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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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Welcome Home to ITV?

Posted 22nd September 2012

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My first reaction when I heard ITV1 was going to change back to ITV in early 2013 was the same as most presentation fans of a certain era – a collective yawn. Ya boo sucks, who cares what boring old ITV is doing these days?

That is, until a couple of things caught my eye. Firstly, this little tidbit from the Broadcast article linked to above:

“The changes are being led by ITV’s group marketing and research director Rufus Radcliffe, who joined the broadcaster from Channel 4 in April last year. Radcliffe’s in-house strategy at C4 saw him relaunch E4 and More 4, as well as introducing C4’s floating logo idents.”

C4’s floating logo idents? AKA, the best current terrestial idents by a mile? INTERESTING. (Mind you, Channel 4 may be unique in never having a bad identity. Yes, even the circles era. Shut up.)

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Regarding Brand New’s “Why I hate Helvetica”

Posted 12th July 2012

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I love Brand New. Describing its purpose as to “chronicle and provide opinions on corporate and brand identity work”, a huge part of the site simply presents logos before a redesign and after, and invites comparisons. You could get lost in those archives for hours.

However, I have to – admittedly belatedly – take issue with the following post – New University of the Arts London Logo, or Why I Hate Helvetica. Click the link, read the article, especially the rant at the bottom – I’ll wait.

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Posted 19th February 2010

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Dear Sir,

I was on the Argos website the other day, and noticed a startling similarity between the new Argos logo, and the Complico logo from The Peter Serafinowicz Show.

New Argos logo


Complico Logo


Could they by any chance be related?

John Hoare

P.S. God, it’s shit.

(With apologies to @divaschematic.)

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