For this week's Metro column I returned to an old idea that will be familiar to fans, but not to the vast majority of Metro readers, the injustices of the Magpie Reward System. The idea started as a blog way back in 2005 and then became a stand up routine in Someone Likes Yoghurt (you can see it in all its glory by buying the DVD for £12 or the download - show only- for just a fiver). I liked this routine, though it's not one that I have carried on doing since that show was put to bed.
On a busy week it's nice to have some old material to fall back on, though in the end it probably took me longer to write this column than it would have done to come up with something new. First there was the problem of condensing a very long routine into 600 words, but secondly I could not really remember the live version and the blog that started it was missing out on many of the jokes. I don't have that show written down anywhere, although I found an early version of the opening and I couldn't find a copy of the DVD. I finally tracked down a static camera version of a show I did at the Battersea Arts Centre, but the DVD was scratched and it cut out at more or less the point that the script I had did. I had no option to buy the download of my own show, but then had to wait for it to load up in my computer. Let no one tell you that plagarising yourself is easy. It was almost as if God was trying to tell me to write something original. But I got there in the end and even without the riffs on paedophile serial killers and what happens when you see more than seven magpies, it works well.
Who knows how many other potential Metro columns are lurking forgotten in the 4022 previous blogs. A fair few I would imagine. Alas it would take longer to find them than to write something new. But I am running out of old stuff to steal off my younger self and always a bit surprised if I find anything I can recycle. The blog has still proven to be a great resource in writing Edinburgh shows and now with the Meaning of Life - I've found at least three potential routines for the next episode just by searching for key words. But it's hard to do that for columns.
The piece generated a few tweets and some people identified with it. Adam Leedham pretended to be affronted that I had managed to get away with writing a column about magpies with no purpose. I replied that it was making a serious point about the injustices of the Magpie reward system. He proposed his own fairer system, riffing on my own one in the paper, which went "1 for wet sex 2 for wage rise 3 for punctual bus 4 for nice pies 5 for comfy shoes 6 for gonorrhea 7 for a relax & a cold beer."
Which is all well and good, but what stuck out for me is number six. Because in the stand up version I say that I wouldn't mind the magpies putting a little trap in there and make seven for gonorrhea. 'Yeah, I've seen six magpies, I've got some gold... oh wait, there's seven of them. Sexually transmitted disease." I talk about magpies enjoying tricking you and how they are the Dom Jolys of the animal world. So what were the chances of Adam having come up with the same idea and the identical sexually transmitted disease? I assumed he must have seen the show and was referencing, but he seemed genuinely surprised by the coincidence. Possibly he'd seen the routine before and forgotten it and then his subconcious had dredged it up. Or had he just arrived at the same idea independently? It seems too specific to be just chance, but is it? Unless Adam was pulling his own weak-ass Dom Joly prank on me there is no reason for him to lie about this. He's not a comedian ripping off my act, he's a man joining in with a gag and sending me his idea. Vanity about my own comedy genius might make me feel that he must have stolen it (like a thieving magpie), let logic says it's unlikely. And I think this throws up quite an interesting point about accusations of plagarism.
Most stand-ups feel very protective of their comedic ideas and having your stuff "nicked" is correctly seen as a major professional transgression, but in many of the cases that I have seen discussed it seems to me more than possible that there is no thievery going on. Two people have just come up with the same idea. Comedy has quite a limited scope and jokes operate on quite basic formulas and it's highly unlikely that you have created a brand-spanking new idea that no one has ever considered. I remember years ago when Frank Bruno started doing panto, one comedian became furious to the point of violence because he believed another comic had stolen his bit about Bruno being in the ring, fighting an opponent, and the crowd shouting "He's Behind You!" He truly thought that only his genius comedy brain could have come up with that concept.
But in truth, of course, if you were looking to write a joke about Frank Bruno doing panto that would be absolutely the first thing you would think about (either that or the reverse of the same joke, where he ends up punching Cinderella). If Twitter has shown us anything it is that people come up with same jokes about the same topical events. It's quite a useful tool for a comedian. Because if you are making the same jokes that non-comedians are immediately making then maybe you're not working hard enough. Whilst some comics can make a living by giving an audience the jokes that they themselves would make and possibly have made, for me personally I want comedians to surprise me and find the angle that I feel I would never have arrived at. The odd obvious joke can be fun, but surely we should be aiming to be as original as possible, otherwise people can save themselves the money and just go to the pub and remember Spangles with their mates.
Of course sometimes you can spot a comedian who has ripped off a routine wholesale or just uses too many of the same phrases and ideas of others for it to be just coincidence and there have been cases of people just passing off entire routines as their own (usually if they work in a different country or language -ultimately even then someone is going to notice). But sometimes two people will just chance across the same idea or word. If you're going to plump for an STD (in a routine - I don't think anyone goes about selecting them in real life) then gonnorhea is one of the funniest choices (in terms of it being a funny word). Clamydia is another good one. Non-specific urethritis has its charm. AIDS might be OK if you wanted to be blunt and shocking. But gonnorhea is funny sounding, without being deadly. In a sense once you have made the choice to have a magpie reward that is a sexually transmitted disease (or any disease) then statistically gonorrhea is going to be likely to come up. And whilst I wouldn't expect everyone to immediately think of putting a sexually transmitted disease in their magpie reward list, once you've had the idea of having something negative, then it's quite an obvious choice.
So whilst some comedians might get furious and punchy and claim their genius has been pilferred if this happened to them, I think it probably stands as a good example of how two people can independetly arrive at the same joke. Even though my pride wants to say that Adam must have heard my routine before and forgotten about it, the truth is probably that he didn't. Just as likely is that somewhere in both of our subconciouses there is another reference by someone else that links magpies and gonnorhea and we've both inadvertently copied that. Or our brains store magpies and gonnorhea in the same section. Who knows?
I think it stands as a warning to comedians to not get too up themselves about their stuff. And to consider the possibility, even in seemingly more unlikely cases, that the same notion has come from two different people. And you might not be as groundbreaking as you think. Especially if you're doing a Frank Bruno pantomime gag, for fucksake.