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Published on October 17th, 2008 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Where does credibility come from?

In the past two days, I’ve been pimped out by the delightful Shecky Magazine, and had the pleasure of watching Jamie Kennedy’s documentary Heckler. The two events, for their own reasons, have brought the question to the front of my mind: what makes someone credible when it comes to knowledge of comedy, and gives them the “right” to be a critic?

In Heckler, many of the amateur and professional critics are dismissed because they don’t practice the art that they write about, something I was guilty of for many years.

Brian and Traci, the two lovely halves that make up the staff of Shecky, said the following about me:

“Her love of all things comedy is unquestioned. And, though she be a journo, she’s actually sucked it up and gone up onstage and experienced those hot lights. This gives her a certain credibility and it informs her writing.”

(48 hours later, and I’m still blushing! It’s an honour to be presented in a positive light by these guys.)

But to be perfectly honest: I don’t think getting onstage has had any impact on my perspective, nor did it increase my qualifications to report on comedy.

The same fundamental views and philosophies about comedy that I hold today, I can vividly recall holding as early as 4 or 5 years old (which either says something about how advanced a kid I was, or how daft I am currently). It’s always looked difficult, frightening, noble, valuable.

Standup was not a goal for me. When I saw Comedian in the theatres multiple times, built up a library of books about comedy, and became a regular audience member at the open mic nights, it was purely for the love of it. I loved watching the same guy do the same bit in the same venue, and try to figure out why they got a different reaction. I loved trying to predict a callback. I loved feeling the energy in the room when someone was killing.

In Heckler, Jon Lovitz makes an interesting analogy about focus groups and studio executives.

“I watch every Laker basketball game for 20 years. It does not mean I am now qualified to coach the team. At all.”

But that’s exactly what I did. I consumed every comedy show, film, book, forum, and beloved online magazine for 20 years. Only once did someone suggest that I wasn’t qualified to dole out advice or review a show (and I can safely say that person has since come around).

When I strategically slid my way into the comedy community back home, before I did much work as a journalist, I had no cred beyond what would come out of my mouth at the comics’ table. It was enough to get me accepted and treated as an equal, which I understand is no small feat for a non-comic. I was allowed to give advice and express my opinion and suggest phrasing for a joke. I was allowed, on some level, to “coach the team”.

I’ve since become an open micer, who has gone up “occasionally” at best. Aside from simply knowing what it feels like to be up there, it hasn’t blown open the doors of comedy knowledge. I still can’t tell you how to read an audience, how to sustain an hour-long set, how to win a crowd back after losing them. But at the same time, I know a lot more than any other open-micer I’ve met.

It seems to me that if someone isn’t well-educated in their field, no amount of experience will help their credibility. Take the example of the out-of-touch comedy club owner, or the clueless studio exec, being ranted about:

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, because he’s never been up there doin’ it!”


“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he’s just bitter he could never make it as a comic.”

Those are opposite statements, and we’ve all heard variations on both.

Perhaps I’m just an exception to a rule. What’s your opinion? Should authority on a creative subject be measured by a person’s willingness to pursue it?


About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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  • The Colbert Report A-Z

    Third Beat editor Sharilyn Johnson presents the ultimate fan guide to The Colbert Report, available from all major booksellers including amazon.com