David Lister: Yet another reason for comedians to be miserable

The Week in Arts

Related Topics

If you are in need of a laugh, avoid comedians. On stage they can be pretty good, but off stage they are in my experience the most dour, paranoid, chippy and unsmiling bunch of people you can hope to meet.

This week all those attributes were in evidence in a diverting row between some of the nation's celebrated comics and the former TV personality Keith Chegwin. Mr Chegwin had been telling a few jokes on Twitter, but the jokes "belonged" to said celebrated comics.

For example, Chegwin's joke "I got a book on the paranormal – I didn't buy it, it just appeared" came from Paul Merton. Another one-liner, "I used to go to the circus to see the fat tattooed lady – now they're everywhere" – was part of Jimmy Carr's act. Now, you may or may not wonder why anyone is eager to claim ownership of either of those two jokes. Certainly, another disputed Chegwin tweet, the award-winning comedian Milton Jones's "My auntie Marge has been ill for so long we changed her name to 'I can't believe she's not better'", is one that I would pay Chegwin to steal if it were mine. But comics would argue that that's not the point.

Comedian Simon Evans told Chegwin: "Cheggers, old chap, you are no doubt acting under good intentions, but these jokes are written by professionals. They earn their keep telling them, and it's really not on just to distribute them like this, without credit." Another comedian, Ed Byrne, added: "Jokes have a limited number of tells before they lose their potency. If you go and see a comedian and think, 'I've heard half these jokes on Twitter', the moment is lost."

There speak true off-stage comedians, solemn and a touch resentful and not a joke in sight. Of course, some might argue that they have a point. Plagiarism in other areas of the arts, music and literature certainly can and does result in court cases. Should it be any different with comedy?

The answer has to be yes because we all tell jokes and we tend to tell them without attribution. What a joke-deadener it would be to have to add attribution every time. Besides, jokes are not like pieces of music. Who really knows the true genesis of a joke? The paranormal book and the tattooed lady may well have started their lives with Paul Merton and Jimmy Carr, but they certainly feel as if they, or very similar one-liners, have been around for a while.

Unquestionably, it's tough for a comedian when an audience has heard the joke before, but that has been the case ever since comedians started appearing on television half a century ago, and radio before that. It is also why the best comedians have routines and distinctive personae to make their acts more than just a series of jokes.

But the bottom line is that a joke, within seconds of being delivered, has no owner and no copyright. That may make comedians miserable. But they'd be miserable anyway.

Upstaged by a man in the gods

You can always guarantee a bit of a groan from the audience when it is announced just before the start of a performance that the star is ill. This did indeed occur when I went to the Royal Opera House a few days ago to see the world's most celebrated diva, Angela Gheorghiu, in La Traviata. Miss Gheorghiu, an official announced, had a stomach bug and could not perform. The statutory groan happened and the official went on speaking. But just as he started to speak, a desperate howl came from the gods from a male devotee of Miss Gheorghiu. The official looked flustered and lost his way for a second, then resumed his speech. A few seconds later the same man let rip again with another cry of agony that tore through Covent Garden.

The pain of queuing all day to see a superstar, and perhaps the lady of your dreams, then hearing that she is ill, can be severe. But I have never heard it expressed in quite such a manner before. La Traviata is quite a love story, but the young man in the gods had made the greatest expression of love that night. Twice.

Think twice before coming out of hiding

It's good news that Salman Rushdie has decided to write an account of his time in hiding following the fatwa against him. One small episode which will probably not find its way into his book was one that I was present at when I was the arts correspondent of this paper. A number of us from various media outlets were summoned to the Arts Council one afternoon for a secret meeting.

Rushdie was ushered in by his minders for a talk about how he was getting on. But arts reporters being arts reporters, most of them found it hard to ask questions about Iran, fatwas and Special Branch, so there were a series of questions about the state of the novel, Martin Amis's latest, etc. Rushdie looked at the arts writers amazed then gazed heavenwards and said: "I wish I were in a position to have a pleasant teatime chat about literature." It was one time he must have been glad to escape back to the safe house.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operation Caseworker

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Caseworker is req...

Recruitment Genius: Contact Centre Advisor

£19500 - £21500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading children's chariti...

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letters: The voters’ favourite – None of the Above

Independent Voices
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor