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28.05.18

Criticism as Comedy

Posted 28th May 2018

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Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.

But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:

University of California logo

“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”

Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:

“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.

They are jokes.

They only benefit the joker.”

And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.

Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:

University of California logo

“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”

Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”

The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.

Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.


  1. Dated July 2016, but I’ve only just got round to reading it, through a link on kottke.org

  2. For what it’s worth, I’m not even the biggest fan of Ebert and Siskel either. 

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