Joke Stealing: The Upside

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

…So wrote Upton Sinclair. What a great line. It’s witty and insightful. Steal it. Use it. Everybody does. That’s why it’s so famous.

I used to sell clothes to people who had shops for a friend of mine. I sold T-shirts and fleeces with designs on them, drawn by my friend, who was a talented and funny artist.

Her designs got ripped off a few times by greetings card companies, but there was one design that was just un-stealable.

It was so her style, you’d have to rip the whole thing off, which would mean becoming her. Which was impossible.

I’ve noticed if I want to tell a Johnny Vegas joke, or a Dom Irrera joke, or a Mike Wilmot joke, or a Rich Hall* joke to someone, I pretty much have to mimic the comedian in question.

It’s like an anti-piracy device built in to the material. You have to add the persona (and thereby crediting the creator).

I don’t quite know what it all means, but if you make a thing that’s as utterly nickable and costless to steal as a great joke, you may as well get something out of it. Like Upton Sinclair. You might read some of his other stuff now.

Couple of thoughts:

1) Is there any way you can inject a bit more you into your more spreadable stuff?

2) And which of your lines only work when you’re behind it? Maybe that’s a signpost to your next joke**.

People used to tell me there was a guy on the circuit doing one of my jokes (good luck with that!). He’s probably in another line of work now.

I reckon if the joke was so steal-able, my mission should be to make the next thing I come up with more unique to me. It’s about the only thing I can control.

Don’t get me wrong, I would definitely try and sue if I thought I could get some dosh out of it, and I’m sure there’d be lawyer out there willing to take my money to try, even if it was futile.

It’s difficult to get a person to see the futility of a thing when their income depends on them not seeing it.

*There he is again! Sorry, regular readers!

**This is just my home-spun rubbish. Remember the Golden Rule – don’t listen to anyone!


First Night Nerves And Picking Your Advice

Here’s some useful advice I got before my first stand-up gig.

I was really nervous the day before.

I had tried some of my lines out on actual people. There was no Twitter back then. I knew from their reaction that my first gig would be carnage.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Rich Hall for advice. I said to Rich, “Is there anything I should keep in mind when it’s all going tits-up?”

He said, “Yeah, remember this. EVERY. BODY. DIES…”

I tuned out for the rest of it. (He went on to say, “…Even me!”)

That’s not the useful advice I meant. After performing for a few years, I now totally get what he was preparing me for, and what a generous thing it was to say, but at the time it shook me.

As it turned out, angels intervened and my first open spot was cancelled due to someone in the venue having a heart-attack before I got there*. Phew.

My next bite at the cherry was three months later. This time, when I got nervous the day before, I asked a newish act friend of mine if he had any advice.

He said, “Yeah. Just stand there, get through your five minutes. If you get a couple of laughs, literally two, you’re doing really well”.

This really took the pressure off and helped me get through those hard early gigs.

Maybe, because my new act friend was having experiences a bit closer to my own, his advice helped. Maybe you have to travel a bit of road to be able to interpret the advice of someone so far into a journey you’re just starting out on.

Maybe the lesson is that everybody’s got a valid point of view, but no-one knows what you need.

Or maybe the lesson is cut down on fried food.

*(The show before my cancelled first gig was called “Cabaret Extreme”. Ironically, the flyer said “You’ll die laughing, or we’ll die trying”)


The Problem With Jokes

There’s a fundamental problem with jokes.

Think of music. There’s no “getting” a song. No nice, that’s that, move on. You can hear a song that moves you thousands of times before you need to give it a rest.

When you love a piece of music, the affair goes on and on until one of you changes. The song’s permanent, so the relationship only changes when you change. Even then, you’re probably still wed for life.

That old Adam And The Ants song doesn’t move you in the same way as when you were eight, but it’s a touchstone. You’ve got history. It’s a family member that knows you better than your own family.

Think of jokes. A vital element of a joke is surprise (see here about that). Once you’ve heard the punchline, that vital element is gone. You can still enjoy introducing someone else to that feeling you got when you first heard the joke, but for you, the thrill is gone. As a thing that’s supposed to do a thing, it’s stopped doing that thing.

