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Published on October 17th, 2008 | by Sharilyn Johnson

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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!”

or

“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?

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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.



5 Responses to Where does credibility come from?

  1. Jessica says:

    It’s weird, because there are people whose opinion I respect on a subject because they’ve pursued it so often – Jon and Stephen on comedy for example.

    Then again, I respect their views on the political process, and neither one of them is a politician.

    I guess a good, solid knowledge of your subject, and an ability to dissect it, dig deep into its inner workings, even if you’re wrong sometimes, makes me think you’re credible.

    I’m obviously not a church official, but I was often taken at my word when I explained a Catholic Church teaching or dogma to someone throughout my adolescence – and even today.

    I have no idea what I’m saying, so I’ll stop this rambling for now.

  2. Jon says:

    It makes no difference to me whether a comedy blogger has “credentials” or not. I’m just excited to see a website devoted to discussing comedy, and especially if it gets into the “inner workings” of comedy.

    I’m a comedy novice myself, and have been doing open mics for just over nine months now. But I love discussions about what makes comedy work.

    You mentioned the feeling of “energy” in a room when it’s going well. That is a fascinating subject. Along with voice, character, writing, timing, connecting with people, and all the things that make comedy a fascinating and (you’re right) an important art form.

    You have a mic and a stage. Make people laugh. Seems simple, but is incredibly complex.

    Anyway, thanks for starting this blog, and please keep it going.

  3. WHAT A LOAD OF HORSESHIT!

    Just kidding.

    (Actually, we still think what we said is valid and we are confident that, with some mild persuasion, you would concur. Your having mounted the stage does give you “a certain credibility.” Is not credibility in the eye of the beholder? To put it another way, if we say that your experience as a performer– no matter how “occasional”– lends you some credibility, we daresay that’s the end of that, regardless of whether or not you think it does. And we also contend that your experience _must_ inform your writing. It’s not a question of whether or not you wish it to be so. To put it another way, _everything_ in your experience is brought to your writing, from an open mike performance to what you ate for breakfast.)

    Do we have credibility? Like we said above– it’s up to the readers. We have nearly 50 years of combined experience in standup, multiple writing credits in a variety of media, etc. We just throw that opinion out there and let folks use it as a jumping off point for talking or thinking about standup. Rare has been the reader who doesn’t think we have some shred of cred.

    Going to Chicago in November of ’09?

    See you there, maybe.

  4. @ Brian & Traci:

    I do agree with you that everything you do in life informs your perspective. I guess the question I’m asking is whether going onstage has made a huge difference to the reality of what’s swimming around in my brain.

    Perception is an altogether different matter, and I agree that a lack of performance experience makes it difficult to sell yourself as being knowledgeable.

    I want to get back to working in tv again, or in any sort of administrative function that requires comedy knowledge and a good sense of what people respond to (which ties into my marketing background as well). Being in a new city this year, where people don’t know me, I’ve found it very difficult to present myself as having any kind of credibility. How do I sell that aspect of myself? I can’t write “I get it” in a cover letter. There’s no such thing as a bachelor’s degree in “comedy theory” that I can go back to school for.

    Since people only come to understand my perspective through extensive conversation or by looking at a ton of my work, it’s very difficult to instantly have someone perceive me as being comedy-savvy. Being able to say I had a dozen years of performing experience, on the other hand, would indeed solve that problem.

  5. Tom Bickle says:

    Having been an earnest stand-up comedy fan for most of my life, I think you can develop enough experience and depth of knowledge to speak intelligently about it, just from a longtime love of a thing. However, I also cannot deny that taking an active role in it can only round out and make fuller your perceptions about that thing. Otherwise, you’re missing an entire dimension that could dramatically alter your point of view.

    This is especially true with stand-up, because you’re making judgment calls on the choices of a person in whose shoes it’s hard to walk a mile, especially if you’ve never taken the stage; you can’t call yourself a master swimmer if you’ve never been in over your head.

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