Original sin?

Paul James asks if anyone really cares about plagiarism?

‘If you're going to lick the icing off somebody else's cake you won't be nourished and it won't do you any good.’ Emily Carr

‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.’ Pablo Picasso

The irony of starting a piece on originality by using the thoughts of others is not lost on me, however this dichotomy of beliefs does illustrate the divergent views on this contentious subject.

Originality is something many of us consider sacrosanct in comedy. Someone outside of comedy challenged me on this recently when I wrote a joke and the most perfunctory search on Google showed that it had been done before, so I scrapped it. His question was that if it made people laugh, why didn’t I just use it?

My answer startled me; the truth was I didn’t want to use it because I feared people would consider me a plagiarist. This was unsatisfactory, I had placed a profound importance on originality, yet my main problem was related to how others perceive me. I had to find that originality is inherently valuable in comedy, I had to.

‘All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are of course standing on the shoulders of giants, Mark Thomas is not the first comedian to make a political statement, Stewart Lee is not the first comic to subvert the conventions of stand up, just as Milton Jones is not the first to tell loads of jokes to make people laugh. However, these acts use their own material and perform it in their own individual way. Even if it is done in persona, they have created and developed that persona themselves.

I was given some great advice by Wil Hodgson on the Chortle forums when I complained about having some jokes of mine nicked. He suggested that by developing my persona and incorporating the material into it, that this affords some protection from plagiarists. Yet at the time of writing, plagiarism has reared its ugly head once more. Not merely of material this time, but Jim Tavare believes he has had significant elements of his act, looks and stage persona reproduced by Sid Bowfin.

I have no doubt some of Bowfin’s audiences have enjoyed his act and couldn’t care less where it came from. In general, I have found that the paying public reserve far less ire for comics who plagiarise than comedians themselves. Can this be because as comedians we think that Jim’s stock in trade is being reduced, and it all boils down to what are essentially union issues?

But we are right on this and the audience is wrong. As much as they are necessary, the audience is always the lowest common denominator when it comes to art. Just look at what has happened to television in the UK. If plagiarism goes unfettered and originality isn’t allowed to flourish then banality sets in and we all, including and perhaps especially the audience, suffer as a result.

The public don’t want originality they want entertainment. Plato drew an analogy between the masses and a beast that gets fed what it desires, rather than being fed what it needs to nourish it.

Surely it is the function of art to provide something that is meaningful and original to this diet. If you view comedy merely as a form of entertainment then originality is not important. If you see it as an artform (albeit one that should be entertaining on some level) then we are at the vanguard against banality in our culture. If this sounds all a little too haughty then the least we can do is to keep our own backyard clean.

Don’t worry, dick jokes are on their way.

Published: 24 Jun 2011

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