Ask Ash: How to write a (comedy) review

“I saw that show and give it three stars.”  How frustrating is it to read a show review like that.  How do I know I agree with the reviewer?  No idea.by Sergio Aragones

I’ve had only a few frustrated writers, reviewers, audience members ask me how to write a review for a comedy show, but I’ve heard way more artists complain about a bad, inaccurate or vague review.  So, for both sides of the fence I’d like to outline some of the best facets of a good review.

How do you write an effective comedy review?  What do you need elements should you identify.  How descriptive of a comedian’s set should you be?  What were the atmosphere and venue like and did it affect the show.  Let’s examine some guidelines (again, this is just my opinion, but I do believe you’ll find it helpful) to writing a good (comedy) review.

  1. Set the stage.  Describe the location, the atmosphere.  Name who you are reviewing and your expectations from past work.  This could be as simple as saying “I went to see comedy veteran Jim McDonald at the Comedy Vault.”  It depends on who you think your audience is, if you think they are familiar with the ‘Comedy Vault’, and if ‘Jim McDonald’ has a widely known reputation.  It is sometimes best to act as if your audience will be unfamiliar with your references.  Put in emotional references and descriptors.  If a venue makes you feel a certain way each time you go there, if it reminds you of anything that may put you (the reviewer) in a certain frame of mind, it is good to mention.  If you’re familiar with the comedian’s work, what you’re expecting, their style – even references.  If you only know them from word of mouth, how long it’s been since you’ve seen them.  All of these factors can affect your state of mind, and how you will report on the show, they also will allow a reader to judge how you’re approaching the show compared to how they’d approach it.
  2. Describe the work.  Here you should describe the meat of the show.  Did the comedian(s) meet your expectation?  What sort of atmosphere did they create?  What was the material subject matter?  It is important to note that you should never, ever, put a punchline in a review.  Glossing over subject matters yet stating how you reacted is much better; “Jim McDonald let loose with a story on tricycles that blew me and the audience away.  Laughter rippled through the crowd as his simple charm and rural witticism reminded us all what it was like to be three.”
  3. Criticism is more than complaint.  If something in the show is not to your liking, don’t be afraid to express it – but explain why.  It is possible that something you disliked would be a reason someone else would like to go.  “I was disappointed to not hear Jim’s great joke about etch-a-sketches, in total I don’t think he did any of the jokes from his first album.”
  4. Summary.  Summarize what you thought of the show as a whole, if you’d recommend it, if there were caveats to those recommendations.  This is to be your opinion, know why you made it and be able to express it.
  5. Be accurate, nothing spoils a good (or bad) review more then misspelling the name of the artist (or venue) involved.  Dates, showtimes, names – all these things can easily be verified IF you didn’t take notes the first time through.
  6. If you’re reviewing an ensemble show (showcase, open mic, sketch) it sometimes can be overwhelming to review everyone.  Watch the entire show, but pick out only two or three acts who you think deserve the individual attention (for good or ill).

Now review some shows, doing so is a great practice in writing, plus you’ll also get a better grasp of how to pace your own sets and who knows, maybe you’ll encourage someone to go see something live.

Yours,
Ash