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
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 Material from even a few years ago can seem very outdated now.”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.”