Lawrence Mooney's dummy spit: the comedian vs the critic

Lawrence Mooney has been a comedian for 22 years, working extensively in stand-up and on TV. But last night a review of the Adelaide Fringe season of his new stand-up show Moonman set Mooney off. The review, by Bella Fowler, a young writer for Adelaide’s Advertiser prompted a furious response from the Australian comedian.

As part of a lengthy Twitter tirade, the Dirty Laundry Live host had the following to say:

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Here’s the review which, thanks to Mooney, is going to get infinitely more traffic than it would have otherwise.

It’s a total dummy spit on Mooney’s part, for sure. And his tweets turned what could have been an intelligent and respectful conversation about criticism into a personal attack (you can be pretty robust and forthright without calling somebody a “deadshit”.) This piece is not to defend his (over)reaction.

But is there a genuine complaint at the core of what Mooney is saying?

Well, yes. Comedy reviews published in professional Australian publications vary extraordinarily in terms of quality and the experience of the reviewers. It’s become standard now for newspapers to offer review tickets to any staff writers in their newsrooms with an interest in reviewing comedy, even if they don’t have a wide range of experience in any kind of critical writing.

We’ve employed similar practices at Daily Review for some festivals where there have been particular shows that we’ve wanted to cover but our regular contributors haven’t been available. But I like to think we’ve at least spent the time as editors to ensure the reviews we publish are fair, reasonable, accurate and decent pieces of writing.

The situation is slightly different with Fowler, who has written album reviews and some live performance reviews over the last few years — although her primary writing gig is as a real estate writer with The Advertiser. 

But the review opens with the extraordinary assertion that Mooney might not actually be a comedian (a pretty big call from somebody with limited experience in reviewing comedy) and has almost nothing positive to say about him. Yet somehow the show has been awarded three stars, which seems strangely high, given just how scathing the review is.

A few people on social media have said they can’t believe Mooney lost his shit over a three-star review, but the incongruous star rating — her review reads more like a one or two-star write-up — raises questions about whether or not Fowler’s editor has given her the support she needed as a developing critic. An editor should probably ask “are you sure about this star rating?” if it seemed as bizarre as this one did (and maybe they did — there’s no way of knowing).

Fowler’s review was not a particularly insightful piece of writing, but Mooney’s response was pretty disproportionate. I suspect it was mainly a reaction to the idea that he mightn’t be an actual comedian, and some broader concerns which comedians have about local reviews.

There’s a regular gripe that Australian newspapers, in particular, are using inexperienced critics to review their shows. Every year at Melbourne International Comedy Festival (the third largest comedy festival in the world) there’ll be a handful of comedians who spit the dummies over bad reviews — often from the Herald Sun, which tries to cover as many of the several hundred shows as possible. Often they have quite legitimate complaints.

There is a trend amongst less experienced critics for comedy reviews to become entirely about personal taste. Personal taste plays a massive role in criticism, particularly in comedy, which is one of the most subjective art forms. But it has to be balanced with strong analytical skills and some sense of context.

When it comes to comedy reviews, I tend to think it’s better to use writers who have at least some experience in reviewing any art form, because they generally understand the role their own taste should play. I put myself in this basket — I’m not an experienced comedy reviewer by any stretch of the imagination, but I think my skills in theatre and TV criticism are relatively transferable.

It’s true that comedians have been particularly poorly served by critics in Australia — there are only a handful of experienced comedy critics; certainly not enough to review all of the shows at a major festival.

And I can understand why comedians occasionally lose it over negative reviews from writers who decide they might as well give comedy criticism a go (particularly when it happens in a major professional publication). These are comedians who devote their lives to their craft, and to be reviewed by somebody who might be a professional writer but just a casual fan of comedy could be very difficult.

All reviewing is kind of unfair in this regard — an artist will spend weeks, months or years crafting a particular work and then a critic will spend a few just a few short hours with that work before delivering their personal verdict. And comedians, who rely on just their own charm and wits, must have it harder than most.

48 responses to “Lawrence Mooney's dummy spit: the comedian vs the critic

  1. Mooney’s as funny as a dead baby’s doll.

    If he’s worried about the review crimping his income, well he can get one of his mates at the ABC to write him another cheque for being unfunny before a national audience and, as always, in the company of other unfunny mates also cashing mates’ cheques from the national broadcaster.

    Suggestion: Mooney should gather a few pals — all the usual suspect comedians — and pitch another panel show to the ABC. Soggy Biscuits Circle would be a good title. Mark Scott can tweet about it and Mooney will feel special oncemore.

