Last week Jerry Sadowitz sent an open letter to all newspapers covering the Fringe, asking them not to quote his material. Was he just being precious? Absolutely not, says Kate Copstick
THE word "critic" is derived from Greek, meaning "one who discerns", and ancient Greek – "one who offers reasoned judgment or analysis". At the risk of sounding overly literal, there is nothing in the job specification that says "one who scribbles down all the best lines, accessorises a comic's set list with them as examples and calls it a review".
During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the number of shows and their performers' desire for reviews mean that critics can be seeing five or six shows a day, the option of taking the easy route and simply quoting a comic's lines to give the potential audience an idea of the feel of the show is always there, and increasingly attractive to the lazy, the tired, the jaded and the inept. But doing this is not to review the show, but simply to report it. And those nice free seats (free to us, the press, but not to the performer) are for reviewers, not reporters.
This year, veteran comedian Jerry Sadowitz has drawn a line in the sand. In an open letter to arts editors across the land last week, he wrote: "Dear sir/madam. This email is a request to all newspapers/magazines, that if they feel they must review my show in Edinburgh, could you PLEASE not quote the actual material in the review? A very important element of comedy is surprise, and it can often make the difference between a show that works and one that does not."
There will be comics everywhere who will agree with him, because he is right. The good comics spend months writing their acts, honing them, road-testing them in front of their real critics: the public. Then a reviewer pops in, watches, scribbles and files their piece, a goodly percentage of which said comic has painstakingly written for him or her. The art and the craft of comedy criticism has to be better than that.
Many years ago in a review of a show by Simon Munnery I quoted a line of his because I honestly wanted to give people an example of his comic brilliance and I probably, with hindsight, wasn't a good enough writer to do it otherwise. I certainly didn't think enough about what I was doing, and being told afterwards by someone as smart and as reasonable as Simon Munnery that I had killed a line in his act was one of the most important lessons I have ever learned.
Jerry Sadowitz has suffered more than many at the hands of not only the quoters but the misquoters. One hack brought outrage from the comic by quoting only the first half of a close-to-the-bone but classic two-liner about Nelson Mandela.
Laughter is a much more fragile commodity than most people tend to give it credit for. Comedy is not just about the words; it is about the context, the timing, the tone, the voice, even the physicality of the comic in the moment when their words are let loose. All these factors determine the audience's response to the joke. And printing someone's line doesn't allow for that from those seeing the show after having read the review.
Added to which, quoting from a show sets an idea of the comic and the show in the reader's head. Supposing you were reviewing a Michelangelo exhibition and all you did was print a page of close-ups of penises. The guy was big on penises, people would conclude. If you go to see his work you will see penises. And this is true – David's has been a talking point for centuries. But it's not exactly what you'd call a review of Michelangelo exhibition, is it ?
Of course, giving an example is a fast, easy way to give a "taste" of someone's act. But we are, supposedly, critics. Shouldn't we be better than fast and easy? (Please, save the laughter, I have a weak finish.) In quoting a stand-up comic's material, the reviewer is not only taking from the performer his or her justifiably expected right to be the one to hit the public with their carefully crafted lines and garner the laughter – their laughter, their payback – but is also taking from the public their right to hear these carefully crafted lines in context and from the comic who crafted them.
Interestingly, the number of comics who don't want critics in their shows at all is rising – Daniel Kitson has been refusing to give out press tickets for years; this year Stewart Lee is joining him.
If this continues, comedy reviewers could find themselves out of a job. I suppose that at least some of us, if nothing else, have great skill at taking dictation. You can quote me on that.
• Jerry Sadowitz's latest Fringe show, Comedian, Magician, Psychopath II is at Udderbelly's Pasture, Bristo Square from 31 July to 25 August at 7:40pm. Kate Copstick will be reviewing Fringe comedy for The Scotsman from next weekend.