Threats, Job Offers and Taking TV Seriously: On Anonymously Reviewing Comedy

What’s it like to be an anonymous reviewer? What are the freedoms and responsibilities that come with anonymity?

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case talks to one of the creators of Australian Tumbleweeds, a long-running anonymous comedy blog run by a small team of writers who are passionate about televised comedy and brand themselves ‘Australia’s most opinionated blog about comedy’. They’ve been satirised by Mick Molloy’s Foxtel comedy The Jesters, and praised, threatened (and offered jobs) by some of the Australian comedy industry’s movers and shakers.

As well as anonymity itself, we talked about the state of Australian comedy (and television writing), why being critical encourages good work.

Image courtesy of USB.

Can you tell us a bit about your comedy blog, Australian Tumbleweeds, and how it got started?

My friends and I, because there’s a group of us who do it, had been talking a lot about comedy on various forums overseas. After a while, we thought, we’re talking so much about this, we might as well start a blog and put all our stuff there.

We also started an awards thing, which we do every year – basically an award for various crap Australian comedies. It’s changed a bit over the years. When we started, there was a lot more crap comedy. We’d like to think we’ve had some influence, though almost certainly we’ve had no influence. But TV reviewing has become a bit less nakedly promotion of local stuff.

It’s more willing to be critical?

Yes. But that’s happened across the board with the arts. But there is still a sense of ‘we’re all in the industry together, we’ve got to get people to watch these shows’, rather than writers pointing out that a lot of these shows are not worth your time.

Did you start the blog because you wanted to be able to be critical of comedy?

Well, we were already sort of being critical, on forums. But we wanted to formalise it and say more of what we thought. Because we felt, and still do, that a lot of Australian comedy shows are not very good and a lot of people are not willing to say it, because the reviewers are, to a large extent, captive of the industry. They’re friends with people in the industry, they deal with the industry a lot. I believe some critics, who I won’t name, are desperately trying to get into television, so they’re going to be quite guarded about what they say about people who can help them in their careers.

Other people are just rubbish. Television criticism is often a place where crap journalists are shunted. There are reviewers who have made glaring factual errors repeatedly, but they’re still getting work. But I think TV criticism is going through a phase similar to the one film criticism did 15 years ago. It used to be where old duffers were sent to die, but now a lot of it’s being outsourced. That’s bad for journalists, but good for criticism. Newspapers will now pay a quarter of what they used to pay for film reviewing, but to someone who is a fan and knows what they’re talking about. Television hasn’t gone through that.

Would you write differently under your online persona than you would for publications?

At this point, probably not. When we started, part of the decision to stay anonymous was because I was doing other work in the media that meant there might have been an overlap, and it may have caused a problem. It doesn’t overlap with any of my other work at this point.

There are some comedy people who I respect a lot and I’ve only said nice things about, but I know they hate any form of criticism. Any review that is not a five star you’re awesome is taken as a personal slight.

Really?

Surely you know most creative people are horribly sensitive. They don’t want negative reviews in any way, shape or form. Comedy people are really bitchy. Because it’s their work … I guess it is the same with book reviews and any other form of reviewing. The subjects think, ‘you’re taking money out of my pocket’.

We at the blog have occasionally had work offers and we’ve said no, because we don’t want to further our careers in comedy. We don’t want our own TV show. We like what we’re doing. On the one hand, the work offer is not tempting, and on the other, we don’t want to get close to people, because we want to be able to criticise them.

The last job offer we got – I won’t name who, but it’s a name people in the industry would know – was a blatant attempt to get us to say nice things about this person’s upcoming show. And it was obvious why he had to do it, because his show was crap. Other people we knew in the comedy world told us that was what this guy was doing.

Image courtesy of Steve Floyd.

What kind of offers are they?

This was an offer to write on a show that was coming up, because he liked our style. He said all the right things, he was quite nice. But from the research we’ve done, he’s someone who goes out of his way to co-opt critics. He’s gone on various forums where shows are being discussed that he’s part of and defended them vigorously, which is unusual.

This is the kind of thing that goes on. If we’d said yes, we’d be compromised.

That’s interesting, that idea that you would have been compromised, but you are working anonymously, so if you didn’t have concrete ethics, you could have taken the work and no one would know you had.

