Finding Funny: Should You Explore the Unusual World of Comedy Journalism?

By Charlie Kasov November 13th, 2014

When people ask about your job, wouldn’t it be cool to say: “I get paid to laugh”? If so, you might want to look into comedy reporting.

There are no rules governing who can become a comedy critic, and because there are still only a few quality publications dedicated to comedy news, the market isn’t saturated yet. Given these circumstances, the stand-up scene is one place full of opportunities for journalists.

A Genre Of One’s Own

Before you go all Greg Louganis off the high dive, however, know the pool beneath you is moving. Comedy journalism is currently undergoing a transformation: Even though it’s still primarily categorized as a subgenre of film, television, or live performance, a growing number of publications are treating it as the main event.

Adam Frucci, founder and editor at Splitsider, said, “What Splitsider is doing that’s relatively unique is covering comedy as a genre very closely and specifically and putting things in context rather than just lumping it in with general TV and movie coverage.”

Julie Seabaugh, a veteran comedy feature writer and critic, aded, “As comedy journalism starts coming into its own, the biggest shift in coverage is from seeing shows lumped in with music coverage or calendar listings to standing on [their] own.”

This newfound independence is the result of the past ten years’ comedy boom. As Andrew Clark notes in The New York Times Magazine, “The current boom is due in large part to the countless alternative-comedy gigs held each week at bars and coffeehouses throughout the country, but it’s also due to technology. Today’s comedy nerds grew up scrupulously consuming humor on the Internet.”

Be A Comedy Nerd

Allow me to amend my earlier assertion there are no rules governing who can become a comedy reporter. There’s one: You must be a comedy nerd, or at least learn to be one quickly.

Your audience will consist of fellow comedy nerds—those with savvy tastes and voracious appetites for humor. You’d do well to share some of their passion if you’d like to effectively communicate with them.

If you want to write comedy, be funny. If you want to write about comedy, be serious.

If you want to write comedy, be funny. If you want to write about comedy, be serious. 

As Frucci says, “I never want to try to be funny on Splitsider. We report on things seriously, as it’s a serious business. And trying to make jokes about jokes is nearly impossible and makes you look like an amateur.”

However, while you need to be able to nerd out about comedy, you don’t need to be a comedian in order to cover the scene. According to Frucci, who’s performed improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York for over a decade, “It doesn’t really help me do my job at all. The only benefit I get from my comedy experience is knowing lots of comedy people through UCB.”

Every journalist knows the importance of having reliable sources in the field, but reporters like Julie Seabaugh have no problem getting interviews despite their lack of performance chops. Seabaugh came to comedy gradually from the larger umbrella of media journalism. “I liked it more than the other stuff, and my writing-about-comedy-versus-everything-else ratio increased until there no longer was a ratio at all,” she said. “Everything I do now is directly related to comedy.”

Access Granted

Coming from other fields of journalism, you might be surprised to find just how easy it is to interview high-profile comedians. Unless your goal is to talk to the likes of Louis C.K. or Jerry Seinfeld, you shouldn’t have a problem securing an interview by asking a comedian directly or by reaching out to management.

Why would comics be so eager to talk? When they perform on the road, they do radio interviews in each market they pass through. After shows, they’re often hanging out at the bar or behind a merchandise table chatting with fans. They feel personally responsible for cultivating their fanbases, and they see an interview as an opportunity to convince a booker they can fill a club or convince an agent that they have “buzz.”

But Be Gentle

That willingness to sit down with you, however, is always coupled with the expectation you intend to write a positive article about them. And, in general, you should. Here’s why.

Most comedians believe it’s better to “punch up” than “punch down. In other words, don’t jab at the homeless when you can jab at the societal structure that tolerates such widespread economic injustice. This belief should apply to comedy reporting as well: If you don’t have anything positive to say about a given comedian, there are plenty of other comics worth profiling.

With Splitsider, Frucci said, “We tend to not go too negative unless it’s something so big we have to cover it, like an Adam Sandler movie. But I think we’ve avoided getting too much ill-will by not doing things like shitting on a web series by an unknown comic just trying to do their thing. There’s no real upside to that. We try to celebrate good comedy, not nitpick and shoot down stuff we don’t like.”

Celebrating good comedy keeps the business healthy in an often toxic environment. With few avenues to compensation, a recent spike in supply of comedians, and clubs and networks blithely treating comics as interchangeable sub-human cogs, the competition is incredibly fierce. And, the job security is incredibly non-existent. One negative article could easily prevent someone’s career from ever taking off.

Julie Seabaugh even tries to avoid the creeping negativity of an otherwise positive listicle. “I’d actually far rather leave subjective ranking out of such lists and just provide ’10 Folks to Watch!’ in purely alphabetical order. Unfortunately, publications almost across the board demand ranking as they bow to the power of analytics. Maybe that’s something that can start changing with the evolution of comedy journalism.”

I don’t mean to suggest that your life as a comedy reporter should be one big Puff Piece Parade. As I believe comedians should strive to punch up, they should also be taken to task when they gratuitously punch down. This usually happens in live stand-up because networks are pretty good at filtering out jokes which might lead to flak and cost them sponsors.

Since the infamous Michael Richards racist “meltdown” appeared on YouTube in 2006, writing about comedy controversy has been an easy way to score site clicks. If your audience requires you to be passionate about comedy, you should also save any critique you have of a comedian for issues you’re passionate about. Take Lindy West at Jezebel: Whether or not you agree with her position on the ethics of telling rape jokes—jokes which have been a source of several comedy controversies in the past few years—she has been more deliberate in her arguments than her critics and her colleagues.

Why? Because she cares.

Image by Chris Pizzello
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