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Covering Comedy Is a Window Into the Future

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Matt Conners

A little over ten years ago, Jason Zinoman was named the first-ever comedy columnist in the history of the New York Times, joining a very, very short list of staff writers for major publications whose sole focus was comedy. (There was William Knoedelseder at the L.A. Times in the late ’70s, Laurie Stone at the Village Voice in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and that’s it.) Though comedy was already booming, Zinoman learned right away how quickly it could change. Coming from theater, Zinoman is struck by how, without fail, every year, someone new comes along and the form evolves. “One of the incredible things about being a reporter on comedy is if you just show up enough, if you go to enough shows, you can predict the future,” he says. “What’s so wonderful about covering comedy is not only is comedy a great reflection of the culture and politics, but it anticipates it.”

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Zinoman discusses how comedians initially felt about there being a New York Times comedy critic, how to write for both experts and novices, and the piece he got wrong. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

On Comedians’ Responses to His Job

I recently wrote a piece on Mort Sahl after he died. The first mention in the New York Times of Mort Sahl was written by a theater critic, Brooks Atkinson, and he referred to him as a “saloon talker.” That was what he called a stand-up. There are a lot of ways to look at that, but essentially it’s a snotty phrase from a theater critic who looks down his nose at the art form. There is an interesting parallel with pop-music criticism, which did not have this long history of criticism, but then a few figures emerged who were very respected and had very high standards and loomed large. Some people hated them. Some people didn’t. It’s bizarre that that didn’t exist for comedy.

[At the beginning,] I got a ton of pushback. One thing I remember is when they announced that I was doing this, or maybe after my first column, these two comedians who ran a website called Shecky magazine ran a piece about me being like, “Comedians are excited that they’re getting some attention. They’re wrong. This is bad news.” And they were saying, “Jason’s element is bad for comedy. We had this system before where the audience will tell you whether anything is good or bad, and he’s going to have too much power. People are going, ‘He’s going to give bad reviews to people’s career.’”

At the time, I disagreed with it, and it is still annoying. But in retrospect, it is legitimate. It’s something that I think critics have to engage with. Now more than ever, this is not true of just comedy but all critics. When the media is so democratized, you have to justify your existence, and you have to ask yourself, What purpose am I serving here? The first response, of course, is that this whole critique from Shecky magazine was premising the whole idea of what is good or bad for comedians. My central concern is what’s good or bad for my readers. I happen to believe that having a healthy critical fear is incredibly good for comedians and the art form of comedy.

I’ve always thought one of our jobs is to be the clown in the dunking booth. We should be able to take criticism. We take a strong position on something, and people can define their own ideas in opposition to it. That’s tremendously valuable.

On His Audience

I try to keep in my head that audience member who watches only one special a year. It’s really important to not forget that person. But also, what is my value added here? If you want an ordinary civilian’s opinion, it’s not hard to find them. So my added value is putting this in context. I bring a wealth of experience; I can engage with this work in a deeper way because I see it in the context of the tradition. I can make connections to broader political, moral, historical, or aesthetic context. Those are the things that I should try to do to justify my existence. But it’s a flawed form.

I remember when I was a young critic, I, like many young critics, hated older critics. I remember specifically being a young theater critic, and there was one theater critic who had been around forever. When he would review Hamlet, he would write about the 50 other Hamlets he’d written about. And I’d always be like, I want to know what’s on the stage. What do you see on the stage? Don’t give me your résumé of Hamlets. There was a germ of truth in that, which is that experience can be a negative. Now, of course, this will shock people, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see the other side of that, and I’ve rationalized that experience isn’t all bad.

I think that you have to write for the novice as well. The solution, in short — and this is a peculiar thing about the job— is I think you need to be both incredibly arrogant and incredibly humble. It takes a remarkable amount of arrogance to think that somebody else should listen to what you have to say about Bo Burnham, which everyone’s got an opinion on, right? Or John Mulaney. Everyone in your family’s got an opinion on them. So your arrogance has to be earned through hard work and study and thinking. But then you also have to be incredibly humble. You ought to be open to the best argument that is against yours or you become a very calcified, boring writer. So how do you get both? How are you both humble and arrogant at the same time? It’s a constant fucking struggle.

On the Piece He Got Wrong

I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong, and my opinions have changed over the years. I’ll take a big example: I did a cover story for “Arts & Leisure,” I think in 2017, which was basically like, “The comedy boom is going to bust.” This was a very well-received piece. But that was a piece that I think I got wrong. I had the right thrust in the piece, but it wasn’t in the foreground of it. I didn’t say comedy was going to bust. I said there are signs the comedy boom might burst, and this is why it’s a good thing. Then I went to this whole historical thing about how the ’80s comedy boom was ultimately about real estate. It was about building clubs and then clubs closing. There were other things, but that was at the center of it.

It’s now more seismic than that because it’s not about real estate, it’s about technology. The current boom is all about these technological shifts that have dramatically changed the landscape and made specific platforms less important. The club is no longer as central as it was, and neither are the alt rooms. What the last ten years have shown is that technology has constantly changed platforms, and comedians are better equipped to adjust than any other artist, and that is why they’re doing arguably better than other artists who went through all these disruptions. If I could rewrite it, that would be the angle. I actually had a quote from a club owner at the end who basically says that, but I wish I was clear on that at the front. So I think that was a failure of a piece.

On Why He Still Loves His Job

There’s a certain school of thought that says there’s nothing new under the sun, but I think once you get that cynical, you should stop. Doing this job, there’s always a new spin on something, a slightly different framing of an old idea. That’s the excitement of this job. Curiosity is a core requirement of the job. If anything, during the pandemic, I realized that that’s actually why I do this and why I love my job. I love how comedy is changing so fast. There are so many different new things. There’s much more novelty than there is in theater. I love watching somebody think through an idea in a funny way. That’s just endlessly entertaining to me.

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