Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Plagiarism #1

"I booked a plumber the other day. He rang me up about half an hour later and said 'I can't find your address.'

I said 'I'm not surprised. I made it up. And the next time you cut someone up on the motorway, remember your phone number's on the back of your fucking van!'"

read moreI made up the above joke about a year ago, and was happily performing it for months as part of my routine, when another comedian pointed out that a similar thing occurs in an episode of the sitcom "One Foot in the Grave".

I was mortified and have not performed the joke since.

I'm still proud of it, but the chance that someone would see the joke and think that I'd taken it from the show horrified me, so I dropped it immediately.

Comedians' attitudes to ownership of material varies wildly depending on who you talk to. The so-called working men's club circuit of the north have a long standing tradition of sharing material. They tend to view all jokes as existing in one big pot that anyone can draw from. This attitude clashes wildly with the rest of the circuit, who for the most part write their own material and guard it fiercely.

And occasionally, you get someone on the circuit who has no history of the working men's club circuit, knows full well that stealing material is wrong, but just doesn't care and happily performs a set crammed to the gills with other people's hard work.

Most of the time, the circuit is self censoring: promoters recognise the material from other acts and stop booking the offender. Word gets around. Gigs dry up.

But some promoters, some big promoters, are either not comedy savvy enough to recognise the source of the material, or just don't care. I have been on the bill with comics at big clubs who happily slip Bill Hicks' material into their set.

My rule of thumb in these situations is this: if I recognise one of your jokes as being word for word from another comedian, everything else in your set is suddenly suspect. Which was another good reason for dropping the "One Foot in the Grave" material. I didn't want anyone thinking the same thing of me.

Why would a good comedian, who could write a good solid twenty minutes of quality material steal someone else's jokes? The answer is, they wouldn't. They steal because they can't write a good twenty.

There are universally recognised exceptions and grey areas; heckle responses are one such area. They are a variety of stock phrases and insults used to quell a heckler. They are part of the comedy furniture across the circuit, as ubiquitous as the mike in the stand. It is understood that they are fair game for anyone to use.

I won't bother listing them here. Go to a comedy night and heckle for a sample.

Some comics view it as hack to use a stock heckle response. The comics holding this view are usually adept at audience banter and interaction. I am not and never was. I use the stock heckle responses and hope that St Peter will not bar me from comedy heaven when my time comes.

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