  2. Mooney: “There’s a lot of people out there who are in their PJs and off their meds sitting on the couch just wondering what to do next.”

    Ah yes, anyone who doesn’t find him funny is mentally ill. *Hilarious*.

  3. She brings up an interesting point, however. Lots of people on the telly pass themselves off as comedians when they mostly get hosting gigs as they’re amusing at best. Julia Zemiro, Rove Mcmanus . Compare them to Wil, Akmal lol

  4. Appalling. But it really just shows up this so-called comedian for what he is. Nasty, small-minded, and vindictive. It is yet more proof that social media is all too often “anti-social media.” Which is why it is best ignored.

  5. “All reviewing is kind of unfair in this regard — an artist will spend weeks, months or years crafting a particular work and then a critic will spend a few just a few short hours with that work before delivering their personal verdict.”

    Your argument is a stupid cop out, and you’re terribly bad at your job if you honestly believe this should have any reflection on your review.

    You think comedians have it hard, try making games for a living like I did!
    I would LOVE to have a drug habit or bad liver from my job like Fleety or Mooney – at least it would show I enjoyed part of my job. When I worked in games, I couldn’t afford to go out to drink or take drugs – I was never paid well enough and certainly not as well as Mooney after being in the job the same amount of time he has been. Then again, hardly any game developer has been in the games industry that long.
    Not that I ever had time to go out and drink or take drugs – we had 12 hour work days most days. I once worked 24 hours straight delivering a build on time for a game that was never released. Whilst working in New Zealand, I almost died of pneumonia because our work schedule was so damn tough I didn’t have time to look after myself.
    I also review games. Because I’ve worked in games, I am VERY aware of how hard developers have it. But that doesn’t stop me from being honest in my reviews. That doesn’t stop me from calling a piece of shit game a piece of shit game.
    People pay a lot of money for those games, and that final media is all they have to judge that game by. They don’t know that the producer almost died making that game. They don’t know that one Friday night at 11pm, after getting an email from a clueless management type asking for another stupid pointless change that ruined the vision he and his team were working for just so the publisher could squeeze a few more cents out of the player, so he stood up and told his workers to go home and relax, knowing full well that he might get fired (Luckily he was made redundant instead).
    Even if the player did know, they probably wouldn’t care. All the player deals with is the game. Therefore it is my job as a reviewer to explain the experience that player will have with the game, and if I think it’s worth their time and money. That’s what all reviews are about. Nothing else.
    I’ve never had a developer call me a name after a review. I’ve never had anyone turn around and say I was unfair. I’ve only ever had people congratulate me for being honest and fair. I reviewed Driv3r, and the lead programmer thanked me in person for understanding the process and conveying to people who are clueless about the industry how such an expensive game got to be a pile of shit. I’ve had gamers write to me and say how my review made them avoid a game, or pick one up.
    Maybe I’m a really f**king good reviewer. I don’t think so. Maybe gamers and game developers are just better people than comedians and arts reviewers, because they don’t have their heads up their asses.

  6. Good summation. I don’t want to know one more person’s opinion when I can check out a 15 year old’s Facebook feed anytime I want. I want to know I’m in good hands, with someone who’s reasoned, who understands how to critically analyse something. I think it’s called authority. It’s not really too much to ask.

    All this talk about comedy – gee I miss Dave Grant. Half a decade he’s been gone.

  7. Have to concur that Mister Mooney is a bit old school and doesn’t generate much chuckling from me, based on limited exposure to him. There may well be a market for his work out there, but it’s probably declining. Which is probably a pretty savage thing to come to terms with when you have been riding the same pony for 22 years.

    The review? A bit naive, sure, but probably not completely off the mark in terms of giving punters an idea of what to expect. Not really worthy of the pasting LM dished out, but there may well be some truth to the dark side of clowning. I’m pretty sure I’d struggle to come up with fun and larfs every time I had bills to pay. But that’s the gig, ay.

  8. Oh. What a failure I am.

    I’ve never realised that Lawrence Mooney was a comedian (although I understand he finds himself highly amusing).

    If I see him, I switch channel or switch off. Mr Mooney, if your audience doesn’t like your show, it’s probably your fault – not theirs.

    Get over it – that’s Show Biz.

  9. Bullies never like it when others criticise, especially if they happen to be younger and – gasp – female! Lawrence Mooney is a ‘comedian’ because he has been performing for 22 years? I’m sorry, but she is entitled to her opinion and I think it’s time that we stopped pretending we still find the ‘naughtiest boy in the class’ schtick interesting. It’s boring, juvenile and sexist crap. Lawrence Mooney needs to pull his head in. What a dickhead.

