Opinion: Should Critics Quote Jokes?

Tim Vine

To quote jokes or not to quote jokes, that is the perennial question for comedy critics. This has particularly been bothering me in the last couple of days after I ran a rave review of Bec Hill and she complained that I had printed one of her jokes, thus ruining the surprise for fans. While I could understand her point this was just one joke in a set packed with neat little quips and puns. It would hardly have disgruntled punters queueing around the block for refunds.

Quoting material is often a touchy subject. And this year online editions of newspapers seem more determined than ever to do it. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian are currently running Best Joke of the Fest stories, which are little more than Buzzfeed-style laugh-lists. And of course there is Dave’s Joke of the Fringe, where you can win a cash prize for the pithiest line. As with the Guardian and Telegraph you don’t have a choice about having your joke entered in the Dave competition, but I guess the publicity and the cash softens the blow. Unless of course you find yourself nominated in their Worst Joke category. Some comedians (or maybe their PRs) clearly don't mind having their jokes in print. Last year when I was judging the Dave competition I was having difficulty getting to one show, so the act's publicist offered to email me a selection of their jokes so I could enter them. I politely refused.

But compare Bec Hill’s attitude to some others who have had their jokes printed. Angela Barnes spotted one of her gags in the Guardian’s list and put it on Facebook with a flattered “Blimey. That's nice innit?” comment. Yes, of course it means that people who buy a ticket to see her will know what is coming. But then again there are people who may not have bought a ticket to see Barnes if they hadn’t read that joke. It’s a good one, but if you don’t want to know it don’t click on this link.

The argument goes that good critics should not quote gags, that they should be able to convey the flavour of the performance through their own eloquent words. And that’s what I always try to do. But sometimes a direct quote can say a thousand words about the show without remotely ruining it. I’m sure Tim Vine puts a lot of bums on seats because his one-liners work so well in print. Other jokes that fly onstage may die on the page. 

If knowing a joke in advance is so detrimental to the enjoyment of a gig, what about all those comedians doing their much-aired Live at the Apollo and Roadshow routines onstage? Familiarity is part of the fun. Katherine Ryan’s sales, for example, have most definitely been helped by her dick-ripping Beyonce skit. If she didn’t do it in her stand-up shows her audience might well be disappointed.

(Update 13/8: Maybe, at a push, one gag should be allowed, though the likes of Paul Sinha and Mike Gunn disagreed with me on Twitter and Facebook, taking a zero tolerance policy on the subject. But as someone said after this piece first appeared, a good comedian ought to have enough gags in their set that giving one away won't harm them. But there are limits and as usual the Mail online has overstepped them. This news story – admittedly not a review, not that that matters if giving away gags is the issue – about Camilla Cleese's current Edinburgh Fringe show unashamedly quotes major chunks from her brief set at the Gilded Balloon).

There may be a difference between seeing a whole routine televised in context and reading a single joke in isolation. But printing a joke can make a review jump off the page and make the comedian sound more interesting to the reader. It is intriguing how different comedians react differently to seeing their jokes online. Perhaps stand-ups who don't like it should be less sensitive and more realistic. As Oscar Wilde might have said if he was around today, it’s better to see your jokes online and credited to you with a ticket booking link next to them than to be ignored.


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