Michael Elizabeth finds that some jokes don't land for the British audienceMichael Elizabeth with permission for Varsity

It is a well-known law of the universe that humour is highly subjective. At the intro to comedy workshop hosted by the Footlights this Michaelmas, the organisers asked us to share some of our favourite funny TV shows. Someone said It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was met with whoops and boos in equal measure. Someone else offered Succession as their preference, leading to a brief debate about what exactly counts as comedic television. The Footlights revealed they had asked us this question for one reason: to demonstrate how subjective humour can be. What one person finds hysterical might get a tepid or outright negative response from another.

“What one person finds hysterical might get a tepid or outright negative response from another”

This being the case, how can we hope to review comedy shows? I’ve reviewed a few sketch shows in my time, and my own performances have been reviewed, too. From my experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s entirely possible to review comedy shows despite the subjectivity of the medium. In fact, I’d argue that reviewing comedy is just an elevated form of the feedback that performers already rely on to improve their comedy chops.

Though humour may be subjective, there are production elements common to all types of shows that can be fairly assessed in a review. Much of traditional theatre reviewing relies on what the directors, cast, and crew have done with the source material; with comedy, the source material just happens to have been written by the performers. All types of comedy – sketch, improv, stand-up – are ultimately theatrical productions. Are the performers well-lit? Are technical elements like projection and sound done well? How do the costumes look? Has the comic forgotten their lines? One-night stands are common for comedy shows in Cambridge, but for productions with more than one night, a review’s constructive comments might prove useful for future performances.

“If the audience isn’t laughing, then it’s not funny”

Moreover, some jokes are just not funny. It feels harsh to write so plainly, but it’s a fundamental reality of comedy: not everything you write will get laughs. When I lived in the Netherlands, I used to tell a joke about how I’d embarrassed myself so often in Amsterdam that I’d be forced to leave soon. Dutch audiences loved it, but when I brought it across the Channel, British audiences seemed nonplussed. I tried the joke at a couple gigs before cutting it. If the audience isn’t laughing, then it’s not funny. As a reviewer, your fellow theatre-goers can clue you into when a joke genuinely isn’t humourous. Are the laughs noticeably quieter than for other jokes? Has the comedian paused for an audience reaction, but is no one responding? That’s valuable information for a reviewer, and it’s the same kind of feedback that comedians use to improve what they’ve written. An absence of expected laughter is a telltale sign that something needs to be reworked. In this way, the reviewer can think like a comedian and tune into the audience to figure out what jokes aren’t good.


Mountain View

Low Effort Sketches: The First Effort – an hour of endless laughs

Likewise, this reliance on the audience can show the reviewer when something is funny, even if the reviewer missed the punchline. I recently reviewed Low Effort Sketches and loved the show, but I found myself stumped after one joke in particular. One performer picked up a reusable Sainsbury’s tote bag and held it in front of her face. “Make abortion legal!” she said behind the bag. “I support a woman’s right to choose!” She then lowered the tote and said, “this is a bag for choice!” The rest of the audience laughed while I sat silently and mulled over the possible meaning. Why was everyone else laughing? (Turns out the Sainsbury’s bags are “bags for life” – British cultural capital I didn’t have at the time of the show – making “bag for choice” a clever subversion.) Just because that joke didn’t get a laugh from me doesn’t mean it’s not funny, and the audience’s overwhelmingly positive reaction indicated that the joke was indeed hilarious.

There are likely many people in the comedy scene who disagree with me and who would like Varsity reviewers to stop showing up to their productions – honestly, I’ve felt the same way when seeing someone with a notepad shuffle into the audience. However, when done with an earnest desire to constructively critique the cast and crew, a review is just another public form of feedback that we can use to make our comedy better in the future.