    1. Agree with you, Michelle. I find Lawrence Mooney completely unfunny. He always comes across as an arrogant and nasty piece of work. A bully.

      1. That would make Trump a politician. Being on stage for 22 years hasn’t made Mooney funny. One bad review revealed an egomaniac with a nasty streak. ‘Hell hath no fury like a Mooney scorned.’ Princess much? Put him in the van.

      2. Like someone who has been a boxer for 22 years makes him a boxer. Now if he hasnt won many or any fights it makes him a bad boxer. Thats what Lawrence is. But good luck to him if he makes a quid out of it. It just wont be any of mine. His carry on just confirms my judgement

    2. And you’re not being a bully here, right? The problem here is that Mooney is the easiest target of all – a middle-aged, white male. And the faux reviewer is reported widely as a ‘young female’ journalist, a shield that is meant to protect her from any possible outrage caused by her woeful writing. And so the resultant debate over Mooney’s response descends to the level of shrill tennis mum hysteria.

      He, like everyone else, has a right to remonstrate at what he feels to be a poorly written review.

      See it’s easy to write a comment without resorting to calling someone a dickhead.

      1. Hey leave tennis mums alone! And stop referring to them as shrill and hysterical. And furthermore, I totally agree with the point about the ‘reviewer’ and her portrayal. May I also say it really annoyed me when she employed the old ‘alas’ erroneously. She was saying something positive about the show and used ‘alas’. Crazy!

        1. I wondered if that was what really got to him – it’s as though that last paragraph is there as an olive branch, paying him a final compliment. But it comes across not a compliment for Moon but for his grandma. (your grandma sounds more entertaining than you)

  10. Maybe the reviewer thought it was a rating out of 10? Her review (very superficial though it was) sounded more like a 1 out of 5 than a 3! Nevertheless Mooney went way too far in attacking her. He sounds like a particularly unpleasant person.

  11. Gee, if you think ‘inexperienced critics’ shouldn’t be let loose on the world and the sensitivities of performers, better ban all social media!

    1. There’s a bit of a difference between somebody expressing their opinion on social media and doing it under a major masthead.

      1. Why?

        Some tweeters probably have more followers than the ‘Agoniser’ has readers these days.

        And isn’t this brave new media world meant to create the real democracy where we all get to be critics? (he asked, ironically). Then again, I agree – as no doubt many hotel owners who’ve been ‘tripadvisored’ would – that any review is only as good as the person who writes it.

        1. For so many reasons. The first one being that readers expect (rightly or wrongly) that critics writing for a professional publication have some kind of knowledge and experience in the art form they’re reviewing.

    1. Where’s the problem? : his (dummy spit) wasn’t funny. She lobbed him an easy opportunity to ace it, show off his brilliant wit, and he hit it into the net, as anger always does.

  12. With Ben’s piece, together with Helen Razer’s, Daily Review has covered this well, IMO. As both of you pointed out, a key problem with Fowler’s review was editorial failure: a piece that poorly written should not have made it through to publication and the star rating was incongruous. Just as important is the lack of respect for the art form shown by sending an amateur reviewer (she’s paid to write lifestyle pieces, not to review) who clearly knows nothing about the art form to cover a performance by a professional. The resulting opinion is no more insightful than that of any layperson in the audience; every audience member is entitled to an opinion, but we deserve more from our published critics. This is another issue that Razer nailed.

    Anyone who knows anything about stand up knows how much work the professionals put into every routine – the hours involved in writing, the additional hours in rehearsing and re-writing (I know that some comedians even notate the length of pauses between important words in their scripts) and then the additional time spent in try outs before live audiences. That’s the difference between a professional comedian and a “funny guy in a spotlight” to quote Fowler’s dismissive description of Mooney, and it’s the failure to comprehend that fact which is no doubt at the heart of his furious reaction.

    His reaction was aggressive (to put it mildly) but it wasn’t sexist IMO. As Razer said, if Fowler wants to dish it out in a major daily, then she should expect to cop it back and her own lack of professionalism is fair game. One final note: Ben said in a response above that it’s easy to over estimate the effect on sales of a single bad review, but business is tough these days and no one can afford to give up seats to incompetence.

