Are comedians and critics too cushy? UMS comedy panel gets weird
While the UMS weekend was packed with sexy locals flaunting their primal lust for aesthetics and scenester flirting on and off the stage, on Saturday afternoon I was part of a significantly geekier and less arousing event: the UMS Funny Face Off, a panel of comedians debating comedy journalists at Mutiny Now Bookstore. The event was hyped as a tense, polarizing exercise of fire-breathing and grandstanding, and while there was plenty of that coming from the crowd (at times making me feel I was a politician at a town-hall debate), comedian and panelist Ben Roy had previously expressed discomfort at being tagged a media-hating elitist and was worried he'd have no hatred to spew at us critics.
Roy is never at a loss for words, though, and he unleashed some hilariously venomous opinions toward Denver Post critic John Wenzel and me that afternoon. It made for an entertaining debate, but enraged one blogger, who was inspired to compose a surprisingly huffy review. In coming to Ben Roy's defense against those vicious words, I've begun to wonder: Are comics and comedy critics a little too cushy with each other?
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"Thumb-sucking, algae-eating, diarrhea-ridden bottom-feeders," was how former Governor Bill Owens described us last Saturday -- or at least, that's how he described "critics" in general to comedian Jodee Champion, a former Owens staffer who related the quote from the stage during our debate.
This got some good laughs from both the crowd and the panel, since the whole structure of the event seemed -- to me, at least -- to be a kind of high-brow roast of the media by those in the industry forced to suffer us gladly. I'd been looking forward to the discussion all week: There's always been a miniature sociopath within me that loves to play the villain. And when Wenzel and I were given the opportunity to air some grievances we've had with writing about comedians over the years, I jumped at the chance to strangle a sacred cow.
"I am really sick of comedians bitching about us putting their jokes in a review," I said, leaning forward as surge of Adderall hit my brain. "'It's not ready yet!' they moan, but come on, you're saying this joke on a stage. You're a featured comic in a club. It's not like I'm not sneaking into your bedroom and copying your diary. Chris Rock complains about people uploading his bits onto You ube before he's worked them out -- and yet his response to anti-bullying campaigns was 'every comic was bullied. If you get rid of bullies, you get rid of comics!' So he's cool with kids being tortured, but if you release a half-baked joke, that goes too far?!"
Admittedly, I was getting a bit hyperbolic -- but that's what the show called for. (The truth is that I have a policy never to publish a comic's joke that's performed at an open mic without their permission.) At least half of the crowd was made up of comedians, and many of them did not feel the need to wait for the Q&A session at the end of the debate to share their opinions on my comments. They stressed that a comic needs to work out material for an audience, and that I was forever "ruining" the joke by typing it out for a handful of readers before they'd had a chance to tweak it.
Ben Roy defended me on this point, but would later express frustration with putting his sweat, blood and energy into his comedy -- a process that he says "nearly destroyed my marriage" -- only to have some guy sitting in his underwear casually type out an "I didn't like it" review later that night. While I don't think any critic should dismiss how much work went into the product, the focus should be on the end result. Still, I can understand how frustrating this must be.
The next day former Post theater critic John Moore expressed some vitriol of his own in a review of the UMS panel for the Culture West blog. Moore referred to Jodee Champion's use of Owens's quote as a "petty interjection that brought no helpful relevance to the conversation," and said that Ben Roy was a "motormouth" that "came here looking for a fight" with his "cliched, venomous chum."
With both the comedians in the audience and Moore getting so worked up about the subject of the panel, there was a twisted irony in the fact that the only people who were calm and unified throughout the event were those on the stage -- who were supposed to be angry and polarized.
I came to the defense of the comedians the next day on the Culture West Facebook page. This felt necessary, because only days earlier Roy had written to Wenzel and me expressing concerns about the vituperative way the debate was being promoted. "I want to be clear: I'm not gonna face off with anyone," he'd said. "I respect what it is you all do and I'm not so arrogant and sad as to bite the hand that continues to help feed us. I know you're all trying to rope people in with some WWF feuds or something, but I like you guys. I appreciate your place, and I think you're all talented."
But both my urge to defend Roy and his use of the phrase "the hand that continues to feed us" didn't sit well with me. Was that what we were doing? During our debate, an audience member asked why the two comedy critics on stage didn't write more negative reviews. This irked me for two reasons: 1) I despise critics who never go negative, hailing everything as "brilliant!" and 2) I write negative reviews all the time.
The subtext of this question translates into the worst accusation you can make about an entertainment journalist: You want famous people to like you. Unfortunately, this does happen -- possibly more often than it doesn't. There is a weak argument to be made that if you give a comedian/artist/musician a bad review, you could lose access to them in the future, but that's no reason to lie about your opinions. Most of the time these journalists are just star-struck mouth-breathers who want to say they're "friends with" Dave Attell or Chris Hardwick.
Don't get me wrong, I like comedians, too (most of them, anyway), and often find myself having an extra beer with them after interviews, swapping breakup stories and our favorite Nick Hornby lines. Yet I'll never say comedian so-and-so is a "friend of mine," even though I have a warm regard for them. It's just like if you were attracted to your best friend's girlfriend: you'd note the feeling, but wouldn't allow yourself to act on it.
At the end of the day, I love comedy more than I love any comic.
Ultimately, the problem comes with people taking all of this too seriously. I know that's a line that comics use all the time when they get in hot water for a rape joke or threatening to shoot Sarah Palin, but it's true for us, too. John Moore shouldn't play the martyr with his lines about "standing up for the essential nobility of the profession," and comedians shouldn't take it to heart when one person doesn't like their set. We're both working in anachronistic mediums in an age of high technology, and we should be grateful that anyone is paying attention.
With that said, Ben Roy is a cunt.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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