Razer on the Lawrence Mooney stoush (and where you can stick your opinion)

It was fifteen years ago I wore down The Age’s then arts editor and wrote the first of some 500 published comedy reviews. It was fifteen years ago I learned that I would not only be reviled by those who produced the artform that I loved, but that dozens of them would really want to punch me in the puss. Arts criticism seems like a charmed profession right up until that date you post your first bad notice. I have since lost count of the big acts who have formally called for my resignation, and the smaller ones who have used their social media accounts to informally call me a stupid bitch.

That’s the gig, though. If you are paid when you scorn an artist’s work, there’s an argument to be made for their entitlement to scorn you right back. When director Geoffrey Wright poured a glass of plonk down the front of David Stratton, this was not, in my view, done without cause, or without advantage to us all. Of Wright’s film Romper Stomper, the veteran reviewer had refused to comment, saying only that this was a film so “dangerous”, its existence should not even be acknowledged. This act of critical cowardice warranted a trip to the dry cleaners, at least. And, even if you’re a nonviolent idealist who believes that stains are no solution to intellectual disputes, aren’t you a bit impressed that in 1992, our local cinema culture was lively enough to produce a dirty shirt? I can’t see anyone getting so worked up about The Dressmaker.

Artists and their critics get worked up. Norman Mailer reportedly assaulted his least forgiving critic Gore Vidal during the 1960s several times. Following one particularly caustic review, the old blowhard pinned the great thinker to the ground. “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” said Vidal who, I am certain, would welcome any fleeting fear or pain at the hands of Norman if it squeezed from him another such quotable wisecrack.

Regardless of the masthead for which they were produced, the passions of the critic could once be governed no more than the passions of the artist. Sometimes, professional artists would fight professional aesthetes and even though blind ego played its part in these stoushes, vocation did, too. Film reviewer Jim Schembri may be reviled for his 2008 comments on Australian film — notably, by the actor Jimmy the Exploder and an entire theatre of moviemakers. But, the guy was doing his job. Australian film has been afflicted these past decades by a thin liberal sentimentality, which it seems able only to outrun when depicting serial killers, or those or skinheads David Stratton would apparently prefer us not to view.

In his infamous 2008 report, Schembri was not writing from ignorance or malice but a genuine concern for the cloying narratives of local cinema. And, shit, even if he was in a very bad mood when he wrote it, it had already been an awfully long time since the uncommonly good Somersault. When they’re not butchering backpackers or eating convicts, the nation’s better screenwriters default to unambitious themes of tolerance. Someone needed to say it.

Of course, you could argue that Stratton needed to say that Romper Stomper was a dangerous film. And, he did say it, much to Margaret Pomeranz’s disquiet and Geoffrey Wright’s carafe. In his overt refusal to discuss Romper Stomper, David Stratton guaranteed its broad discussion. And, this was a film worth discussing.

This is the friendless work of the decent critic. To provide the conditions for better discussion and better art. Looking back, it seems that Stratton, hardly a naïf, was doing just that. He, like all cranky, experienced critics worth a damn, risked the loss of his shirt.

I wonder if critics now have quite so much to lose. And this is for a couple of reasons, the first of which is down to dull old revenues. Criticism itself has been largely lost as a profession and, apart from comedians looking for pull-quotes, few want to read or publish what an old turd like me has to say about the state of comedy. An emerging market finds it more pleasant, possibly more instructive, to talk about the new season of The Weekly with their Facebook friends. It’s tough to face the fact that one’s expertise has a diminished market value, but boohoo, go tell that to Geelong’s automotive workforce.

The other, more curious reason that criticism has lost its power is harder to explain, and even seems to controvert the miserable market conditions I’ve just described. Let me give it a go: widespread passion for art now comes a very distant second to widespread passion for individual entitlement to an opinion.

