will travel; even in my next column there will be some travel. There are huge comedy scenes in other places in this country, obviously.

That being said, the Times is a national paper, but we’re located in New York and I’m located in New York and I have access to this vast ecosystem of live work. So I think the bread and butter of this column is gonna be what’s going on in improv and standup clubs here. And even when I do stories that are about, say, SNL or The Daily Show, if I can find a local angle, I’ll do it. And a lot of people writing for those shows are performing in NYC so I think to really reflect the theme, to some extent, hopefully I’ll start seeing connections and you’ll start seeing how certain ideas will trickle up and come back. To do this well, I think, I’ll be out seeing shows all the time.

So why is now the time that the New York Times decided to start covering comedy more seriously? Is it something that’s changed in the comedy world, or is it something that’s changed at the Times?

That’s a really good question and the truth is I don’t know. I don’t think it was the comedy world. I think that the success of a show like, say, Louie has gotten on everyone’s radar, and the Times hasn’t reviewed his standup. Obviously he’s been written about a lot, and he’s been interviewed, and there have been features written about him, but he’s primarily a standup comedian.

I really wish there was some broader cultural reason. When people write about the New York Times, almost inevitably they overestimate how well planned everything is. There are all these conspiracy theories that revolve around the Times like, “Oh then there was a big meeting amongst all of them and they decided to go forward with it,” and it’s more like if I had gotten my act together and wrote a memo in a week, which I probably could have done, it would’ve started a couple of months ago.

So you’re basically saying that you got this critic job by being like, “Man, Louie is really good, we should cover more stuff like Louie” and then boom, you’re the comedy critic for the Times? [Laughs]

[Laughs] No that’s actually not what I’m saying. To retreat, the Louie thing was pure speculation; I was trying to give a more high-flown answer. The real truth is there’s no good reason why we haven’t done it. It’s a mistake; it’s like an institutional error. That’s the reason, based not on a strongly held belief held by the people at the Times, but on human error.

The Times is an institution, with really powerful traditions. It has this long tradition of covering Broadway theater that goes back a long time. People would always say, “Oh the advertising dictates editorial and that’s why the Times covers Broadway so much more than off Broadway or off-off Broadway,” and it’s just nonsense. I think the Times actually should cover more off Broadway and less Broadway, but the reason they don’t has more to do with the traditional way that the paper has worked. There was a Broadway column that was there for decades and decades that was very powerful and I did it for one year, but they don’t have it anymore; now the Internet’s made it obsolete. But that was a change and these changes happen slowly.

Even right now, one problem with this column is where it goes on the Times website. If you look on the Times website there’s a page for arts coverage so obviously it can go in there, but then there’s TV, film, theater, music and it doesn’t fit under any of those, so where does it go? And that’s where people find these stories, increasingly online, and it’s a real problem. The column last week went under TV, which isn’t really the right fit. It’s really institutional, it’s just never been a part of their menu.

So you guys are just figuring it out as you go? You guys should talk them into getting comedy as its own sub-header there.

I’ll tell ya we’re just starting out and I have a bunch of ideas and a lot of people there do too. If it goes well and there’s an audience for it, I think it’s only the beginning. I hope that we find a good place to put it, but I also think there’s a lot more that can be done in terms of covering comedy. I think this represents a significant shift in thinking by the brass of the Times and a kind of institutional support behind doing a regular feature where people will know they can anticipate it every two weeks, and if it goes well then we can build upon it.

So how’s the response been so far to your first two columns?

It’s been good. There’s obviously this whole comedy industry where this is a whole new thing and so I think they’re excited to have this new kind of coverage. The first column got a big response because it was a new thing, and I think this most recent column got a huge response as well. It received the second most views of any story in the New York Times when it came out.

I think that was interesting to see the response, both positive and negative, because the form of reviewing comedy is new so a lot of the negative responses were interesting. Salon did a piece in the old genre of “the Times is old and oblivious,” pointing out that women are raunchier. Saying, “oh this is an old story, Sarah Silverman has been around for a long time, etc.” Which would be a perfectly fine point if it was a feature story pointing out a new trend. But it’s not. I’m going to comedy clubs all the time and what do I see? Well I see a lot of these female comics who are influenced by Sarah Silverman. So the Salon writer’s point we be, if you write a review of a sci-fi movie and you put it in the context of saying, “Steven Spielberg has had a real influence on sci-fi movies,” you’d say, “Oh my God, Steven Spielberg is so old hat, why would you possibly talk about Steven Spielberg?”

The point is, the influence of this kind of humor is something that a critic would point out. It’s not like I’m advocating or not advocating it, it was just striking to me that I’ve seen 100 comics in the past couple of weeks and it’s rare for a night of comedy to go on without a rape joke. So from a reporters eye you see that and where’s that coming from, what does it mean, and how do rape jokes told by men differ from rape jokes told by women, and then you look at it from a critic’s point of view. It’s not looking at it from, if I was a feature writer, trying to figure out, “Oh what’s the new trend? What’s something different?”

