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That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore

When Dave’s Funniest Jokes of the Fringe (for which I was on the judging panel, oh stop it’s no big deal really) was released at the end of August I noticed a glug of something on social media. That glug was, to put it plainly, joke nickin’. People tweeting and updating their Facebook statuses with jokes I recognised from the list, which was distributed widely among the press, and not attributing the joke to the writer.

I don’t think for a second these people thought what they were doing was wrong, or in any way questionable. I expect a lot of people reading this will think it’s harmless and I am being silly to bring it up. It’s just a joke after all. Only, it’s not just a joke. It’s a flash of inspiration, which calls for time spent writing, which then requires editing, before using up precious stage time to test out this new material before repeating the whole process until finally the work has been distilled into a good joke.

It seems no comedian’s material is unnickable. Most days when I go on social media I see Elayne Boosler’s joke about couples living together butchered into a meme about marriage and I suspect most of Tim Vine’s set is floating around in meme form.

Now, I’m not calling for all comedy shows to begin with some heavy handed warning about intellectual property. You wouldn’t steal a car, you wouldn’t steal a handbag, you wouldn’t steal a television, you wouldn’t steal a joke… Obviously, statistically some of you would steal all of these things but you perhaps wouldn’t crack out a stolen item in casual conversation or air them on your social media like you might a gag you heard at a show. Why? Because we still don’t see comedy, or rather the process of making comedy, as that important. And we don’t think we’ll get caught. 

It brings to mind what Nica Burns, producer of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards said at the launch of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe regarding comedy’s status in society: “Comedy isn’t given the status film, theatre or dance is given. Why? It’s about time people took the contribution of comedians more seriously to our culture and internationally.”

But really, why is repeating the odd joke so bad? Well, it’s a question of credit, credibility and heading back to the drawing board at your own volition.

Comedian Adele Cliff’s joke “As a vegan, I think people who sell meat are disgusting; but apparently people who sell fruit and veg are grocer.” made it on to Dave’s Funniest Joke of the Fringe list, if it seems familiar it’s because it was one of the lines quickly adopted as a popular meme. Uncredited.

If your joke has become a widely shared but uncredited meme then every time you deliver it on stage you risk the audience thinking ‘hang on, I’ve seen that meme, boo, this comedian’s just rinsed Facebook’. Meaning you get no credit and on top of that have to drop said joke from your set.

The same result happens when a comedian nicks material from another act. Sure they may be shunned by their fellow comics (or given their own show on TV – who can say?), but ultimately the outcome is the same, the original writer has to drop the joke for fear of the audience confusing the originator of the joke.

I’ll give Adele the last word: “I want as many people as possible to get a laugh out of my jokes, but I also want them to know it was me that made them laugh. Jokes are the currency of comedy and having them stolen immediately renders them worthless.”