Comedy vs. Criticism

Michael Che and Taran Killam on Saturday Night Live. Photo: Dana Edelson/NBC

In the second of Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials, there’s a moment in the middle of his performance where he makes a not-so-bold declarative statement. “I hate bloggers,” he says with conviction, angrily expressing his frustration related to an online backlash he’d previously sparked amongst the LGBTQ community. In making this statement, Chappelle belatedly joins a long line of prominent comedians who have publicly expressed their disdain for people who write about comedy online. Listening to comedians talk about the subject on podcasts, one might get the impression that they regard bloggers with a level of scorn akin to how an obsessive germaphobe might look at the door handle of a public restroom, or how a person with a deathly allergy might look at an architectural landmark constructed entirely out of their allergen. In several different interviews, I’ve heard comedians posit the theory that anyone who spends their time writing about comedy must only be doing so to mask a bitter heartbreak caused by their own personal failed history with comedy. Even if this is true in some cases, it’s a fairly ridiculous theory to apply in broad strokes. For a group of people who are supposedly as self-aware as comedians, I’d expect a response towards criticism that boils down to something a little more measured than “They’re only hatin’ because they’re jealous.”  

Of course, this broad disdain towards bloggers is a sentiment that is held more strongly by certain comedians than others. In 2017, most comedians have come to terms with the fact that any content they release for broad consumption will inevitably be preceded and followed by a temporary online media cycle, which will simultaneously serve as low-cost promotion for the content itself. At this point, any comedian who is still trying to rebel against this notion unavoidably sounds like a naive college student who has just learned about the ills of capitalism—they may want to opt out of it because it’s genuinely problematic, but they also really want to buy cheap groceries from the local store that doesn’t pay their employees a living wage.

Although comedians and bloggers now seem to share a greater sense of mutual understanding, it appears that there is still a large point of contention surrounding the role of the comedy critic. When it comes to this debate, I sympathize partially with the points of view of both parties. On the one hand, I can certainly appreciate why a comedian might look at the score awarded to their latest comedy special by a particular publication and complain that it’s a reductive way to summarize years of their work, and yet I also understand why an outlet like The A.V. Club—one which is in the business of art criticism—might not see it as a huge stretch to attempt to evaluate comedy using the same metrics that they apply to other art forms.

To help me better understand these disparate points of view, I spoke to Jason Zinoman, the writer of the “On Comedy” column for The New York Times. As the first critic ever hired by the Times to write specifically about comedy, much of Jason’s ongoing work is underscored by a continuous quest to reckon with the difficult questions surrounding comedy criticism. On the subject of the prickly relationship between comedians and critics, Jason echoed my earlier sentiments about how unreasonable it is to dismissively characterize all comedy critics as bitter, failed comedians, stating:

It’s a self-defeating point of view, because as I see it, people like us are critics because we have respect for the form. Art forms that aren’t respected don’t get criticism. For most of its history, standup comedy didn’t get sustained, rigorous criticism, because it wasn’t very respected. And now it suddenly is, and I think that there’s a kind of culture shock that comes with this shift. Because, when these comics started out, they didn’t expect to receive this much criticism. And yet, when I started this job, there was a certain line you’d hear comedians say—that if you go abroad to Edinburgh or London, you’d get more serious criticism. Comedians said this as a way to complain about American critics; to highlight that they take it more seriously over there. And now we’re taking it more seriously over here too, and they’re not happy about it all the time. But, that said, I don’t expect comedians to have the greatest perspective on this, particularly because it’s very hard to get criticized. Built into the relationship between critic and artist is a natural antagonism. For critics, we need to understand that and have thick skin about it. And for artists, they’re well within their rights to vent. If we hit them, they can come right back at us. It’s all fair.

As a rebuttal to the notion that comedy is just as vulnerable to criticism as any other art form, I imagine a comedian might contend that it is particularly unreasonable to apply pedantic measuring sticks to comedy, given that most comedy lives and dies in the moment for the sole purpose of making an audience laugh. Admittedly, there is some validity to this argument. If a comedian has toured the same hour of standup for two years, consistently made people cry from laughter, and frequently received standing ovations, I can appreciate why they might not be too inclined to put much stock in a review which criticizes them for some perceived, abstract deficiency like “a lack of subversive material.” I imagine a comedian might receive this criticism the way a plumber would if they were to fix your sink, and you were to respond by criticizing the color of their wrench.

