Some jokes get chanted like mantras in offices and playgrounds across the nation. Others, like trees toppled in empty forests, will remain unuttered forever in a lazy comedian's scratchpad. Some jokes achieve immortality in popular parlance. Others die peacefully in their sleep.
Just as a punchline is always remembered while a feedline is always forgotten or garbled, we know a lot about the various fates a joke can come to but so little about their births.
I decided to investigate the birth of a particular joke. Not a joke about actresses and bishops overheard in a pub; not a toilet wall anecdote about Princess Diana getting stuck in a lift with a monkey; but a nicely crafted opening gambit that has become the stuff of legend among stand-up comedians.
The joke has been passed on like an unwitting baton from comedian to comedian. In July 2008 I used it myself. I had first heard it from Richard Herring. In turn, he had first heard it from Stewart Lee. Stewart Lee was probably referencing Malcolm Hardee, who - as rumour has it - stole it from someone else.
'Someone else' transpires to be the great Ian Macpherson. He lives three streets away from me in Glasgow so I popped in for a visit. He made me a nice cup of tea and a poached egg. We did this interview:
So you definitely wrote the joke? When were you first using it?
I first did the joke at the Earth Exchange in the early eighties...
"They say you play the Earth Exchange twice in your career.
Once on the way up.
Once on the way down.
Great to be back."
The first two lines on their own are not that funny, but there I was faced with 150 vegetarians baying for blood. The punchline was an ad lib born out of terror. It just popped out. It was a great opener at venues like the Red Rose Club, King's Head in Crouch End, Banana Cabaret and so on, and for some time afterwards it carried some of my - how to put it? - more esoteric stuff. It used to fool them into thinking I was funny while I spent the next 30 minutes tinkering with their brains.
How did Malcolm Hardee come to use it?
Malcolm Hardee came to use it by nicking it. Simple as that. And, as he'd done it on some pap-for-the-masses TV programme, it looked as if I'd nicked it off him. So I had to drop it. He also put it about that he'd bought it from me. Which he hadn't. He then offered to buy it retrospectively. "Fuck off, Malcolm", I quipped. So I fined him a pretty modest sum for theft. I was pretty furious about it at the time, but he had his eye on other stuff I'd written, so I was also warning him off. He ignored the fine at first, but he was just about to open Up The Creek, so I gather some comedians refused to play there till he paid up. Which he grudgingly did. I also made it plain in words of one syllable that I was not, repeat not, selling the line. He muttered something about 6 seconds of material but, as I pointed out, "It was 7 and a half seconds, Malcolm. You should have nicked my timing."
Have you heard any other comedians using the joke?
Arthur Smith told me I'd written the most stolen line in British Comedy. Not bad for a middle class white boy from Dublin. But no, I've never heard anyone do it on stage. Simon Munnery told me he does it, but attributes it to me. Which is fine. No problem there. Good man Simon. I was told that Simon Fanshawe did it on radio. No attribution. I wrote to his agent at Noel Gay Artists 3 years ago for a clarification but he must be a slow typist. No response as yet. But not everyone is called Simon. I've now got back to the standup after some years of writing the obligatory books, and it seems that various people have been paying homage to my more accessible stuff. I mean, how much homage can one man take?
Does this piss you off?
A young film maker contacted me last month. Apparently he's doing a documentary on Malcolm Hardee. Wanted to know if I wrote Malcolm's gag. Malcolm's? Apparently some of the older comedians who'd first seen me do it had told him it was mine. Anyway, he intimated they would be using the TV clip of Malcolm doing my gag and, er, was I okay with that. And maybe it was the Irish blood coursing through my veins, but my response was a good deal less than civil. "Listen," I said. "You people stole my country. I'm fucked if you're nicking my act." Does that answer your question?
Er, yes. So you don't subscribe to the theory that it's dissolved into popular culture?
You write a song, you get the credit. You write a play you get the credit. You do comedy and somehow it's different: You go off to write the Great Irish Novel and suddenly you're Anon. I'm not Anon. I'm Ian Macpherson. Thank you and goodnight.
Ian Macpherson hosts DiScoMboBuLaTe at the CCA in Glasgow. www.ianmacpherson.net