Stop! (Joke) Thief!

Marcus Brigstocke. He's mentioned in this article

Marcus Brigstocke. He's mentioned in this article

Here’s a thing I just wrote for the Sunday Times. For a list of nicked jokes (allegedly) and some interesting youtubery, click here:

Stand-up comedians abhor the same crimes as everyone else: murder, assault, the fact that John and Edward are still in the X-Factor. But if there’s one crime that riles them above all others, it’s joke theft. The latest victim of comedic light-fingers is stand-up comic Gary Delaney. He’d noticed that several of his previously sure-fire gags were floundering as badly as Gordon Brown in the polls. A quick check on Google revealed that 34 of his jokes had been posted uncredited on the website, a sort of virtual multi-storey car-park for un-PC one-liners and dodgy gags.

Now this may not seem like a big deal, but for a comedian – and I am one – jokes are our babies (though we are allowed to have real ones too). It was as if some internet Madonna had come to Gary Delaney’s village and taken 34 of his children away for adoption.

I know how he feels. I once had a routine ripped off on an amateur talent show on TV. I was furious at first, though soon my ego kicked in and I wondered if it got any laughs. I was strangely pleased it did. That’s not everyone’s reaction. More typical is the fight I witnessed several years ago between two comedians about who came up with a gag about panto star Frank Bruno’s latest boxing match where the spectators all shouted “he’s behind you!”. Somehow it felt right having fisticuffs over Frank.

Plagiarism was never an issue on the mainstream circuit of old. Never Mind the Buzzcocks star Phill Jupitus remembers doing a gig with Little and Large: “Bernard Manning came into the room and said to Eddie Large: ‘That Princess Diana joke of yours is going really well. I’m using it every f**king night’. Eddie just shrugged and said ‘Alright, Bernard’”. That’s not an attitude you’d find on what used to be known as the alternative circuit. There, the joke thief is a pariah, though often a pariah who does really well. American comic Denis Leary is hated by many in the comedy community for allegedly stealing from Bill Hicks, whilst Robbie Williams was recently turned on for (again, allegedly) using comedian Jack Whitehall’s gag about him feeling that somewhere his Dad’s looking down on him – he’s not dead,  just very condescending.

But nowadays it’s not just fellow comics we have to beware of. It’s everyone – thanks to the internet. Earlier this year, in a fit of stage-rage, Lee Hurst, the cheery cockney comic from They Think It’s All Over, cheerily smashed the mobile phone of a punter he thought was filming him for youtube, concerned it would allow people to rip off his material. But Hurst would be the first to admit that the only website he’s likely to look at is Fellow comedian Marcus Brigstocke is more typical. He has no problems if his TV or radio work ends up on the internet: “I’m always flattered. It’s very clear that it’s me who wrote it, it’s me who’s doing it and it makes people want to see my shows”.

The problem occurs when it’s not made clear who wrote it. A few years ago one-liner virtuoso Tim Vine had 20 of his jokes pasted in an email and spread across the net claiming to be jokes used by Tommy Cooper. Some people refused to believe the material was Vine’s, even though the fraudulent emailer helpfully left the punchline to one gag as “Mr Vine, get out of the filing cabinet”. I suspect he or she does not work in espionage.

Gary Delaney posted one of his jokes – “Old Macdonald had Tourettes: E, I, E, I, C**t” – on Twitter only to see it re-posted by Lily Allen without

Lily Allen. Whose side are you on?

Lily Allen. Whose side are you on?

crediting him. Before posting it, Delaney did a Google search to make sure the joke hadn’t been done. It now yields 167,000 (uncredited) search results on Google. It must hurt to see your baby being so damn promiscuous.

Marcus Brigstocke had a similar experience with a joke about the computer game Pac-Man: “If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music”. The joke went viral, appeared on tee-shirts and was even credited to Bill Gates. Brigstocke is philosophical about his joke’s crazy bid for freedom: “I kind of let it go. In any case, my guess is my legal team will be fractionally smaller than Bill Gates’”.