In an age where the remunerative value of criticism has dropped so sharply, you’d think people would be free to say all sorts of extreme things. But, you know, even in the face of no financial risk, they’re really not saying them. The fact of having an opinion seems to be much more important than the quality of the opinion itself. From the pages of our most storied publications to the Facebook feeds of the conspicuously friendless, the same themes visibly emerge. Caught in a battle with the self, critics of the current era ask questions like “is this a thing which I can personally and morally endorse?”. And, while such questions are not invalid per se, their extreme promotion from the personal realm into the public one is not so great for art. You don’t — or, at least, you didn’t once — just ask “is this art work good for me?”

There is a view that this is golden age for dissent and criticism of all kinds; that the gatekeepers of “MSM” are gone and that public conversation is now gloriously, chaotically dominated by all sorts of challenging views. Although, it seems to me that these “challenging” and highly personal views are of a very predictable order and, in fact, are just the sorts of things that “MSM” now routinely publishes. It’s a marketable faux-anarchy sold back to us by media whose ownership is more centralised than ever. The fact that many people happen to agree with these “challenging” views is itself no guarantee that these views are challenging. They just have a “challenging” style, perhaps a jaunty dismissal by a midlife man of the “politically correct” or a jaunty use by a slightly younger lady of the word “cock”. Read many pages in The Age or The Australian. So long as one appears to be indignant and speaking “from the heart”, one can qualify as a critic, of the cultural or the social.

Mailer doesn’t have Vidal in a headlock anymore. Vidal is not ready with a withering riposte. Criticism is largely a bunch of coddled censors whose ardent belief in their entitlement to speak overshadows the obligation to support art itself.

Yesterday on Twitter, a much-reported exchange between artist and critic failed very badly to meet the Vidal standard. Lawrence Mooney, who is one of the nation’s best comics, was a bit of a cranky Mailer but his critic, a novice News Corp writer called Isabella Fowler, was no Gore. You can read Ben Neutze’s account of the matter here. Or, you know, you could just go straight to your Twitter or Facebook account and do as many thousands already have and decry Mooney for his “insensitivity” and even his “sexism” in questioning the credentials of the young reviewer, who many chivalrous publications have pointed out is “female”.

If we’re talking in the terms of the old money, the review really was unbridled shit. I feel for Fowler and I remember well how naff it feels to be a twenty-something who screws up in public. Although, the “gatekeepers” of “MSM” did see to it back then that we greenhorns had a little more editorial guidance. Those paternalistic fascists with their empire indulgence of facts and structure.

But, I do understand Mooney’s frustration with the new economy of critique. And, I say this as someone who has certainly faced, and still faces, the fury of comedians, some of whose protests have been steeped in the ordure of sexism. But, Mooney was not being a sexist, FFS. He was simply being Lawrence Mooney. You call Norman Mailer a vacuous liberal, and you’ll find yourself pinned on the ground. You call Lawrence Mooney “not a comedian”, and you’d better expect he’ll Google you, find out you’re on loan from the lifestyle and property sections and tell you to “enjoy your next cup cake and your open inspection you knob”.

I have no interest in defending Mooney’s barbarism. I think, as a professionally funny prick, he does a pretty good job of that himself. But, I do have an antique interest in promoting the responsibilities of the critic.

In the dwindling terms of the old-money, Fowler has not truly earned her “right” to an opinion. This is not to foolishly recommend the renewal of the old guard of the “MSM” — although, if there’s an older, more powerful guard than News Corp, which printed the review, I’m yet to learn of it. It is, however, to optimistically recommend that young reviewers try, where possible, to go to the trouble of forming an opinion rather than just having one.

The contract between critic and artist has long been uneasy. And it will remain uneasy so long as these two pastimes are industrialised. But, all the critics who talk about art are not long for this market. Enjoy a future where all you will have is a statement about one’s right to an opinion without the unnecessary burden of having to actually read an opinion.