  13. Lest we forget or let you get up on your high horse, let us remember that the Daily Review ran in infamously incompetent review of Circus Oz in the not-too-recent past. And then decided when it was criticised that, no, it was actually commentary…

    1. Hi Simon,
      Thanks for your comment but an opinion a reader doesn’t agree with doesn’t automatically make it incompetent.
      For the record, the Circus Oz review was written by me (four stars!) and a week later an opinion piece was published on the show but it was never billed as a review.
      Cheers,
      Ray

      1. Ray, it was a review of Circus Oz, a company that was born at the Pram Factory, that has a long history of socially-engaged productions which anybody who did a cursory google-search on their work could have known. And Circus Oz aren’t exactly obscure. Making the entire basis of the review “they should lay off the politics” suggests a complete lack of awareness of their practices and that your columnists are in the habit of wandering into productions with no knowledge of what they’re going to see until it shows up in front of them, and have a habit of writing about work they have no basic understanding of. IF it’s not borderline incompetent, I’d like to see what you describe it as.

        1. Hi Simon,

          Of course you’re right when you say that anyone who knows circus in Australia knows that Circus Oz proudly wears its politics on its sleeve – which is a reason they are so popular – audiences like having their values and beliefs affirmed.

          This was pointed out in my very positive review of the show that you might not have read. I wrote: “Circus Oz has always worn its politics on its sleeve, but compared to some of its previous shows its message is relatively lightly done in this latest directed by Deb Batton. No-one can take the cast’s humourous exhortations that we are filling our lives with “stuff” too seriously when Bowers reminds the audience at the top of the show to buy Circus Oz merch on our way out.”

          So the very point of the follow up comment piece by Crikey journalist, Cassidy Knowlton, was to hear the point of view of an audience member who was unaware of Circus Oz’s reputation, but who had grown up as a circus fan (in the US).

          Cassidy wrote of her experience: “The Melbourne audience, most of whom seemed to be long-time fans of the company, loved the show and laughed at all the jokes” and “I have no complaint with the feats and acts themselves – Circus Oz’s performers are one helluva talented bunch, and they bring joy and panache to their show.” she wrote.

          However her argument was that having been steeped in the American circus tradition, she didn’t want a “politics lecture” when she’s at the circus.

          Agree with her or not, (and almost every Circus Oz fan would not agree), but her expressing her opinion does not make the opinion incompetent or any less valid than yours or mine.

  14. Ben Neutze surely your place as a reviewer is not to review other reviewers critiques. You are very patronising. If an entertainer wants to appeal to people who are not regular comedy goers then an independent critique is a good thing. It might assist him to present more relevant comedy. Mooney wasnt funny, In fact he presented a middle aged blokey humour. He should probably go on the footy club circuit where his humour would be better suited Has Mooney ever heard of the expression “over the hill?” If comedians are poorly served by reviewers ,as you suggest, perhaps they should reexamine what they are presenting.. ..perhaps their comedy is one dimensional.

  15. Mooney lost his shit because these things matter, and his professional standing is affected by it. So is his income.

    Someone still scraping vernix from her eyebrows should not be reviewing anything like this at all. Her paper should not be sending her to do it, publishing the shitty review, and hurting Mooney in the process. This is his job, his living, and the festival circuit takes a lot of time and money to prepare for. This is bullshit, that he can by derailed like this, by a person like this. “Disproportionate” is a word entirely appropriate for the platform given to this mediocre, junior journalist, and the damage she can inflict. I think Mooney cracking the shits is entirely warranted.

    I have no idea whether the show was good, bad or indifferent, but I know Mooney is a veteran and the performance would have been professional. The paper cannot say the same about its review.

      1. I saw the show and it wasn’t particularly good – I haven’t seen any of Mooney’s other shows, but I found Moonman to be lacklustre and tasteless. I believe that the review is fair – she did compliment him for having a good stage presence, so it wasn’t all scathing – but (and I’m not a comedy connoisseur) I wouldn’t have given it a positive review either. Bear in mind that the average audience member isn’t an experienced comedy-goer, and looks to reviewers to give an idea of the quality of the show. This wasn’t a great show, she didn’t give it a great review. If Mooney is so confident in his own prowess, he should disregard poor reviews and rely on the reviews and word of mouth from his regular followers. His (over)reaction was pretty embarrassing.

        1. Your use of “tasteless” suggests the show probably wasn’t for you, so you aren’t an appropriate critic either. No show is for everyone.

    1. I have seen Mooney perform on a number of occasions and have not found him particularly funny at any of them. His response does not surprise me – have found him quite disrespectful and arrogant on each occasion. And who could forget his woeful NYE performance on the ABC? The journalist was entitled to express her opinion and quite frankly, having read the review, what is the fuss – I have read much worse and it has not stopped me attending events – I am sure I am not the only person who notes what others, including reviewers, opine without being swayed one way or the other.

    2. It’s ironic that you’re saying this whilst launching a scathing personal attack on the journalist, she also has professional standing, a living to make and so on.

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