Appealingly Appalling

Well, I suppose I should comment on the quickly-becoming-legendary Charles Mandel Sketch 22 review.  Many are calling it the worst theatrical review ever to hit the pages of the Guardian.  I don’t know, some of those Confederation Centre reviews they spew every year are pretty ass-kissy.  But I guess that’s taking "worst" in the opposite direction.

First off, I acknowledge that it’s hard not to sound petty when the scathed confronts points made in a scathing review, so I hope I won’t sound too petty.  But, in short, I think Charles Mandel pretty much got it all wrong.
Yes, he’s entitled to his opinion and yes it’s his job to report his experience of the performance.  So let’s get that out of the way first.  He did that, and he quite obviously hated the show.  I can live with that.  I wish, however, that in his review, he would have been more truthful
about how his opinion of the show seemed to be counter to the opinions
of the majority of the people in attendance with him.
When we were writing and rehearsing the show, we knew there would be segments of the audience who would hate the show.  Our hope, though, was that the majority would like it.  Our hope seems to be winning. 
Besides the goal of producing a Funny Show, another of our goals this year was to challenge ourselves and our audience as to what is funny: So we wrote sketches that dance all around the limits of comedy, and the boundaries of "good taste".  We acknowledge quite openly that we often cross those boundaries.  Yes, to shock, but also (and I don’t want to get all artsy-fartsy here), to explore.  Explore just how far one can go before a joke becomes too much.  Explore how far an audience is willing to go before they say "enough, that’s too far".  Explore the depths even further and see if the audience decides "no, we were wrong, this is still funny", and then go farther still, until all agree that the limit has been reached.  And how do we judge the results of the explorations?  Simply, by the laughter.  If an audience laughs, then it’s funny.  It’s (almost – see below) that simple. 
Now I know of actors who kid themselves that their productions are better than they are, and who brainwash themselves into believing that audiences are loving their shows and performances more than they actually are.  I believe that I’m a pretty objective critic of any shows I’ve been involved in and I believe I have a pretty good sense of when an audience is honestly enjoying a show, and when they are "being supportive".  With comedy shows, it’s much easier to guage an audience than it is with drama.  With comedy, audiences either a) laugh honestly, b) laugh in support, or c) don’t laugh.  I may have brainwashed myself into believing this, but I’m pretty sure that audiences who see Sketch 22 are laughing pretty honestly.  A lot.  And hard.
Which brings me to the crowd in which Charles Mandel found himself in last week.  Now, Charles insinuates that the audience wasn’t enjoying the show very much.  Saying things like "People forget to laugh"; "but the majority of the crowd remained silent" implies that the audience didn’t laugh.  Saying something like "finally, though, a couple of the questions loosened the crowd up", implies that the crowd that night was stiff and tight.
This may very well be the way Mr. Mandel heard the audience, but from my perspective, the crowd that night was, without doubt, the most boisterous, loud, accepting, energetic, appreciative crowd we’d had so far to that point.  This year or last year.  It was a fantastic show, from beginning to end, and the audience’s enjoyment was a huge part of it.  Again, maybe I’ve talked myself into imagining this, but I honestly don’t think so. 
Because the audience was so over-whelmingly supportive and appreciative, I was looking forward to Mr. Mandel’s review.  If he didn’t like the show, I thought, at least he’d have to comment about the way the rest of the crowd liked it.
So, I was rather dismayed by Mr. Mandel painting the picture to Guardian readers that the show was not appreciated by the audience.  I think what happened was, the show wasn’t appreciated by Mr. Mandel (and, no doubt, a few others), and to prop up his minority position, he, perhaps, chose not to  hear the roaring laughter, the clapping and cheering.  Maybe he was so worked up and bothered, outraged, by the content, all he heard were the swear words, and all he saw was filth.
Because, based on his review, he certainly missed a lot.  In fact, he missed a fucking great show.
What did he miss, in particular?
In my opinion, he missed some very key components of some of the sketches.  Too fixated on the crudeness, perhaps.  Regarding the lesbian stand up comedian, he claims (at least this is how I read it) that I bombed in my performance.  Even if he is referring to the character bombing (but I’m pretty sure he’s referring to me, the actor, not the character I was playing), he says "It’s not pleasant watching a comedian bomb."
