To coin a phrase...

In his bid for immortality, Dave Cohen settles for mundanity

In his bid for immortality, Dave Cohen settles for mundanity.

We all want to be remembered for something, and as comedians we’d most like to be remembered for our brilliant one-liners that have brought tears of laughter and joy to the faces of thousands of punters over the years. In the end, even the biggest stars are more likely to be remembered for the silly dance, or harassing the nation’s favourite comedy Spaniard.

My own contribution to the world beyond stand-up is so embarrassingly dull, so tediously mundane, that I have for years chosen never to reveal it. Until now. My decision to come out was helped when earlier this week, in an act of bravery and boldness, Fred Fox Jr, the man who wrote the sitcom episode that launched the phrase ‘jump the shark’, has not only revealed he wrote it, but has gone on to explain how proud he is.

As I’m sure you know, but to fill you in anyway, the phrase ‘jump the shark’ was coined to describe the moment in your favourite sitcom that marks the beginning of the end of your love affair with it. The phrase refers directly to an episode of Happy Days in which Fonz is challenged to water ski over a shark. The phrase has now gone way beyond its original use, and while we can still refer to our own shark-jumping moments from our favourite sitcoms (Niles and Daphne getting together on Frasier? The opening credits of the first episode of Joey?), the phrase has entered the language and been used to describe any turning point – even a recent Oxford dictionary entry used it to describe Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.

Some comics are remembered for embarrassing tales, but in this era where self-humiliation has become one more tool for the comic’s armoury, such tales merely become woven into the next one-man show. Years ago Ivor Dembina created the template for comedians exploring their embarrassing behaviour with his ‘SadoJudaism’ show. Russell Brand followed shortly, and the rest is biology.

We’d all love to be remembered for a famous quote, yet it’s unusual for a one-liner to escape the confines of the gig and enter common usage. Tim Vine’s recent Edinburgh ‘gag of the year’ is a rare example. But beyond the playground-friendly catchphrases of Matt Lucas and Harry Enfield (and I mean that as a huge compliment), it’s hard to think of many lines that have entered the lexicon.

My own phrase that has made its way into the English language isn’t funny. And it wasn’t even meant to be. And I only ever said it once, at a new material night. And if the comedy reviewer of City Limits (imagine Time Out as a left-wing listings magazine and you get the idea) had not been in the audience and used it in his piece about that night’s show, no one would ever have heard it again.

So, in the spirit of the times, instead of shrinking red-faced into the corner, I shall proudly reveal the phrase that launched a thousand cliches. Yes – it was me! The year – 1988. Alternative comedy, as it was still just about known, was becoming more popular, more gigs were opening all round London, and pub venues that owned PA gear and stages for live music were branching out into comedy nights. I‘d already played two venues where previously I had seen bands – the Half Moon in Putney and the 12 Bar in Denmark Street, and was compering a weekly show upstairs at the Forum.

At which point I was contacted by a new comedy promoter who asked me to play a venue opening at the Three Kings in West Kensington. While I’d learned by now that most of these new gigs were unlikely to be packed with punters, and would probably shut down within a year, I was incredibly and quite pathetically excited at the thought of performing on the same stage that had hosted punk rock’s most legendary outfits, when the venue had been known more famously as The Nashville.

I began to formulate an idea for some new material about this – some half-cock, half-written nonsense about wanting to go on stage to a comedy audience and play it like a rock gig, and say, ‘thank you very much, this next gag was from my last album, and it goes like this: “have you ever noticed”...’ then wait for a moment and ask the audience why they didn’t cheer with recognition. That’s right, you won’t be seeing my name on any Gag of the Year awards from 1988.

I tried it out during one of our early new material nights at the Camden Head. I had no faith in the material, delivered it badly, and never tried it again. And it’s a measure of how unmemorable the piece was, that the only part of it which stayed in the reviewer’s brain was the set-up. And that went something like: ‘I’m being asked to play more and more gigs at venues where I used to see bands, it seems comedy is the new rock ’n’roll.’

The following week the City Limits reviewer wrote a reasonably pleasant article about our new material night. In my role as chief publicity officer for that show I held on to a copy for a while, occasionally sending it to other journalists each time we re-launched new material nights (which was often). So I can vaguely remember that the article began ‘Now that comedy is the new rock’n’roll...’

I thought nothing more of it until some weeks later when I heard Janet Street Porter on the telly explaining that comedy is the new rock ’n’ roll. A clunking phrase, invented as the set-up of a joke, abandoned, repeated in a left-wing magazine with a tiny circulation, then read and regurgitated by the oldest swinger in town... I could rest easy, surely this phrase had lived its last.

Sadly I learned that even minority performers on minority TV programmes reach more people than I had probably managed in four years of stand-up gigs. Within a couple of years the idea that comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll received further cred when acts like Billy Connolly and Harry Enfield were seen on TV at Wembley stadium introducing bands, and performers like Baddiel and Newman began playing Wembley Arena.

Then it started to get silly. It seemed every week something was about to become the new something different, and my throwaway set-up was stepping up to the plate like there was no tomorrow at the revered Hall Of Cliche. I used to shudder every time I heard it (‘the new black’ always set my teeth on edge), got used to it, then forgot about it as it slipped out of usage.

But recently, like the 80s bands it was indirectly referring to, the phrase has made a comeback. I keep seeing it everywhere. Well, I’m claiming ownership – and, if possible, a royalty payment for every time it’s used. Only now I bet loads of other people will come forward and claim it was they who invented the phrase. Too late my friends, I got my story in first, and even if I did make it up (which I didn’t), as Keith Chegwin will tell you, plagiarism is the new comedy.

Published: 9 Sep 2010

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