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Is This Chortle’s Idea of a Joke?

2 Oct

Today, the comedy website Chortle (which I won’t link to, because frankly they’ve had enough traffic for one day) published a piece in their Correspondents section – part of their website where comedians write “first person opinion pieces” about issues affecting comedy – by a comedian called Mike Sheer. The blog, (which again I won’t link to, because it’s had enough hits for one day) was called ‘Women or Rape: Which is Less Funny?’ and was seemingly, Sheer’s attempt to answer, once and for all, that age-old question of whether women are funny, by comparing women to every Fringe comedian’s joke du jour: rape.

In the piece, Sheer decided that while women aren’t really that funny, an idea he explained by using several incredibly humourless and brutally offensive anecdotes about women getting an easier time of it because they’re “weak and soft”, they were less funny than rape jokes. Although, he was in support of rape jokes in general as the censorship of them, according to Sheer, is “abhorrent”.

The piece, as you can imagine, was not received very well online, and on Twitter at least, people are already announcing that Sheer’s career is over, and Chortle has come under heavy criticism for publishing the article. However, Sheer has had some support, not least from fellow comedian James W. Smith who revealed in his blog that the piece originally appeared on Sheer’s personal blog, and was republished by Chortle. Smith’s blog actually gets to the real crux of the issues with Sheer’s piece, which is that while he knows him personally and also his comedy style, Chortle should not have republished his work.

Herein lies on of the many problems with Sheer’s article. The internet, unlike the human mind, doesn’t come with a sarcasm alarm; no klaxon sounds in our ears when we read something that the author has intended as a joke, albeit a very unfunny and sexist one. The fact that Sheer is not very well-known, and his views on the subjects of rape and women appear to be so extreme means that a lot of people are going to read what he’s written as opinion, not humour. Additionally, when you write such sexist material you’re going to elicit a response that you haven’t prepared for.

However ‘hilarious’ Sheer’s intentions might have been when he wrote his article, Chortle’s decision to repost it is what really concerns me, as does their response to the online reaction the piece has caused. Chortle’s Editor, Steve Bennett was quick to defend the article saying “…we’re not about causing needless offence” before stating that the piece was about making fun of issues of censorship and arguments about what is appropriate inside the comedy circuit. However, Bennett didn’t apologise and he ended his statement by admitting that he found the negative reaction funny, saying: ” The fact people have taken this article seriously might be the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, outside a fart.”

Whether Sheer’s piece is simply a poor attempt at satire, or a platform for him to make a better name for himself by being controversial, the fact remains that the continuing popularity of rape jokes in the national and international comedy circuit must be addressed. Bennett’s defence of Sheer’s work, which veers on the standard response of “It was just a joke” reveals a lack of understanding and empathy for the power that any writing about rape has on people, or the gravity of the depth of feeling towards the use of rape jokes in the comedy circuit.

Put simply, any fool could make a rape joke, and it seems like most fools do, especially if they are paid to go on a stage and say it in front of hundreds of people. However, the way many comedians use rape as a source of their jokes doesn’t do anything for the crime or its victims. Recent incidents, such as when the American comedian Daniel Tosh, who dealt with a women in the audience who disagreed his statement that “rape jokes are always funny” by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” reveal that more and more comedians view rape victims as something to be laughed at. In Tosh’s case, he used the threat of gang rape; a brutal and repugnant act of sexual violence, in order to silence a woman who merely disagreed with his material.

Rape is a violent crime, it is not about sex or desire, it’s about power and control, it’s about one or more people violating another human being in the most despicable and inhumane way. We must find a way to talk about it more, to help end the stigma that exists in our society that stops victims for coming forward out of fear of not being believed. The same stigma that vilifies the victim through the use of cruel practises like victim blaming, where society blames the rape victim for any reason, such as walking home late at night, being in a relationship with the rapist, being drunk, having had a drink, or simply for wearing a short skirt. Telling rape jokes like the ones that Tosh et al have championed is not the way. If anything, the rapists are the ones most deserving of a dose of satire, of jokes and of laughter because they have to prey on others for their own twisted and pathetic pleasure.

So what next for Sheer and Chortle? While it looks like they tried to do something different with this piece, they’ve offended a lot of people, regardless of their intent. An apology issued by both Sheer and Chortle would go some way to make up for the offence caused by the article, as would make a donation to a rape charity or a local rape crisis centre. In the meantime we can only wait and see what happens next.

