Lat week I stroked Kildare off the list, with an MC gig in The Phoenix Bar. Despite the modest crowd, the night was absolutely fantastic, a riot; the crowd were there to laugh, and we had them hopping. I had a ball MC’ing; I’m not an overly strong MC, but I can dice my set into bite-sized chunks to break up the acts, so that gets me through. I sat back and relaxed while the acts stormed the venue; Rory O’Hanlon headlined, Enda Muldoon rocked it in his own inimitable fashion, Kevin Lockard had them in stitches and the night was kicked off in style by breakthrough Dublin comedian Ian Perth.
Ian hasn’t been at comedy too long, but he’s a really good act and a really sound lad too; a combination that will see him go far. But what had Ian in the limelight for a week or so in May was a post he put on Facebook, an exasperated cry against that which we all encounter as comedians:
This happens every few months; a debate will kick off as to what can be done about comedians who plagiarise material. Sad to say, if you go to a comedy night (especially among the open mic nights) you’re going to see at least one if not several blatant instances of material theft. As Ian’s Facebook post descended into anger and name-calling (and ignoring my Let-Them-At-It rule, I got stuck in myself and proved why I have a Let-Them-At-It rule), it proved that the issue is a serious bone of contention.
Where I stand on the issue is this; Material Duplication and Material Theft are two different things. Material Duplication, where two comedians have similar material, is unavoidable. We’re all fishing out of the same pond, it’s inevitable that people will concoct similar sets. On the road trip to Kildare, I was discussing this with Enda. He said that one time, he was called on Plagiarism by a fellow comedian due to a gag he had about pedestrian crossings, where he talked about recording the bip-bip-bip-bip-bip sound that tells blind people when it is safe to cross and playing it randomly on the side of busy roads. The thing is: I myself had the EXACT SAME idea for a gag too (I may have even mentioned it in one of last years blogs). So that’s three people right there that stood at a pedestrian crossing and had the exact same idea for a joke. If we were all going to clubs, oblivious, doing that joke, we would all get called on Plagiarism, all accused of copying the other.
This has happened me several times; I’ve had brainwaves for new sets that have turned out to be direct copies of gags by Des Bishop, David O’Doherty, even a line-for line joke that I had which Eddie Izzard had in Definitive Article. Anyone that seen me do those jokes would walk away thinking one thing: thieving hack. And whereas most times if I spot something to be overly similar to an existing joke, I’ll drop it, sometimes I’ll just shrug and say fuck it. I’ve been doing a bit all year, where I make a remark that I’ve seen some ungroomed ladies with vaginas that look like Glen Hansard. Watching the Sarah Silverman show on holidays, I heard her make a remark that her sister has a vagina that looks like Cat Stevens. That’s the exact same joke; should I drop mine? If you start getting that particular, it won’t be long before a comedian can’t say “You’ve been a wonderful audience”. At a gig in Cork, this guy went on before me and did a whole bit on Romanian Rose-sellers outside nightclubs, totally gazumping my bit which was practically identical. I didn’t get mad, or think that he had somehow at some stage seen my set and robbed my bit… it’s a familiar situation that people would write jokes about. Shit happens.
After Material Duplication, you’ve got Material Theft; where someone see’s a joke performed and says “I’ll have that one. That’ll go real nice in my set”. I see this much more among the newer comedians, at open mic nights, and to be honest, I think it’s more to do with ignorance than malice. This is their first few gigs, maybe these guys don’t know any better… maybe they believe that’s how comedy works, you get up and tell jokes that you’ve seen Billy Connolly do, or something that you heard in the pub. I’ve seen sets that play like the Best Man’s Speech at a wedding, where a lad has gotten up with a Frankensteined set cobbled together from bits he found on the internet.
This is what Ian was most upset over; the fact that he’s living or dying on the back of his own material, and other lads are getting up and rocking it with a bunch of schoolyard yarns. To Ian, all I have to say is this; in six months, it won’t be a problem. The majority of guys that don’t grow out of that mentality, don’t get further than the open-mic ranks. For the consideration of the court, I refer to the case of Anderson vs Browne.