Well, to me, that comment speaks volumes and perfectly illustrates how Mr. Mandel failed in his review of the show.  You see, Mr. Mandel, in that sketch, the character is supposed to bomb.  She is supposed to be an unfunny comedian.  Regarding that sketch, you wrote "nervous titters and giggles came from a number of people along with outright expressions of dismay".  What you failed to recognize is that the sketch was written and is performed to achieve precisely that reaction from the audience.  I wrote that sketch so that an audience would (hopefully) laugh along at the beginning of the sketch, and then as the character becomes uglier and more vile and more gratuitous in her language, more and more of the audience would feel uncomfortable and fewer and fewer people would laugh.  And it works very well.  Most people, whether they realise it or not, understand this, and are more than willing to come along for the ride to see just how bad it’s going to get.
So, Mr. Mandel, you see, you don’t see.  Now, you may ask, why would you want to have a sketch in a comedy show that’s designed to get an audience to stop laughing?  It’s a very good question, and one that compelled me to write the sketch.  It’s kinda like an experiment.  In one sense, though, Mr. Mandel, I did fail in that sketch.  You see, by and far away, that character and sketch has become beloved by a huge number of people who’ve seen the show.  I tried to write a character that would repulse an audience, and ended up creating one who is adored by many.  In that way, I failed.  Yet, you were repulsed, Mr.Mandel, so in that way I succeeded, I guess.  Just like a Bag of Dog Poop, I’m so confused.
What else?
Okay, the "man-on-man" kiss.  You seem to take pleasure in the "Thank you" heckle from the audience member.  As if you were relieved that there was another person in the audience, besides yourself who couldn’t handle such an event taking place before their (your) eyes.  You seem to be proud of that heckle, whereas I see it as a sad statement of homophobia.  A person so appalled by the very threat of seeing two men kiss that he is compelled to shout out his thanks at it not happening.  In truth, though, I don’t think that guy meant it in such a homophobic way (yet I’m wondering whether your inclusion of it in your review is meant in that way?).  I prefer to believe that he just didn’t want to see the big blonde guy kiss the skinny dark-haired guy.  I think that’s the beauty of that moment.  Most people are equally compelled to watch and to avert their eyes.  They want it to simultaneously happen and not happen, hoping it’ll be as awful as they’re scared it will actually be.  It’s such a Beautifully Ugly moment.
Hey, you know, maybe that homophobic reaction is exactly the kind we were hoping to elicit?  Maybe we’re saying it’s not the two guys on stage who are kissing who are appalling.  Perhaps the appalling ones are those in the audience who are disgusted by it. 
And, in reference to that heckle, you say "it’s bad when the funniest lines come from the crowd."  Now, I question, really, whether that was the funniest line of the night, but it did get a laugh, to be sure (there are so many lines that get huge laughs, it’s really hard to single one out.  We love all our babies.  Again, strange you didn’t mention all the laughter in your review).  Yet, again, I have to disagree with you when you say "it’s bad".  To me, a funnly line at a comedy show is a good thing, whether it’s spoken by someone on stage or off.  If it somehow fits within the context of the show (as this line did) and it gets a laugh from the rest of the crowd, then I don’t care who says it.
Oh, the "minds of 13 year olds" line. I’ll have you know, I don’t think there’s one fart joke in the whole show.  Your comment almost compels me to imply that your review was written with the same basis of maturity, but my sense of decency keeps me from doing such.
Really, though, you’re right that many of the lines in the nudist sketch are rather juvenile and full of double-entendre.  I don’t know why that’s a concern, though, since most nights many of those lines can’t even be heard by the audience or by the actors, since there’s a roar of laughter through so much of the sketch.  Seriously, it’s like the Beatles performing at Shea Stadium.  We can’t even hear ourselves perform at many points during that sketch.  Too bad the audience is being tricked by us into laughing.
Another comment that I think misses the mark is the one about Trailer Park Boys being a "not so intelligent satire".  Truthfully, I’ve only seen a few episodes, but the ones I saw seemed to be pretty smart satire.  And I would also suggest he misses the point if he thinks that sketch was making fun of TPB.  I would say we were exploring the same areas of society that TPB explores.