For this argument to be entirely convincing, however, it would require comedians to truly be this unpretentious. In reality, there’s much more evidence to support the opposite point – that comedians are incredibly fickle comedy consumers who spend approximately 28 percent of their lives decrying the success of comedians who they deem to be “hacks.” If comedians genuinely believe that objective criticism has no place in comedy, they’d be left with no choice but to celebrate Jeff Foxworthy with the same gusto as they do Richard Pryor or George Carlin. I doubt very much whether even Jeff Foxworthy would want to live in a world where this is the case.

To this point, I can appreciate why comics might not feel like it’s particularly hypocritical to think that they’re more entitled to criticize comedy than third parties with absolutely no experience in standup whatsoever. It’s loosely comparable to the universally accepted rule regarding criticism of one’s parents— it’s fine if you and your siblings do it, but completely unacceptable for a third party to chime in enthusiastically with their own thoughts. This is porous logic, however, because it completely devalues the feedback of the consumer, as if the role they play in the comedic process isn’t just as important as the comedian’s. For better or for worse, comedy—and art in general—isn’t given inherent meaning by the people who make it; it takes on meaning over time as it is consumed and analyzed by audiences. To put it another way, if an artist sketches a fruit bowl in a forest and no one is around to consume it, can it still be considered a subtle depiction of the loneliness of the human condition?

One could potentially make the argument that it is possible to crowdsource all of this feedback, and that there is no need for pretentious arbiters to evaluate comedy under the guise of possessing more credibility than the average consumer. And yet, once again, this logic is flawed, because it would require comedians to tacitly accept the consumer-generated consensus that The Big Bang Theory is the best sitcom on TV. Seemingly, there isn’t much room for an intellectually honest grey area here. In the most binary of terms, comedy is either governed by a set of objective criteria or it isn’t. If the latter is true, then we have to accept all of the implications that stem from this conclusion. If the former is true, then we have to accept that there are certain people—aside from comedians and consumers—who are qualified to try and uphold this criteria.  

Enter comedy critics like Zinoman, whose role is to navigate within this incredibly narrow space and to tackle the seemingly impossible task of establishing an informal rubric by which to evaluate comedy. Further compounding this difficulty is the fact that any rubric they design must somehow reconcile the often conflicting requirements for comedy to be viscerally funny, broadly appealing, singularly original, and artistically vital. Given this ostensibly irreconcilable cocktail of criteria, it’s not surprising that critics often miss the mark entirely.

When I asked Jason about how he circumvents this challenge, he explained that he tends to shift his rubric dynamically, based on the perceived ambition of the content he’s reviewing:

If someone asks me what my aesthetic bias is, it’s to ambition. If a comedian fails at what they’re trying to do, but the thing they’re trying to is very ambitious, I’m much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt than I would if they were to fail at something with low ambition. When a comedian succeeds—when I write a rave review—is when a comedian succeeds at something that’s very ambitious. The way I think about approaching a work of art is in three parts. The first part is: what is the artist trying to do? The second part is: does the artist succeed in trying to do that? And the third part—and this is where the ambition comes into play—is: how worthy is the thing that the artist is trying to do in the first place? The third part often makes the difference between a rave and a positive review, and a pan and a somewhat negative review. Of course, ambition is a fuzzy word and we all have our own way of describing it, and that’s part of what makes critics critics.

From a practical perspective, it’s easy to appreciate why this approach offers a sound way to navigate the aforementioned challenge. To take the example of The Big Bang Theory once again, it’s intuitive why it wouldn’t make much sense for a critic to disparage this show for its lack of avant-garde sensibilities. Yet, a prestige comedy like You’re the Worst—a television show which frequently experiments with tone and format—could very easily face criticism based on how successfully it’s able to execute one of these ambitious experiments. To grade these two shows on the same scale would be like holding a 100-meter dash between Olympic athletes and grade school children, and then not accounting for their inherent differences in athleticism.

The danger of adjusting these rubrics so frequently, however, is that it runs the risk of delegitimizing them entirely. To draw a convoluted analogy, imagine a hypothetical rollercoaster where a 5ft. height restriction is frequently lowered to 3ft. to accommodate particularly daring children. At some point, visitors would begin questioning the validity of this height restriction altogether. In other words, if rollercoaster height restrictions were as malleable as comedy rubrics, it would likely lead to a lot of instances where the parents of newly amputated children take legal action against amusement parks.

