So You Want To: Be A Caustic Critic
Let's face it: in the information age, anybody who looks at the fame of people like The Nostalgia Critic or The Angry Video Game Nerd can in theory be a critic of something, especially on the Internet. It may be a saturated medium, but you can go from one of the many, many, many drops in the bucket (or downright Snark Bait) to someone people will really pay attention to-hey, you may even end up on Channel Awesome, Blistered Thumbs or other sites with clout if you know what you're doing. For the purposes of this article let's focus on Internet reviewing as it is probably the most accessible form of the style today. We're here to learn the building blocks of being a Caustic Critic, not, say, the difficulties and nuances of getting on television or being published in a paper.
Necessary TropesFirst of all, understand that your role as a Caustic Critic, no matter what kind you see yourself becoming, is first and foremost that of an entertainer. People will line up to watch you take apart things that usually wouldn't be too palatable by themselves and make them bearable by virtue of making jokes at their expense. To put it another way, Mystery Science Theater 3000 makes bad movies entertaining by watching them and making jokes about it while it plays. Think of yourself as doing that with a summarized version of whatever it is you'll have in front of you. Accentuate the Negative is important right off the bat. This puts the "Caustic" in Caustic Critic. Pick on everything that is funny to point out in something you're reviewing. Point out the flaws and bring them into view as punchlines. It's not enough to just point out the Narm or the Rubber-Forehead Aliens or what-have-you, you have to pick them apart and make them funny. Genius Bonuses, Shout Outs and the like are a good idea to keep for when they're appropriate. This doesn't just apply to the internet, although it's certainly where it most comes in handy. People who are willing to sit through your reviews will undoubtedly have some kind of understanding of the genre or medium you will be reviewing, and making references here and there will prove you know as much as you're letting on. No matter what you do, also remember that you need a wide range of humor in order to stay interesting as a critic. Let the occasional cheap shot or pun (or Hurricane of Puns for that matter) slide, but don't let any one thing become your only shtick. Constructive Criticism is a good thing to have in your arsenal. In fact, it's a sort of understood prerequisite. At some point you have to give a balanced summation of what you've just reviewed. SF Debris does this beautifully, picking apart and dropping punchlines into reviews of even good episodes and movies. If you're reviewing something especially bad or controversial you need to suggest how it could have been improved or otherwise altered to work better. Note that sometimes a critic will come up against something so terrible that this might not be possible, so it's not a must.
Choices, ChoicesThe first thing you'll have to figure out is what you want to review. Decide how broad your scope is going to be first: are you going to review a broad genre or medium, such as the Angry Video Game Nerd and video games in general, or the Nostalgia Critic and movies or television shows of all kinds, provided they're at least so old? How about a somewhat unorthodox subject, such as Linkara from Atop the Fourth Wall, who reviews comics? You could also review a wide range of things but have one signature. Again, SF Debris manages to review all manner of sci-fi television shows and movies, and has stepped out of that boundary to review cartoons, action movies and fantasy films. However, he's most known for his Star Trek episode reviews. To provide another example, Spoony's defining reviews are topped by his Final Fantasy VIII review, but he's reviewed many other games and movies. Once you've decided on that you need to figure out how you're going to present yourself. Will you stick to text and images by writing normal articles or will you produce videos? What is your style like? Will you simply present reviews as yourself or will you adopt a reviewer persona as your character? If you are going to produce videos, take into consideration how you want to produce them and decide how much you want to appear on camera in each review. If you want to provide more than a voiceover, make sure you can light yourself well and record both sound and video clearly if you want to be taken seriously. Viewers want to see effort put into your reviews, so deliver. Regardless of if you want to appear in reviews or not or if you want to use a character of some type, video editing, audio editing and mixing are key skills. If you don't have them, cultivate them. And once you have them, be consistent about them. If you can get the resources together to feature yourself on your reviews, decide on if you're going to have a persona or not. The former will take more acting than the latter to pull off convincingly, even more so if like many a modern internet review personality you're going to introduce some kind of backstory to tie everything together and give the viewer something other than your reviews to pay attention to. Linkara and Animerica are two good examples of how to do this, and Spoony has experimented with this from time to time when reviewing several things in a theme such as his Final Fantasy reviews or his Ultima Retrospective, treating each series of reviews as a sort of story arc. You can also pull this off as an act if you're just typing out reviews, but that takes more subtlety to not let it intrude on a written piece. Decide on if you have some sort of scoring system in place. You can either grade what you review in some way or simply use a more simple it's good/it's bad rating at the end of each one. Or you could just review bad things full stop and point out which ones weren't as bad as others. It's up to you.
