I started reviewing MICF shows in 1993. I didn’t know what I was doing then. What I realise at the end of this Comedy Festival is that very few people know what they’re doing when it comes to reviewing.
The gut-shot reviews started as a challenge to myself. I wanted to see what kind of review I was able to spew out with as little time as possible passing between the show ending and the review being published.
When I was Entertainment Sub-Editor at my university newspaper, a first-year student asked me how to write a review. I was flippant about it and made it sound easy. “Just say whether or not you liked and why you did or didn’t like it,” I said. At its essence, that’s what a review is: a reasoned opinion. At least, that’s what I thought.
The part reviewers so often get wrong is the reasoning. We’re great at forming an opinion but why we formed that opinion takes a lot of reflection. I never liked star-rated reviews because they can’t convey the nuance required in creating a review.
The gut-shot reviews were never reworked or rethought. They exist as a reminder of the lack of intricacy that goes into a first draft and an initial reaction to a show. The initial reaction to a show is usually not a review but often just a judgement. It’s important to capture that judgement and use it as a guide to help us work out our biases and try to form a piece of journalism that will inform our own audience of the relative values of the show we are reviewing.
So often in the past I would write a review moments before deadline. I’d bash it out in a text file and email it straight to my editor, doing little more than passing it through a spell-checker as a form of editing. There was no refining of concepts and sometimes I was more concerned with clever word-play than actual substance.
Often I wrote a review moments before deadline because I spent all that time in between seeing the show and writing the review trying to get my thoughts into words that could accurately convey my reasoned opinion to the reader. I almost never wrote a review and then reworked it later. Once it was written, whether rushed out or thoughtfully extracted, it was done and I was onto the next piece.
The difference between my work in the past and the gut-shot reviews I published on this blog this year is only in time. I think back about my attitude to reviewing and I feel a little bit of shame for not taking it more seriously.
The reviews I published here are little more than post-show notes. Sometimes they’re coherent and sometimes just rambling phrases. I wanted to capture my emotions, feelings and understandings of a show as quickly as possible. It’s something I’ve never done before. I always thought it would be best to just let the show be absorbed over a couple of days and then bash my review out. Time, however, makes us less-reliable witnesses.
Performing this little experiment for myself I learnt a lot about my own writing practices. I learnt that the minimum amount of work for a well structured piece is to go through the process of capturing thoughts, emotions and ideas, then putting those into some kind of order, then writing them out and expanding on them. This whole process might take a few days but the capturing part, which is what I published on my website, really needs to be as close to the original event as possible.
That being said, I’ve never really been one for writing notes while sitting in a show. I think that’s just rude. By writing notes during the show I’m paying less attention to the show itself and more to my eventual review. That’s doing the performers a disservice. Nobody wins that way, but it’s definitely worth taking 5 minutes after a show to scribble down some notes.
I’ve thought a lot about the process of reviewing this year. There’s a piece I wrote for Crikey (which I’ll link to if it gets published) about the difficulties in reviewing comedy in Melbourne. It was inspired by a number of factors:
- the poor quality of reviews in the Herald Sun
- the article Justin Hamilton wrote in Scrivener’s Fancy
- Craig Platt’s response in the Age
- Steve Bennett’s really well-written review of Toby Halligan’s show from Chortle
- and my own desire to improve my own writing process.
I discovered that laziness is the enemy of good and lack of understanding makes for bad writing. This might all seem obvious but it’s something we all forget from time to time. Writing is a many-staged process and nobody has gold come out of their pen on a first draft. Excuses don’t make the writing any better either.