David Lister: Yet another reason for comedians to be miserable

The Week in Arts
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The Independent Online

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.