In our final column on the state of comedy criticism, Owen Donovan, the managing director of Berk's Nest, looks at the importance of reviews from a comedy producer's perspective. Berk's Nest has had considerable success in recent years, producing shows by Rose Matafeo and Richard Gadd, which both won Edinburgh Comedy Awards. They recently produced Catherine Cohen's acclaimed UK tour.
Do reviews matter in the comedy industry? Well, sort of. It depends who you are and what you’re doing. They certainly don’t matter to everyone, and a broadsheet review’s ability to torpedo or completely establish a comic’s career is much less potent than it was a decade or two ago.
A lot of what we do at Berk’s Nest is in that more arts-y/Fringe-y (eurgh) space, where artists want to make hour-long shows for the Edinburgh Fringe and then tour, and they want their work to reach as wide an audience as possible and (or perhaps as part of this) seek critical acclaim.
That’s not always the case, but with artists like Colin Hoult, Nick Mohammed, Rose Matafeo, Catherine Cohen & Kieran Hodgson, critics have undeniably been important to their shows’ success, the growth of their profiles, and the unlocking of further doors held by other gatekeepers across the industry. Often, ‘getting critical acclaim’ is a key aim for us and an artist when we set out to produce a show, and reviews are obviously essential to that goal (and why we’ll spend a considerable chunk of a budget on a PR campaign).
But there are plenty of comics in our industry who are operating in a different, as equally valid, way, and for whom the broadsheets or industry websites are playing no role at all in their career. In December, the Guardian ran an article about podcasts selling out arenas, highlighting shows from John Robins and Elis James’ 5Live show, Off Menu, The Guilty Feminist and Brown Girls Do It Too - all of which have played reasonably-sized theatres, with no mention of the Have A Word Podcast, which earlier that month had sold out Liverpool’s 11,000 capacity M&S Bank Arena. The show was not reviewed or engaged with by critics (perhaps the HAW team banned critics, but I doubt it*).
And there are plenty of stand-ups who are playing huge venues with little support from critics. For someone like Joe Lycett, whose recent (utterly excellent) tour received three-star reviews from the Guardian and the Times, it likely doesn’t matter nor affect his ticket sales in the same way that an emerging stand-up may feel about their own three-star review during their first Fringe run, if they can even get one in the first place.
Huge TV names continue to tour without needing glowing critical endorsements, but there are plenty of newer comics like Nigel Ng and Troy Hawke who are using their TikTok, Instagram, and Patreon platforms to build a much larger, more engaged audience and play massive venues without necessarily having those precious stars from the broadsheets to help shift tickets. Where previously the route to a wide audience was being on terrestrial TV and being reviewed in a national newspaper, the routes to success are now far more diverse and numerous.
So while comedy critics are still gatekeepers to a certain kind of success, how essential they are is undoubtedly in decline. I think it’s also worth noting that, with a few exceptions, the critical establishment is populated by predominantly London-based, middle-class, older white men. I’m not sure exactly whether and how that relates to the diminishing importance of criticism in an industry that is increasingly young, diverse, and doing its own thing away from the traditional spotlight, but perhaps raising up some new critical voices would help find a new and equally essential role for criticism as part of a healthy, thriving industry.
*Note from blog editor Bruce Dessau - I was not invited, but not banned. The Have A Word podcast is a fascinating phenomenon, it has really built up via word-of-mouth and on social media rather than critical acclaim or PR campaign.