Other lines to comment on: 
"But bludgeoning their audience with scandalous language isn’t particularly clever."  I would counter with this: Nor is it particularly clever to entirely miss the clever aspects of the show you’re claiming isn’t particularly clever.
"Much of the show can’t even be discussed in a family newspaper such as this one." I bet a competent writer would find a way. (okay, that was a little petulant.  I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant he didn’t *have time* to bother to find a way to discuss those aspects of the show in a way suitable to a family newspaper such as this one.)

I guess, in the end, it boils down to a difference of opinion.  I really enjoyed reading it.  It doesn’t bother me that he didn’t like it.  I wish, though, that he tried a bit harder to see beyond his outrage at the foul-mouthed outrageousness and attempt to review the aspects of the show that take place beneath that layer of filth.  I am also a bit bothered that his review, in my opinion, misrepresents the fun and excitement and pleasure so many audience members seem ot experience when they see the show.  I feel bad for those who were perhaps contemplating coming to the show, and then, having read his review, decide against seeing it.

Seriously, who are you going to trust?  The guy who hated the show the one time he saw it, or the guy who loves to perform in it more and more with each successive performance?  And one of the main reasons I love to perform in it is because the audience reaction is so fantastic and enthusiastic.

He’s right though, the show is appalling.  But in a most appealing way.

19 Comments

  1. MY REVIEW of Sketch 22…

    The show I saw at the Jubilee Theatre was very well produced and had a professional feel.
    The overbearing jokes were based on cliches, some old chesnuts were spruced up with a good dose of vulgarity. Well done!

    The part of the audience that was shocked fed the energy of the event. These people led lives sheltered from satelite TV, and must never have watched South Park or their shock would have been preconditioned from them. Yes, gays lick and suck and fuck just like the rest of us do or dream of; and sure the wife needs to be nagged into sucking your cock, I guess? Is that true though, outside of highschool, people still get titilated by such grossness?
    My prime criticism of Sketch 22’s performance is it is a grossout, and a canned one at that. The writers brought to live theatre in PEI what could only be found on TV – grossout humour. There were smidgens of teen angst, and I was very impressed with the creative use of the camera on stage. Within PEI culture this is like the Vagina Monologues was to New York City twelve years ago but more aptly titled the Anus Monologues. It’s like they filled in the blanks on all the TV comedy they ever watched with PEI answers. Spam hackers at best.

    The troupe chemistry sorely misses a girl member, who could sweeten the rank male adolescence of Sketch 22. Graham Putnam is the best, the rest are good enunciators too, but for God sakes lets hope the writing finds a groove beyond the worn out TV/ Island Humour blend.

    You cocksuckers are pro’s but trying to tickle a Jubilee Theatre audiences sweet spot must take the lowbrow I would reckon. You freaked out my fuckin mom, and that’s what I laughed at, guiltily. There was not one fresh joke in the script, you’ve got the machine were’s the fuckin spirit?

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  2. I wish Sketch 22 had sass and brains to critique – instead of invade the culture we live in with their humour.
    Oh, they’re sassy enough alright, but mor cretin than critique.

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  3. were those 2 ken williams comments written by a machine? seriously, they read like a string of words put together at random. where can i purchase a ken willams 3000?

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  4. “invade the culture we live in with their humour”?? Are we not part of the culture in which we live? Or, Ken, are you using “culture” in its CBC Radio sense?

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  5. Please leave CBC Radio out of this argument, you juvenile, bile-producing man-child. And say hi to Debbie Gaudet for me. That’s one foxy lady.

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  6. Did this guy even see the unique messages behind the sketches? I don’t know many 13 year olds uniquely building tongue-in-cheek humour of Christian doctrine.

    I think Mr. Mandel needs to open his eyes and mind a bit.

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  7. Mandel’s article was an open wound, awaiting infection. Thank you for having the time to write up this fantastic rebuttal.

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  8. Personally, I think the reviewer did you a service, albeit not on purpose. A positive review in the Guardian may have drawn a lot of people to the show who would have endured it in mortal agony and probably walked out.

    I don’t think you set out to write or perform a show that the average Guardian reader would enjoy – you already know you can do that. What it seems to me you were trying to do is write a show that embodied a whole different set of values, and in that you succeeded admirably.