Theatre Criticism Will Eat Itself

27 Sep

The last few weeks have been really very interesting. I published a blog post called ‘Trash and the Libel Case, or How to Piss Off a Theatre Critic’ on Sunday evening. The blog described my treatment at the hands of a difficult company that performed at the Fringe last month, and for many reasons, I decided not to name the company involved. By Monday evening, thanks to retweets and word of mouth, the blog had been read thousands of times, and many people, from performers, to fellow critics to PRs and journalists had contacted me to tell me their thoughts on the blog, and share similar experiences.

I was and I still am surprised and overwhelmed by the positive response that the blog got from performers, critics, PRs and so many others. Some people said I was brave for writing and publishing it and others told me of similar experiences that they’d found themselves in, either as a journalist or as a performer. To everyone that took the time to share their stories with me, and support me during that time, whether it was by email, on Twitter or even just by commenting on my blog, thank you. You’ve made me feel so much better and given me the support I needed. I will try to respond to everyone, but it’s going to take some time!

However, obviously, there were criticisms of the blog; the most common of which was my decision to not name the company or the individuals involved. Other criticisms aimed at the blog post were things like: the length of my blog, my actions towards the theatre company at the time and general spelling and grammatical errors (to the gentleman who offered to point these errors out to me, thank you).

But there was one comment that I really wanted to address.  This question was raised by the actor, Guy Masterson, who told me that I went too far in my original review by mentioning that the show didn’t have the rights to perform the sketches from the TV show that it was emulating. He asked me if I believed that it was in my “remit as a reviewer to research and to point out that the show was unauthorised?” Before adding that he believed that “… a critic has a far greater responsibility than merely offering “opinion”. Their review should be a balanced, considered, comparative work of criticism, not merely an opinion. This requires the acquisition of experience and knowledge and careful wording to assure that any opinion is couched correctly and fairly and constructively.”

To answer Guy’s first point: Yes, I believe any reviewer worth reading should research the show that they are reviewing. This gives the reviewer, and therefore, the reader, an insight into the background of the company, of the play, the playwright and the director. Research helps a critic better understand a certain artist’s body of work, whilst giving their own review more authority and power. Research gives a reader the chance to find out related and useful information about the show the reviewer was writing about. For Sunshine Inc’s show, I felt I had a duty to inform anyone who read my review about the show’s main issue, which was the lack of authorisation.

As for his question about reviews being more than opinion, I feel that a reviewer gives their opinion on every aspect of a show that they are critiquing. So, when you read a review, you are, in effect, reading one person’s opinion. However, most reviewers’ opinions are based on years of experience of theatre, art, music, film and any other cultural art form. So as well as reading another person’s opinion, you are reading writing influenced by years of passion, craft and knowledge. Of course, all reviewers and publications are different, and therefore, standards of writing, fairness and constructiveness will differ. This doesn’t mean that one critic’s opinion and review is less valid than another’s – far from it, in fact – every reviewer writes differently, which is part of the magic of the critical game.

But the critical game is changing; reviewing is more accessible now than it has ever been, which is means that criticism has become more open to those that might not have been able to take part in it before. More reviewers means more reviews, and more reviews means more star ratings and more star ratings means more, tired disagreements about the use of star ratings. Some publications, such as The Stage and Total Theatre don’t use them, whereas others, such as The Guardian, The Skinny and The Public Reviews do. However, despite the fact that many publications do use stars in their reviews, there are those who disagree with the star rating system, and want to abolish the system, such as Masterson, who has created a Facebook group ‘Forum for Abolishment of Review Stars at Fringe’.

I must admit to not having a strong opinion on star ratings; I can see why some people have issues with them, and why some people continue to use them. Star ratings are a way of summing up a show’s quality quickly and concisely, they are an indicator of quality, of standard, and perhaps, most importantly, of value for the reader. However, I do not agree with removing star ratings at just one arts festival, speaking as a reviewer, and indeed an audience member, the stars are a welcome guide to the best and the worst of the Fringe.

However, modern criticism is not just about stars, it’s about the ideas we share, the performances we review and most importantly, the way we write. The critical voice has, and should be respected, regardless of where that reviewer has come from, or who they are writing for, or whether their publication is online, print or staffed by volunteers. The sad fact is that lots of reviewers are taking pay cuts, being made redundant, or even forced to work for free.

The critical circle should be welcoming, approachable and united; times are tough, so let’s not make them any more difficult. Change can and must happen, the evolution of theatre criticism, and indeed, criticism in general, is essential to our survival, and will stop criticism becoming merely a pastime of the privileged and the well-connected.

Arts journalism is changing, like the rest of the journalism industry is growing and developing into something completely different. Theatre Criticism is not just part of this change, it could lead it, as Exeunt’s experiment with Pinterest Theatre Reviews have revealed – we are innovative, and we are hard working. We just have to work together with tools at our disposal, such as social media, online publications and better accessibility, but we need to find a way to use them together.



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