But why is it so important to us to be credited? We’re comedians so why the sense of humour failure? Shouldn’t we be flattered by the success of our gags? Tim Vine, though keen not to whinge, doesn’t hold with this: “You wouldn’t say: Ooh! That burglar must have really loved your DVD player to have nicked it!”. The real problem is – and this is where I suspect I may lose some sympathy – it takes a lot of work to make a good joke. I know it’s not work as in 7-year-old-child-down-an-Angolan-tin-mine work and I also know some jokes just pop out spontaneously. You can see this on Twitter whenever a celebrity death takes place (I remember being so impressed when TV Burp writer Daniel Maier posted  “Dead Man Moonwalking” within seconds of Michael Jackson’s death).

But more often than not the birth of a joke is a long, painful process, without gas-and-air or epidural. I once posted this on Twitter: “UK for Dummies: There are 2 Browns. Derren and Gordon. One gets everything right, the other gets everything wrong”. I agonised over the punctuation for at least half an hour before posting: colon? Full stop? I just couldn’t decide. But that’s our job. We sit in a damp room with one halogen light bulb that needs replacing (just me?) and try to think up funnies. We try them out in front of an audience, we hone and polish them. We love our jokes. We’ve watched them grow. We would willingly give a false address to get them into a better school.  Which is why we hate it when they go and call someone else Daddy.

The problem is sometimes it’s hard to prove paternity. Last month the comedian Josie Long ran into trouble when she performed her joke about the cost of taking part in sport at Hogwarts being a quid each: “I did the joke and people shouted ‘Adam and Joe!’”. It turned out a member of the public from Australia had passed off the joke as their own on Adam and Joe’s Radio 6 show. The alleged joke thief, one James Hewitt (not, I think, the one who dated Princess Diana) was adamant he’d made it up himself. He’d never even heard of Josie Long.

It’s almost impossible to know for sure that a joke you’ve come up with is one no-one else has ever thought of. This is especially true of topical gags. They’re jokes that you grab and forge quickly and the chances are others are having similar ideas. I once wrote on Twitter: “one thing you can say for gender-vague athlete Castor Semenya – at least she had the balls to compete”. I got an irate reply from two Twitter users who’d posted pretty much the same gags a few minutes earlier. I hadn’t seen them – honest – but the fear of accidentally stealing a joke is so intense I spent about 2 months apologising.

And it’s not just topical jokes. Phill Jupitus once saw one of the most succesful comedians in the world perform a major routine he’d done about lions and antelopes: “when I saw it I almost burst into tears. It meant I wouldn’t be able to tour or do a live video that autumn”. His fury only abated some years later when a friend showed him a Richard Pryor video from way back in 1972 with the same lions and antelopes routine. Some might say that’s proof there are no new jokes. Though I suspect Richard Pryor never did a routine about Swine flu or whether anatomist Gunther von Hagens allows you to keep your skin on during sex.

Richard Pryor: Joke thief with a time machine?

Richard Pryor: Joke thief with a time machine?

One-line merchants like Jimmy Carr, Tim Vine and Gary Delaney will always suffer more from plagiarism than other comics because their jokes are so portable. Comics who tell stories or have a distinctive stage persona like Eddie Izzard or Lee Evans are far less vulnerable. The secret, according to Phill Jupitus, is to be unique so they can’t steal from you: “That’s what comics should think about: it’s not the jokes, it’s about themselves. It’s about your personality. They can’t appropriate ‘you’”.

So maybe we should all just chill about this joke ownership thing. So what if it’s our living? We can always just go write another joke. As Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take things to”. But then what did he know about comedy? – Oh, and that quote was told me by comedian Peter Serafinowicz. It’s important to make that clear.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.

See also my Bill Hicks vs David Hare post

For more about this see Jay Richardson’s article on the Chortle website (he’s @jayirichardson on Twitter). I think I should also say that Sickipedia have now made sure that comedians can be credited for their jokes.

  1. The thing about the internet is that, many times, there are enough monkeys on keyboards who will come up with the same line of humour. It’s only natural, with humour following certain paths of logic that we can all share. So there *are* episodes when people can come up with the same jokes, so we shouldn’t all immediately jump into the same torch- and pitchfork-wielding mob to condemn so-called thieves.
    .-= Derek O’Brien´s last blog ..Deggsy: @mermhart: Looking forward to it, my niece loved it when she watched it first time 🙂 =-.

