Lee Hurst loses it

Lee HurstHeading out to Docklands to meet comedian Lee Hurst in his local café, I’m nervous. It’s not so much the thought of witnessing a drive-by shooting or picking my way through a heap of grieving bankers, it’s the fact that I’m running a bit late and I don’t have his mobile number.

I needn’t have worried. Lee is the man they invented the word “genial” for. I used to work with him as a comedian myself back in the days when the comedy circuit was still in sepia and as soon as I get to the café and meet him it’s like, well, two 45-year old comics laughing about the good old days. Which is what it is. Tall and bald (“the only bald man with dandruff” he once quipped), it was Hurst’s cockney-geezer charm and quick wit propelled him to fame a few years back in the comedy sports quiz “They Think It’s All Over”. He threw it in after a couple of series to go back to stand up and the years spent MC’ing various comedy clubs including his own purpose-built venue in the East End have made him brilliant at putting you at your ease. Just don’t mention mobile phones.

“The obsessive behaviour of people with these things astonishes me. It’s like an appendage. They cling to them. I don’t understand it!” Surprise surprise, he doesn’t have one. Oh, and don’t mention the internet either: “as far as I’m concerned, the internet has been a boon to paedophilia and terrorism and that’s about it.” Or television comedy. The list goes on.

Mobiles are the reason Hurst hit the headlines this week when he pleaded guilty at a magistrate’s court to smashing an audience member’s camera-phone during a gig at the Stoke Pub in Guildford, Surrey because he thought the guy was filming him.

“I’m looking and I see straight down this gangway ahead of me at the back of the audience is the dreaded light on the back of the phone… I moved all the way stage right and it follows me and then all the way back centre-stage and it follows me”.

Lee had seen enough. He walked down the gangway, took the phone off the bloke filming (“the guy shouted out something about texting and I said “you lying c…”) and then, unaware how to operate the phone, he threw it on the floor, it smashed and he walked off stage. It all sounds a bit scary. I don’t think there were calls for an encore.

Hurst’s fury was no Amish-style fear of having his soul stolen (he himself might well joke that having done those series of “They Think It’s All Over”, he’d sold his soul long ago). What tipped him into stage-rage was the belief that his jokes might find their way onto the web or get sold to TV by some unscrupulous gag-merchant passing them off as his or her own. As he told the hearing this week in Guildford: “TV programmes have writers writing for the performers and they go around the gigs and take the material and sell it to the BBC and ITV and that material is gone”.

This dystopian vision of some dodgy dealer on a street-corner offering you “an eighth of Hurst and some uncut Izzard, good stuff about how cats are different from dogs” may seem borderline paranoid, but you can see Hurst’s point. At any rate, according to the stand-up, the magistrate did. He was fined just £60 plus costs (and unlimited texts?)

Copyright is a concern in all areas of creativity but if I put on Beethoven’s 9th or Lily Allen’s latest you’re unlikely to moan that you’ve heard it before. Not so with jokes. Most jokes are like bees – they sting you once, then they die. As Hurst puts it: “A joke is a one-shot deal. You work up a set and you’re relying on an audience changing more than the set in order to earn a living. If that audience has been exposed that material in any format, it’s not going to work”.

He’s right, of course. As soon as you’ve heard a joke, it’s over. And once 4 million people watching “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” have heard it, it’s 4 million times more over. So it’s hard enough having to slaughter one of your best gags at the altar of telly or on the youtube shrine, but to watch someone else do it and take the glory – well, it’s enough to make you destroy a phone.

It’s not the first time Hurst has got himself into the headlines for reasons apart from his comedy. A true Eastender who worked for a while selling toiletries on the markets (he says he was rubbish at it), he thought about standing for London mayor in 2004 when redevelopment threatened to close his Backyard Comedy Club. A year later, an altercation with a hospital over the care of his terminally ill father quickly escalated when he threatened to take an overdose unless his father was moved and he was briefly detained under the Mental Health Act. He’s not someone who does things by half. He certainly has no regrets about Mobilephoneinacomedyclub-gate: “I’m not sorry for what I did, I’m sorry that he did it. As far as I’m concerned I was guilty of self-defence and nothing more.”

Alongside the self-deprecating gags, there’s something of the old-fashioned working-class hero about Lee Hurst. Words like “Scargill” and “socialist” come up as we chat, along with old-fashioned, old Labour ideas such as “fairness” and “principles” (I had to look them up on Wikipedia). It’s like suddenly finding yourself in an episode of “Life on Mars” follow-up “Ashes to Ashes”. At the hearing, where he represented himself (partially, he admits, for reasons of cost), he claimed to be acting on behalf of all comics: “Nobody will protect us, we have to protect ourselves”. Power to the people!

