Stewart Lee, well known for his musings on the authorship of jokes, has returned to the topic, criticising prominent stand-ups for using jokewriters without making it clear or acknowledging the hired help (from 23.50 here):
His talk, which is well worth a look, only touches very briefly on this topic. But it was these brief comments that, predictably enough, generated the usual Stewart Lee-sized media furore.
There are a couple of separate issues which we can distinguish here. One is the treatment of the writers. To use someone else’s ideas and not acknowledge them, even if you have paid for the privilege, does seem shoddy practice. The more idealistic among us might question the propriety of using someone else’s ideas in this way, even if credit has been given. People who make a living writing jokes might reply that they can rarely afford this level of idealism.
Another issue is whether comics, especially when doing stand-up or television panel shows, should be bringing in this kind of help at all. I’m inclined to say that they shouldn’t, or at least that it should be the exception. Stand-up audiences go to a show with the reasonable expectation that the jokes coming from the stand-up’s mouth originated in the recesses of his or her brain. It is true, as Lee acknowledges, that this was not always the case; this expectation has only become prevalent in recent decades. Nonetheless, that change has occurred, to the point where a comedian who performs other people’s material should have some excuse for doing so (it’s a tribute, or they are re-interpreting it, etc – i.e., they are engaging creatively with the writer or the work, rather than just using it willy-nilly).
Of course, that this expectation exists does not mean that it should. Bruce Dessau suggests that Lee is drawing on the distinction between comedy as art and comedy as entertainment, “the difference between Samuel Beckett and Andrew Lloyd Webber”. I don’t think this is quite right. What Lee is pointing to, it seems to me, is the role of authenticity (which need have little to do with any artistic purpose). In the alternative comedy world in which Lee’s comic sensibility was formed, the stand-up would perform their own material, written in their own voice, drawing on their own experiences to express their own worldview (see Lee’s description of Lenny Bruce at 10.30 in the video above).[i] The comedian is the sole creator, more or less, of what the audience get.
There’s a lot to be said for this as an ideal for stand-up (other forms of comedy, such as sketches, are more complicated, but then again they are more obviously collaborative enterprises to start with). However, it’s worth pointing out that authenticity is a slippery notion. While popular music has placed a premium on singers and musicians performing their own material since at least Bob Dylan, there is also a long tradition of re-interpreting and re-inventing other people’s music. Sometimes this is a matter of simply performing a piece from one genre in a different one
but often the performer’s own individual style comes through
In that case, the line between authentic and inauthentic becomes blurred – or better, the idea of authenticity becomes harder to apply.
This isn’t directly applicable to the issue of comedians using writers to contribute individual jokes– for one thing it is much harder to say where the contribution of the writer ends and that of the performer begins, unless you know which jokes have been written by whom. But it would be possible, in theory, for a comedian to perform a whole set written by someone else (another idea that Lee has floated, in a slightly different context). In that case, the writer and the performer would be (more or less) equal creators of the show, and to think of it as an expression of the experiences of one or the other might well be a non-starter.
[i] It is true that comedians on panel shows don’t try to do this, but for the most part they are on the panel shows because they have done exactly this on the live circuit.