Tom Stade and Rich Hall got around this problem with two routines. And I think it’s because they’re like music. In case you haven’t got time to click, I’ll outline them.

One of them is Tom Stade’s “Meat Van” routine. Tom talks about being in Bilston (it’s already funny) and a man shows up to sell meat from the back of a van. The salesman has a style half-way between carnival barker and Martin Luther King, Jr.

If this routine was a song, the verses would be the meat van guy introducing each cut of meat (verse one: “I got a rump roast…”, verse two: “I got eighteen pork chops…”).

The choruses would be: “Do you know what I’m going to do with this [insert name of cut of meat]..? I’m gonna put it on the scale!”

In songs, after the second chorus, people get used to the pattern. Time for a guitar solo. The guitar solo in this routine is when Tom says: “I got a bag full of faggots”. He moves away from the main theme tune to riff on the bag of faggots. It’s a blistering guitar solo.

Rich Hall’s Tom Cruise Bit is equally beautiful. He describes the formula for making a Tom Cruise film (“He’s a cocktail maker. Pretty good cocktail maker, too. Then he has a crisis of confidence. Can’t make cocktails anymore. Then he meets a good-looking woman, talks him into being a better cocktail maker. End of film!”).

Then he says the whole thing again, but substitutes “cocktail maker” for “race car driver”, then he does it with “jet pilot” – On and on, each time funnier than the last, as the predictability of Tom Cruise films is roasted.

This one’s more like a ballad. We’re thinking: “Where’s he going to go in the next verse?” Rich finally pulls out a surprise ending to make it work as a joke joke.

My guess is, because these routines are such beautiful creations, Rich and Tom didn’t set out to solve the problem of how to make a replayable joke. They just showed up to work, beavered away, and one day were proud parents.

Maybe it’s because these jokes are like music, I’ve actually enjoyed listening to them just now with the same intensity as I did when I first heard them.

It’s just a pet theory of mine, I don’t know what it means, but I thought I’d share it with you.

Ps. If you’re having a crisis of confidence, just check out the thumbs down on these YouTube clips. They’re both about as good as art can possibly get, but there’s still someone out there not smiling. Trying to please everyone is just not a worthwhile mission.


Love It!

Every bit of energy I’ve put into learning the guitar (to the extent I have!), learning singing (to the extent I have!), learning (though some quite painful public experiences) how to turn what’s going on inside me into something that has a life of its own outside of me has paid back ten-fold.

It’s fair to say I love it.

Sometimes it’s paid back materially. Which can be a mixed blessing. Whatever it is that gifts ideas to us might get cheated on for dosh.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for cheating in this way. In fact, I did it last night. I enjoyed it and my partner’s okay with it.

I once sat next to an old couple on a train. We got chatting. They’d been married for something like fifty years. I asked the husband what the secret was to keeping a relationship going that long. He looked at his wife and said, “I guess, just… Choose well.”

Whoever you are, I hope you find the strength to do what you need to do to push through the hard stuff and get your project done. If you choose well, it’s true love.


Red Face Day And Joke Writing

Happy Red Face Day! It’s a day I set aside to celebrate being exactly one month early for Red Nose Day. I hope more of you will join me next year.

I look forward to all the comedy on telly later (in a month’s time), but until then, here’s a tip for the jokers out there…

I came across a book once that had one piece of advice that stuck. It’s this acronym:


If a joke isn’t working or could be better, does it have these elements?

TARGET. All jokes need a target. Could be person, or an idea, or anything.

HOSTILITY. Is it a target people can get behind, and build up hostility toward?

REALITY. Is the joke based in reality? Of course you can still be surreal…

EXAGGERATION. Exaggerate/heighten (even go surreal) the reality in your joke as much as you can without breaking it, so you can heighten the…

EMOTION. If the target is something or someone the audience can build up hostility toward, go for it! Make your Greedy Banker a maniacally laughing, top hat-wearing baby-eater…

SURPRISE. If they can see the punchline coming, it just won’t work.

Bear in mind, as I said earlier, there is only one piece of advice worth anything in this game, so feel free to disregard/improve the above.

Also, this is not a formula for synthesising jokes from the ground up, it’s just an idea to throw at stuff you’ve already created to see if you can improve it.