42 responses to “Razer on the Lawrence Mooney stoush (and where you can stick your opinion)

  1. What comedy is not disputable is Razer’s week in, week out, predictable take on gender issues – ALWAYS siding with the older man, and sticking it to the younger woman. So radical! So post-feminist! Yawn. Just like the boring old boomers Helen Garner and Philip Adams, Razer is, quite simply, out of it.

  2. You lost me at ‘Lawrence Mooney, who is one of the nation’s best comics…’

    If he’s the gold standard the reviewer obviously didn’t go in hard enough.

  3. Who is Razer to say when someone has “earned” the right to an opinion. This is utter crap. Good on Isabella having a go with the review. Sounds like Mooney wasn’t all that funny.

    The arts is a very closed shop in Australia, everyone supports each other, Mooney and Razer are trying to bully all novice journalists here, a bad precedent

    1. Agree. Gotta kick down those newbies, let them know who is boss! Youngsters need to go and brush up on their 1970s cultural reference points – Norman Mailer anyone? – and remember who rules.

  4. In my opinion this is a thoroughly excellent piece from Helen Razer. Compare it to Fowler’s lazy, lame hacking.

    In 2016, the era of two way traffic, Mooney’s well within his rights to engage her. If you want to have a go at him at least put in a little effort. Thank goodness for her that it whipped up a bit of a ‘twitter storm’ click-bait, otherwise she’d surely be fired for the quality of her journalism.

    No one much liked Pauline Hanson’s “I just don’t like it” reviews either.

    I’ve heard Mooney’s next show is titled “5 Star Jerk” and it’s sold out. Win win.

    1. No one much likes Mooney’s lazy and aggressive abuse, either.
      Unfortunately Mooney’s use of the ‘right to engage’ with the journalist doesn’t really stick in this case, as he did not put in any ‘effort’ in his correspondence either. He was just as bad as your criticisms of the reviewer. He had an opportunity to show off his comic talent, but unfortunately he upheld the reviewer’s opinions, most spectacularly. Me think he protest too much.

  5. There is a big difference between opinion and review. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. A review should be the work of someone experienced or qualified in the field. Age notwithstanding.

  6. While I agree with the thrust of this article, and reviewers have responsibility to write a bit more than “soz didn’t like your show”, Mooney did a pretty piss-poor, unfunny effort of responding to the review – he’s a stand up, he should be able to cope with the odd heckler.

  7. It is worth reading the review Margaret linked to just for the comments underneath, particularly the the more than aptly named “MrsBitch”.

  8. I didn’t see his show but I really like Lawrence Mooney and love him on Dirty Laundry. It was probably a bad move on his part to have a go at the “critic”. Not least because it allowed all those who don’t like him to have a bash at him when they otherwise would have kept their opinion to themselves.

  9. Great article by Helen Razer. Going by the comments, it doesn’t look as though any one read the article, as they are just regurgitating shit about Mooney being thin skinned, unfunny and the critics right to review. As though to reinforce that “every one has an opinion, and not all are equal”. All the comments seem to talk past the article.

    1. Yep – and the age old non sequitur “The British are much funnier – British! British comedy!”.

      No one even tries to comprehend what’s actually written anymore.

  10. “Lawrence Mooney is just a funny guy under a spotlight.”

    That sentence alone from Fowler’s “review” was enough to provoke a furious response. She didn’t just shit on Mooney’s career. She shit on the man’s life.

    The problem with a helluva lot of reviewers – coz they sure as shit ain’t critics – is that they have NFI what they’re on about. Ms. Fowler sure as shit didn’t. Chucking a few buzzwords into their review only highlights how fucking clueless they are.

    To paraphrase Mark Romanek’s Twitter takedown of Jeff Wells:

    “It’s MASSIVELY hard to make [insert art form.] Easy to [write] a destructive [review.] You dis it with your two thumbs over a latte. Hence, you are an asshole.”

