Brian Viner: We are all copycat comedians

As soon as a joke is uttered on stage, it becomes public property
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The Independent Online

As Malcolm X was to the Nation of Islam, and Che Guevara was to the National Liberation Army of Bolivia – both paying with their lives for their ferocious devotion to the cause – so is the comedian Lee Hurst to the fraternity of professional funny men.

Hurst, it was reported this week, was fined £60, plus compensation and costs, for seizing and smashing a mobile phone wielded by a member of the audience at a stand-up gig in Guildford, in the belief that the guy was filming his act, perhaps for nefarious purposes.

“Even if it’s just for their own personal use,” Hurst told Guildford magistrates, “they could lend it to a friend or have it stolen and it could end up on YouTube. I’m talking on behalf of comedians in general.”

From what I remember of Hurst’s brand of comedy on the determinedly irreverent sports quiz They Think It’s All Over, it is not everyone or possibly anyone who would want to pinch his gags, but we should nevertheless all applaud him for this defiant act of moral outrage, and if he gets more applause for that one moment of seriousness than for all his comedy routines put together then so be it: stealing gags is no joke, and good for him for making an issue of it.

Actually, I have myself experienced a comedian’s ire, having once related in a newspaper the story of Marilyn Monroe having dinner with Albert Einstein in Los Angeles in about 1950. After dinner they went back to Einstein’s hotel room, where Monroe, who loved a boffin, put her hand on his knee, fluttered her eyelashes and said, “Albert, would you please explain to me your theory of relativity?” At which Einstein smiled and said, “I’m so sorry, Marilyn my dear, but I neffer go zat far on a first date.”

I have loved that story ever since I first heard it told by the marvellously wry Glaswegian comic Arnold Brown, in a stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe. When I repeated it in print, years later, I got a note from Brown politely rebuking me for using it without crediting him as the author. And quite right, too.

After all, copycat comedy is even more common than plagiarism in literature and music, yet few lawyers ever got rich from stolen jokes, as many have from stolen books and melodies. In October 2007 the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld stood up for his wife, Jessica, when she was accused of ripping off someone else’s recipes in her bestselling cookery book. But he more than most should have understood the complainant’s frustration, since in a roomful of comedians you will find fiercer proprietorialism than at a toddler’s birthday party.

In a roomful of comedians you will find fiercer proprietorialism than at a toddler’s birthday party. Indeed, when the late Bob Monkhouse found that someone had pinched a ring-binder containing many years’ worth of one-liners, he offered £10,000 for its safe return.

Yet the problem for comedians is that once a joke is uttered on stage, it becomes public property. Tom tells it, Dick hears it, and by the time it reaches Harry, nobody associates it with Tom. The best Tom can hope for is that Harry murders it. Because if anything causes a sense-of-humour failure in a comedian, it’s hearing his original gag improved by somebody else. On that score at least, Arnold Brown has nothing to fear from me.