    Your show is selling out to appreciative audiences based solely on strong word-of-potty-mouth. The people who are giving it raves to their friends are your natural audience, and to have their seats taken by tire-kickers who would sit there, unmoved, unappreciative, stone-faced, slack-jawed, and uncomfortable would be a shame – not only for them and the people who couldn’t get tickets because their arses are in the seats, but also for the performers who feed on the energy of a crowd who “gets” what’s going on up there.

    In that sense, the reviewer is right. It’s not a good show for the majority of his readers. I’m glad he realized that, glad he told them, and glad they won’t be cluttering up the hall and storming out on poor Debbie Gaudet.

    As to arguing whether he’s “right” in the sense that he “should” have found it funnier … well, good luck with that.

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  9. Points well taken Nils. You’re absolutely right, we were well aware when we decided on the material for this seaon’s line-up that we were were creating a show that was different than last season’s and that it wouldn’t be for everybody. If Mr. Mandel’s review keeps the Travis Bickles away, all the better. We don’t need a dead Debbie Gaudet on our hands. Where in the world would you find a coffin big enough to house that cameltoe?

    Positive or negative reviews from audience members or reviewers, like the rest of the group I’m very proud of this season’s show. True, it has it’s fair share of potty humour and (depending on the person) pushes the limits of decency by times. But I would argue there is more going on. And the reactions from our audiences (like Rob, my biggest point of contention with Mr. Mandel’s review, the one moment where professional journalistic integrity was sacrificed for a most unprofessional lie) have been overwhelmingly positive. Again, it’s not a show for everyone. Neither are ceilidhs. (If I lost anyone with that, maybe you’re on the wrong blog). Mr. Mandel is entitled to his opinion, just like every other person. That’s mine. And we’re always happy to hear those of others. So come out to the show and decide for yourself. Bring your friends. Heck, buy a T-shirt while you’re there.

    I’m a shameless producer…

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  10. Random word man here, I couldn’t help try to piss you off with my review after reading you react to the Guardian review.

    Nils got it exactly. What kind of fantasy world would it be if the Guardian raved about ya’s?

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  11. Ken. I don’t think the intention was to criticize the fact that he didn’t rave about us…but he did miss the boat on a number of points (most of those brought up by Rob). Critique…but be sure you have the facts straight.

    Who knows…maybe being involved with the show and seeing it a number of times, I’m seeing the content in a different light than Mandel’s 1 time.

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  12. Wow I see a lot of “You missed so much of what we were trying to do!” “You missed the point of our sketches and just saw the negative side to everything.” Swearing is funny. And being really really crude to get people to laugh is funny too. I think it’s very clever to write a skit with a ton of swearing to get people to laugh. And also to be as disturbingly raunchy as possible. It’s funny. And of course you are going to say it’s funny because you wrote it. And anybody who is involved with the show is going to say “Fuck this show is GREAT!! You have no right to have an opinion except that we are trying to do something different and we shouldn’t be ridiculed for trying hard to be funny by saying fuck alot!” People that like the show like the show. Thats great, but don’t go shitting on people that said it sucked or that they didn’t enjoy it or thought that you fellas tried to hard with all the cursin to make people laugh at you and actually like it. Take the negative with the positive cuz if you don’t then you are all just a bunch of whiney babies! Which I don’t think any of you are!

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  13. Thanks, Poppy. You are observant and correct, but I think there is more to the show then swearing. I don’t know if it’s great or brilliant, but I just wanted to comment on the Guardian review. It’s NOT the guardian opinion, but the review. Atleast it’s supposed to be. but both reviews we got (Buzz and Guardian) were more opinions then reviews. One was positive, one was negative. Rob commented on both.
    I don’t think we’ve at any point countered someones opinion of the show unless their opinion is of official capacity (review).

    And at what other forum would we have the right to be meglomaniacs and defend our art then one of our members blogs.

    I don’t think anyone really gives a shit about our little comedy show nearly as much as we do, even if they hated it. It’s just that, we get a lot of comments from a lot of people so it’s easy for us to imagine that others think this is a big deal, and talk about us. We are deluded into thinking that we’re the subject of both praise and scrutiny by people, behind our backs.
    Please forgive my ego on this subject. I can’t help it.

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