Whose Line Is It Anyway?

So Zeitgeisters,

I read this in the NPR feed on the RHS of this blog:

Jay Leno and NBC Studios are among those suing the author of a series of joke books. “We think there’s a very important principle at stake: protecting intellectual property of the comedians,” says the plaintiff’s attorney.

The author in question is Judy Brown, a comedy teacher and writer who has edited some 19 joke books, with titles like Joke Stew, The Comedy Thesaurus, and Joke Soup.

The books are organized by theme, from “religion” to “refrigerator.” One, by comedian Rita Rudner fell under “children” in the book Jokes to Go.

On her HBO special Born to be Mild, the joke went something like this: “You just never know what you’re going to get,” Rudner said, “little kids on carousels… some were jumping on the horses… afraid of the horses… betting on the horses.”

I was reading this and going “uh huh” until Rudner‘s name came up. The gag in question is very Rudneresque. For those of you born too late, Rudner is a stand-up who rose to promienence in the 1980s with lines like “I was a vegetarian until I started leaning toward the sunlight” and When I meet a man I ask myself, ‘Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?

Not challenging, maybe, in fact, a lot of her work is directly decended from Vaudeville in the way the gags are built and pay off; her female comedy ancestors would include people like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, but Rudner’s comedy has never seemed as bitter theirs can because her delivery is light even if when on those occassions when she is dark. Basically she’s flat-out funny in a way that your grandparents would approve of.

At first the NPR story seems like it’s about a nuisance law suit, howeverI think there is definitely a case to be argued here. Some gags are so generic that they become public domain instantaneously. There have been attempts by folklorists to follow back the origin of recent jokes made in response to terrible events (ie Death of Princess Diana, Shuttle Disaster etc.) Even though the timeline of these black jokes is recent, it is impossible to find out who is actually responsible for authoring these things. More Zeitgeist, I guess.

Yes, we would have to go back to the Ark to work out who came up with “My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Terrible. “ (My money’s on Ham). But you can work out who wrote certain gags. The proof is on file in the form of a DVD or a script. And although the assuption that comedians steal each others work has basis in truth, hijacking gags ad hoc and collecting them in a book that one will receive payment for seems a somewhat cocky.

So Leno, Rudner and NBC may go forth with our blessing.

Elevate the Insignificant,

Mr Trivia

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