Comedy tributes

I went to a stand-up comedy night last night and the last comedian finished his act with a Max Wall routine. It’s a bloody difficult routine to do and he did it amazingly; but it prickled slightly – that’s someone else’s material.

To be fair, he didn’t try to pass it off as his own; but somehow it just doesn’t feel right.

Which is weird.

If it was a band performing a cover version of a famous song, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Unless it was shit, then I’d just be annoyed; but I wouldn’t find it strange.

However, a comedian using someone else’s material? A comedian doing a cover version of a bit?


But … why? Why shouldn’t a comedian re-use another comedian’s material? Especially if that comedian is dead. Why should material be consigned to forgotten albums or lost performances? Why shouldn’t a man who was a genius in his day have his genius celebrated and repeated?

I don’t have an answer to this by the way, I’m just wondering.

Is there such a thing as a comedy tribute act?

If not, why not?

Is it because it’s easier to duplicate a pop song than it is to duplicate a comedy performance? On the surface, they should be similar – you learn the notes/words, the timing and sound/pitch and you should be able to replicate them perfectly; but maybe there’s something unique in the way an individual comedian performs his material (frequently written by a third party) that’s missing when a band plays?

Or is it just expectation?

If you go to see a stand-up twice and he repeats the same material, you feel duped. Like you’ve wasted your money.

If you go and see your favourite band and they don’t perform their biggest hit (usually in the fake encore) then you feel equally gypped … why?

Is it because comedy relies on shock and surprise whereas music relies on familiarity? A joke rarely feels funnier than the first time you heard it, but songs often grow on you.

But then, why do people buy DVDs of comedians? Why do certain sketches or moments (Del Boy falling through the bar) seem to tickle people eternally?

Monty Python’s live shows were repetitive performances of TV material and people loved them. Is it TV which makes it acceptable to reuse stuff and live performances which have to be fresh and original?

Why has there never been a Monty Python tribute act? Is it a copyright issue? Or has no one ever thought of it? Come to that, why aren’t there Eddie Lizzards and Freddie Izzards running around?

Or maybe there are and I’ve never noticed? I could Google it, but I can’t be arsed.

To put it into a script writing perspective, if you’re writing a sitcom aimed at teenagers – is it okay to re-use a joke from the 1950’s? They won’t have heard it before and it’s still funny – should that joke be left to moulder and die (or perhaps be a treasure unearthed by those curious enough to seek it out); or should a funny joke be celebrated and re-imagined for newer, fresher minds to enjoy?

I try hard not to reuse anything; but sometimes bits creep in, bits which hide in your subconscious and masquerade as your own ideas – should these bits be stamped out? Or should they have their origins celebrated and be held up for the world to admire?

I don’t know.

Would I pay to go and see Freddie Izzard? Possibly not. Maybe, if he was playing in the local pub and it was only a fiver. Would I go and see Freddie Izzard if the pub were paying him and entry was free? I still don’t know.


Is this a gap in the market? Or is it blasphemous and I should be burnt at the stake for even thinking it?

I don’t know, do you?

Categories: Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Comedy tributes

  1. Unfortunately it was someone with precisely the attitude of “I don’t want to see a comedian using the same material” that caused Eddie Izzard to stop touring for 6 years. He got a letter from Trading Standards because some a-hole complained. He was seriously upset, and just stopped.

    Only a small part of the show was a repeat – and that’s the way he works (worked) by the time the tour had finished all the material was different, and most of it different from the first night. (I think it’s the Circle tour DVD that has both the first night and the last night performances – different.)

    To address your other point: personally if a stand-up did a tribute to Max Wall I think I’d be okay with it, personally, especially if it was funny 🙂 for the reasons you state. It’s a tribute.

    And there was that Python mock-umentary thing that was one recently which was superb.

    Perhaps it’s to do with money. If a band does a cover they still have to pay for the rights. If a comedian uses another comedian’s material … there’s no payment. But perhaps there could be.

    Stand-up comedy is far more personal than a song. It is the person doing it. (Not like in the old days when it was just jokes.)

    • The Monty Python thing, the Play Wot I Wrote, that Tommy Cooper show with Jerome or possibly Robson – all had people impersonating comedians, but they also all had a narrative structure.

      And I think most musicians would disagree about their songs being less personal than comedy!

  2. Mate of mine once did a Bill Hicks tribute act – for everyone who never got to see him, or wanted to “see” him again. He did an hour of the material in a pretty flawless impersonation, to recreate the show exactly but in a live situation. BUT it was clear that’s what he was doing, he was very up front about it, that was the selling point. Was quite uncanny, and fun. Same reason I’d like to see the Australian Pink Floyd – I’ll never get to see the real thing live, but an accurate recreation, live, is bound to be pretty good. I think as long as it’s acknowledged, it’s okay – jokes and material are quite personal to the performer, usually. But yeah, seems a shame that lots of great, old jokes get lost in time.

    • Death might be a good factor in this. It feels less weird doing tributes of dead comedians.

      So I guess the answer is yes, there is or has been at least one comedian tribute act!

  3. I have no idea how it found that pic as my icon, I didn’t choose it! Just as well I don’t have cock pics of myself online. That I know of.

  4. Acherly – I think it may be a lot simpler (I’ve been applying the little grey cells to the problem).

    It’s just what’s culturally acceptable, innit.

    Once upon a time it was acceptable to steal jokes. Then “alternative comedy” appeared and each comedian worked hard on their own material and that was what you were expected to do – that’s the culture. So anyone using someone else’s material is an anathema.

    Music has a different culture, people are expected to sing other people’s songs – especially if they like it. It’s a complement, sort of.

    Reminds me obliquely of how the people who invaded southern Africa thought the indigenous peoples were just thieves because they’d pick up and take what anyone left lying around. Whereas it was a cultural thing: if you can’t carry it with you, it’s not yours.

    (Clearly I am not as famous as Mr M – I just get a semi-random spoggle picture.)

    • Was it acceptable to steal other people’s jokes though? I’m not sure that’s true. Mind you, I have not sure it’s not true either.

      Possibly a difference is to do with copyright. Comedians rarely write/publish their work prior to performance, so are they due any money if another comedian performs a cover version of their work? In that case, unlike covering a song, there’s no financial compensation for the writer.

  5. Pingback: 2011 « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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