Feb 04

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

“There are no new ideas. Just two old ideas meeting for the first time” – Woody Allen

How important is originality to you in humour? If someone makes you laugh, and laugh hard, do you really care that the joke came from someone else? Does it matter if you’ve heard it before? Does this constitute creative theft?

For starters I can’t imagine anybody using someone else’s speech. If I got up at my next Toastmaster’s meeting and delivered Luther King’s “I Had a Dream” speech everyone would know that I hadn’t penned it and, therefore, I wouldn’t get away with passing it off as my own.
But what about jokes?  Do you feel the same way? Or are jokes fair game? Once they’re told then they’re public domain, so who cares? Sadly, you cannot copyright a joke.

Brief British Comedy History

In Britain in the 1970s the predominant type of comedian has been described as being a Northern comic. The majority of the stand-up comedy stars to break through came from the working men’s clubs of Northern Britain, hence that description. The likes of Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen, Roy “Chubby” Brown, Jimmy Jones and Charlie Williams… to name a few.

It was common practice amongst this generation of comedian and those that followed, like Jim Davidson, to freely exchange jokes so that, eventually, there had to be a sense of deja vu experienced by the avid comedy goer.

I can remember sitting down to watch a Mike Reid video with my sister and, between the two of us, we knew the jokes of his entire act. Does this lessen his skill and brilliance as a comedian?

The British Alternative Comedy Boom

When the so-called “alternative” comedy boom exploded in 1979 the first thing to go was the way in which material came about. Gone were the days of exchanging gags and now everything reflected the comedian’s own view of the world. This comedy movement was very much like what happened to pop music in the 1960s; the artists began writing their own material.

Many “old school” comedians lambasted the new upstarts suggesting that “alternative” comedy was so-called because it wasn’t funny. But it was simply the alternative to what was commonplace at the time. Many of the new comedians became politicised due to Margaret Thatcher taking power and abandoned the well-trodden subjects of the time.

Today’s Comedy Movement?

Cut to today (February 2009 as I write this) and the comedy world is now different. Thatcher’s long gone, although her memory still lingers, and what was once alternative has become the mainstream. Michael McIntyre and Lee Evans had the fastest selling DVDs in Christmas 2008. To a greater or lesser degree one could argue that the Northern style club comic is now the alternative.

Lets take a closer look at what the “old school” generation of comics were doing. This generation seems to now dominate the after dinner and corporate markets in the U.K.

But the question still remains…. were they really stealing jokes?

I had a chat with one corporate comedian of this school a few years ago and he suggested I listen to another comedian’s material and try to find a way to do it my own way or to do it better. “You’re not stealing jokes”, he said, “just looking to put your own spin on them”. The word “stealing” automatically put my back up. Let me say this right now, I am 100% against anybody stealing material.

On and off over the years I have seen some comics lifting entire sections of another comedian’s act. Those people shall remain nameless, but I have seen them stealing from comedians like Lee Evans, Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor. I guess the thinking is “I’m a new struggling comic, these comedy superstars aren’t struggling. So they won’t know or care”.

I guess if you’re going to steal steal from the best, but these guys are A-list and everybody knows their material. It seems foolish at best. Some of them I’ve seen were in comedy clubs, where they seem to be hidden and perhaps think they can get away with it, whilst others I have seen on T.V.

But let’s take a closer look at what some (not all) “Old School” comedians were doing.

Having watched more comedy DVDs than I care to admit to, it seems that many of them were using street jokes. I’ve written about these extensively elsewhere on this blog so, briefly, a street joke is a joke that someone tells you in a social situation, in a bar, on the street (does this ever happen to anyone?) and so on.

When your friend comes and tells you a joke they heard, or you receive one via text or email, the chances are it’s a street joke. This means that, generally, the joke has no author. Or more correctly, no owner. That means that I could tell the joke, or you could tell the joke and neither of us would be in breach of any copyright law.

Note: The danger always is that you think what you’re being told is a street joke, when in actual fact it isn’t. It’s an original gag that someone is re-telling from a gig they went to or from a DVD. Luckily, I either know the original source material or I can usually find it.

