The Origin of the Species: A response to Justin Hamilton

I would like to preface this article by saying that the views expressed in it are my own, and not necessarily those of any persons, companies or publications with whom I am affiliated. All quotes are from this Justin Hamilton article unless credited otherwise.

On April 20, comedian Justin Hamilton let fly with a post titled Endangered Species: Reviewers. It starts as an attack on the quality of the Herald Sun’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival reviews, deviates into a sulk about the idiotic journalists who missed the “concept” of his show Circular, and finishes up saying that Festival attendees should just pick their shows by reading the Twitter feeds of their favourite comedians, because comedy reviewers suck.

Charming, Justin. If we think of your piece as Two Star Wars, can mine be nicknamed The Reviewer Strikes Back?

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. I have a full-time job, not in journalism, and in my spare time, write and blog. I have never earned a fee for writing a review. I have never written for a major daily paper. I contributed a number of articles to the Inpress Festival Guide and have filed reviews on several MICF shows over the season, including one on Circular. I consider stand-up comedy to be one of my favourite art forms to write about, and have dedicated considerable time and personal resources to seeing and covering as much of the Festival as possible.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that Justin Hamilton’s comments pissed me off. Most upsetting was the utter contempt that his writing showed not just for reviewers, but for audiences in general.

Firstly, let’s talk about this irritation at the Herald Sun’s coverage of the Comedy Festival, with which it is a Major Media Partner. Hamilton appears quite shocked that the Sun’s promise that “every show will be reviewed online” has led, not to a series of pieces that discuss stand-up in a considered and nuanced way, but to a heap of idiotic reviews.

Well, blow me down, what is the world coming to, oh my fathers, et cetera. After all, surely everyone was expecting journalistic gold to come from such an esteemed publication.

Festivals like MICF form alliances with crapbuckets like the Herald Sun over advertising dollars and reader traffic, not because of quality journalism. To even suggest that the Sun would sponsor MICF because a throng of eager cadets wanted to sink their teeth into comedy reviewing is almost the best joke of the Festival in itself.

During the Festival, certain Herald Sun reviewers annoyed me so much that I started looking for their reviews simply because I knew that if they hated something, chances were I would love it. However, it’s also worth remembering, as The Age’s Craig Platt said, that a paper’s obligation is to its readers. Considering that the Herald Sun’s target audience lap up the words of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, it’s quite possible that their shithouse comedy reviews are catering to their demographic with perfect precision.

Alright. The Herald Sun sucks. What was Hamilton’s next point?

Ah, that’s right. This: “…The more obvious you are in what you’re trying to achieve, the more this seems to help out the reviewers… I named my latest show after the structure of the material. ‘Circular’ literally refers to the fact that everything that happens at the start works towards the middle of the show and then begins unravelling back to the beginning but with new consequences. Not one reviewer has noticed this, thinking it is just a show with loose tales strung together.”

I filed a review of Hamilton’s show prior to reading his post. It turns out I figured out part of what Hamilton was trying to do – I noticed similar themes running through the beginning and end of his show. I will also say, to all comedians, that if absolutely no reviewers have picked up on your nifty structuring or hilarious meta-joke, that doesn’t make them idiots. If the reviewer isn’t across your cleverness, there’s an excellent chance that the punters aren’t either – and that doesn’t help you.

Reviewers are, first and foremost, looking to capture the experience of being an audience member at a show. After all, that’s what their readers will be looking to evaluate – “Will I have fun at this? Will I enjoy it?” It’s not their job to explain the jokes to the audience – a review should whet the appetite of a reader, not spoil the show entirely. While the failure of reviewers to pick up on his cleverness is clearly irking Hamilton, he needs to understand that whatever is going over the heads of his reviewers is most likely doing the same to his entire audience. Reviewers are not out with a specific agenda to dumb him down.

This brings us to Hamilton’s general derision of comedy reviewers, which, in my opinion, appears to deviate from being a specific attack on the Herald Sun at this point, and becomes a tirade against all comedy critics. Here’s where he starts swinging: “… there are no comedic journalists we can 100 per cent respect… How can you be good at reviewing comedy if you only see shows for three weeks of the year?” Apparently, the fact that he doesn’t see reviews of the Comedy Club, Spleen and similar in the papers every month means that the journalists who write reviews during the Festival aren’t worth taking seriously.

Once again, Hamilton appears to have forgotten the precious relationship between column inches and advertising dollars. Every paid writer has a story where a labour of love was cut due to an editor having to run a piece written to placate an advertiser. It’s an ugly truth, but there it is. Not every single scribbling of every single journalist ends up printed. More importantly, not every event attended by a writer ends up as an article. If a performance isn’t reviewed in print, does that mean that the audience was devoid of writers? Don’t count on it.

