22 May 2014
basac's picture

Immortality. That’s why we do this isn’t it? Since landing on the moon and appearing on Top Of The Pops have vanished as options, being remembered for saying or writing something clever is pretty much all we have. And you can quote me on that. No writer ever knows which phrases will stick.

I’d love to be remembered for my brilliant one-liners that brought tears of laughter streaming down the faces of millions, okay, dozens, over the years. But in the end, even the biggest comedy stars will only be recalled thanks to the silly dance, the insult to the politician, or harassing the nation’s favourite comedy Spaniard.

My personal contribution to the planet’s store of cliché and aphorism is so embarrassingly dull, so tediously mundane, that I have for years chosen never to reveal it. Until now. My decision to come out was helped when recently, in an act of bravery and boldness, Fred Fox Jr, the man who wrote the sitcom episode that launched the phrase ‘jump the shark’, not only revealed he wrote it, but claimed to be proud of the fact.

That phrase refers directly to an episode of ‘Happy Days’, in which the Fonz is challenged to water-ski over a shark. Many critics felt this was the moment when the show started to decline, and ‘jump the shark’ has since been appropriated to describe the moment in your favourite sitcom that marks the beginning of the end of your love affair with it. The phrase has now gone way beyond its original use, and while we can still refer to our own shark-jumping moments from our favourite sitcoms (Niles and Daphne getting together on ‘Frasier’? The opening credits of the first episode of ‘Joey’?), the phrase has entered the language and been employed to depict any turning point . A recent Oxford dictionary entry used ‘jumping the shark’ to describe Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq.

Some stand-ups are remembered for embarrassing tales, but in this era where self-humiliation has become one more tool in the comedian’s armoury, such stories are merely woven into the next one-man show or booky wook deal. TV catchphrases can live for years beyond the show they appeared in, but it’s unusual for a one-liner to escape the confines of the gig and enter common usage. The Edinburgh festival’s ‘gag of the year’ contest occasionally offers up a rare example.

My own phrase that made its way into the English language isn’t funny. And it wasn’t even meant to be. And I only ever said it once. However, in the spirit of the times, instead of shrinking red-faced into the corner, I shall proudly come out and reveal the phrase I spoke that launched a thousand clichés.

The year: 1988. Alternative comedy was thriving, more gigs were opening all round London, and pub venues that previously booked live music were branching out into comedy nights. I‘d already played venues where previously I’d seen bands: the Half Moon in Putney, the 12-Bar in Denmark Street, and was compering a weekly show upstairs at north London’s biggest rock venue the Forum.

At this point I was contacted by a comedy promoter, to play a venue opening at the Three Kings in West Kensington. While I’d learned by now most of these new gigs were unlikely to be packed out, and would probably shut down within a year, I was nonetheless pathetically excited at the thought of performing on the same stage that punk rock’s legends had pogo-ed all over, back when the venue had been known more famously as ‘The Nashville’.

I began to write some new material about this: some half-cock, half-formed nonsense about wanting to go on stage to a comedy audience and play it like a rock gig, and say, ‘this next gag was from my last album, and it goes like this: “have you ever noticed”...’ then wait for a moment and ask the audience why they didn’t cheer with recognition. Gags never look as good written down do they? Especially when they’re not funny.

I tried the routine during one of our early new material nights at the Camden Head in Islington. I had no faith in the material, delivered it badly, and never tried it again. That night the comedy reviewer of ‘City Limits’ (imagine ‘Time Out’ as a left-wing listings magazine and you get the idea) was in the audience, and if he hadn’t mentioned the routine in his piece about that night’s show, no one would ever have known of it again. It’s a measure of how unmemorable the material was, that the only part that stayed in the reviewer’s brain was the set-up, which went something like: ‘I’m being asked to perform at venues where I used to see bands... comedy is the new rock’n’roll.’

The following week ‘City Limits’ carried a reasonably pleasant article about our new material night. In my role as chief publicity officer for that show I held on to a copy for a while, occasionally sending it to other journalists each time we re-launched new material nights (which was often). So I remember that the article began ‘Now that comedy is the new rock’n’roll...’

I thought nothing more of it until some weeks later when I heard Janet Street Porter on telly exclaiming proudly that comedy was the new rock’n’roll. A clunking phrase, invented as the set-up of a joke, abandoned, repeated in a left-wing magazine with a tiny circulation, then appropriated by a journalist on a fourth-rate chat show... I laid no claim, she was welcome to it.

Sadly I learned that even barely-watched regional TV chat-shows reach more people in 30 minutes than I had managed in four years of stand-up. The idea that ‘comedy is the new rock’n’roll’ received further cred when performers like Billy Connolly and Harry Enfield were seen on TV at Wembley stadium introducing bands, and comedy acts like Baddiel and Newman played Wembley Arena.

Then it started to get silly. It seemed every week something was about to become the new something different, and my throwaway set-up was stepping up to the plate like there was no tomorrow at the revered Hall of Cliché. I got sick of hearing it (‘the new black’ especially, always set my teeth on edge), got used to it, then forgot about it as it slipped out of usage.

But recently, like the bands it was referring to, the phrase has made a comeback. I keep seeing it everywhere. ‘Comedy is the new rock’n’roll’ has become the new... y’know, thing. So I’m claiming ownership, and, if possible, a royalty payment every time it’s used. Only now I bet loads of other people will come forward and claim it was they who invented the phrase. Too late, I got my story in first, and even if my story isn’t true (it is), as Keith Chegwin will tell you, plagiarism is the new comedy.