Josh Kinal writes…

Reviewers and critics are often regarded as “those who can’t”, a quote usually attributed to Woody Allen but probably not witty enough to be claimed by anyone. News reporters don’t consider them journalists and artists don’t consider them a legitimate part of the art world. The reviewer is a writer with no home: A perpetual Auslander.

The Herald Sun, as the new newspaper sponsors of MICF, apparently set out to cover every show of the festival, more reviews than ever before. With over 400 shows in the Festival this year, this meant farming reviews out to other areas of staff. Photographers and non-arts writers were conscripted to submit reviews, a source within the paper said they were given no direction or guidance on how to write reviews or what to submit.

It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the person who made the decision was not the same person responsible for coordinating, editing and publishing that many pieces in a three week period. Still, it was a noble goal, if somewhat naive.

The result was a large number of reviews less than 60 words long, reviews that gave away punchlines, pieces that lacked any understanding of the craft, and opinions of people other than the writer of the piece.

The reviews often told us nothing about the shows but sometimes told us too much about the reviewer themselves. My favourite example was an early review of Doc Brown’s “Unfamous” by Baz Blakeny. “I could have done with less of the serious reflective stuff and more of the parody, but my wife loved this bloke,” he wrote.

Reviewing is a specialty field and comedy is a further specialisation within that. Comedians saw a lack of care in the pieces published by the Herald Sun and read that as contempt.

Justin Hamilton wrote a piece for the website Scrivener’s Fancy in which he took print reviewers to task, declaring “there are no comedic journalists we can 100 per cent respect”. That’s a big call and a lot of reviewers took offence.

Craig Platt defended the Herald Sun’s work in his blog on the Age: “Blaming the reviewer because the review only runs for three sentences shows a lack of understanding of how newspapers work.”

For a man who writes a blog, Platt displays little understanding of the web. Yes, maybe the reviews had to be cut down for print but there’s no legitimate reason an extended version of the review couldn’t appear on the web. Newspapers’ insistence that things have to stay the way they’ve always been is part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is that none of this really matters. 2011 may have been the year Comedy Festival reviewing finally disappeared up its own arse with comedians and critics exchanging blows in a fight that nobody else cares about.

A producer of shows during the Festival told me that a four-star, very positive review, of a particular show in the Age a few years ago translated to no increase in ticket sales. Similarly, negative reviews make no dents in ticket sales.

Is it possible that the only people who read reviews are people already involved in the industry? If that’s the case, who are the reviewers trying to convince?

By definition, the role of the reviewer is very narrow: To report on the performance. A well-written review will give the reader enough information to make up their own mind about whether or not they want to see the show. In order to do that, the writer needs some expert knowledge or, at the very least, some insight into the subject.

Marc Maron makes some highly pejorative statements about critics in his show this year. He expanded on those sentiments in an interview with the Enthusiast where he decries the loss of research in reviewing.

Research, specialisation, education, and experience are all required for better reviewing throughout our publications. Arts pages, however, are notoriously under-funded and those things cost money. Very few journalists will hone their reviewing skills when the work is almost non-existent because nobody is willing to pay for it.

Most experienced reviewers cut their teeth on the street press and university papers where they do a review in exchange for free tickets to a show or movie. There is no payment. A colleague intimated to me that the MICF reviews in Crikey were the best $0 the organisation ever spent. The days of spending money to boost the reputation of a publisher are long gone. That’s the harsh reality. There will be no professional development expenditure from news organisations on improving comedy reviews.

As reviewers, we have a duty to report the show we saw and to be as objective as possible. There is the opportunity for objectivity in comedy reviewing but it comes with education. The good comedy review does not rely on the writer’s sense of humour as much as the writer’s understanding of different styles of comedy and the ability to see past their own comedic biases to give an honest assessment of the performance.

In order for a review to have any weight, the reviewer needs to assume a position of authority. As long as publishers undervalue our role and we continue to publish anything less than our best work, we undermine that authority.

It’s difficult to argue for an academic pursuit in a commercial space. The back and forth over the last week of MICF shows that comedians and reviewers both care and are passionate about reviews. Perhaps that passion can translate into interest from the public one day, too.

Josh Kinal has worked as an entertainment journalist since 1993. He currently co-hosts and produces the weekly Boxcutters podcast, all about television.