PitfallsIt's hard to overstate that there's a thin line between being a Caustic Critic and just Complaining About Shows/Games/Whatever You Don't Like. Hearing someone make fun of something and pick apart why it's bad for ten or twenty minutes is fun, but hearing someone rant and bash without a point for that same amount of time is tedious or, at worst, as bad as whatever they're reviewing. Also, make sure you do all your research. Watch that movie you're going to review more than once if you can, don't miss an episode of the show you're going to talk about, play the game you're about to rip a new one through to the end and try to do everything. The only thing worse than someone complaining about something they don't like is someone complaining about something they know nothing about. Also avoid reviewing media and genres you do not like. Contrary to the first sight the most famous caustic critics are people who are fans of that genre and media. Not doing that can easily lead to you attacking the genre and media itself (and what codified it) rather than the work itself and could you end up being seen as an example of the Hate Dumb of a particular work. The above reason is also why certain caustic critics (such as the Nostalgia Critic) refuse to review genres they hate. Be careful about just how obscure your references and remarks are. Your viewers may be nerds or may not be idiots, but to assume they're all geniuses will mean most will be quickly turned off by something they can't relate to. By that same token, one too many tired gags or memes will sink you in a heartbeat. Be very careful about what you review. No, not because you might anger the next Tommy Wiseau, but because it's very easy to tread on ground someone's already covered. You need to find material nobody has reviewed yet or pick relatively old ground apart in a way nobody else has yet. Some reviewers even have to point out beforehand that they're treading well-beaten ground when they cover some material, and yet they still have at least some original opinions to share. In that same vein, make sure you can make a solid review out of what you're looking at. Nothing is worse than trying to criticize something so bad and/or tedious that you have to stretch for every joke. If you have some kind of rating system in place, treat something that Broke the Rating Scale with the utmost respect. Don't hand out zeroes like candy or you'll look like you're just calling everything the worst thing ever. Even if you don't have a rating system, rate judiciously. No two things-not even really bad things-are the same. Make sure your editing and production skills are up to snuff. Nothing can make a review look worse than amateurish production, even if you're just writing your review for people to read. Also, make your pieces to camera (if you have any) as entertaining as the rest of the review. This can be anything from just asides to a full-blown sketch, just as long as one part of the review doesn't drag down the other. Exaggerated reactions and rants can be very funny, but not if you run them into the ground. By that same token, cultivate some Running Gags if you must, but don't run them into the ground either. Beware over-producing your show. Don't bite off more than you can chew in terms of effects and acting, and don't make an unnecessarily-convoluted or clunky story if you're going to include one. Linkara's bits are simple at their core-villain or some crisis accosts Linkara, Linkara struggles with them, the matter is resolved somehow, repeat. Make sure you can do a well-done story if you're going to include it, since nothing will make you look worse than writing a product as lame as the things you're lampooning. If you have certain gimmicks, make sure they won't bring down the quality of your reviews. While having a free web series to watch is a bonus, it shouldn't detract from the actual art of criticism. Make sure you can keep your material fresh and exciting, and don't look like you're just looking for something to bash or make fun of. Lastly, avoid Schedule Slip. It's bound to annoy fans, who will probably annoy you on the matter and make the whole deal less fun for you.
Potential SubversionsThe most popular targets of Caustic Critics are movies, video games and television shows. However, there's a niche for everything if you can build convincing reviews and acts around them. Linkara proved review shows about comic books could work beautifully. Dr. Ashen reviews strange gadgets and random crap found at Poundland and makes it entertaining. If we're going to include non-video reviews, Seanbaby writes funny articles making fun of fighting and mixed martial arts among a whole litany of other topics. There's the soul of being a Caustic Critic: the entertainment value of your reviews is what you live and die by.
Suggested Themes and AesopsUse things you review as units of measurement and reference points as soon as you've reviewed enough stuff. Comparing something to the worst thing you've reviewed before is a quick and funny way to gauge how good or bad something is and can be used to compare common problems or ways of overcoming them. The Caustic Critic can come off as a grumpy jerk, and that can be used as character development. Linkara even used it as part of his show persona's storyline as possibly making him turn evil, so much so that his Magic Gun turned on him and shut itself off in case he really did turn down that path. A good review can come out of something that you start out initially bashing and making fun of, but in the end grow to like a little bit. Nobody said that just because you review something bad that you can't at least get some kind of entertainment out of it, and not all things reviewed in the normal Caustic Critic way are bad uniformly. Don't be afraid to theme several reviews about the same sort of thing every once in a while. Lots of critics do it-Linkara has PSA Hell, Miller Time and Secret Origins Month, the Nostalgia Critic had Nostalgiaween, Dr Ashens has Poundland specials (and a subset of those in Poundland food specials), you name it. Aside from this, feel free to write what you want about what you want. Execute it well and you can carve out a niche for yourself in a field even as saturated as this.
