Jokes and Poetry

That's MY line . . .A news item yesterday on NPR focused on a lawsuit brought by several comedians against the editor of a book—a compilation of comedic humor—who evidently used their material without permission. Commentary ranged from the possibility that comedians are taking themselves more seriously these days to the opinion that a lawsuit of this nature is ridiculous on its face because, after all, comedians have always recycled the material of their peers. One commentator mentioned, by way of example, a rather well-known master of the trade who had published a book of his own material, which, the commentator added, was really no different in principal than the subject of the current legal action. As you might expect, others see this as a wholly justified effort on the part of the plaintiffs to protect their intellectual property, and the livelihood that depends on it.

I suppose it's mostly the material compensation resulting from the sale of such a book that lies at the heart of this matter. But for me, the issue has another component quite aside from any financial interest, and it applies, also, to things like photography, music, and art in general. It isn't limited to words, and certainly not to a specific genre such as comedy. It's the idea of creation incarnate, the tangible result of imagination, inspiration, and effort. It's knowing that this particular thing has never existed before, at least not in exactly this way. This is worth protecting; this is what copyright protection is for.

I never thought of comedy writing in quite the same way as poetry, or prose, but after listening to yesterday's radio program it occurs to me that they have much in common. Both hinge on economy of expression; not just any word will do, and too many will sink the ship. Timing is important, too, and in some cases it's everything. In the end, success is a tightly bound parcel of expression, tuned and retuned for resonance.

When it comes to words—and more to the point, particular words arranged in a particular way—they often have attached to them the blood, sweat, and tears of their creators so that simply taking those words without acknowledging the source and circumstance of their incubation is a bit like taking credit for childbirth when the mother has just spent 16 hours in labor and you weren't even in the room.

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