Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
Last month I got a strange email from Brian "The Man" McKim,
informing me that high-rolling and ever-rocking SHECKYmagazine.com was
receiving numerous hits from readers of the May 27 New York
Times Sunday Magazine Quote-A-Crostic crossword puzzle titled
"A Matter of Degree." And that the hits were trying to
find out who I was.
How strange. How very strange, I thought.
I immediately put The Onus on The Man to find out
The Scoop, and what fell out was that a joke of mine had
been used by the author of that week's puzzle, and if you
did the entire black/white maze you were rewarded with
the joke and my name. The gifted geeks with way too much
time on their hands who were actually able to do the entire
puzzle had no idea who I was (siding them with the majority
of the rest of the world), so they did a websearch to find
me; thus they came upon SM, and emailed le editoir, who
forwarded it all to me (after first telling me there
was another Dan French out there who had been quoted in
the Times, oh ye editor of little faith).
What made this interesting to me-- beyond the thought
that the reward for all this intellectual energy put out by
these literate New Yorkers was to discover a joke by a guy
from Kentucky-- was the joke that had been used. It's a
one-liner I wrote years ago, and it has had its own little
existence, totally independent of me or my control. The
fact that it once again bobbed up in the great Out There
without my knowledge or permission brings up some interesting
issues about the relationship we have with our material.
Questions emerge, like just what is a joke? Where do they
come from? Who actually writes jokes? Who owns a joke?
Who controls it? What is fair use of it? When does it
leave your possession and become part of the cultural lexicon?
I thought I would write this month about such stuff as
jokes are made of.
* * * * * *
Here is the joke you get in the NY Times, if you are
Dr. Fahrenheit turns to Dr. Celsius and says, "It's
hot out here." Celsius says, "It's not that hot."
That's the joke. Like it or don't, that's the one.
I wrote the joke in June of 1988, somewhere around
midnight on a Saturday, while sitting on the outdoor deck
of a bar named The Back Door, in Louisville, KY. I wrote
it while drinking beer with two other comics, Bill Sacra,
an old time impressionist, and Dr. Harold Bays, a musician
turned endocrinologist turned comedian. I was trying to help
Sacra think of impressions no one ever did. I started with
Einstein, and said maybe he could be having a conversation
with Newton. Sacra had no clue as to why this would be funny,
so I kept going. Because it was Louisville in summer and
hotter than hell, I thought of Fahrenheit and who he would
logically be speaking with, which would be Celsius, and
suddenly, bam! Joke lightning. Fahrenheit turns to him and says...
Sacra didn't get this joke, either. But Harold Bays
thought it was funny. So I decided to use it myself.
In my show.
This is where the origins of jokes start to get murky.
I wrote the joke for someone else to use. I wrote it during
a conversation with two comics. I first offered it to another comic.
But now it was mine. All mine. Sole possession. I owned it.
I needed a way to transform it from conversation to stage
material. About a month earlier I had heard a comic, a
feature from Detroit, do an impression with his glasses where
he said, "Vincent van Gogh," then let one side of the glasses
fall and dangle. No ear, you see.
I liked the minimalism of the joke, and I liked jokes about
obscure people. So I had written my own van Gogh joke.
Did Vincent van Gogh ever turn to someone and say, "Huh?"
I opened my shows with that as my first joke, just a
deadpan cold open. It got laughs, so I kept it. Since I
already had that question structure in place, I applied it
to the Celsius/Fahrenheit joke. After the van Gogh opening,
I said, Did Dr. Fahrenheit ever turn to Dr. Celsius and say,
"It's hot out here," and Celsius said, "It's not that hot?"
The joke worked, at least for some of the audience, some of
the time. So at this point I had written an offshoot of
another comic's joke, then took the structure of that joke
and used it for a joke I originally wrote for another comic.
Now it was all in my act, it was all mine.
I started adding in other jokes in the same format. Did
Lou Gherig ever turn to his doctor and say, "I've got what?"
Did Nostradamus ever call up friends and say, "What are you
doing this weekend?" Did Isaac Newton ever say, "I don't
think I can get out of bed this morning." Did Diogenes
ever go camping? Did anyone ever ask Oedipus, "Hey, how's
your Mom?" Whenever his dog started to salivate, did Pavlov
feel an intense need to ring a bell?
It turned into a little nest of jokes for me. They worked
well with smart crowds. I became aligned with this joke
structure. People knew me for these obscurist one-liners.
And so on I went, using this band o' jokes in my ever-evolving
war with the great audience out there.
Then things got a little strange.
There was another comic at The Funny Farm, Mike Chandler,
who also did one-liners. We had a writing group, and he
actually wrote the punchline for the Nostradamus joke after
I told him a general set-up. Because he liked these jokes
he started doing a similar premise structure, and came to me
one night saying he wanted to do something about Lou Gherig
talking to his doctor, and I gave him the punch, "I've got
what?" We decided we could both do these two jokes interchangeably
since they were co-written. So two of us were doing two of
the jokes at the same time on different nights, different
places. At various times we both had audience members and
comics come up and tell us that someone else was doing our
joke, and we had to explain these were communal property.
To tell the truth, the Lou Gherig joke felt like my joke.
I had written a killer punchline for it. It killed for me,
and just sat there for Mike. People loved the joke, so I rarely
ever said, "Well, it's co-written." But it was. But it didn't
feel that way.
So it continues.
As I said, I became "known" for these types of jokes.