That’s the danger you get with going anonymous. We’d like to think we’ve been doing it long enough that our readers know what we’re like … Part of what we like about being anonymous is that it forces people to pay attention to what you say rather than who’s saying it. And we know from what we’ve heard that there are numerous people who’d be extremely dismissive of what we have to say if they knew who was writing it but because they don’t know, they can’t say ‘that’s crap, it’s just some wanker wannabe’ in case it turns out we’re Rove or Andrew Knight or Austen Tayshus.

That’s such a common insult that’s hurled about, claiming a critic has tried and failed at comedy, but it doesn’t matter. The writer could be a failed wannabe with a pile of scripts, but if what they’re saying in their review makes sense, that should be the points that you attack, not the person. To some extent, by being anonymous you remove that target and if artists want to counter the criticism, they have to counter the criticisms.

I can understand why people want to know about people’s motivations and background, but a lot of the time it’s not relevant.

You don’t think the context of the person who’s writing the review allows you to read the review in a certain way?

The context should be developed over the course of a reviewing career. In our case, it’s a small team who’ve been doing it for more than a decade now and we’ve got a body of work that you can look at. You can say, these guys have disliked everything Chris Lilley has ever done. What a surprise they don’t like his new show – I’m going to ignore them. And that’s fine. That’s what we want people to do; to figure out where we come from based on our work.

I know that the Saturday Paper has said people will be able to do that with them because the reviewers will each have a set of initials they stick with.

I think that’s all you need to be able to do. If somebody’s driven entirely by spite and bitchiness, I think that’s going to become clear. And if they’re reviewing a book you’ve read and you think ‘that book was quite good, that reviewer is railing about something irrelevant’, you’re going to decide they’re not a reviewer to follow.

There are reviewers I don’t trust in any way, shape or form and I know very little about their personal lives. I just know they’re not reviewers that work for me. As long as you can identify Reviewer X as Reviewer X across a body of work, you know what you need to know.

So it’s about having a small team and using that team consistently so you can follow them?

Yes. It works for us.

Do you get into conversations with people who do write to you?

We reply to emails. Usually if you reply rationally to people who are being hostile it pulls them up short. A lot of the time we don’t care. If nobody’s saying things are no good, you get to the point where there’s an expectation that people be supportive no matter what the quality of the work.

We review for people who watch television. We talk about shows as things you watch. So we’re often negative, because a lot of shows are not very good. But because that’s rare in Australia, people think you’re having a personal go at them.

To be fair, it’s their creative endeavours, it probably does feel like we’re having a direct go at them. We’d like for them to not feel hurt, but a lot of the time the only way for that to happen is to be nice and supportive and we’re guessing they have lots of friends and family and fans to do that.

It’s ridiculous, why would they care what we have to say? We’re a handful of people on the internet. These are people with name recognition and TV shows on major broadcasters and often international careers.

*The Jesters*: A local comedy show that the *Australian Tumbleweeds* have praised.

The Jesters: A local comedy show that the Australian Tumbleweeds have praised.

You often write about what you think of other reviewers’ work on your site.

Yes. That’s part of why we started. If only those guys were reviewing things without saying everything Australian is awesome all the time. But that’s TV reviewing. Ben Pobjie has notoriously said in his reviews on the TV pages, ‘it’s just television; it’s important but it doesn’t matter’. If you said that on the sports pages, you would be fired. But in television, it’s seen as fair enough to have a laissez-faire ‘it’s TV, turn it on or not’ attitude. If you’re going to watch television and write about it, you might as well take it seriously. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Part of why we’re anonymous is that the people who make television take it really seriously, serious enough that they would try to contact a tiny little website with a readership of nobody to try to browbeat us or make threats or get us on side.

If you’re a viewer and you want to know what’s good, where are you looking?

So you’re anonymous so you can take it seriously?

I think so.

People in the comedy field seem to bear grudges. But if they’ve worked really hard and made something that’s no good, people watching it don’t sit there and go well, they worked hard – I was bored shitless but they worked hard on that.

In other areas of Australian artistic endeavour, we’ve seen that having a base of critics who are constantly supportive doesn’t help.

Because people don’t trust the critics then?

People can make up their own minds. People know what’s rubbish. People become disengaged when critics are constantly supportive. You’re no good as a critic if you’re supportive of things regardless of merit. People don’t care what you have to say then. I think being anonymous is a way to get around that in a small market like we have in Australia.

If you’re in America, you could probably be bitchy about a field safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to cause any ripples to you. Or it’s less likely to. But in Australia, where it’s quite a small area … you’re really aware of the people creating the work. You know how long and hard they’ve worked on it. But your duty as a reviewer is to say that the work is not that good, and not worth your time and money, if it’s not.