For most reviewers (at least the ones I know), a lot of time and effort goes in to learning as much as possible about their subjects in order to offer a balanced and informed opinion. Contrary to Hamilton’s belief, most reviewers don’t turn up to a show completely cold (the Sun’s shitness notwithstanding). For my part, I can’t even begin to think how many hours I spend trying to keep abreast of developments in music, film, theatre television and, of course, comedy.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth remembering that Australia has a relatively small comedy scene. It’s a quality one, but we’re hardly on the level of London and New York. Covering the same few comics at the same few venues, month after month, probably isn’t going to be particularly interesting to a publication’s readers. That’s why the Festival attracts reviewers in droves – media are welcome, material is fresh and performers have brought their A-game.

This brings me to what I felt was Hamilton’s most callous statement, the snarky, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, review.” (He goes on to add that “…those who can’t review, work for the Herald Sun,” but really, the damage has already been done before he even gets that far.)

Well, Justin Hamilton, you did it. You caught me out.

I grew up with an all-consuming passion for the arts and music, as well as considerable knowledge of their conventions, but no real talent for performance. I’ve looked at these crafts which inspire me and wondered, “How can I contribute?”

I realised that I could write. It’s what I’m good at. I decided to step forward and tell people about what fascinated and interested me, and urge them to engage with the exciting array of cultural experiences that are on offer.

When I see a quote of mine being used by an artist I admire to promote their work, or find out that someone bought tickets to a show on the strength of my recommendation, I am thrilled. Not smug or complacent, but thrilled.

However, to Justin Hamilton (whose show I thoroughly enjoyed, despite his constant app-hawking), what I offer is worthless. Apparently, my lot deal in “ill-informed opinions”, irrelevant compared to the Twitter feeds of his comedian mates. Because they don’t excel at the art of stand-up themselves, he holds his reviewers in contempt. What of the potential audience that listen to them?

Hamilton does, however, acknowledge that in the digital age articles don’t become trash overnight, but are “…imprinted with digital ink forever, tattooed on the Internet for everyone to see.”

Indeed, Justin. We certainly saw it.

Thanks for sharing.

Update: I have been the beneficiary of a lot of traffic thanks to Craig Platt’s wonderful piece over at The Last Laugh Blog. Please check it out if you haven’t done so already. For reasons I don’t wholly understand, WordPress is not currently letting me add a hyperlink, but the address is here: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/comedy/blogs/last-laugh/reviewers-under-attack-20110422-1dr9l.html

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About missaleksia

Street press journalist and culture vulture based in Melbourne, Australia. I enjoy Australian hip hop, obsessively following television shows, healthy debate, baking and wine. My views are my own. Keep up to date with me on Twitter: @missaleksia
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5 Responses to The Origin of the Species: A response to Justin Hamilton

  1. Liz says:

    Madam, I applaud you. A fellow member of the SPA family but we’ve never met (am a Sydney lass) can I saw a) well done on putting it so beautifully (including the being hurt bit). I flew to Melbourne for the comedy festival out of my own money (my ‘day job’ is as a student and casual academic so as you can imagine, it was chump change I could just had lying around), partly to review the fest, but also because I just damn love the art and wanted to go to the national mecca. After Justin’s piece came out I replied to him and Tony Martin with “the Herald Sun represents our profession as well as Kevin Bloody Wilson represents yours”. Not nearly as clever and well written as your post above, but hopefully did a little to represent. Thanks for the great piece and passion, Liz

  2. Liz says:

    Oh, and sorry about my typos. So fired up forget to reread before getting trigger happy on my send button 🙂

  3. Max says:

    This is a fine article, but I do think it’s a little unfair to dismiss Hamilton’s point about reviewers missing the structure of his show. You say that if reviewers missed it, then the average punter probably did, too – but it’s pretty clear to me that Hamilton’s saying reviewers missed it while punters didn’t. Which would be understandably frustrating.

    • missaleksia says:

      Hi Max. Thanks for the comment. Can I ask what you mean about Hamilton saying that while reviewers missed the point of his show, he doesn’t think that punters did? I have to confess, I didn’t feel that he was suggesting that his audience “got” his show at any point in his piece. I’ve even just re-read it in light of your comment but his arguments still seem very focussed on reviewers, in my opinion. I would be keen to know what he said that gave rise to your interpretation!

  4. Pingback: Australian Tumbleweeds » The inconsistent world of comedy and the Herald-Sun

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