With a joke such as this, if you’re going to re-tell it, it’s best to put it in your own words and speech patterns. Say the joke out loud several times until you phrase it in the way you would anything else.

If you edit the joke so that it reflects your personality, then it becomes your work… doesn’t it?

Bearing this in mind does this mean that the “Old School” comics weren’t stealing jokes? Were the jokes just on a temporary loan? Was it that there was a collection of jokes that each comic would dip into as a resource in order for them to find inspiration then create their own material?

This reminds me of a story about my own grandfather; Grandad Peck…

When I was a kid we used to nickname him Spiderman, ‘cos we could never get him out the bath.

Original? Original in that it was specifically about my Grandfather. A street joke? Absolutely. It was pure fiction. But is that a bad thing? If I found a joke in an decades old joke book and edited it and delivered it, isn’t that just good research?

Rowan Atkinson once said that you gain a new joke with a new attitude. You must have seen
the slapstick gag in a movie where a person is about to sit on a chair, someone removes it and the first person crashes to the floor; cue much hilarity. How old do you think that joke is? 10, 20 years? 50 years? 100? More…?

Think about the Woody Allen quote from earlier… are there any original jokes anymore?

Are comedians stealing or are they being influenced? Okay, think about Will Ferrell and his brilliance with physical humour. Would you say there are influences by, say, Red Skelton? Skelton, in turn, was influenced by Buster Keaton. In fact, Keaton wrote a lot of Skelton’s gags for his movies.

So we’re already back to the beginning of the 20th Century with this train of comic lineage. The routines of Keaton and Charlie Chaplin can be traced back to the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi in late 18th/early 19th centuries. His influences in turn can be traced back to the theatrical movement of the Italian Renaissance; the Commedia dell’ Arte. Now we’re in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Many of their plot ideas were recycled from Roman comic playwrights Terence and Plautus. Their ideas were recycled from Menander and the grandfather of comedy, Aristophanes. Now we’re back more than 2,000 years.

Note: Aristophanes’ works not only included verbal, but also, physical wit. Could it be the comic actors of Aristophanes time engaged in pratfalls and other physical shenanigans that we think are oh so modern?

It’s been said that if you want to be a professional speaker, or comedian, then you have to create original material. Well, we’ve seen that this is cods wallop because there are many professional speakers and comics working today who do use street jokes.

Are they millionaires though? (is that always the measure of true and lasting success?)

Some are, some aren’t. To my knowledge Roy “Chubby” Brown is because he made a name for himself being too rude for TV and only selling videos (then DVDs). I don’t think by only using original material you will automatically become a millionaire, because you won’t.  Most comedians and speakers are earning a perfectly respectable living doing something they love whilst busting out street joke after street joke.

Lets briefly look at British comedian Peter Kay. He appears on many people’s top 10 lists of great comedians, but he has been criticised for stealing material. I have no idea if this is true because I have never seen the gigs where this was alleged to have happened.

What I have seen are his DVDs where he uses a couple of street jokes edited to fit his own speech patterns. Kay’s of the generation, like me, that grew up with the Northern style comedian on T.V. as well as the new school of the “alternative” comedians and all those that followed.

But what Kay does is to highlight the fact that he’s using street jokes in the way he sets them up and delivers them. He sometimes over-emphasizes the fact that he’s delivering jokes, before seguing into his original material than has become the norm of the stand-up world today. In my mind he comfortably straddles two eras and, therefore, his appeal is quite wide.

If you’re doing a gig and it’s not going well (maybe you’re a speaker facing a hostile after dinner audience) I think it’s perfectly legitimate to throw in a well rehearsed and edited street joke as it might get you a laugh they you’re being denied and it could also re-capture people’s attention allowing you to move back into your own, regular material.


How important is originality to you in humour? If someone makes you laugh, and laugh hard, do you really care that the joke came from someone else? Does it matter if you’ve heard it before? Does this constitute creative theft?

There will always be comedians and humorists who disagree and agree with these points fervantly.

Postscript: Here’s an article written by one of the early pioneers of the alternative comedy movement, Alexei Sayle. He talks about Bernard Manning after Manning’s death.

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