Form is there to guide, formula is just too proscriptive and probably unhelpful wherever it rears its ugly head.

And finally, they say the secret to comedy is timing. A month early is probably not right.

*(I want to credit Mervyn Helzer for this, but can’t find him anywhere on the internet.)


Audience = Gift, Deadline = Gift – A Cure For Writer’s Block!

People think comedians are crazy, but I feel sorry for people doing projects that don’t involve an audience.

If I have a stand-up idea like, now-ish, I can put it on its wobbly feet in front of some people like, tonight-ish.

The way tonight goes will change the shape of the idea for the next time I try it out. This process can repeat until we’re all happy with it. Having an audience is the gift that gives me an opportunity to take a chance…

Well, thanks for the gift, audience, but why do I want to get out of my comfort zone when you’re around?

Just a thought, but I reckon the gift of an audience won’t come to much without the gift of a deadline.

That’s the gift you have to organise.

Unlike a novelist who has to be really disciplined (or has the gift of a caring publisher breathing down their neck for a manuscript), stand-ups can commit to (say) an Edinburgh Festival run. That’s committing to a new hour of material or August is going to suck. Now those try-out nights really need to count.

The best deadlines I ever had were recording dates for radio shows (lucky me), or podcasts (don’t have to be lucky to do those). That mike is going to go live at that particular time, better have something to say into it…

Yes, going to Edinburgh in August is expensive (except when it’s not – be part of the Free Fringe!), but podcasting (for example) isn’t. The Camden Fringe or The Leicester Comedy Festival are also ace and may be nearer and less expensive for you. The Sheffield Comedy Festival is ace squared.

Yes, there’s a cost in time and effort; but whoever you are, what’s the long-term cost of not creating?

PS. Maybe the idea for non-performers is to find a way to involve an audience in your project, whatever that might look like.

How about this for novelists with writer’s block:

I had an idea to start a web company along these lines: You promise to help an author produce a manuscript by date (x). You get the author to give you, say, £1000 (more if you think they’ve got it). Both parties sign a legally-binding contract that you get to keep the money if you don’t get a manuscript of (n) pages on date (x).

I think this will result in a delivered manuscript 100% of the time. The reason that it needs to be a business is that it won’t work if you’re friends with the author. It has to be like “Strangers On A Train”. Maybe authors who don’t know each other could do this for each other via the web – each egging the other on to not complete!

Sounds sadistic, I bet someone’s already thought of it!


Making Money And Stand-Up

So let’s talk about making money with our creativity.

I have a pet theory that whatever you were doing before you moved into stand-up, that’s how you’re going to do stand-up.

I was singing songs in pubs and clubs, so I approached stand-up like that. Write a bunch of songs (jokes), put them in a running order (set list). Drop the ones that don’t make people dance (laugh). Making money? I’m just happy to not have to pay to play.

Maybe because Jimmy Carr was doing marketing for a blue-chip company, he went straight in at the exec level, figuring out the power structure, befriending gatekeepers and getting ahead.

Before I was singing songs for a bit of money, I had a job. A job is where you have a boss, and if you make them happy you might get a better job, maybe better money.

When we got into stand-up, a lot of us had jobs. Then, when we started getting paid for stand up, we transplanted our job thinking into our stand-up thinking. There’s a boss (a promoter), if you make them happy (by making the audience happy), you get promoted (better gigs – nicer, or more lucrative).

This definitely works and makes sense. We would be nowhere without the circuit and the people who work their tails off trying to put audiences in front of our non-famous asses.

But how do performers like Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee and Simon Munnery and Richard Herring and… (you finish the list) get to do the art they do? I can’t speak for them, but it seems to me that they didn’t turn it into a job.

It might be design, it might be default, but instead of (or as well as) building a list of bosses and thinking up strategies to please them, they built an audience. Sometimes one person at a time at fringe festivals, sometimes with the help of an accelerant, like TV.

There are two(ish) big companies who own all the famous people, and this duopoly works tirelessly to get their famous people on the TV shows that they make. Let’s not sit around waiting to get picked.

The internet’s a connection machine. “Publish” is a button on a website. You have your own TV channel. You have your own radio station. Go to it!