Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Who owns a joke?
The row about joke ownership continued gathering momentum this week with the news that Ed Byrne has quit Twitter after clashing, once again, with Naked Jungle presenter Keith Chegwin. The two comedians came to blows over Cheggers constant posting of other people’s jokes, with Byrne calling him out over what he saw as an infringement of copyright. The Chegster however, remains unrepentant, claiming that comedians have a long history of joke sharing and that since his tweets have largely been from dead comedians, who the hell is going to complain anyway?
There is certainly a case to be made for either side and it is hard, perhaps, not to feel that comedians are being precious about what are, in the end, words strung together to make people laugh. The best comedy is a reflection of the world we live in- our attitudes, our weaknesses, and our prejudices. When you watch a comedian you are laughing along precisely because you recognise the idea being portrayed. Is it therefore not conceivable that two human beings, comedians or otherwise, have come up with the same witty response to a situation? Of course it is.
However, to downplay the argument is to forget that as trivial as this might seem, coming up with killer gags is a comedian’s job. Just as you would be peeved if someone gained acclaim from the boss for work that you had done, comedians are naturally upset that their material is being pilfered without due credit being given.
The debate has been escalated by the fact that new technology, in particular twitter, has made sharing jokes far easier. While this is clearly positive, for those whose work has been stolen it must be incredibly galling. Imagine if your job was to make people laugh. To watch that witty thought you’ve had on the bus zoom around cyberspace without so much as a thanks very much, and at lightning speed, must make your heart sink. Pre- internet you might have been at risk of a handful of imitators. Now your material is broadcast to thousands. And even if every one of them cries with laughter, it’s scant consolation. This is material that you can never use again.
With twitter’s constant competing hum of voices forming white noise, it is easy to lose track of who has said what. Preserving your ideas, and material, is therefore of paramount importance. Comedians like Tim Vine and Jimmy Carr are particularly under threat from this culture of joke sharing. While the 140 character limit is the perfect fit for their snappy one liners, both men have fallen foul of the retweet button and find themselves unable to perform material because it has already become too familiar, or been passed off by someone else.
To a certain extent, twitter has changed the landscape of comedy. Twenty years ago, in the dark days PT (pre twitter) alternative comedians ruled the roost. Nowadays people’s attention spans are shorter and comedy is also becoming more compact. Jokes have been revived from Christmas crackers and are now seen, not as filler, but as the main attraction. The proximity of comedians in people’s everyday lives also mean that they are now literally household names- not just on your TV but on your laptop, on your phone, tweeting you as you sit on the DLR. This new culture is one of the reasons comedians are the new rockstars. When Michael McIntrye can sell out the O2 night after night, comedy is big business. And protecting your business interests is essential.
Cheggers, still stuck in the days of the working man’s club where comedians largely repeated the same tired gags about mother in laws doesn’t see this. But then, if he can’t move with the times and feels that he has to recycle other people’s gags all the time, maybe it’s time to look at another career. I hear there’s soon going to be an opening for a Libyan president.