The Times, 31 July 2015

Several years ago, when I was still gigging regularly, stand-up was rocked by a scandal: someone dumped a stack of Tim Vine jokes online, claiming they were by the late, great Tommy Cooper. While you might think Vine should have been delighted to see his own beautifully-wrought puns attributed to one of the great comedians of the last century, it was the grimiest kind of intellectual property theft: not only had someone stolen the material he used to make his living, they had even denied that he was the author. Comedians were rightly appalled: years of work – writing, editing and performing – reduced to nothing.

It reflects the way many people (even fans) view comedy, as a ‘low art’ which requires skill and perhaps craftsmanship, rather than genius. It’s surely this mild contempt which has allowed people to pinch jokes and pass them off as their own for as long as comedy has existed. You wouldn’t show off a postcard of the Mona Lisa and expect people to think you were the artist. But plenty of people have no such compunction when it comes to jokes. While some honest joke-tellers will admit that they heard this one from a bloke down the pub, many more will give no credit to the joke’s inventor, if they even know who that is.

Comedians will put up with this, to an extent (they can’t do much else). And if you pay to see a comic and then claim one of their jokes as yours the next day to amuse your colleagues at work, it’s not such a big deal. It’s only really become a problem since the internet made everything accessible to a vast audience. Particularly, it’s become a problem since Twitter became one of the most efficient joke-sharing devices in the world.

But comedy writers have begun fighting back: this week, Twitter has begun removing tweets of stolen jokes, replacing them with a simple message: ‘This Tweet has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder.’ There’s no problem if you retweet a joke, giving credit to its author. But pilfering jokes without credit is not the same thing. Of course, there will be those who argue that by putting one-liners on Twitter in the first place, comedians are asking for trouble. But that disregards the way that comedy has changed in recent years.

It can take years, unpaid, to get noticed as a comedy-writer, especially if you’re not also a great performer (and there are plenty of brilliant writers who don’t like performing: most sitcom writers, for a start). Twitter is an effective way for joke-writers to bring their skills to the attention of TV executives who can give them actual, paid work. In the US, especially, that work can be highly remunerative. Which probably explains why chat-show host Conan O’Brien is being sued for $780,000 by a blogger who posted four gags online which bore a marked similarity to ones which appeared soon afterwards in the monologue of O’Brien’s TV show.

The question is: theft or coincidence? There is a problem with topical comedy especially when two or more (in the age of Twitter, dozens more) people come up with the same gag about the same news story. So, one of the jokes in question is this: 'A Delta flight this week took off from Cleveland to New York with just two passengers. And they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight.’ It appeared on Robert Kaseberg’s blog last January and then on the Conan O’Brien show the same night. Had someone on O’Brien’s writing staff lifted the joke? Or had they simply seen the same news story as Kaseberg, about an amusingly empty flight, and come up with the same (not very surprising) gag?

This happens all the time, which is why it is unwise for a comedian to turn up late to a new material night. It doesn’t even have to be topical: I once saw two comics on the same bill at The Comedy Store deliver an identical joke about the Severn Bridge toll (How come you have to pay to get into Wales? They’d make more money if they charged people to leave.) Both men spent their lives driving around the country to gigs; they were going to notice the same things. Most comedians agree to a compromise: if two people come up with the same gag, one or both of them will omit it from their act if they are on a bill together.

Kaseberg’s jokes are described in the lawsuit as ‘literary works’ and however slight they are, that seems to me a reasonable description, and it’s about time jokes were given their due. We don’t consider haikus less valuable than sonnets, or sonnets less valuable than epic verse. Brevity is a tough art to master.

Actors are an unlikely bunch (I say this because I live with one, but he’s out filming today, so I’ll probably get away with it). A poll of 73 stars, from Juliette Binoche to Cillian Murphy, reveals that their favourite film is not Citizen Kane, Vertigo or The Godfather (one of which routinely tops critic and audience polls for the greatest film ever made). The actors’ pick is Tootsie, handbagging The Godfather into second place. Cinema Paradiso only comes in fourth.

But on reflection, it’s no wonder they picked Dustin Hoffman’s magnum opus, which is all about an actor being prepared to go to any lengths to get work. Specifically, it’s about an actor whose excessive commitment to perfection has made him unemployable, and how he finds a way to show off his talent nonetheless. And about how getting work – and being as good as you always knew you could be – doesn’t make the rest of your life fall magically into place.

It’s also funny, something critics routinely underestimate. How many comedies pick up Oscar nominations these days, compared with the catalogues of suffering and trauma which fill out awards lists every year? Actors know the truth, which is that (as the swashbuckling Allan Swann – played to perfection by Peter O’Toole in My Favourite Year – once observed): Dying is easy; comedy is hard.