On 31 October this year Milton Jones tweeted this joke :
It was retweeted over 100 times. I think that's a very good gag - but then I would think that, I've been performing it onstage since May. My version isn't worded exactly the same as Milton's, but it has the same idea at the core of the joke and the same "emotional baggage area" wording.
Of course Milton Jones hasn't really stolen my joke - that was just an attention-grabbing title (if you've read this far, it probably worked). There's no way he's seen me perform, I'm very new to standup and only did my first open mic gig in March this year.
The number of people who've seen me probably numbers in the low three figures. Milton Jones is, well, Milton Jones. He has over 82, 000 followers on Twitter to my 194. That's over 82, 000 people who now know that joke as a Milton Jones joke. I can only conclude that it now has to come out of my set, otherwise there's a real danger that people will think I've nicked it from him and as a new act on the circuit, I can't afford to get that kind of reputation.
It would clearly be outrageous hubris on my part to believe any explanation other than that Milton and I both thought of the same joke. For all I know it had been in his notebook for months or even years before he tweeted it. Even if I was deluded enough to think he had seen me perform the joke, he's a hundred times the comedy writer I (or most of us) will ever be and probably throws away jokes that are better than anything I will ever write. I'm still learning my craft and right now I'm nothing more than average at my level. I put the "median" in "comedian". Arf.
That wasn't even the first time such a thing had happened to me. On 24 February this year, I tweeted this :
Around six months later, Alan Sharp's use of much the same joke at Edinburgh this year landed him in TV channel Dave's top ten best jokes of the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe. Again, it's clearly nothing more than coincidence and I've no doubt whatsoever that he wrote the joke long before me.
I don't recount these events for any kind of self-promotion, or to imply that I'm some unheralded comedy genius. I'm writing this because similar things happen all the time, particularly with one-liners and puns. It can sometimes be pure coincidence, but outright joke theft happens too.
At an open mic night not so long ago, I saw two different acts perform the same Tim Vine joke. That would have to be one hell of a coincidence - I'm sure at least one of them knew they were telling another comedian's joke. The second of those two acts might have at least dropped it from his set for that night, having seen someone else tell it not 30 minutes before.
I took part in a comedy competition earlier this year and although I didn't qualify from my heat, one of my friends (who predominantly performs one-liners) made it through the same heat and into the final. Afterwards, the MC confronted him and accused him of having stolen almost all his jokes from other comedians and of recycling "old pub jokes". He was distraught. I know he hadn't consciously stolen any material, in fact I'd been present when he'd come up with a few of them at writing workshops. Of course, it's not inconceivable that he picked up one or two by osmosis and "rewrote" them believing the original idea was his own - that's pretty easily done when you watch a lot of comedy over a number of years. To be confronted and accused of outright, malicious, theft was a terrible blow for him and ruined any satisfaction from making the final.
The point is, joke theft can seem to be a black and white issue and consciously stealing jokes is plainly wrong, just about the worst thing a comedian can do. The reality, however, is that it's often more complicated than it seems. Those couple of experiences I've had this year have taught me as much. Sometimes two comedians have the same idea and one of them will inevitably get it published or performed first, thus effectively awarding them "ownership" of the joke. When you're the other comedian in that equation, all you can do is hope that over the course of a career those instances will even themselves out.
That said, if you're reading this Milton....I'm keeping my beady eye on you. Hands off my Henry VIII joke.