  11. Red Symons suggests everything is funny, just not to everyone. I don’t think you need to be a writer to assess humour. Buster Keaton and Mr. Bean have universal appeal in the art of comedy. I love both yet know people who hate Bean. So it is with Lawrence Mooney. I have NEVER found him remotely funny. Dirty Laundry is a total yawn for everyone in our family. I teach funnier Year 10 students who are incredibly quick and caustic and hilarious. He gets one bad review and his response was ridiculously over the top. Get over yourself Mooney. It’s nothing important. Put the ego and abuse back in the sulky box. What’s hilarious is your pathetic response and need to vilify and witch hunt. I don’t care if she writes food reviews. Put him in the van.

    1. Agree with you completely, Simon. Reviews are fundamentally subjective, and I don’t buy this argument that you have to ‘earn’ your stripes to be a reviewer. The journalist was simply offering her opinion on the show and Mooney’s reaction was harsh and mean-spirited. Mooney should get over himself.

  12. Hey Razer, what’s going on? Some weird stuff in today’s column.

    “Lawrence Mooney, who is one of the nation’s best comics”… Nope, Mooney is not Norman Mailer, not a groundbreaking artist and not one of the nation’s best comics.

    And why do you insist that “a novice News Corp writer called Isabella Fowler”, “on loan from the lifestyle and property sections”, “has not truly earned her ‘right’ to an opinion”? And as for “the review really was unbridled shit”, actually no, it wasn’t. Wasn’t great, but certainly wasn’t “unbridled shit”, and the writer didn’t deserve the series of subtle and not-so-subtle insults you delivered with the seeming intent to wound her professionally.

    For someone who is normally quite forensic about the truth, you seem to have a blind spot about Mooney. What’s going on?

    1. She does have a blind spot. Seem to be a lot of people patronising a young woman doing her job. Earning the right to an opinion? Is Helen Razer setting herself up to say what opinions are acceptable? Regardless of whether you agree with the review, Mooney does not have the right to abuse a young woman. If he wants to criticise her review he can do so without attacking her personally. Mooney and Razer – your arrogance is showing.

      1. Critics are critics and know they cop flak when they present their opinion. It is their opinion, not fact, some follow and others don’t. However, if one is a big enough girl to go out and get a job, she is a big enough girl to not need people standing up for “the girl” nor pulling the friggin gender card. Can’t have it both ways.

  13. When I posted this review of ‘The Dressmaker’ from the English Guardian, I copped quite a lot of flak. So there are people who are prepared to defend the film quite fiercely.

  14. Has nobody but me ever noticed how unfunny, unwitty and basically dreadful just about all Australian stand-up comics are. Does nobody but me ever watch good British or American comedians at work? They actually make you laugh! Aussie comics almost never do. Judith Lucy is an honorable exception (but only just), Dave Hughes is abysmal, and Lawrence Mooney is the worst of the lot. He may be a comedian, but he’s a REALLY BAD one. Good on you Isabella Fowler; you had every right to your opinion, and it’s correct.

    1. Completely agree, Australian comedians have lost the plot, Adam Hills sermons are the worst..and Hughes is cringeworthy, and its proved by the really unfunny response of Mooney. A true comedian would have had a ball, not spat the dummy….they dont know how to simply amuse people anymore, but have to be cleverer than thou…for christs sake TELL A JOKE!,

      1. Totally agree. I’ve heard better replies from comedians dealing with hecklers. Thin skinned and none too bright. Get off the wine before responding on Twitter.

  15. I think if you publicly declared a doctor or lawyer of 20 years working experience to be not really a doctor or lawyer you would get a much nastier correspondence than these tweets.

    The legal letter would strip paint and you’d be apologising within hours of receipt.

  16. The sad thing about this is how very unfunny the Tweets have been. Surely as either a writer or comedian, you would use some wit with your venom. I follow coding pages on Twitter than are funnier than their exchange, and more interesting.

    1. I don’t think Mooney was trying/wanting to be funny..he was just unleashing his venomous anger on BellaFowler93..it would be irritating for someone of mature age to have an immature upstart dump on ones art;he’s likely got a pimple older than fluffy little Bell.

