I am my own worst critic, I often walk out on myself

As people are now coming to this blog post because of a link by The Guardian’s Brian Logan I will explain that we never wanted critics coming to our Shambles shows as we wanted to experiment with new stuff without newspaper scrutiny. Also, as you will see from the words below, I presumed he was in anyway.

I am my own worst critic. I know this because I am so persistent, whereas the other critics might write some honest words of derision once, maybe twice, I just won’t let it go. Each day, there’s a new review, and each one seems to get closer into seeing the true faults in my body of work. Other critics didn’t notice that mispronunciation, that speedily covered trip of the tongue or idea that went on too long and then failed to find a punchline, but I’m a right bastard, I’ll see it and bang on about it in the print of my mind.

So why was I bothered that there was a critic in our show last night? I never like to know when there is a critic in. I don’t understand those performers who have to know if there is one in attendance. What are they going to do? Put a bit of effort in because the eyes and ears of a few hundred people isn’t enough to spur them out of their lethargy? Will they drop that routine about The Guardian or The Times in the hope that replacing their venom with some   unctuous toadying might capture that extra star? 

I hear terrible stories of performers, especially during the Edinburgh Fringe, psyching themselves up upon hearing that reviewer from the big newspaper read by the TV people who are in charge of making you a star is in the front row, only to reach the stage and implode into an asthmatic sweat drop, grasping for that joke that says Saturday Night Prime Time, but can only find the one that says, “to be avoided due to constant weeping in shadows as false memories of possibilities dashed swim before his eyes”. 

It is the performer’s default position to be plagued by “why tonight of all nights, why not last night’s gig when I was adored and astounding”. My last memory of that was during the Happiness Through Science tour. My night in Lancaster had been a giddy joy, leaping from ideas, improvising around ideas of Newton and seahorses, but the Telegraph came that next night in Banbury, when the show was a show but not the show it could be and sometimes was. I didn’t know the reviewer was in until later on getting a message where he kindly offered me a lift due to the parlous state of Sunday trains. I didn’t search for the review, but my dad has me on Google alert, so can always tell me the news I attempt to avoid. Three stars, could have been better, should have been happier, the reviewer was right. 

I avoid reviews, not just mine, pretty much anyone’s and anything’s reviews. There are good critics, critics you read and think, they love this artform and they want it to be the best it can be, as good as that feeling they got when they first saw Citizen Kane or Time Bandits, or heard Hatful of Hollow or Forever Changes. There are some who enjoy the barbarism allowable while being paid by the word, and some seem to be filling time until something better comes along. So why did I fear the presence of the critic last night? 

Once it might have been that these are words that exist in print, not just sentences that will   soon be lost in the hubbub of the bar, but everyone is a published critic nowadays because the internet elevates our pronouncements by giving them a frequently non-required longevity. Why should we be so bothered by what others think? 

Once, when working on a TV show that few were proud of, and the difficulty of getting the best writers’ room gags on air had led to an abattoir sense of humour, I recall a cruel prank. Don’t worry, it wasn’t one of those pranks that led to the death of a young man and so puts us all at risk when holidaying near a lonely lake. One of our co-writers was appearing on a TV stand up show that happened to be reviewed by a newspapers. We knew he would be late in, so hastily wrote another review, found the correct font, photocopied the newspaper page until it blended perfectly, then snuck it between the other photocopied news pages. Once he arrived, we talked blandly of the writing tasks ahead and mentioned that he must be glad of his TV stand up debut and not to pay any attention to what the Mail had said, then three paces back and the explosion. Fortunately our nasty butcher laughs soon made it clear that it was the prank of the artistically unfulfilled, but not before he said, “how could they write that, what if my sister saw it?” 

Sadly, our pranks were more creative than anything we managed to argue onto air.

Is the horror of the reviewer that the newspaper page that it may considered worthier than any unknown internet forum, and it is the disappointment of our family and loved ones that haunts us most. Will the critic make us feel that we should be ashamed, that we have disappointed our mum and dad. 

