EVER since alternative comedy displaced the shiny-suited gag merchants of yore and consolidated the notion of the modern stand-up as someone who writes and performs their own material, plagiarism has effectively been outlawed on the circuit. Comics police themselves and reserve harsh condemnation for anyone presumed to have lifted routines from another act.
Part of what makes Joke Thieves such a unique night of stand-up then, for both the performers and audience, is the sensation of being part of something transgressive, but with a recognised camaraderie and even honour among the pilferers.
Acts are paired off and do five minutes of their own material, watch their opposite number do the same and then return in the second half with an interpretation of their rival’s set. Notwithstanding the obvious clash of styles, as dry, one-liner comics attempt to channel the humour of flamboyant musical turns, the original performer will often choose to deliver their most idiosyncratic set-pieces. An observational act who plays up his lumbering social awkwardness is suddenly dared to become a nimble-fingered, playing card-manipulating prop comic. However, so robust is the basic premise of the show, that there’s a licence to recreate, exaggerate, spoof, deconstruct or just pitilessly smash to pieces whichever aspect of their opponent’s set they choose.
“It’s frightening how many different ways to do it there are,” marvels Toby Williams, who plays the criminally negligent character creation Dr George Ryegold, thereby adding a weird, fourth layer of persona whenever he’s paired with another character act. He appeared at the inaugural Joke Thieves show in London and confesses that “like everyone, I wasn’t sure it was going to work. But it did, pretty much straight away. It was like a fully formed thing immediately”.
He recalls being paired with the angelically voiced Lloyd Griffiths. “We were just horrible to each other,” he chuckles. “I was ripping the piss out of him relentlessly for using song and talking about being fat… I really talked quite a lot about how fat he was. It was a tad nasty but Lloyd and I know each other really well, which the audience picked up on. They knew it was just a bit of fun.”
That the crowd appreciates the difficulty of comedians leaving their comfort zone of tried and tested routines creates an atmosphere of charged anticipation, but also support. There’s pressure, certainly, says Williams. “After watching the other guy, you can think ‘shit, how on earth am I going to do this?’ And yet “it makes it easier somehow, because the audience are already invested, they know what you’re talking about and you’re not trying to win them over with your own stuff. It’s much less nervewracking than a normal club gig on a weekend with stag dos.”
The novelty is unquestionably bittersweet, agrees Jojo Sutherland, who found herself paired with Canadian stand-up John Hastings during the show’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe. “It’s an unusual thing for a comedian to leave your ego at the door. Because you’re essentially being ridiculed by your peers and the audience. It’s tough enough going up there with your own material. But then somebody else taking your cleverly crafted jokes and ripping them to shreds? It’s like reading a critic and can be quite demoralising.” She laughs. “But funny. You have to have a really good sense of humour about it.”
Compellingly, one sometimes get the sense that the pastiches and “pisstakes” have a genuine edge beyond affectionate ribbing, that the comics don’t mind losing the popular vote for the winner but that they’re relishing exposing the hackier elements in their rival’s repertoire.
Still, Sutherland distinguishes it from an altogether more antagonistic and less subtle format that’s gained traction in Scotland, Comedian Rap Battles, where the performers contrive rhymes on their counterpart’s failings in the classic 8 Mile style. More brutal, bloody and personal, she ventures that “it’s the epitome of the difference between men and women. You would never get women performing in the rap battles, it’s like cockfighting in a ring. Joke Thieves is Rap Battles but without the sharp knives.”
She enjoys the idea of male comedians grappling with the “gender specifics” of her set, “like me being married to my ex-husband’s brother”. But she wonders if she’ll be paired with her friend Jo Caulfied when Joke Thieves returns to Edinburgh at the Stand on Wednesday. “Which would be really rather interesting because we know each other so well!”
Joining them and Williams on the night will be three more rookies: Andrew Doyle, Mark Nelson and Keir McAllister. And matching them up will be Joke Thieves creator and host, Will Mars, pictured. He hopes that the concept becomes a regular fixture at the Stand, as it already is in London. Regardless, it transfers to the Glasgow Comedy Festival in April and will be back at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, with a dedicated weekly outing for sketch troupes added to the stand-up shows.
Meanwhile, Mars is touring the show around the festival circuit, to Norway and the US, and developing a television adaptation with Glasgow production company The Comedy Unit.
“I never thought I’d enjoy hosting anything as much as I do performing stand-up myself” he says. “But I absolutely love it.” Launching the show last summer, he had “no idea if it would work but it just did and it hasn’t changed since then to now. It’s just one of those lucky things where everything seems to work.”
• Joke Thieves is at The Stand, Edinburgh, on 19 February