What do you think about that idea that the job of a reviewer is to say what they think, even if there are those interests and those concerns, to say what you think anyway. And if you can’t do that under your own name, then you shouldn’t be reviewing. That’s part of the job.

That’s a reasonable idea to have if you live in fairyland, but in the real world … That’s a good idea if you’re dealing with a group of people who can take criticism.

There are plenty of comedians who I wouldn’t have any trouble saying to them ‘that thing about you on that website, that’s me’. And I have done that, with a couple of people. But there are lots of others out there who can’t take criticism and they’re very volatile.

Plenty of authors write under pen names. No one grumps about that.

To be honest, a lot of this talk about ‘we want to know who the critics are’, I suspect they want to know who the critics are so they can have a go at them. ‘I want to know who said my book is shit.’ Why? That’s a menacing point of view.

I’ve thought about this from the point of view of a writer. When you get a review, you do look at the context of where it’s coming from. And you read it differently on that basis. For instance, one of the reviews of my book [about motherhood and Asperger’s] was from an author who’d written her own memoir about having a child with autism. A book I really loved. And with that review, I placed a huge store on what she said, because I felt she was coming from this context where I really trusted her and she understood where I was coming from as a writer and as a mother.

That idea of creators wanting to know where the reviewer is coming from so they can read the response in context … what would you say to that?

I think it’s a valid response, but I think in a lot of ways it’s incorrect. I could write something and give it to a dear friend who’s been through lots of the same things over several years, and they could say, ‘wow, you’ve really summed that up’. Or I could give it to someone with a completely different circumstance and they could say ‘I don’t get any of this’. And I would say that both of those replies are valid.

Sometimes it’s nice that people are on the same page and know what you’re talking about, but when you’re making art, you’re communicating with everybody, to some extent. And unless you’re writing a computer software manual for advanced users of HTML, you have to be general.

There are reviewers who have nothing in common with you, and there are going to be ones who are on board. And reviewers can lie too. They could say ‘as somebody who’s gone through this, I think this book is awesome’. And they haven’t been through that at all.

One of the things that is interesting about this is that you have a lot of authors claiming a whole lot of privileges for themselves and saying reviewers can only do things a certain way. An author can make up whatever they want, they can publish under a fake name, they can do all manner of things. But a reviewer is only allowed to do one thing when dealing with their work and anything else is betraying them. Reviewers don’t review for writers though.

I get what you’re saying. I guess that’s where it gets really important to be specific about what you’re saying.

A good review should explain, to a certain extent, why the writer of the review does like things or why they don’t like things. That should extend to the subject matter.

A good review should tell you enough about the work itself that you can tell if the reviewer’s complaints or criticisms about it are valid. If a reviewer is saying ‘this is a boring tale of some woman pottering around with her kid’, someone else might say, ‘I’m interested in that story’. A negative review might have told me enough about the book to know that I’m interested in it, even if you didn’t like it.

If you’ve put your name to something and you have a history of being published, you’re basically saying you can use what I’ve done as a guide to what I’m saying today. If there’s no context, it’s up to you as a reviewer to make sure your review has that context.

There are loads of reviewers out there now who would be vastly improved by having to write anonymously, because they just sit on their fat cans and coast on what they’ve said in the past. If you’re writing anonymously, you need to be more transparent. All people have to go on is what you’ve said in the review.

Do you think that when you review anonymously, people feel less guarded in attacking your reviews? You were talking about receiving threats.

Yes, there is a bit of that. You’ll find that across the internet though. People have become more accessible but less real.

Being anonymous, you’re even less of a person, so people can be quite hostile and quite dismissive up front. We usually find that when we do reply to people’s emails, they realise we’re actual people and that our opinions are not meant personally. There’s a lot of stuff we just really don’t like. We are quite passionate.

On television, there are only so many resources and there’s only so much air time. Every time there’s a terrible show, and more importantly, every time people who’ve made a terrible show get to do another terrible show, that’s pushing other stuff out of the way. So we get quite riled up. But we try not to go too far because we are aware these shows are made by people. We try to keep our comments focused on the shows themselves.

Most people review because they’re fans.

Yes. We want to see more good stuff. If you say everything’s good, it becomes meaningless. So you have to say some things are bad if you want to encourage the good.

Discussion

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