So I love the fact that people are responding, including negatively, but I think to some extent, because this is still new, it will take a while for people to realize, “Oh, this is a slightly different beast.”

So what’s some stuff that you’re looking forward to covering in upcoming columns?

Well inevitably I’m gonna do… I don’t want to give away all of my secrets for God’s sake.

Yeah, tell me and then I’m going to run them all a day before you do. That’s my plan.

After this interview I’m gonna ask you what’s coming up and steal all of your ideas.

I’m gonna give you all of my worst ideas and try to get you to do them. Trend alert: did you know that British people do comedy too?

[Laughs] Oh you’re too crafty! Crafty Splitsider! I’ll give you the most obvious one: I do have a Louis CK column coming up. He’s written about a lot, and I want to come up with a different way to attack it. I have a few ideas. I do think I was lucky in a certain sense because I saw his first performance in the tour which was at The Bell House, and then I just went to the new one at the Beacon Theater on the 10th, so it will be interesting to compare those.

I’m also really interested in reporting on the institutions of comedy. I want to look at who the gatekeepers are in the field. I want to look at the economics, the status of comedy clubs. I want to look at how a joke evolves over months to years. I want to look at the business models, the difference between UCB and Carolines. I want to cover comedy the way that people cover theater and movies, eventually. I think the thing that I’m lucky about with this column is that while it’s primarily a critic’s column, I will have the opportunity to do some reporting on it as well. So that’s what I’ll do. I think that since my first two have been about standup, my next one is probably not going to be and I think I’m gonna lean away from standup a bit. And improv is obviously a huge, complicated, and increasingly growing world in New York so there’ll definitely be some critical stories about the improv world.

Can I put you on the spot a little bit and ask you about some of your favorite comedy stuff from the past that got you interested enough to tackle this as your job? What did you grow up loving, what’s your favorite comedy now?

As a young kid I basically stole from David Letterman with a fury. I religiously watched that show and would copy him down to his arm gestures, and I learned about comedy from the comics who did his show. I loved Steve Martin’s comedy albums from the 70s. I think the first live comedy show I saw was George Carlin when he came to New York, which I absolutely loved. His first joke was an incredibly provocative joke about abortion and the first two rows left. And I remember thinking, “why did he start with that joke?” which I didn’t realize was very intentional. Obviously I loved Saturday Night Live, but I would say: Carlin, Eddie Murphy’s Raw, seeing that in the theater when I was young was a big experience for me.

I’m a big believer that the stuff that you grew up with is the stuff that sort of hits you in a really hard way and informs a lot of who you are. And you don’t lose that. Obviously you grow up and you mature, but that stuff is still very powerful.

I think to be a critic you have to spend a lot of time figuring out what others are trying to do and not just, “Oh here’s my strict ideological take on things.” I’ve always had a lot of respect for many, many kinds of comedians and I think, that said, your pressure is trying to figure out where I’m coming from, where can I be as transparent as possible. Because I also don’t think critics are a blank slate. While I have incredible respect for very technical joke-telling comics, I’ve been covering theater for a while and I’m interested in comics who have a really interesting stage persona and are playing with things like point of view. And I tend to have a prejudice towards the new, and not just the funny. Obviously I like things that are funny, but if there are two things and one is funny in a slightly different way that I haven’t seen before, then that means a lot to me as a critic. I respect comedians of all kinds who have ambition, even if they fail.

A lot of people have actually been asking me, “Do you actually want to do standup?” and I’m just like, absolutely not, I have absolutely no interest at all in doing standup. That’s one of the reasons that people haven’t covered comedy is that it doesn’t get respected as an art form. Nobody asks a movie critic, “Oh are you going to direct a movie?” Because obviously they have too much respect for the people who direct movies to think that would be something that they could do well; that’s not their skill. My skill is that I’m a writer and a reporter and a critic and I think that the different areas that get respect are the ones that get respect from critics. So hopefully I think that this column can be a place where it can be funny and I can get a lot of funny material into the New York Times, which is not exactly known as like the funniest place in the world.

Is there anything going on right now that you would say is overrated? Something that people geek out about and you don’t get it or think it’s worth the attention it’s getting?

Well, I just saw Russell Peters at Caroline’s, who’s apparently world famous and is beloved and fills up stadiums, and I thought he was terrible. And I think one thing you learn is that it doesn’t matter how big of a place you are at, sometimes there’s terrible work there. But Russell Peters would be something that was really disappointing and really tired. But the long answer of that will show up in the column in a couple weeks.

[Laughs] Cool.

If you don’t buy the New York Times, then I don’t make any money so I can’t just give away all of my opinions. [Laughs]

Talking to Jason Zinoman, the New Comedy Critic for […]