      1. Just trying to process your comment. Do I have it right:

        According to you, anyone younger than the artist doesn’t have a right to have an opinion about an older artist. Because no matter how ordinary an artist may be, just keeping on being ordinary deserves respect and any criticism from younger generations who have spent hard-earned money on a ticket to the performance of an older artist is irrelevant.

        More than that, putdowns like “immature”, “fluffy” and “upstart” are great ways to slap down younger people. Though they sound immature, they’re not because an older person has written them.

  17. On the matter of performer reviews, I think that infamous curmudgeon Richie Blackmore put it best. His advice was to ignore all reviews, because if you believe a good review, you also have to believe a bad review.

    That said, and I believe that cities get the paper they deserve, the Advertiser is full of fluffy, drivel pieces written by journalists who have served their only apprenticeship at the school of self-opinionated statements – this is all the modern generation of journalists know. I swear the Advertiser on each day has several pages devoted to opinion pieces. No names, but most are simply unreadable. This is a problem for Adelaide, but it is a problem for wider society, because there is now an entire self-absorbed culture built around opinions. But what we have lost as we have marched inexorably towards being surrounded by drivel is the art of cleverness (astro-physicists are looking for “dark matter”, but I believe it is drivel that accounts for the unseen mass of the universe). Understandably so, since as long as you can spew forth your opinion in the typically venal terms that many now regard as intelligent and literate expression, you no longer have to craft your comments (verbal artists like Gore can craft in the moment, others have to ponder) – just spill whatever stupid and meaningless crap comes into your head and there you have it – your view for the world to see. And we are now convinced that however trivial or trite, our opinion must prevail over those of others – so it becomes a competition and, inevitably, a downward spiral. As soon as any train of responses turn to abject criticism, the responders simply have no tool in their verbal lexicon other than resorting to threats and bluster. You no longer even have to think – just react in the moment. We really are a world of stupid people behaving stupidly, and intelligent people no longer aiming to differentiate themselves, also behaving stupidly. Mooney is a funny guy – he surely should have been able to respond in a manner befitting one of his verbal and comedic skills.

  18. “If we’re talking in the terms of the old money, the review really was unbridled shit. I feel for Fowler and I remember well how naff it feels to be a twenty-something who screws up in public.”

    Unnecessary comment. Fowler’s review is pretty much what I’d expect from a Newscorp publication. Mooney has completely overreacted. Sounds like sour grapes to me.

    If it really was a terrible bit of review, shouldn’t the editor be picking that up, guiding the journalist? Razer is not giving Fowler a chance here.

  19. When I read through the tweets holding this episode up of an example of prime sexism I went back to view the exchange and was a little miffed – it seemed to me like prime aggro Mooney pissed off at a flippant and lazy (if not too horrible) review. That the reviewer was a woman seemed beside the point and I had the feeling if a man had written the same review they would have gotten a similar reaction (maybe minus the *giggle* comment).

    I think he certainly went over the top with his reaction and invoked some good old Streisand effect. However I agree with you Helen, and I do have some sympathy with the frustration artists must have with, often part-time, reviewers that don’t know how to critique (Ben Neutze’s article also summed this up well). Especially comedians around festival time where starred reviews still hold a fair bit of weight in a packed schedule – though I doubt it would be as much of an issue for Mooney given his profile. But yes, comedians are a precious lot so any sympathy comes in pretty short supply, especially when Mooney seemed hell bent on inflicting some damage (man or woman on the receiving end).

    What is unsurprising and sad is how the journalist’s own paper network was all to happy to throw her in the middle of the latest national twitter outrage story. I’m sure it got a lot of clicks.

  20. “the review really was unbridled shit”

    Seriously?

    If anything, this whole episode is revealing what remarkably thin skins Australian comedians have…the unfunny ones, anyway.

    1. Perhaps like most of Mooney’s work the show was unbridled shit. He serves it by the bucketload on Dirty Laundry. Dishes it out and cries when it’s served back to him…:-(

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