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16.09.19

Padded. Unspectacular. Filler.

Posted 16th September 2019

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There are some things I will never understand.

Take, for instance, this Amazon review of Soupy Twists!, Jem Roberts’ excellent look at Fry & Laurie:

“As seems to be the norm now, about a third of the book is padded out with unused snippets of sketches (although I recognised some so that might be quite a loose definition).”

Or how about this SFX review of The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age?

“Generally, though, this is an unspectacular volume. It’s full of doodles and drawings which reveal their artists’ technique and imagination without being very eye-catching; many are for toons that were never made. For example, several pages are devoted to the abandoned “Mickey’s Sea Monster”, with loads of design ideas for a Disney sea serpent (the best monsters are cute but also a bit scary). There are glimpses of an unmade Fantasia-like cartoon called Japanese Symphony, with parasol-wielding geishas and dancing butterflies.”

Or how about the review I distinctly remember of a Red Dwarf DVD, which called the deleted scenes “filler”? (Sadly, I can’t find that particular review, or the police might have to investigate a sudden nasty spate of poison pen letters.)

Regardless: I will never understand it. I will never understand somebody lifting up the lid on the creative process, to see a glimpse of what could have been… only to be greeted with calls that it’s padding, unspectacular, or filler. Of course, sometimes such work can be worthwhile in its own right; for what it’s worth, I was hooting with laughter at the unused Fry & Laurie stuff. “Split beaver pornography slipped through the net.”

But sometimes, it’s not about whether the work itself is entertaining. The path not taken is one of the biggest insights you can have into how something was made. If you ever thought the end of the Red Dwarf episode “Dimension Jump” was anti-climactic… just look at the deleted scenes, and see just how much worse it could have been, and how they arrived at the ending they did.

I know people engage with work in different ways. There are many who just don’t care about going behind-the-scenes at all. And that’s fine. But if you’re reading a book about Fry & Laurie rather than just watching the programmes again; if you’re reviewing a book specifically about Disney’s “Hidden Art” rather than just watching the cartoons; if you’ve wandered away from watching the episodes on a Red Dwarf release and into the extras menu… then I have to assume that you care about more than just watching the finished products themselves, and you want to go deeper.

So to shrug your shoulders at this stuff is frankly baffling. The chance to see brand new unseen work from people you love… or the chance to understand why you love them in the first place. Both approaches are valid for unseen material.

But indifference, or even boredom? That’s just weird.

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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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