Taking Laughter Seriously: A Defense of Comedy Critique

By Bhanuj Kappal 7 December 2023 7 mins read

DeadAnt Consulting Editor Bhanuj Kappal argues the case for comedy criticism, and why comedians should learn to love the review.

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Like most artists, comedians have a contentious relationship with their critics. Just ask Matt Rife. Over 15-odd years of writing about art—first music, lately comedy—I’ve had plenty of run-ins with artists who took issue with something I’ve said about their work. There have been social media flame wars, angry calls to my editors, refusals to give interviews, even the occasional threat of physical violence—these last ones came from metal bands, because most Indian comedians wouldn’t last five minutes in a street fight. Mostly though, they just grumble that critics are unnecessary. “The only critics that matter are my audience,” they say, or that “critics are just bitter failed comedians.” The more erudite ones even have a handful of quotes—conveniently curated on Goodreads—that they like to use to dismiss critics. One that often pops up in articles whinging at critics is Finnish composer Sibelius’ declaration: “Pay no attention to critics. there has never been a statue erected to honour a critic.”

It’s pithy as rejoinders go, but of course, it’s also inaccurate. In fact, plenty of critics have had statues built to honour them, from 18th century English writer and literary critic Samuel Johnson to 20th century film reviewer Roger Ebert. There’s also a lot of context and subtext to that statement—Sibelius’ feud with German critical theorist Theodor Adorno, and his bromance with American music critic Olin Downes—that complicates our idea of the composer’s relationship with critics. Of course, providing context and sub-text isn’t the job of the comedians resorting to these bite-sized ripostes. You know whose job it is? The critic’s.

A good piece of comedy—or art or music—criticism doesn’t just tell you whether something is good or bad, it gives you a framework within which to evaluate the work: the little, essential pieces of context—historical, cultural, personal—that help you reach a deeper understanding of a one hour special. Critics take a piece of work and situate it within a web of connections: the comedian’s past work, general trends within the comedy scene, what their peers are doing. The value of the review lies not just in its judgement or rating—many critics actually hate the star rating system—but in how the review explains his opinions, offering the reader new ways to appreciate a work, new angles for critical inquiry. 

Matt Rife responded to criticism of a joke on his latest special with an ‘official apology’ that linked to a site selling helmets for those with special needs

Now look, if you’re a comedian, I (kinda) get it. You’re up there on the stage every day, risking it all to get a laugh out of a room-full of strangers. You do it day after day, month after month, getting the sort of instant feedback that marketers have wet dreams about. You spend two years on the road with a special, making thousands of people cry with laughter. And then some knobhead on the local comedy blog pops up and starts talking about how your comedy ”lacks edge”, or that your dumb throwaway joke about your kaamwali bai is “punching down.” What the hell does that guy know, right? 

I empathise with that position, but only to a point. The thing is that comedy is never performed in a vacuum. When you perform a set, everyone in the room with you—or watching it on a TV screen—will take what you’ve said and filter it through their own experience and knowledge and create new layers of subjective meaning, a process that continues long after the set ends. They will talk about it with their friends, post about it on social media, give you their feedback in the YouTube comments. They are, one and all, engaged in the practice of criticism. Devaluing the idea of comedy critique then—whether it appears in the YT comments or in a publication—runs the risk of devaluing the important role that consumers play in the comedic process. 

As an aside, let me assure you, audiences are responding to comedy in ways much more complicated than the binary “laugh-or-not” rubric by which many comedians want to be judged. If a joke can be construed—or misconstrued—as casteist, sexist, or any of the other problematic “ists” of our times, then they will pick up on it. They may even call you out on it at your shows, or on social media, as plenty of Indian comedians have found out to their chagrin in recent years. At least a professional critic will try to place potentially offending bits of comedy within the context of your broader work, giving you the benefit of the doubt. Good luck demanding a holistic reading from Twitter. 

When [critics] praise something, it’s because it truly gives them joy. And by the same token, when they criticise something or express disappointment, it’s because they care enough to expect more.

“But I don’t have a problem with that,” you say, “I just don’t like the pompousness and pretentiousness of professional comedy critics.” Okay. You’re already talking directly to your audience, you’ve given all the context you think is necessary for your punchline. Why is this third party interloper inserting himself into the conversation with all his high-falutin buzzwords? Fair enough. Critics occasionally do run the risk of “over-intellectualising” comedy. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, right? 

