Is it okay for a scriptwriter to re-use jokes?
I think most of you will have answered a firm and assertive ‘no’.
It’s not okay. It’s lazy, it’s unimaginative, it’s not what writing is about. There’s nothing creative in taking something someone else has written and regurgitating it. Anyone who even considers it is intrinsically a wrong ‘un and should be drummed out of the business.
Okay, fair enough.
And I’m not talking about clams here. I’m not talking about the ‘He’s behind me, isn’t he?’s of comedy. Re-using something that’s massively overused is obviously wrong. Although, sometimes excusable. Maybe the ten things you’ve seen the clam of your choice in were all written at the same time, went through production at the same … but then suffered various production delays and came out sequentially. Maybe that line wasn’t in the script, but the actor improvised it and the director let it slide because he’d never heard it before.#
There are extenuating circumstances, but it’s unacceptable to intentionally re-use jokes.
But what if it’s unintentional?
What if you think of something really funny … later to discover it was in the first Season of Blackadder, the season you’ve only seen once and didn’t really like, let alone remember any of?
Is it okay then? Or if you’re a comedy writer should you be well versed in ‘the classics’ and have an encyclopaedic memory of ‘jokes to avoid’?
Again, most writers would probably say re-using a Blackadder joke is unacceptable.
But what if you’re 18 and Blackadder finished before you were born? Is it acceptable then? There’s a tendency, particularly among the young, not to watch anything which is older than you. A lot of 18 year olds would struggle to name more than a dozen films which came out the year before they were born*. Should they be expected to watch EVERYTHING so they never, ever repeat the work of the ‘old’ masters?
Hmm … maybe. I mean, if they want a career in this industry then they should do their homework. Watching a classic comedy series or film should be part of their self-education.
Okay. But what if it’s an obscure comedy?
Lazarus and Dingwall. Hands up anyone who’s seen that?
Maybe you have. Maybe you all have. I don’t know. All I know is at my school there were only four people who watched it and that’s because I forced them to watch it. At knife point.
If I was dismissive of your carefully crafted joke on the grounds I’d seen it before, 20 years ago in a comedy show you’ve never even heard of, let alone seen … am I right to be dismissive? Or am I being a cunt?
What if the joke was from an obscure, French film from 1932? One you’ve never seen and never even dreamt existed? Is it okay to unintentionally use a gag from there?
What about intentionally?
If a joke is hilarious; but hasn’t been used since last millennium and only then in a different language on a different continent … is it okay to give it a new lease of life?
Should jokes be told once and then die? Or should they be part of our culture? Told and re-told in new formats and new situations for all time? An 80 year old writer will probably have heard/seen more gags than an 18 year old one. Why shouldn’t the 18 year old be allowed to re-use classic jokes in a show aimed at people his own age?
Is there a statute of limitations on comedy? Does it become acceptable after a certain period of time? Or should writers always strive to be new and inventive all the time, at all costs?
It doesn’t happen with music. I’m perfectly capable of listening to a pop song and appreciating it as a cover version … provided it’s different enough to not be a straight copy. This rap/”soul”^ thing of taking a song and just changing the lyrics annoys the piss out of me.
Except when it doesn’t.
So if it’s okay to cover a pop song, why is it not okay to cover a joke? It doesn’t take away from the original. The original version is still there and can still be enjoyed. If anything, covering a song or remaking a film helps draw attention to the original because there’s always a wide cross-section of the population who are desperate to prove they LOVED the original before you even knew it existed, because they’re awesome and you’re not. They will go miles out of their way to ‘casually’ drop their superior knowledge into any conversation.%
“Of course, ‘Sloop John B’ wasn’t written by ANY of The Beach Boys. I much prefer the 1911 jaws-harp and kazoo version.”
“That’s great; but do you want fries or not?”
I suppose the difference with pop songs is the original writer gets the credit and financial reward, if you re-use a joke, you’re stealing it. But is that okay or not? Is the original writer still using that joke? Are you taking their work illegally? Or once a joke is out there, are you merely keeping it in the public consciousness as is right and proper?
Is there a line in the sand? Is it about quantity? Can you liberate and rejuvenate one joke after a set period of time (10 years? 20? 50?) without needing to pay the original writer? Obviously copying the whole film verbatim without compensating the writer is wrong. Totally and utterly.
But the odd joke or two? Is that wrong? Where’s the cross over between acceptable and “I’m suing you, you thieving cunt”?
What about if something was a clam 50 years ago, is it okay to recycle it today? Now that everyone’s forgotten? Does that okay depend on your age? Can an 18 year old recycle a 10 year old clam because to them (and maybe their target, BBC 3 audience) it’s fresh?
I don’t have any answers to this. Genuinely. I ask because I don’t know and would love to hear your thoughts. Please enlighten me, either in the comments or by email … but not megaphone outside my house, you’ll disturb the cat.
*Based on a cross-section of three terrified teenagers I cornered in the local Tesco this morning and quizzed intently on movies from 1993. They were shit.
#Nothing drives me to shouty-rage-time more than reading a (often deservedly) bad review of a film based on a script I’ve written, where the reviewer singles out a line the actor improvised as an example of how bad the script is. If you were a gardener and after you’d cut the grass, someone else came along, dug a big fucking hole in the middle of the lawn and took a shit in it … is that your fault? For fuck’s sake, please – review the film you’ve seen, not the script you haven’t read.
^“Soul” is in quotation marks because I find modern “soul” generally doesn’t have any. To my mind, if it doesn’t make your spleen quiver and your feet move involuntarily, it isn’t soul. Similarly, Rhythm & Blues should have both rhythm AND blues in it; and rock and roll should contain both rock AND roll. But then I have stupid opinions like that.
%Sadly, I suspect I’m one of those people.