So Keith Chegwin has been outed as a Twitter thief and raised the hackles of Twittermedians up and down the land. Shame on you, Cheggers. Just when you seemed to have rehabilitated yourself as a pillock-turned-alcoholic-turned-nudist-turned-self-parodist, along comes this fresh blow to your credibility. But what does it mean in the wider scheme of things?
The charge against Cheggers (try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to call him by his surname) is that he stole other people’s jokes on Twitter and passed them off as his own. Twitter, tagged in the media as ‘a micro-blogging site’, is often used by professional comedians, amateur comedians, wannabe comedians and dullards to spread viral one-liners. At the moment the ‘Twitterverse’ is divided between people who think Cheggers is a heinous plagiarist who should be dispatched to the furnace, and those who believe it’s all a big fuss over nothing, and surely there’s nothing more humourless than contesting the paternity of a silly joke.
The whole furore got me thinking about the thin line that divides plagiarism from influence. Cheggers’s defence is that all comedians steal jokes from each other as a matter of course, and that he’s happy for other people to steal the material off him. There’s a couple of problems with this line: firstly, while it’s true that there’s some overlap between comedians’ routines, few people are quite as flagrant about nicking material as Cheggers has been. His rather graceless response to people who’ve complained about his behaviour has been to block them and brand his accusers ‘cyber buliies’. No doubt he’s had some nasty messages from some people, but the tweets from Ed Byrne and Simon Evans asking him to credit his sources were perfectly reasonable. As for the invitation to people to steal from him, others have already pointed out that the jokes weren’t his to give away in the first place. Cheggers didn’t exactly help his position by later tweeting: ‘I’ve really upset these standup comics. Most of them doesn’t [sic] write good stuff they just refresh your memory’ – a line that will be familiar to fans of Bernard Manning.
It’s true that plagiarism is rife in the world of comedy. It’s also true that people who write jokes will often duplicate material, because a lot of jokes – particularly the pun-based kind you find on Twitter – follow a well-worn formula. As someone who’s occasionally thought up the odd gag (not for profit or performance – I tried it once but it didn’t work out) and tweeted it I’ve been following Highlight Comedy’s regular joke competitions on Twitter. A minor scuffle broke out when several of the entries for its £5000 #5kgag competition turned out to be repeated material. I’d seen one of the entries earlier in the week in an email of famous Tommy Cooper one-liners – which I later discovered (thanks to Jay Richardson) was actually a compilation of jokes by Tim Vine. It’s an incestuous and duplicitous world, is comedy.
The question at the bottom of all this is: can you really claim ownership of a joke? Most people see jokes as common property – they get told in pubs, passed around offices and – yes – tweeted. Professional comedians take a different view. They write jokes for a living, and recycling their material without crediting them is, to them, intellectual property theft. It’s easy to forget that stand-up comedy is work for these people – and badly paid work at that. All comedians start out the same way: travelling around the country at their own expense to tell the same five-minute routine over and over again to half-empty pubs or comedy club audiences of a few hundred. To get past this stage they depend hugely on recognition and name-checking, and it’s not easy to achieve that when a TV presenter with 38,000 Twitter followers is siphoning off their material.
In the wake of what’s inevitably been named Cheggersgate, the Glasgow-based comedian Teddy had a similar experience when one of his jokes was read out on Channel 4’s Countdown. As he recounts on his blog, he had two sharply contrasting telephone conversations with Channel 4’s production team, the upshot of which was that they offered to credit and pay him for any future contributions. He later had a message from ITV’s lawyers claiming that they were under no obligation to compensate him for use of his material, as jokes fell outside copyright law in the same way as newspaper headlines. This sounds suspiciously like ITV trying to cover their arses with a paper towel. Jokes – written ones, anyway – are pieces of creative writing and have the same legal status as any other artistic material: if you can prove it’s substantially your own work, you can claim authorial rights.
There is, however, a difficulty in determining what constitutes an ‘original’ joke. I’ve seen two jokes on Twitter recently that used the punchline: ‘the reception was excellent.’ They both punned on the word ‘reception’ in the contexts of electronic equipment and social gatherings, but the set-up was different. Are they different jokes, or the same gag reworked? Comedyhighlight were happy to retweet both. Similarly, Gary Delaney tweeted a joke about Weight Watchers which he then discovered someone else had already made a few months earlier. The duplication was inadvertent, but he was gracious enough to acknowledge that someone else had got there first.
This is a problem with writing in general: often what you think is original later turns out to have been subconsciously borrowed from somewhere else. In the director’s commentary to Father Ted (yes, I am that sad), Graham Linehan admits that a scene in one of the early episodes in which Father Jack dies is almost identical to a scene in Fawlty Towers. He hadn’t realised it at the time; it was only when he went back over the episode some time after it had been broadcast that he realised just how closely the two programmes resembled each other. Given how much genuinely original material there was in Father Ted, I think we should forgive him. But this kind of subliminal echoing is common to all creative pursuits. I once wrote a short story which I thought was loosely based on Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide. It’s one of her most famous (and most preposterous) plots and I thought it would be fun to parody it, but I was shocked to find, on re-reading, just how many details in my story were identical, even though I’d read the book way back in my teens. I’d have refused to believe my memory was that good had I not come across the plot synopsis of Sparkling Cyanide on Wikipedia some time later. When you’re scrabbling around for inspiration, it’s hard to know which ideas genuinely fall out of the sky and which ones crawl out from some gloomy recess of your memory.
Nevertheless, where you do turn out to have used someone else’s material, whether deliberately or otherwise, the decent thing is to attribute it. It costs you nothing, and it earns somebody a little bit of credit that’s probably worth a lot more to them than it is to a well-known TV presenter. I suspect the key to Cheggers’s behaviour lies in an interview in which he said: ‘If you’ve not got your own, nick a gag! That’s what all the top comedians do!’ There’s an unmistakable sense of bitterness in that statement, a calculated attempt to insult a category of people that Cheggers, for all his commercial success, has never quite managed to break in to.