People began giving me ideas for similar jokes. A comic
named Kevin Hughes wrote the Oedipus joke. Harold Bays said
to do something about Pavlov, and so I wrote the Pavlov joke,
but not until about a year later when it just hit me one day.
The little nest of jokes grew. I was the primary author,
but not the pristine, uninfluenced author, on most of them.
They were like a little communal nest, and different people
tried to throw in different joke snakes into the pile. Some
lived, some didn't. I was their caretaker.
About this time a reporter from Louisville magazine wrote
an article on the local comedy scene, and he quoted the
Celsius joke. Suddenly, someone else had used my joke in
public. This was a good thing, I knew, but he screwed the
joke. He reworded it so that Celsius said, "It sure is
cold," and Fahrenheit said, "No, it's not."
Bastard screwed up my joke. It's not funny that way,
I thought to myself.
Not long after that, the publicist for The Funny Farm
sent the joke to a contest in Rave magazine (a short-lived
publication that was distributed in all the comedy clubs
in the late '80s), where it was selected and published in
the May/June, 1989 issue, right below a Leno joke and right
next to a Carlin joke. Rave also changed the joke, but not
as much, adding in a few transition words they thought were
important. Fine with me.
Then about five years later a friend told me he had seen
a joke of mine in a book called The Comedy Quote Dictionary.
I found the book, and there the Celsius joke was between a
Steven Wright joke and (again, I keep good company) a
different Carlin joke. The author listed it under the
"weather" category. The author, as I found out, was the
editor of Rave magazine, and he had taken all these jokes,
for free, and published them under his own collection.
Bastard. But again, what's the real harm, I thought.
About three years later I did my jokes as a house opener
at the Tampa Comedy Works. After working with me for a week,
a comic named John something came back through about six months
later and was selling a self-published joke book called "The Lost
Quote Book." It was a collection of famous historical figures
saying things a lot like my jokes. Basically, he took the idea
of my joke, wrote a bunch of jokes on the concept, and published
it as a book.
I couldn't help feeling he had stolen my joke. I was the
cosmic center that brought all those things together and made
that joke structure possible. He had fed at my restaurant, and
stolen my recipe.
But, again, so what? I liked him, and I don't think it hurt
my show or lessened my jokes. I never even mentioned it to him.
Around this time I started to tour a lot, and anyone who has
ever tried to do intellectual one-liners on the road knows that
this form of humor is sure comic suicide in the places that will
have us. I got tired of seeing my jokes bleed on stage every night.
So I stopped doing the nest of jokes altogether, put them in the
duffle bag, and chinked together my clever-but-accessible set so
I could make my money and get my laughs.
Years later I settled in Raleigh, NC, and started working a
ton at Charlie Goodnights. On a lark during an open mike night
I resurrected my old joke nest and did them all. They worked
well at Goodnights because almost anything works well at
Goodnights, and it was kind of fun doing them again.
When I stepped off stage, comic and buddy of mine Steve
Gelder told me had been working the Charlotte Comedy Zone
the week before, and a guy named Kevin Hughes did the Celsius
joke word for word.
Suddenly I was back to 1988 when K. Hughes had given me the
Oedipus joke, which I never used because it was a little too
easy. I remember at the time he made an offhand claim that I
had taken the premise of the jokes from him, because he did
a couple of jokes about scientists in his act, though I never
saw him do any jokes about scientists and doubted he knew
enough about scientists to do a science joke.
Rather irked that he had stolen one of the snakes from my
old nest, I made a few calls and tracked him down, upon which
he informed me that I had stolen his Celsius joke, and he
just never said anything about it.
Bizarre. Someone accused me of stealing a joke from them
that they had stolen from me. How circuitous, my friend.
Knowing Kevin Hughes as I did, I shouldn't
have gotten upset, but I did. I berated him long and hard
with logic and truth, and he finally admitted he took the
joke. Although I am sure he would never admit it again.
Or admit that he admitted it.
At that point I considered the joke re-retired. Whatever.
Then comes the NY Times. Dana Motley wrote the crossword,
it was edited by Will Shortz. I have no clue as to who
either is, or how they found my wayward joke. Probably
from the book the Rave editor stole/put together. All I
really know is that they found my joke wandering around
somewhere, didn't see a license, and so took it home as
their own. Another joke mutt with a new home. They quoted
the original owner, but they sure as hell didn't offer me
any money for the joke that they did not write.
And so we ask: What does it all mean?
It means that the relationship between comic and
material is intricate, complex and contradictory. We feel
we own jokes, but we really don't. We want control over
our material, but we can never get it. We feel wronged when
others use our stuff, but jokes are born in an ever-oscillating
relationship with the world. We are in a loop, my friends,
where the real world inspires our jokes, our jokes go out
there and are used as others see fit, and maybe they come limping
back to us in God knows what form. There are thieves out there,
there are people hungry for material, there are fair users, and
there are fans, and they can all take a big chomp from whatever
it is that leaks out of your head, and there's nothing you can
do about it.
And ultimately, that may be okay. Ultimately, we have to
see ourselves as creators who let loose our creatures upon
the big humor-hungry world out there. If we're lucky or
legal enough someone might pay up for our creation; much
more likely all we can do is try to eke out a slightly higher
fee down the road because of the credit we got when a
"borrower" at least had the decency to throw us a byline.
In the end, you cannot control where your children go.
You cannot even say they were wholly your spawn in the first
place. All you can do is create and create and create, and
watch in wonder as the world does worldly things to those
little jokes that used to sit on your knee and get smiles
and giggles from those who would listen to as you spun and
spun your yarns.