Interview: Brian Donaldson
Brian Donaldson is Comedy Editor at The List and has written about comedy for The Times, The Scotsman, Evening Standard and The Herald. As part of a series of interviews with comedy reviewers, Ian Fox caught up with Donaldson.
IF: How do you choose which shows to review?
BD: Round about mid-July I wade through the Fringe programme and pick out a longlist of shows that The List as a whole can cover. Adding together the printed mag and online coverage, this will amount to around 250, of which, swine-flu permitting, I’ll attempt to see about 80-90 myself, of which there should be a good mix. In 2010, this included established and regular Fringe types that I might see every second year (Reg D Hunter, Mark Watson), a comic following up an impressive debut (Jonny Sweet), big acts who haven’t played for a while (Tommy Tiernan), big names making their Fringe debuts (Caroline Rhea, Jennifer Coolidge), and a whole raft coming here for the first time. As well as making sure the readers know about the box office acts, it’s probably our duty, as well as being the most fun, to discover those comics who are less well-known but turn out to be the stars of the Fringe.
IF: Have PR people ever persuaded you go and see a show?
BD: ‘Persuaded’ is quite a strong word, but I guess that’s a big part of their job. From my perspective, the best PRs are ones who leave the bullshit at the door and don’t try to convince me that every single act on their roster is as hilarious as each other. Those of us with titchy attention spans will simply switch off. Most PRs should of course be telling me what each act has to offer, but if they pick out one or two for special attention, then I know I’m not being played. Which I realise probably sounds a little too Sopranos.
IF: What’s the best way to get you into a show?
BD: Let me know the earliest date that a show is ready for review, don’t panic if we haven’t arranged for a press ticket for that exact night (it’s likely to clash with a bunch of other shows and/or the chosen reviewer may have a clash) and hopefully the venue/PR has sorted a press ticket for the requested date. Should something go wrong, it might not always be possible to get a reviewer in for the next show, given everyone’s ludicrously hectic schedule, but if we’ve said we’ll get along, then it will happen at some point.
IF: What are the best shows you’ve seen at the Fringe?
BD: Bill Bailey in 1997; Tommy Tiernan 1998 and 2010; various riotous appearances by Johnny Vegas; Alun Cochrane’s debut show; Julia Morris in 2001; Noble & Silver in 2001; Sean Lock before he did panel shows (though he’s still pretty darn good); Claire Hooper in 2006 (Aussie comic with a moving and funny show about throat surgery); Louis CK in 2008; Jonny Sweet and Joe Thomas as The Future in 2006; the annoyingly brilliant Bo Burnham in 2010. There will be a heap more, but I’ll stop there before I drive myself nuts trying to remember.
IF: I can’t really ask about the best without mentioning the worst. What are the all time stinkers?
BD: It would be easy to name names, but I’ll take the cowards way out on this. I would say that the worst sin is not an inexperienced act fooling themselves into believing that they are actually any good (of which there are countless examples, mainly in the sketch show field), but to see an established comedian putting on a half-arsed, ill-thought-out and lazy show.
IF: Have you ever caught anyone altering one of your reviews for their shows on posters?
BD: One instance from The List archive that sticks out is of a double act which no longer exists, though one half is doing very well for herself as a solo comic. From a stinging two-star review, some words were taken out of context to suggest we liked it a lot more than we did. A heartfelt apology was offered from the half still on the circuit who blamed an over-zealous PR. Downright lying on publicity material is just as bad as a critic reviewing a show they’ve fallen asleep through. I’ve witnessed both. Actually a little creativity with bad reviews can be part of the August fun. Best example I can think of is the late Jason Wood who was given a one-star review from The Scotsman and, accurately, put on his poster: ‘Jason Wood: a star!!
IF: Do you think free shows are good for the fringe?
BD: I do, but I don’t get to see as many as I’d like. We need to have a cut-off for our coverage and we always pick out the best-looking free shows in our festival preview issue and do a round-up review of the best that we’ve seen. But I’ll always keep one ear out for a buzz about a particular free show.
IF: How do you think free shows can improve and be taken more seriously?
BD: There should be an equal amount of quality control when you’re paying a day’s wages to see someone at Edinburgh Castle or chucking a few pennies in a bucket at the end of a gig in a pub basement. It’s all in the writing and performing.
IF: Is there any magic formula for a good show or is it simply a case of you know one when you see it?
BD: There really is no set formula and of the shows mentioned above, it would be hard to pinpoint too many elements which are present in all of them. You could say that a show should have intelligence but then what’s wrong with a bit of silliness? Innovation is all fine and good but playing within the rules and creating gold is sometimes harder.