This happened last year, when I got a mail from Keith Anderson in relation to a new comedian called Vinnie Browne, who had posted videos of himself on Youtube having what appeared to be a rocking gig. Keith had commented on the video (which you can search for yourself) quoting chapter and verse where practically every joke had come from; mostly Godawful, Irelands Own level schtick that the Cork crowd were nonetheless eating up. To understand why Keith got so annoyed about this, you have to understand the following;
1) Say what you want about Keith (and I say plenty), he is genuinely passionate about comedy. He respects the artistry and the skill of it, and it gets under his skin to see someone disrespect the art form that the rest of us work so hard at upholding
2) Keith has been injected with a synthetic poison that will kill him if his anger levels fall below certain levels.
Vinnie’s take on the whole thing was this; as long as the crowd were laughing, who cares? People were at the club to have a good time, they weren’t worried about where the jokes came from. Keith asked me my opinion on the whole thing, and whereas I agreed with Keith, I didn’t get as annoyed about it as he did. I knew that with that mentality, Vinnie wouldn’t get far. He would never get out of the open mic clubs, never book support gigs, never take food of our tables. And true enough, six months on, he’s nowhere to be seen.
Round about now, there’s a few of you going Thats all well and good Gerry, but I’ve seen big-name comedians stealing shit left, right and center. Yeah… that’s depressing. High level comics have no excuses, cannot claim ignorance. And Joe Public, the average punter who goes to a comedy show once a year or less, doesn’t have the knowledge to say hold on pal, that’s a joke from whoever. And there is no governing body that comedians can complain to if they see plagiarism happen. At least musicians have IMRO; Irish Musicians Rights organisation, which helps struggling musicians protect their material.
IMRO swoop in on anyone cribbing the music of others, and don’t accept no “Honestly, this song is about a totally different set of Strawberry Fields” bullshit. There is no such thing for comedians, no ICRO, so we kinda have to do it ourselves, but all this seems to lead to are a LOT of Judge-Jury-Executioner style online witch-hunts where a lot of innocent guys that are blindly duplicating themes get painted as nefarious gag thieves.
As for the guys that DO rob material… well, what can I say. None of this makes any difference to your mentality, I suppose. You’re going out, having a good time, the audience is laughing… where’s the harm? Well, enjoy that Battle of the Axe victory, enjoy those six months playing the smaller venues, because that’s as far as you’re going to get. If you think it’s no harm to use material that you haven’t written, well, that’s showing serious ill judgement. All I can say is this; NO, it’s not cool to use other peoples material. NO, it’s not cool to use joke after joke that you heard in the pub. That’s not how it works. Write your own material, and stand by it. If it duplicates material already out there, that’s no problem. We’ve all flown on RyanAir, we all think the government is run by assholes and we’ve all had shitty relationships, so our material will criss cross at times. We’ve all been watching TV or movies or seen something on the Internet that would look real good in our sets, but only hacks actually use it. As for the “Sure who will know?” mentality… someone ALWAYS knows. Someone will always have heard it before, and you won’t get away with passing it off as your own. Even the most obscure, aged or unknown reference will have been heard somewhere by someone, and if you pass if off as your own, they’ll be on you like a Tyrannosaurus in an F14.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t times when I’m tempted. Sometimes I’ll see a guy do a bit and think MAN, why didn’t I come up with that. Or worse again, see someone set up a wonderful joke and then ruin it with a ghastly punchline, and think wow, if I could do that joke, I’d finish it differently. Or (and these are the things I’m most tempted by) I’ll see a guy put down a heckler with a fantastic line, and think you know what, next time I get heckled, I’m using that. Or watch an MC banter with someone in the crowd with an improv’ed line. It’s not material, right? It was just something he said off the cuff, right? I could use that, right?
But I put it aside, knowing that nobody just says random shit onstage… heckler put-downs and audience banter are all honed through time, and are not for people just to rob as their own. So anytime I feel the itch to use someones material, I just think about how I would feel if someone robbed something that I had worked on in clubs for months. Plus, y’know… I’m not a thieving hack. That helps.