This issue most glaringly presents itself on publications which couple their reviews with clumsy quantitative ratings. This approach, which Zinoman explained is adopted primarily to appease readers, tends to scrub away nuance in favor of an essential attempt to source economically sustaining clicks. Problematically, there are no prominent disclaimers on these websites which state that a show like Veep is essentially judged on a different scale than 2 Broke Girls, and thus there is no way for the casual reader to know that the worst episode of the former is probably still comparable to the best episode of the latter. In this way, these scales actually tend to over-reward projects with low ambition. The limitations of these rating systems are not lost on Zinoman, who mentioned briefly how fortunate he is that The New York Times doesn’t force him to summarize his reviews using some sort of rudimentary scale.  

During our broader discussion about the potentially damaging effects of using sliding scale rubrics, I conveyed to Zinoman my concern that this plasticity leaves room for critics to sporadically abandon their formal criteria altogether, and simply pass off their personal assessments as objectivity. Zinoman somewhat hesitantly acknowledged the potential validity of my concerns, but also noted that it’s tough to disentangle some of these thorny issues given that comedy criticism is still a fairly new art form that has yet to finish evolving:

Comedy criticism is relatively new, and while people have talked about criticism for a long time and have debated these issues, they haven’t really thought about it hard in relation to comedy. So, this is kind of uncharted territory. Comedy criticism is coming up in a time that is dominated by star ratings, social media analytics, Facebook likes, etc.—it’s interesting to examine how this might distort the form. I am somewhat concerned that the values of social media and the internet are what the early stages of comedy criticism are being defined by. Another thing I’m concerned about, to be honest, is that we’re in an age where people are incentivized to be positive. The vast majority of reviews in comedy are positive. You get many more hits for being positive—and I’m as guilty of this as anyone because I can mostly choose not to write about things I don’t like. But, I know the average person dislikes a lot of things, and that they’re kind of “meh” on most things, and that only rarely do they love things. And when they see the critical community raving constantly, or being positive about every special that comes out, I think we lose some trust. And that’s all we have. If we lose trust, we’re useless. So, I worry that in the short term pursuit of hits and analytics, we’re presenting a view of the art that won’t track with our readers […] There needs to be more room for “meh” reviews and more room for negative reviews that are respectful of the artist.

My primary takeaway from this conversation with Zinoman was that the challenges faced by comedy critics extend far beyond than their combative relationship with comedians. This isn’t to say that this relationship hasn’t had a dramatic impact on their work—in fact, one could easily argue that critics’ aversion towards being labeled as “pretentious” or “humorless” is one of the primary factors leading to the surplus of positive reviews that Zinoman mentioned—but simply that these additional challenges have been just as profound. There is, of course, the reality that the publishing industry is in crisis—and the fact that critics are frequently forced to make choices which sacrifice their critical integrity for economic viability—but this challenge has been talked about to death and is, by no means, unique to comedy criticism.

Specific to critics, however, is a deep internal struggle that Zinoman illuminated when I asked him about whether he believes that there should be some acknowledgement on the part of the critic that achieving true objectivity is completely impossible. He summarized this challenge as follows:

Anyone who is doing this job has to be thinking about that all the time. Of course, my take is completely subjective. But, my goal—which I will inevitably fail at—is to be as objective as I can. I think the goal of the critic—and here’s where I feel like a lot of the social justice issues intersect with the purpose of the critic—is to try to empathetically imagine what the artist is trying to do. And, the artist is inevitably going to be someone radically different from me. Different race, different gender. Even if they’re the same race, gender, class, religion, etc, they’re still going to be wildly different from me. Most of your time as a critic should be in examining your privilege, examining your bias, trying your best to imagine where the other person is coming from, and also being conscious that you will fail. Every time. You will fail. The noble thing is in the trying.

Jason’s last sentence there stood out to me as being particularly insightful. For all of this article’s high-minded analysis, it should be noted that comedy critics—just like comedians, artists, and essentially everyone else on the planet—are simply trying their best.

Hershal Pandya is a writer based in Toronto, whose writing has been featured on outlets like McSweeney’s, Pacific Standard, and Pigeons & Planes. He’s typically less confident in his opinions than this article might make it appear.

Comedy vs. Criticism