On February 19th the comedy website The Spit Take will release 2012 Best of The Spit Take: A Compilation of Professional Comedy Criticism, a book that showcases the best comedy reviews the site delivered over the course of its first year in business (it just turned 1 on February 6th). We reached out to our pal Julie Seabaugh, The Spit Take’s founder / Editorial Director who also happens to be the editor of the new book. We discussed the first year of the website, the new book, and what it means to be a manager of professional comedy criticism. We also talked about the birthday party/book bash she’s planned in New York City next week to celebrate it all.
Please tell us about the new book, 2012 Best of The Spit Take.
My background is arts journalism, then about five years ago I began working with comedians more directly, including PR, management, booking and producing. After connecting at SXSW I began working with Brown Paper Tickets, an indie, artist-friendly, excessive-fee-shunning, fair-trade ticketing company based out of Seattle. As their Comedy Doer, I simply “Do” things that are in need of doing. BPT also employs a Sports Doer, Music Doer, Maker Doer and more; in addition to aiding our communities in different ways, we also work toward specific big-picture goals. How can we help the public perceive comedians as the legitimate artists they are? I say write about them with the highest standards possible. That’s where TheSpitTake.com came from. I’d also always been a huge fan of Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing, Best Sports Writing, Best Travel Writing, etc. series. Paradisiac Publishing’s Lauren Wood has a shared passion for comedy, and we decided that it would be cool to do something similar within the comedy realm.
Of the hundreds of reviews that appeared on the website this past year, how did you pare them down to make the book?
We had just over 150 to consider; it was a regular Sophie’s Choice between, say, Doug Stanhope’s Before Turning the Gun on Himself… and Jim Norton’s Please Be Offended. I started with a master list that got whittled down by quality of writing, reviewers’ personal favorites and diversity. One or two choices simply came down to which performer was the bigger name. While I am very much in favor of supporting the up-and-coming, I’m well aware that the already-there can help build your own audience.
You often reference “professional comedy criticism” and it’s obviously important to you or you wouldn’t have founded the website. Is comedy criticism in general that bad? What’s lacking the most about it?
One of the issues is that there almost isn’t enough comedy criticism in total for it to be divisible into good or bad. When you look at the U.K., most major newspapers employ a serious comedy critic right up there alongside those who cover music, film, theater, literature, visual art, etc. Their insight can go a long way in making – or breaking – a comic’s festival run. It’s always heartening to see monthly magazines like Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Paste put effort and resources into annual Comedy Issues, but most U.S. print comedy coverage tends to still get tossed in as an afterthought alongside music listings, if even at all. The A.V. Club takes its comedy reviews seriously, though they don’t run all that frequently. Jason Zinoman has gotten a lot of attention for his New York Times columns, but his pieces aren’t reviews. Most comedy-news sites don’t really tackle reviews, and those that do tend to have a rah-rah cheerleader mentality across the board. We prefer to provide context, insight and unbiased honesty.
Your list of contributors is a Who’s Who in the world of comedy writers. How did you manage to get them all under one roof and contribute to the site and now book?
Part of it is definitely luck. That said, it can be blindingly obvious who not only knows what they’re talking about, but also has legitimate journalism skills. I’ve always frowned severely upon the conflict of interest inherent when performers write about other performers; our reviewers regularly contribute to the likes of Variety, New York Magazine, GQ, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Las Vegas Weekly, The Denver Post, The Boston Globe, on and on. The enjoyment of comedy can be objective, but some material is inarguably of higher inherent quality. The Spit Take’s contributors show not only why that is, but why it matters. And unlike many other sites, we do pay contributors for their efforts. I’ve always found that to be helpful.
Have you gotten any positive/negative reactions from the comedians reviewed on the site?
David Koechner, Ralphie May, The Apple Sisters, Ron Funches and Sara Benincasa are a few folks off the top of my head who have had nice things to say. There have certainly been some negative reactions, though they also tend to understand why we might say certain things we do, even if they don’t particularly like them. But you’ll have to read the site Comments (or their Twitter feeds) to determine who they were.
You’re planning a show in New York next week to celebrate the book’s release and the site’s one-year anniversary. Tell us about what you have planned and where people can get tickets.
The event is Thursday, February 21, 6:30 p.m. at the excellent The Stand Comedy Club. We love them for their respect and appreciation for comedians, intimate ambiance and great food/no-drink-minimum combo. Spit Take contributors Steve Heisler, Elise Czajkowski and Michael Tedder will be reading, and comic/authors James Parkinson (Half Dollar Rebel: Annals of Hard-boiled Determination and Dogged Misanthropy), Dan Wilbur (How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life) and Mindy Raf (April’s The Symptons of My Insanity) will be performing, plus there may be a few surprises here and there. Copies of the book will be on hand for all your rubbing-the-oh-so-shiny-cover needs, and tickets are available from both TheStandNYC.com and BrownPaperTickets.com.
What do you have in store for year #2 of The Spit Take?
I’d love for us to do more in the way of festival coverage. We’re also looking to expand content to include essays, reaction and think pieces, perhaps even lists, all from the perspective of elevating the public perception of comedy to that of a legitimate art form. Live comedy is bigger than it’s ever been, and we’d just like to chronicle its creative successes, laud the rise of its independent breakthroughs, and illuminate some of its dark-rooted yet ultimately uplifting aspects for intelligent, growing fanbases eager to follow its top minds. And hopefully there will more books along the way.
We’d like to thank Julie for talking to us. Be sure to visit www.thespittake.com for the latest in professional comedy criticism. You can also follow along the action on Twitter @SpitTakeComedy. The book 2012 Best of The Spit Take Compilation of Professional Comedy Criticism is in stores February 19th. If you live in the New York area, you can get tickets to the show by visiting TheStandNYC.com or BrownPaperTickets.com.