Joke theft? Where did late UK comedian Malcolm Hardee get some of his gags?

Martin Soan prepares himself for Switzerland

Martin Soan prepares himself for Switzerland

Comedy trio The Greatest Show On Legs are playing five shows in five cities in five days in Switzerland this week. This morning, Martin Soan set off by train, laden down with props for the shows. The other two GSOL members – Steve Bowditch and Richard Ryszynski aka Dickie Richards – flew by plane. It is the best way to fly.

The late legendary comic Malcolm Hardee used to be a member of the Greatest Show On Legs. He was famous or infamous for many things as a comic, club-owner, compere and anarchic character. One was the fact that he had around six jokes which he lived on for around 20 years. Another was a set of catchphrases, most or all of them picked up from other people.

If a member of the audience left to go to the toilet during one of his shows, Malcolm would say to the audience: When he comes back… let’s all hide.

“I did that first,” laughed Martin Soan yesterday, “out of desperation and I didn’t realise it was funny until Malcolm said it. I said it at a gig The Greatest Show On Legs were doing. I can remember the stage but I can’t remember where it was, but something fucked-up. I was on-stage introducing a sketch and I think the tape machine or something fucked-up, so I was left on stage and had to fill and some guy just got up and walked off and I said: Let’s all hide before he gets back.

“I don’t know if I even got a laugh that night, but Malcolm took it on in later shows and he got laughs from it.”

Malcolm Hardee, man of the River Thames, had contacts (photograph by Vincent Lewis)

The legendary Malcolm Hardee – pirate of many a good gag (Photograph by Vincent Lewis)

One of Malcolm’s opening lines when he played a new venue (or sometimes even if he had played it lots of times) was to say:

“In show business, there’s a saying that you play (enter name of venue) twice in your career. Once on the way up. Once on the way down. (PAUSE) It’s good to be back…”

Before he left for Switzerland, Martin Soan told me Malcolm had nicked this line from comedian Ian MacPherson.

“It was Ian MacPherson’s gag and Malcolm had seen him do it,” Martin told me. “So Malcolm then goes out and does it and Ian MacPherson found out somehow. Ian MacPherson was actually really cool about it. But he rings up Malcolm and says: Hey! MaaaIcolm…  heard you did one of my gags…

“So Malcolm goes: Oh, err, well oy-oy, I.. err… I… ugh… the… I…erm… the… ugh… I… oy-oy

“And Ian MacPherson is really cool about it but he says: I want £400 for it.

“And Malcolm sent him £400 for the gag – or £200 or whatever it was. I dunno how much. But that story is the truth. And Ian MacPherson – of course – was gobsmacked.

“He’d been down to Malcolm’s club the week before and Malcolm had told him he would get paid £150 and only gave him £100 on the night. The sort of thing Malcolm usually did.

“But Malcolm paid Ian MacPherson for the gag… obviously because it was a great gag and he wanted to keep doing it forever.

“At Malcolm’s funeral, I opened the doors with the coffin behind me and I bellowed into the empty church: They say you play St Alfege’s twice in your career. Once on the way up. And once on the way down. It’s good to be back!… and then the whole procession came in and the audience filled the church.”

THERE IS MORE ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THIS JOKE – INCLUDING IAN MACPHERSON’S VERSION OF WHAT HAPPENED – IN A BRITISH COMEDY GUIDE ARTICLE.

6 Comments

Filed under Comedy, UK

6 responses to “Joke theft? Where did late UK comedian Malcolm Hardee get some of his gags?

  1. DaDon

    That’s quite a lot of fuss over a ‘joke’ that isn’t particularly funny and definitely isn’t worth £400. Or £200. Or whatever it was.

  2. There is a different version of what happened in the British Comedy Guide article at http://www.comedy.co.uk/features/articles/ian_macpherson_genealogy_of_the_joke/

  3. DaDon

    Yeah, saw that. Either way, MacPherson’s line (I can’t give it greater status than that) simply isn’t worthy of all the breast beating and the self-righteous cant. In any case I’m a firm believer that once a joke is out, it’s out. Pure copyists get found out soon enough – although in Hardee’s case being found out really didn’t matter, he earned a special comedy mugger status – and newbies need some tried and tested stuff that they can fall back on. Where’s the shame? Can any stand-up swear hand on heart that they’ve never nicked a line…? The whole notion, surely, of personal comedy is hearing a joke then repeating it to someone else. The people who are better at it than others get paid, and the really good ones (ok with a couple of exceptions) get paid a lot. Too much preciousness these days methinks.

  4. When you see a joke written down it doesn’t give you the full impact. It’s the most brilliant opening joke ever, I saw Ian do it hundreds of times and it never failed to bring the house down. It’s brilliant because the audience have no idea who the comic is. Then he opens with quite a long line that takes a while to get to the punchline – always a danger on your opening gag. And even as the audience sense they know what the punchline will be, there’s a real tension in the room until finally… ‘it’s great to be back.’ A great joke, and an extra laugh for the mock sincerity of the comment.

  5. I agree, Dave … a brilliant gag, and one well-worth stealing, as Malcolm proved, and benefited from its quality, for decades … so, no mean gag that!!

    Theft, whether for a fiver, or of an entire film-script, as in the recent Shia le Boeuf debacle, is theft … and the subjective “quality” of the gag has bugger all to do with it … as has the “;likeability” of the thief

    To see someone using your material, and more importantly, to see them passing it off as their own, and therefore making it difficult, or impossible, for you to use your own gag/work without being labelled as the the one who is the thief, is damned annoying

    Having had the occasion, just recently, to confront a blatant joke-thief who was using my material and a half-dozen other comic’s material, I know exactly how bloody annoying it is

    I recognise that those who don’t write or produce creative material might not see the importance of the issue, in the same way that some people don’t also see the problem with racism, sexism, homophobia, or bigotry, when they aren’t the one suffering the effects of the problem

    Hmm!

  6. annasmithmar .

    I have played the same bookstore three times in a row. Where does that leave me, I wonder.

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