The Dawn of the Funny Critics
By Alan Burkholder
Criticism isn’t hard to do, but good criticism is. When you write a review of something, you need to look at it fairly, but still present your own opinion on it. There is a lot of thinking involved.
There’s an old saying that everyone is a critic. Everyone has something to say about something, whether it be music, movies, art, or even food. And in this modern age, that seems to be the case.
There was never really a critic who was internationally famous for being a critic before the days of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. However, when the two started reviewing movies on television, using their “thumbs up”/”thumbs down” system, criticism became accessible to a wider audience, because Siskel and Ebert kept their criticisms simple, logical, and entertaining.
Even if you didn’t agree with their opinions, and even if their opinions conflicted with each other, the two were always insightful and funny to watch.
However, the first world-famous critics on TV soon became the only world-famous critics on TV. After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert did the show solo for a short period before getting a new partner, Richard Roeper, in 2000. Ebert, however, developed cancer in 2006 and had to stop doing the show in order to get treated. In 2008, Roeper left the show and from there, the show declined in quality. There hasn’t been another show quite like it ever since.
There was another place, however, where people could get a good dose of criticism: the internet.
Recent years have seen something of a renaissance in criticism, and the art of reviews has turned into a popular movement. Some of the more prevalent examples of this include That Guy with the Glasses, a site dedicated to reviewers of all mediums, and The Escapist, an online magazine dedicated to news and reviews of video games.
The mastermind behind That Guy is Douglas Walker, a Chicago-based comedian who runs several web series, including The Nostalgia Critic, which started in 2007.
The Nostalgia Critic is about a foulmouthed, emotionally troubled critic who spends a lot of his free time complaining about bad movies, most of them from the 80’s and 90’s. The character of the Critic takes cues from a mix of comic influences, including Robin Williams and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and also from Siskel and Ebert.
Walker, when reviewing, keeps his criticisms sharp, but still funny to watch.
Thanks to help from his brother Rob Walker, and business partners Mike Michaud, Mike Ellis and Bhargav Dronamraju (the respective CEO, former COO and former CEP of independent production company Channel Awesome), Doug started the website in April 2008 after his videos had been faced with several YouTube takedowns. Doug and Rob have taken a lot of reviewers onto the site, a lot of whom have become famous in their own right. Due to the site’s success, Doug was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” at the fourthannual Mashable Awards in January 2011.
Some of the most popular shows on the site are Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug’s Atop the Fourth Wall, which is a review show about bad comic books and graphic novels, and Joe Vargas’ Angry Joe Show, a video game review show which led to the formation of a sister site called Blistered Thumbs, which hosts a lot of game reviewers.
That Guy with the Glasses has also collaborated with Cinemassacre, a site which plays host to James Rolfe of Philadelphia, who in 2006 started what was arguably the first major online criticism show: The Angry Video Game Nerd.
One of the most well-known critics on the Escapist is Australian-based Ben Croshaw, who goes by the alias “Yahtzee.” Being a former game designer himself, Croshaw brings his insight and experience into his criticism in the weekly review series Zero Punctuation, which, after going for two episodes on YouTube, has been running on the Escapist website since 2007. The series got its name due to Yahtzee’s style of reviewing: very fast-paced and very straightforward.
Croshaw’s rambling is always accompanied by a series of cartoons made in Photoshop that emphasize what Croshaw is talking about, or occasionally throwing in an extra joke (such as the infamous running gag of “Press X to Not Die.”)
“…I’ve always been a vitriolic writer,” said Croshaw, in a 2008 interview with Destructoid. “My chief influences are humorous British critics like Victor Lewis-Smith and Charlie Brooker… There’s something about the sardonic British man with exacting standards that gels well with people…”
In a 2011 interview with Josh Harris, Doug Walker said that some people have noticed similarities between him and Ben Croshaw. “I think we’re both part of that fast talking entertainment that keeps the low attention spans of our audiences entertained…”
A lot of these reviewers have something going for them that most critics don’t: the ability to be funny. Plenty of professional critics bring experience to the table, but these online personalities have made big names for themselves by keeping the viewer entertained. This method of review goes back to Ebert and Siskel: the two were talking about movies, just like any other film critic, but they did it in a way that was entertaining to watch.
It takes almost no effort to ramble about something, but the best critics know how to keep the audience engaged and entertained.
Even if the raucous language and lowbrow humor that a lot of these online critics use would turn off some viewers, and other critics would argue that their style is unprofessional, these online personalities have what most critics lack: a personality.
The first step to captivating an audience is getting them interested. The second step is making them care. Never mind what your opinion is, if you’re writing a review or ranting about something, you have to have certain flair or sense of humor in order for people to listen to you. And in the online era, we’re certainly seeing a rise in personality.