Face it, comics, your gags WILL get nicked

But, says Dave Cohen, cheats never prosper...

Well done Lee Hurst! The consensus in the comedy world seems to be that Lee struck a blow for all of us, in more ways than one, when he smashed up a punter’s mobile, which he claimed was being used to film his act.

No one likes having their material stolen. It’s taken us ages to create, it belongs to us, it’s notoriously difficult to copyright comedy and thanks to the internet it’s almost impossible to retain complete control.

Also the high profile court case has brought this to the attention of a wider audience. Anyone planning to film a comedian to put their act up on YouTube will think twice before doing so, and Lee almost certainly won’t be bothered again by the red light brigade.

However, leaving aside the argument that there may have been a funnier, less aggressive way of dealing with the issue on the night – I don’t know, I wasn’t there – there’s been an unchallenged view that nicking gags goes on all the time. Notably by comedy writers lurking furtively at gigs, recording people’s acts and then stealing the best lines, which are then handed over in deserted multi-storey car parks to the producers of Jim Davidson and Graham Norton.

I’ve been a full-time stand-up and a full-time comedy writer at different times. To claim that ‘comedy writers’ are responsible for nicking the gags of ‘comedians’ on a regular basis is to completely misunderstand the huge difference between the two jobs, both of which involve, to a greater or lesser extent, the creation of new material.

While there is almost certainly a great deal of theft going on, the fact is that anyone who does it on a major scale, or for any length of time, will almost certainly be found out.

Also, having spent far too much time in the company of comedians and writers, I’m afraid that the indignant self-righteous anger about joke theft is quite often misplaced, sometimes without foundation, and in most cases plain wrong. ‘How do I stop my idea/gag/sitcom from being stolen?’ is the joint equal most energy-wasting question from people starting out, along with ‘how do I get an agent?’

There are zillions of ideas out there, and hundreds of comedians and writers looking for ways to make them funny. Every now and then someone will come up with the same idea, or joke. In my experience comedians are far more prone than writers to claim ownership of something that came out of a conversation involving more than one person.

Comedy isn’t just about ideas, it’s also about execution. A sitcom about two former students who no longer have anything in common sharing a flat is one of the hoariest ideas there is, and yet isn’t Peep Show one of the best TV comedy shows in ages?

Being a stand-up is about so much more than material. It’s about the person telling the gag, how comfortable they are in the room, how they make the audience feel. For a comedy writer material is everything. And if you’re starting out as a comedy writer, and thinking that stealing gags from the circuit is one way into the business, then frankly you’re wasting your time.

A typical working comedian will have spent probably the first two to three years of their careers coming up with a decent 20 minute set. Most comedians, even if their professional clock is not set at Edinburgh time (by which I mean that they’re always working towards the next August), would usually aim to have created a new hour of material every year.

A working comedy writer is not going to get very far with that amount, or type of material. For starters, there aren’t that many places you can sell a pithy one-liner, apart from perhaps to another comedian. The main source of income for one-liners is topical comedy, and even if you do nick a topical gag the comedian will have to stop using it within a couple of weeks anyway.

And, without wishing to sound too brutal, is there that much good, nickable stuff out there? Discounting the big name acts on their sell-out tours of the country - whose material you’d struggle to fob off as your own for too long before someone found you out – there really aren’t a huge number of comedians performing ten or twenty minutes of beautifully crafted self-contained one liners, that can be lifted from sets and hawked to the evil material-munching machines at TV Centre.

It’s no fun having your stuff nicked, of course, but you really have to be sanguine about it. There was a comic who had a bit of a reputation for ‘homage’, as we put it at the time, who went on to do a lot of panel shows around the time I was giving up performing. Each time I saw him on the telly it was like seeing my whole act flash by in front of me. I was furious, but aware that much of my anger towards him was more about my own inability to progress as far as he had.

And it wasn’t as if I was totally innocent. I’d been doing a line for a year before I saw a comedian perform the same line. I momentarily considered confronting him before working out that it was actually me who’d subconsciously stolen it from him. At which point I stopped doing that line. No working comic wants to gain a reputation as a gag thief. But those who do are quickly found out. In the late Eighties there was a bloke who got occasional gigs on the circuit, who was to all intents and purposes a Jeremy Hardy tribute act. By this time Jeremy had stopped playing the circuit but years earlier we had done so many gigs together that I knew every line of his by heart. I must have done three or four gigs with this guy, and each time I went up to him afterwards and told him to stop using Jeremy’s lines.

Every time I confronted him he had a different, rational-sounding explanation. ‘That’s definitely one of mine’, or ‘Well maybe we both came up with the same idea independently,’ or ‘yes I think he was in the audience the first time I tried that line.’ Needless to say, he quickly disappeared from the scene. His own material just wasn’t strong enough to fill the gaps in between each of Jeremy’s carefully crafted gags.

If you’re good enough, something you said or wrote will be ripped off at some stage. The best advice on this comes from Mark Thomas, who was performing a ‘white geezer trying to be black’ character in his act for years before Ali G came along. ‘The fact is,’ he said. ‘Sacha Baron Cohen took that character and turned it into something different.’

Accept it, and move on.

Published: 2 Mar 2009

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