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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Comedy And Sharing - A Laid-Back Look?

DISCLAIMER: Before I start, I'm not accusing anyone of anything, here. I'm not saying anyone stole anything or that anyone's material is better/more worth stealing than anyone else's. There are no accusations or any kind of blame being applied here. The following is simply an observation, or series of observations, in support of a comedian of whom I am massive fan (yawn, sorry). The following is not very well structured, or very eloquently worded, but here we go:

In the words of Stewart Lee, "there has always been a tradition of, sort of, main stream acts stealing our jokes and passing them off as their own" which I suppose, is something that just happens

Other than taking the material-thief to task over such instances there's an element of "deal with it" about the whole thing. Quite recently, on Twitter, Keith Chegwin was accused of stealing other comics' material and passing it off as "either his own work, or traditional gags minted by long-dead comics". Citing the age-old "intellectual property ownership blind-spot" argument. Indeed, I've heard jokes on TV or at stand-up shows and retold them without crediting the source myself. I do not, however, have armies of "fans" who give me a virtual back-pat for my wonderful sense of humour. Recently, I've noticed a number of different instances of jokes that would normally not be heard by mainstream audiences, written by some of the most influential comics, retold credit-free on Live At The Apollo and the like.

I'm going to use Stewart Lee (surprise, surprise) as an example of how easy it is for a joke to be seen as stolen and/or misused. Now, Stew is revered among his peers as "the comedian's comedian" - and rightly so! He has written for the most unlikely of now-mainstream acts. 

Lee, in fact, directed The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett in their first major stage show, Arctic Boosh, which has remained the basis for their entire chemistry as an act. The point; they aren't strangers to each other. I was watching Live At The Apollo a while back, the one Noel Fielding was on as a solo performer, and he said something that stopped me enjoying his routine, since it distracted me so much. I forget exactly what the material was, but that isn't really relevant. What's relevant is, when one of his jokes was laughed at before the punchline arrived, he used a like something like "now you're making your own jokes, it's like psychic comedy! I can come out and you can make the jokes yourselves in your heads. That way, if you didn't like the show it's your fault for being shit". A clever and funny line, no doubt ad-libbed. 

It would have been funnier if the ad-lib was Noel's. If you know your Stewart Lee, then you'll all know of the bit he does about the possibility of watching a split-screen broadcast of Charles and Camilla's Wedding/The Pope's Funeral where he delivers a feed-line, which the audience use to guess the punchline. 

Stew uses the same line as Noel, some years before that episode of Live At The Apollo, about the audience being responsible for not enjoying the show if they are making their own punchlines up before he delivers them. It's a great - and, more importantly, written - line that belongs to Stew! Now, it's not as structured as many jokes out there, and the way in which it was used was slightly different. But it is, essentially, the same line. 

Again, when watching Dara O'Briain's latest stand-up DVD he focusses on an audience member who is illegally recording the gig on his mobile phone in plain sight. He says to the kid filming, "there are 8 cameras in this room, it's being recorded for a DVD". Not a joke. Just a line. However, in Stew's new DVD, filmed before Dara's, he also has a run-in with a fella recording the gig. Stew, too, uses the line, "there are 6 cameras here, mate, it's being recorded for a DVD!" - similar, but not exactly the same. Again, not a joke. Just a line. It's very difficult to apply ownership to a line like that... it's not FUNNY in itself, it's all in the delivery. Also, from the same show - but again, in a completely different context - both comics explore the social relationship and power-structure between fairytale favourites, The Three Bears. It's not theft. It's very unlikely that either comedian is even aware of the others' material* or if they are, are not looking at it as being the same in any way. 

But it's not the first time that Stewart Lee has (allegedly) had material "borrowed and adapted" for mainstream audiences. This link offers a very interesting discussion on the similarities between Stew's work and other comics - comics who are better than this - like Gervais, Patrick Kielty and Jack Whitehall. The latter - and I swear this is true! - was on some show a while ago making jokes about being accused of material theft; he made some funny remarks, all his own! Then, with no degree of irony AT ALL, he spewed out a joke that is definitely a Frank Skinner gag! 

I can't remember the actual gag, I'm afraid, which I'm aware makes my argument less than credible. But my point is, even when caught mainstream comics "borrow" material, deliberately or not - it must be difficult to remember if you've had an idea yourself, (especially when they happen as fast as they must do in the mind of Jack Whitehall). It happens. It will always happen and it's reached a point where it is now largely ignored. I like Dara. I like Noel. I like Gervais. I also like Stewart Lee, I don't know if I've ever mentioned that... 

But, you know what? Even Stew uses jokes that aren't his. Even Stew puts jokes in his shows that he didn't write. In fact, the very first TWO jokes in the very first episode of Comedy Vehicle are not his. But what Stew does, as anyone should, is credit the people who wrote the gags openly. The end-credits of said episode feature the credits "Two Book Jokes by Simon Munnery" and, in a later episode, Stew even credits his own wife with providing a joke he uses. That is how to use others' material. As a Gentleman should. 

Nothing I write will change any of this, of course. But hopefully one day more and more people will take notice of the comics who don't necessarily reach wide, TV audiences. Comics like Stew, Richard Herring, Josie Long, Robin Ince, Milton Jones and countless others who, if you know your stuff, you will see having jokes borrowed left, right and centre by the more "mainstream" names. If we all go to see one of these acts live then the next time we hear one of their jokes repeated on The Royal Variety Performance or something, then we'll think "sorry mate, we've heard it done before, better, by the fella who wrote it originally!".

* Although, they both frequent the same venues and "comedy festivals" so probably are aware of the stuff.
☨ This IS irony! This IS a Stewart Lee joke (originally concerning Joe Pasquale). Clever, aren't I?