Plagiarism amongst modern stand-up comedians is viewed within the industry as a mortal sin, or at the very least as outright theft. These artisans make their living quite literally by their wits, and jealously guard the form of words that they carefully craft into their act. Not only one-liner gags, but whole scenarios, comic story arcs and even mannerisms are identified as being the sole property of whomever is the originator. In music, where there are only 12 notes, and you could say that every permutation of sequences and timings has already been written. Likewise, there are only so many comic forms and scenarios, so the uniqueness of a piece is often firmly anchored in the performance of its writer.
100 years ago, it was common for the content of music hall acts to actually be shared amongst several performers, who would tour the country. Sometimes, you could even find two identical acts on the same bill, performing the same routine, word for word. In the 1970’s, there was a TV show called The Comedians, where the acts would actually negotiate and haggle with each other, to see who got to tell the best new jokes they had all heard that week. Working the clubs too, meant that they were less precious about who owned the material, and accepted that they might even have to buy material from established comedy writers, if need be.
In the past few weeks, veteran TV hack, Keith Chegwin ( @thekeithchegwin ) has attracted much criticism for retelling jokes on Twitter, that “belonged” to seasoned professionals, who make their living from them. Whilst not asserting them as his own, he is seen to be claiming ownership by inference, and therefore stealing the livelihoods of professional comedians. If I were to sample a Stevie Wonder song for a new record, I’d have to get permission and pay royalties. However, as yet there is no law protecting the copyright of stand-up comedy.
I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, as it ties in with a rough (very rough) idea for a novel or screenplay, which I had written a couple of years ago. This is it in summarised form:
Gerry McGavigan is a recruitment consultant, working in Glasgow. Gerry gets drunk at the Christmas night out, has an argument with the boss, gets fired and goes home to Paisley in a bad state. Keen to avoid trouble with his Italian wife, he sleeps in the spare room. He is woken with a scream in the morning, when his wife discovers he has gotten into bed with her much younger sister Loreta, who was staying over. She assumes the worst and accuses him of everything, and the sister is too scared to contradict her. Long story short, Gerry leaves town, as his two criminal brothers in law Mario and Romolo Di Mascio have sworn to kill him, if they catch him.
Initially he moves to Germany, to a car sales job, but makes the mistake of contacting friends via Facebook, and his location is revealed. In a panic, he flies to Mexico, with the plan to sneak into the USA alongside migrant workers. A natural mimic, he fits in quickly in Phoenix Arizona, and adopts the local accent and swagger, securing a job in a bar owned by a New York Italian. Gerry has always been a fan of stand-up comedy, so is in his element when he tries out for the regular Friday open-mike slot. But here’s the catch: much as he loves comedy, he is incapable of writing his own material. Reluctantly he decides to borrow, and Americanise an old Chic Murray routine he knew by heart, dating from the 1960’s. No-one here would recognise the jokes of an obscure and deceased Scottish comedian.
Needless to say, it went down a storm, and he was hooked. He then went further and researched the acts of even more old-time Scottish comics. Francie and Josie, Lex McLean, Hector Nicol, and of course more Chic Murray. He was familiar with the rhythm of the language, and could therefore “own it” more easily as he translated it to suit his current surroundings.
Coincidentally, the owner of the bar Paul Gambon (Paulie Gambetta) is also on the run. He chose to leave his criminal family, and had to get out of New York, when several family members suspected him of setting them up. With a little money, he was able to buy the bar under his new name. Paul agrees to manage Gerry, as he is becoming a local celebrity, and over many drinks, they finally confess their mutual situation as fugitives from Italian families, on either side of the Atlantic. What Gerry didn’t confess, however, was the plagiarising of his comedy material.
As things take their course, Gerry is becoming well known, first in Phoenix, and then state-wide, and is starting to appear on TV. This presents several problems. Firstly the risk of being found out as an illegal immigrant, second as a comedy thief, and thirdly by his in-laws 5,000 miles away, who want his blood. Paul faces a similar dilemma, but the pull of fame and success is too great. Seemingly overnight, an invitation appears to perform a 4 minute slot on The Late Late Show, hosted, ironically, by Scottish comedian, Craig Ferguson. Compelled by ambition, but tormented by misgivings, Gerry agrees to perform, and has no choice but to use his best (stolen) material.
On the night of the show, several plots are on a collision course. Gerry’s in-laws have traced him, due to publicity for the show in Los Angeles, as have the Gambetta crime family. When both families are sat beside each in the audience, it transpires that they are all originally from the same small village in Southern Italy, and are related. Long story short, the performance is phenomenal. However during the interview Craig Ferguson realises that he recognises some of the gags and that Gerry has a definite hint of a Glasgow twang.
Denouement: Whilst on screen Gerry breaks down under questioning and admits everything; the Di Mascio brothers push their way to the stage to confront him; Paulie Gambetta comes from the wings to protect his friend and client, and then Gambetta hoods rise to attack him.
Epilogue: Paulie’s family discover that he didn’t turn them in. Gerry’s sister in law eventually admits nothing happened that night. Sponsored by Craig Ferguson, Gerry gets a green card, and gets signed up for a show in Vegas performing classic comedy routines, with a modern twist. Sales of Chic Murray’s back catalogue go through the roof. Comedy tribute acts break out across the USA, and comedy karaoke clubs legitimise plagiarism, and royalties are paid.
Like I say, this is very rough, and only a brief outline. I’ve sat on it for years, and will probably never write it fully, but maybe one day.
PS. Here’s Stewart Lee on Joe Pasquale’s habit of appropriating the material of others.