It’s difficult to know how much comedy actually goes on. According to stand-up and actor Chris Addison, the first principle of what’s still known as “alternative” comedy is that a comic uses their own original material. Those who break the code (you know who you are) tend to get ostracized. In any case, it’s often difficult to know whether one comic has stolen from another or whether they’ve just come up with similar ideas, especially if they’re dealing in topical material. If I do a joke at the moment about me being paid £50 for a gig plus 1.3 million pounds in bonuses, the chances are several other comics are doing more or less the same gag. It’s tricky area. Phill Jupitus tells of a time early on in his career where he felt one of his routines had been ripped off by Billy Connolly, only to find out that the same gag had been done by Richard Pryor in the 70s.

For Lee Hurst, few things are more serious than stolen jokes: “Any comic will tell you that if you have a gag stolen and done on television, your first thought is to quit. You think: what’s the point? You’re frightened to tell your own joke in case people think you nicked it from the person who nicked it from you.” He feels that “the honour code of the circuit has been broken and the floodgates have opened”. He’s even seen a compere do another act’s material just before bringing them on. It’s made him stop writing new material, preferring simply to ad lib on stage (which admittedly, and thankfully for the paying public, he’s very good at). “I just don’t see the point in writing something that someone can rip off”, he explains. “It’s removed my ambition”. Moreover, since seeing a whole routine of his performed by another comedian on a rerun of “QI”, he’s stopped watching comedy on TV. Those are pretty radical steps for a comedian. As I said: he doesn’t do things by half.

But Lee Hurst’s on-stage fury wasn’t just about a potential stitch-up by another writer or performer. It was also about his material ending up on the web. Outside the hearing he proclaimed we should “Ban youtube! It’s the biggest piece of c*** ever!” This may not be his most brilliant piece of material, but he’s not alone in having reservations. For Chris Addison, what a comic really loses when he’s filmed on a phone is control. The live experience is so much part of the thrill of stand-up that if it’s going to be filmed it has to be done under very controlled conditions not with a Nokia in a half-inebriated hand. You might storm it on the night but on youtube you’ll just look rubbish.

Comedian and national treasure-in-waiting Bill Bailey is also pained by this lack of control. He points out that youtube was initially set up to enable people to share home videos. There was something charmingly amateurish about it. Not now though. It’s become some huge, unregulated TV channel (not so much youtube as themoffthetellytube). He doesn’t mind the odd clip being put online but two months ago his new DVD was uploaded in its entirety, neatly divided by some kind subscriber into eight 10-minute sections for easy youtube consumption. Clearly this constitutes a loss of earnings – why pay for the DVD when it’s free online? – and under the present system there’s very little Bailey can do about it. He can with some effort get it taken off, but he knows the chances are it’ll soon be re-posted somewhere else on the site. It would be like being dragged into an endless game of internet whack-a-mole.

CUTABLE: Like all other creative people – musicians, film-makers, the websites themselves – comedians are struggling to find ways to make money from creative content which they have little or no control over once it gets online. TV companies are dealing with the drift in viewers from TV to the web by moving from advertising to product placement, though it’s hard to see how that could work with jokes (“My dog’s got no nose. How does it smell? Like ‘Irreverence’ from Lancome”).

So what’s to be done? Outside the court, Hurst appealed for copyright laws like those that protect films to apply to comedy (see under: “fairness”), but many comedians such as Richard Herring are more than happy to have clips of them posted on youtube. Herring sees it as part of the Satanic deal with the internet: you have to allow stuff out there for free in order to build your fan base for the paying gigs – Herring himself posts a daily blog and a free podcast as well as constantly updating his Facebook, myspace and Twitter pages. And if that means people have already seen some of your jokes? Well, that’s just a spur to go and write some funnier ones.

Hurst isn’t convinced and is sure any pro-youtube comic that becomes Bill Bailey big will end up suffering. “There’ll come a point” he says, resorting to the legal jargon he’s clearly picked up defending himself “where it’s going to bite them in the arse”. It was at this point in the interview that my mobile phone went off. There was a tense silence for a moment then both of us laughed and got on with some reminiscing. I decided not to answer it though which is a shame in a way – I could have done with an upgrade.

This article was first published in February 2009 in The Sunday Times.

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