Careful what you wish for
Jason Zinoman is a theater critic for the New York Times. Earlier this month, in his “Arts Beat” blog, “The Culture at Large,” Zinoman says:
If a stand-up comic kills in the forest, does it make a sound? I don’t know, but what’s more certain is that no critic from a major paper will review it. Every night in this city, scores of artists take the stage and perform for large, enthusiastic audiences, and are usually ignored by critics in the media capital. Most of those comedians are ordinary or bad, but a few may become the next Richard Pryor or David Letterman.
He says this as a way of teasing the NYT’s “regular column dedicated to comedy criticism… Stand-up and improv will be the meat and potatoes of these essays, but it will by no means be limited to those fields.”
This is heralded by some as a great day for standup comedy. We’re not convinced.
Zinoman’s first column, on comic Hannibal Buress, contains high praise for Buress. (Praise that, we hasten to add, is deserved.) Then we read paragraph six:
Despite the rumbling buzz surrounding this comic who has refined his skills for nine years, first in Chicago and then New York, obscure dance companies have been reviewed more often in the mainstream press.
Zinoman is trying to make the case that Buress has been wronged because he hasn’t been reviewed in a major daily newspaper. And that he has been doubly or triply wronged because he’s been ignored by the NYT. But, as it is demonstrated in the paragraph just before the above-cite graf, Buress has earned the admiration of his peers, has landed some prestigious writing gigs and is now signed to write and star in a Fox sitcom (co-produced by Jonah Hill!). So, Buress has been doing just fine without any help from the Old Gray Lady.
Standup, Zinoman says, “is the only major art form in which most American critics don’t take performers seriously until they leave the field” and he cites Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C. K. as proof of this questionable claim. Those two comics, he says, “needed television shows to really receive notice.”
Today’s comics “don’t get no respect, and considering their ambition, diversity and influence, they should.”
We are puzzled. Those comedians, Seinfeld and C.K., earned considerable respect– among their peers, in the industry and among their fans– and eventually parlayed that respect into situation comedies on a major network (Seinfeld on NBC) and on major cable outlets (C.K. on HBO and FX). And they did it all without critics. Why do we suddenly need help from critics?
We’re torn. We understand the power of the press. We also understand the considerable influence of the Times. And that power and influence could be a shortcut– for a handful of fortunate comedians– to the big time. And good for them if it happens!
But Jason Zinoman is but one man. One man who now wields (disproportionate?) influence by virtue of his new designation as comedy critic at the NYT. To those who rejoice at the prospect of regular standup reviews in the Times, we would recommend that they temper their joy with caution.
Such a column will have an effect on comedians, on consumers of comedy and on the business of comedy. And not all of it will be positive. Much of it may be negative.
We already note that Zinoman says that “most of those comedians are ordinary or bad.” We are not, at this point, going to dispute this claim, but we wonder why a critic would feel compelled to include this in the fourth sentence of the first paragraph of the essay that kicks off the whole comedy reviewing adventure.
And in his second column– on female comedians– Zinoman says offhandedly that “a majority of male stand-ups are neurotics nursing anxieties.”
Leaving aside the fact that Zinoman is bringing his prejudices and questionable assumptions to the task of reviewing standup comics (he is human, after all), we can’t help but think that this could end badly.
While others jump for joy at the prospect of a new-found “respect” conferred upon some select comedians (and, by extension, all of us in the profession) by virtue of a mention in the Times, we fear a future where those not sanctioned by the Times are viewed as somehow lacking. (Or worse, a negative review– and there will be negative reviews– will unfairly derail a comedian’s career or damage his marketability.) We fear that this will have an undue influence on consumers of comedy who will make their choices based solely on the latest review.
Our biggest fear is that comedians will start changing to conform to what they perceive as the features necessary to receive the blessing of Zinoman (or other reviewers). The logical outcome of such a scenario is that comedians will slowly begin to sound, act and look the same. Already, we’ve heard from one comedian who cautioned that we should go easy on Mr. Zinoman, not anger him. The theory is that standup needs columnists. We’re not convinced. And such subservience gives the reviewer added, unearned power which might warp the creative process.
There’s a lot to be said for a community of comedians essentially laboring (incubating?) in relative obscurity, operating only on feedback from audiences.
We’ve nearly always refrained from reviewing performances or CD’s or DVD’s. This stuns some of our readers and disappoints many of our colleagues. We have a very good reason for this. We prefer to let folks make up their own minds. We’ve paid more attention to a comedian’s “backstory,” or an interview or a story about a comic’s interesting side projects. We assume that nearly all experienced, successful comedians are making an honest and unique attempt at standup, at making people laugh.
We stopped paying attention to reviewers and reviews– about movies, about restaurants, about wine, about music– a looong time ago. It was frustrating when we disagreed with a critic and not at all satisfying when we agreed. Tragically, we’ve seen some things destroyed by a negative review or two.
We’re not saying that the Times’ move is automatically a tragic development. But we are urging everyone to be cautious and that this isn’t the salvation of comedy that so many believe it to be.
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