In the end, I know it doesn’t matter, what matters is whether the people you play to enjoyed it and that you did what you wanted to do without sense of restricting yourself due to fear or uncertainty. Why should I be worried? Mind you, I did once publicly call the reviewer “a lying piece of shit” but I am sure that is all fury under the heavily graffitied bridge by now, and if not, it’ll be my alibi for any harsh words.

Trust me, as my own worst critic, I nevertheless recommend you come and see me at Sheffield, Havant, Manchester or Newtown, or join critical darlings Grace Petrie, Josie Long and I at Oxford, Nottingham, Southport or Bath. Information of all such things HERE

My three star (Daily Mail) DVD Happiness Through Science (incl 4 star Brian Cox commentary) is HERE

FOOTNOTE: I was much better tonight without the critic, no honestly, errrr, okay, bye now

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8 Responses to I am my own worst critic, I often walk out on myself

  1. Is the right/write swap in the first sentence some deliberate irony set-up? 😉

  2. Giles says:

    One of the best nights I’ve seen you, Robin. I don’t know what makes you a good performer, to me the relationship between you a Josie (and now, Grace, KEEP BOOKING HER!) just works really well. We’re an audience of weird, and not so weird, but you inspire me to create and read more. As I said on Twitter, I’d planned a quiet night and dropped that ‘plan’ to come half way across London and, luckily*, enjoy a brilliant show.

    *NO LUCK. Science, bitch.

  3. I should balance my previous (somewhat insensitive) quip with something rather more positive and supportive. We’ve been to lots of your shows in the last few years and have never left feeling disappointed. Personally I think you’re highly under-rated and under-celebrated as an entertainer, though maybe that’s because of the rather more niche (though paradoxically eclectic) nature of your material, and consequently your audience. I think it’s actually refreshing to see someone whose natural style shows up their own variability and fallibility rather than someone who delivers the same polished, sterile performance show after show.
    And anyway, though it might be selfish, I much prefer seeing you in small theatres rather than arena-sized venues.
    Really looking forward to seeing you soon in Coventry. 🙂

  4. Giles says:

    Niche, paradoxically eclectic is spot on. If I didn’t get lost at least a few times I’d be devastated! Go mainstream and I’ll cry, Robin.

  5. celkali says:

    I reply again, ho HO!

    This was fun to read to Lacrimosa, I tell you what. Really though, there’s a story Sam Raimi tells when they first premiered Evil Dead (then called Book of the Dead) in the US. His film teacher was in the audience, and Sam was anxious to hear what the man had to say. When he finally got the courage to ask his mentor for opinion, the man responded with disgust. “Films are not just trick shot after trick shot! Did you learn nothing in my classes?!”
    Sam was a tad upset by this, but shortly after the lackluster review, he received another review. An old lady, probably in her late 70’s, had come out of the theater and demanded to speak to director. Sam expected the worst, and what he got was the complete opposite. The old lady loved the movie, “It was the most fun I’d ever had at the movies! Great show, boys, it was a hoot!”
    Now, obviously an old lady enjoying a gore-fest horror film isn’t gonna bring in the crowds, but shit did it make Sam and the boys happy to hear. Later, when they took the film to the UK, it found huge success and paid off all their loans.
    Point is, critics will be critics, but it’s the audience you want to hear from.

    *Sprinkles Uncalled For Story Dust, flies away*

  6. I’m fascinated by this – surely stand-up is one of the most honest forms of performance you are talking to the audience as ‘you’. Can’t you share the experience when something goes wrong? I think critics accept that it isn’t like film where you have time to be perfect – it’s a snapshot of one performance and how it went that night. Critics open the conversation rather than be the final word on it. Surely a review is something to discuss on social media with people who saw it? Or am I being romantic and thinking that comedy is far more a finished product that can be taken off the shelf and delivered as it is time after time?

    I find this such as interesting question, I’d love to hear your thoughts esp after the debate at The Critics Conference about the purpose of it all…

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