Potential MotifsAside from any setup or theme you may have already, pay attention to your running gags and jokes. You can get a lot of mileage out of them, even if they're just one-liners. Alternate Character Interpretations can get you a lot of humor, especially if you're reviewing a long-running television series. See how SF Debris makes a compelling case for Captains Janeway and Archer as crazy people given more command than they really should have been, and doing them differently-Janeway he treats like a cackling supervillain and Archer he paints as just that pants-on-head looney. If you're fond of using a grading system or not, consider if you're going to use other motifs. Lots of Caustic Critics, especially those who do review videos, like using counters to measure things that keep happening in something they're reviewing either because they're particularly annoying or funny. The Angry Video Game Nerd popularized getting violent at the thing you're reviewing, so if you can make it work it might be good for you as well. A little well-deserved catharsis never hurt anyone.
Suggested PlotsIf you are going to have these, they should be noticeable but shouldn't upstage the actual review, which should be the meat of your criticism. Most people do it by deliberately keeping the underlying stories simple, short and cartoonish or episodic, such as Angry Joe's war against Corporate Commander, which isn't so much an actual storyline as it is just themed set dressing to aid the review. Some people can get more complex than that, such as Mister Plinkett, but only a few have succeeded.
Set Designer / Location ScoutIf you're not going to do any footage other than clips and static images, you can avoid this section, but if you are actually going to appear on camera or review something that has to appear on a camera, simpler is often better. Flat backgrounds or green screen backgrounds are good, and any of these effects are good as long as you can light them properly and make them unobtrusive. Treat it something like an indie film-avoid any shots that would be really costly and/or inconvenient to pull off. If you're reviewing something that needs to be clearly seen, make sure your background is simple and contrasts with whatever it is you've got without, again, attracting too much attention itself. Dr. Ashen gets enormous amounts of mileage out of something as simple as a brown sofa, after all. Hosting your work is as easy as looking for a blog and/or a video hosting site. The combination of Blogger and YouTube, Blip or similar video sites works wonders for the bulk of established Caustic Critics. For writers (and the odd video producer), there are websites like Cracked.
Props DepartmentAside from the obvious of "whatever it is you're reviewing" if you can get your hands on it (people who review movies, television shows and the like make do with the title screen or opening credits), go wild with whatever props you feel should carry the performance along. Planning with Props is funny when you're demonstrating something to the audience, so is incorporating Noodle Implements or Cow Tools. Spoony made one or two funny performances out of acting things out with random dolls strewn around his home.
Costume DesignerDepends on how you want to present yourself. You can go casual with a few optional visual cues or themes for the viewer, or you can adopt a full-on costume. Consider dressing up for extended pieces to the camera or to fit in with a theme of some kind depending on the review, or even for a quick laugh. Use everything at your disposal to set up jokes and criticism, but make sure it makes sense in the context of each review.
Casting DirectorAside from yourself, anyone else who might want to do reviews with you should be able to give it a try with you. Make sure you all work well as a group. Cast people you know well and/or have good chemistry with, and make sure they can give as convincing a performance as you. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Stunt DepartmentDepends entirely on how physical you're willing to get if you appear on-camera in reviews.
- The Angry Video Game Nerd certainly didn't invent the Caustic Critic, but he undoubtedly started remaking it for the Internet age.
- The Nostalgia Critic and most of That Guy with the Glasses applied this same approach to movies, music, more recent games, anime and anything else its members can come up with.
- For deconstructions, look no further than Mister Plinkett of Red Letter Media.
- Zero Punctuation created a brand-new way of presenting quick, brutal reviews of video games.
- SF Debris has made numerous "Opinionated Reviews." Note that not everything he looks at is necessarily bad, but he can still make funny comments about it regardless.
- Armake21/Marc0 proves that sometimes, all you need to do as a Caustic Critic to prove a video game is bad is to do a glorified Let's Play of it.
- Tatsudoshi and the Multipurpose Spam crew on the whole tend to have a lot of great moments as critics with their "Your Choice Reviews" series on their secondary channel. They've reviewed an extremely broad range of things in an effect-free vlog format and you can bet they have something strong, and more than a bit shocking to say about each one as well.
The Epic Fails
- The Irate Gamer is a master class on how to not put together an internet review show based around this kind of style. Not helping matters is his fanbase.
- So, so many nobody has heard of due to poorly-thought-out gimmicks, over-production, or being The Theme Park Version of some established reviewer or show. Retsupurae will bring up one every once in a while.