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 Sickipedia.org, 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 Luddite.com. 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
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.
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.