  2. Marcus says:

    You didn’t mention – possibly because I believe the litigation brought about accusing plagiarism, failed – the infamous McDonalds Top Tips Viz affair from 6 or 7 years ago. Though in some respects that proves many of your points: it was completely tranparent to anybody who has ever read Viz that the ads didn’t only steal the concept but even one of two of the submitted jokes verbatim. Viz lost. I suspect comics (and by that I include comedians as well as those working on cartoon strips) have to grin and bear it; though I’m not sure the appropriateness of that recommendation makes the gut churning anger any easier to bear.

  3. Petherwin says:

    That’s an excellent article, and I agree with it all. I’m not sure about some of the examples, though, because no one should kid themselves they were ever first to a word play. I’d never assume I alone would think of the “quid each” joke, for example. As an amateur humorist on Twitter, I’m appalled by the number of people there who tweet old jokes as their own without attribution. But I’m probably being silly, because there’s no law against it.

    If I had to advise anyone how to increase the chances of a unique tweet, I’d say steer clear of wordplays and current affairs. In the latter case, with so many people watching the news, it’s inevitable that more than a few of them will come up with the same joke. Twitter’s half spoiled “Have I Got News For You” for me because by the time it comes on, half the jokes have been done on Twitter already.

    I appreciate your own tweets immensely, by the way. It’s quite true that a good one takes meticulous drafting. Most comedians are feeble tweeters, I presume because they’re afraid of giving material away. But I suspect you regard tweets as exercise for your comic muscles. I always think if you can make up one joke you can make up a hundred, especially if you’re Tim Vine (why should he worry about the theft of his jokes when we know he could sit down for half an hour and write fifty more.)

  4. David says:

    Thanks for your comment. Glad you like the tweets. Though I’m really not sure Tim Vine can write 50 gags in half an hour. It’s the old duck swimming on the water thing where the gliding duck body above the water = Tim Vine’s effortless performance and amount of jokes, and the legs paddling underneath = Tim Vine spending hours in a dark room painfully chiselling and eking out one joke at a time. That’s my metaphor for the day.

  5. Chris B says:

    I’ve always thought that a major part of the humour was in its delivery. Comedians are performers who must create a rapport with their audience. It doesn’t matter who first though/said/wrote what they are saying.

    I’m going to see Bill Bailey next week – if it was “Ben Elton’s Guide to the Orchestra” I wouldn’t have bought the ticket, because I think he’s a smug twat.

    I’m also off to see Armstrong and Miller next year. Their Airmen sketch is essentially a rehash of Newman and Baddiel’s History Today – but that makes it no less funny, and Rob and Dave shouldn’t be allowed credit for A+Ms work.

  6. Petherwin says:

    Well, I was only joking about Tim Vine. (See, I said I was an amateur.)

  7. seriamau says:

    Robbie Williams also nicked the joke “Knutsford City Limits” from Half Man Half Biscuit. For the record.

  8. Paul says:

    I’m not sure how anyone avoids the problem of genuinely independently coming up with the same joke as someone else. Without reading and memorising every joke ever create it would be impossible to check it has not been created previously. Even Google searching it is far from reliable. The same joke with different characters in a different scenario is unlike to show up in the result. Where’s the line between similar and stolen?
    .-= Paul´s last blog ..Funny photo 8/11/09. =-.

  9. Ajith Nair says:

    I once thought up of a joke about woodpeckers and morning wood – but I didn’t post it. Later, @sween posted a similar one. It topped the leaderboard in favstar.

  10. ade says:

    Oh look – an article in today’s Daily Mail about joke theft:

    Oh, by the way – nice site, David.
    Habadou – habadji!

  11. Jim Lawrence says:

    Leary was never anything more than a pale imitation of Hicks, for sure, but compare Hicks’s famous bit about how we kill off the people who tell us about peace and love with George Carlin’s similar thought. And Hicks definitely took aspects of his style from Kinison and Dice Clay. I think Brigstocke has probably got it right.

    Great article.

  12. Is the divorce thing final now with Tiger Woods?

  13. Jon says:

    Loved the article. Do you mind if I copy & paste it for my media studies thesis?

    I get slightly nauseous when I see Jimmy Carr using Sean Lock’s older material in front of him on 8/10 Cats.

  14. David says:

    Be my guest…


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