Think about that a little deeper though, and you start wondering, why shouldn’t comedy be intellectualised? Why shouldn’t we look at the contexts and subtexts, at the way a particular joke or comedic bit relates to the world around it, both in terms of the comedy scene it’s situated in and the broader socio-economic-political reality? Why shouldn’t we look at comedy as something that informs us about a comedian’s perspective on the world, rather than a simple mechanism to produce laughs? It seems demeaning of the comedic art form to claim that it wouldn’t benefit from intelligent critical analysis.  

Perhaps it’s because comedians aren’t used to the idea that their work would be subjected to such analysis. As Jason Zinoman, who became the New York Times’ first-ever regular comedy critic in 2011, says, “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.”

That culture shock leads comedians to ask critics to walk an odd tight-rope: “take us seriously, but not that seriously.” They want to be written about (or they wouldn’t hire publicists to badger journalists for coverage), but only on their terms. A piece of criticism that attempts to dig too deep under the surface is treated as bad faith self-aggrandising, or as Spencer Brown puts it, “the desperation of the comedy critic to elevate comedy (and thus their own standing) to the position of high-art.” Which, frankly, is nonsense. The sort of people who write about comedy don’t really care about the highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy, because if we did we’d be writing about Max Richter and Vito Acconci. A review of the latest Zakir Khan special—no matter how conceptually complex—is not getting us invited to a panel with Ranjit Hoskote or to a special art preview at a Colaba art gallery.

Comedian Lawrence Mooney was not pleased with a negative review of the 2016 Adelaide Fringe season of his special Mooneyman.

No, critics write about comedy the way they do because they love the form, they are passionate about it, and they want to share that passion with others. When they praise something, it’s because it truly gives them joy. And by the same token, when they criticise something or express disappointment, it’s because they care enough to expect more. From the comedian, the scene, the art form. Their deep engagement is a sign of respect for comedy, not self-importance, regardless of whether you like their interpretation or not. Each review is an attempt to start a debate about comedy and what we all want it to be, to involve the consumers in a discourse that otherwise takes place in corporate boardrooms and is often decided by the very commercial considerations of streaming numbers and crowd-sourced reviews. Now each critic does have their inherent biases when it comes to the aesthetics and content of the comedy they like, because who doesn’t? But that should be an invitation to read criticism with an inquiring eye, finding the comedians whose biases align with yours and, at worst, ignoring those that you disagree with. Dismissing the whole field is akin to dismissing comedy because you don’t like “knock-knock” jokes.

One especially sore point that often comes up is that critics haven’t earned the authority to critique comedy, especially if they haven’t put in the hours at open mics and comedy clubs themselves. But critics do earn their authority. They spend their lives immersed in the art form, speaking to its practitioners, consuming endless content of varying quality. They interpret that content through a critical framework and write about it, and they do it week after week, building a body of work that is the foundation of their credibility. If critics have any impact, it’s because people agree with or find value in these interpretations, not because of the masthead they write under. To assume otherwise is to dismiss their readers, and therefore the comedy audience, as non-discerning idiots who just swallow what they’re told. 

It’s a bad argument in the first place, but it’s even worse coming from comedians. After all, so much of comedy is about criticising—in funny, inventive ways—things that others do. Comedians poke fun at politicians without ever having run for office, they make fun of films without ever having produced a box-office blockbuster, they lampoon paying fans in the front row without ever… okay, maybe they have sat in the front row of a comedy show before. The bottom line is that critics draw their authority from the same wellspring as comedians—from their ability to state their opinions and ideas in convincing, insightful and entertaining ways. Nothing more, but also nothing less. 

So the next time someone publishes a review of your special that isn’t wall-to-wall praise, take a pause before sending off an angry text to the editor. Remember that the critic has as much a right to an opinion on your work as any fan, or you yourself. Consider ignoring it, or maybe even thinking through the argument that the critic is trying to make. And then, if you still feel like it, go send that angry message. Because comedians may or may not have thick skins, but critics certainly do. 


Bhanuj Kappal

Bhanuj Kappal is a culture journalist who likes being shamed by Dead Ant’s editor on social media for missing deadlines, and dislikes… well, everything else.


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