Whose laugh is it

As one of the most copied co­me­di­ans in the busi­ness to­day, Mil­ton Jones is al­lowed to be sen­si­tive when pun­ters say they’ve heard that one be­fore. The stand-up tells Brian Boyd about deal­ing with pla­gia­rists, in­creased TV ex­po­sure and the Chris­tian morals

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Comedy -

IL­TON JONES is one of the most pla­gia­rised co­me­di­ans at work to­day. But that’s not the most in­ter­est­ing thing about him. He’s a prac­tis­ing Chris­tian who takes his faith very se­ri­ously. “But un­for­tu­nately, what I be­lieve in isn’t very funny,” he chuck­les. “Most of the other comics on the cir­cuit call me ‘Ned Flan­ders’ [af­ter the Chris­tian char­ac­ter in The Simp­sons]. There’s a lot of mis­un­der­stand­ing out there about Chris­tians – peo­ple as­sume I don’t drink, for ex­am­ple – which just isn’t the case.”

The 47-year-old UK comic, who is one of the star turns at this year’s week­end-long Voda­fone Com­edy Fes­ti­val in Dublin’s Iveagh Gar­dens (July 21st to 24th) is unique in that he’s strictly a one-line mer­chant. But these just aren’t any old one-lin­ers; Jones is an ar­ti­san who crafts his bril­liantly funny work over months and years and, quite sim­ply, is one of the best in to­day’s busi­ness.

He’s been very well-known on the cir­cuit for years (back in 1996 he won the Perrier Best New­comer Award) but, like so many of his con­tem­po­raries, the cur­rent glut of panel shows on the TV and the huge ex­po­sure they af­ford has meant that he’s now ca­pa­ble of sell­ing out not just clubs but big the­atres as well.

“Be­cause of do­ing shows such as Mock The Week, you see a big in­crease in in­ter­est,” he says. “Panel shows have their crit­ics, but for a comic it is like putting a leaflet through a whole coun­try’s door. When I started this cur­rent tour, I had some­thing like 45 sold-out dates play­ing in 700-seat venues, but be­cause of the in­ter­ven­ing TV work I now find that I’m do­ing 89 dates and I’m do­ing 2,000-seater venues.”

There is, though, a down­side to be­ing “the bloke off the telly”.

“It can be a dou­ble-edged sword be­cause you’ll get peo­ple com­ing up to you af­ter­wards say­ing: ‘I brought my friend along be­cause I wanted him to hear that bit you do about . . . ’ But then if you do ma­te­rial that you’ve al­ready used on tele­vi­sion you get other peo­ple say­ing, ‘I heard that joke be­fore.’ Some au­di­ence mem­bers want you to be like

Ma band and play the hits, but what I find is what peo­ple laugh at changes a lot over time. Ma­te­rial from even a few years ago can seem very out­dated now.”

Such is Jones’s pithy bril­liance that his ma­te­rial can be eas­ily lifted – par­tic­u­larly as he doesn’t re­ally do top­i­cal gags which can go stale af­ter a few weeks. Be­ing the most stolen­from comic in the UK is not an ac­co­lade he’s par­tic­u­larly proud of. He has fre­quently been in the weird sit­u­a­tion of per­form­ing at a club, de­liv­er­ing a one-liner and he’ll hear some­one in the au­di­ence shout up, ‘But that joke was used on [a cer­tain TV com­edy panel show] last night’.

“It’s one of the rea­sons I do TV – so that peo­ple will know that it was me who wrote the gag,” he says. “It’s one thing when one of the old-style comics lift my ma­te­rial – that’s what they do, it’s the cul­ture they ex­ist in. If you did it in the mu­sic world though, you’d be sued out of sight. It’s very hard and you have to go to a lot of bother to ‘copy­right’ a joke and the truth is that au­di­ences don’t re­ally care who wrote what or who is pass­ing off other peo­ple’s ma­te­rial as their own. They just want to see a good show.”

A few years ago, the Guardian news­pa­per sprang to Jones’s de­fence af­ter it was al­leged that one of his fa­mous early lines was lifted by an ad­ver­tis­ing agency for a large-scale TV cam­paign. “I used to do this line about hav­ing a fa­tal peanut al­lergy and the other boys at school play­ing Rus­sian Roulette with me by force feed­ing me Rev­els,” he says. “Then Mars [the con­fec­tionary com­pany] brought out this big TV ad for Rev­els based on a game of Rus­sian roulette. I had friends ring­ing me up ask­ing me how much I got paid for the ad, but I had no in­volve­ment at all. I sup­pose they had taken the con­cept of the joke as op­posed to the ac­tual word­ing. The Guardian got in­volved be­cause they got loads of e-mails from peo­ple point­ing out the Rev­els ad was tak­ing from one of my jokes. I got an ar­ti­cle out of it. Ap­par­ently, ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies are the worst when it comes to ‘be­ing in­spired by’ comedic ma­te­rial.”

What is most sur­pris­ing is how many of Jones’s im­me­di­ate col­leagues have been “in­spired by” his ma­te­rial too.

“We know who steals on the cir­cuit,” he says. “The comics who do tend to have a mag­pie’s col­lec­tion of other peo­ple’s ma­te­ri­als. There have been cases where I’ve re­fused to work with an­other comic [be on the same bill as] be­cause of what I would re­gard as their slack­ness in polic­ing where their ma­te­rial is com­ing from. Of­ten it’s not the comic them­selves – most of the big-name acts have a team of writers work­ing for them so it’s usu­ally one of them. And who’s to blame in that sit­u­a­tion?

“The other thing here is that there are two types of steal­ing. The first is just the ver­ba­tim steal, but the sec­ond is worse be­cause it’s like they take a car, shave the se­rial num­bers off it and give it a re­spray. The prob­lem is there are so many out­lets for com­edy now on TV so there’s al­ways that need for ma­te­rial. You can keep track of it though – usu­ally I’ll know who’s do­ing my stuff be­cause an­other comic will ring me and say so-and-so used your line about X tonight. I have con­fronted peo­ple over it and the ex­cuse usu­ally is ‘Oh, is that your line? I just heard it in the pub and thought I’d use it’ or some­thing like that. You do find though that some­one get­ting a punch in the face back­stage is a lot quicker than go­ing to court. There is a lot of money at stake in the stand-up world now and no one should be mak­ing a liv­ing off stolen goods.”

irish­times.com/cul­ture

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