Opinion: When Is A Gag Past Its Tell-By Date?

eddie izzard

When does a topical gag stop being topical? And, maybe more importantly, when does a topical gag stop being funny? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because nearly a year on I'm still hearing comedians do jokes about the sodden Jubilee Pageant and the sodding Olympics and partly because there are so many outlets for up-to-the-nanosecond satire that old jokes – even good ones that would have once had a few days to shine are in danger of becoming redundant more quickly than ever due to overexposure. And with major name tours becoming longer than ever and gags having to last longer on the road this is becoming even more of an issue.

Over the weekend I saw Jack Dee bring his latest tour to the Hammersmith Apollo. This was a trek that started last year, so when it kicked off Dee's morose-faced routines about Prince Phillip's exploding bladder or the royal train not stopping for a group of flag-waving Kettering schoolkids had a relevant topical edge. A year on Dee's witheringly sarcastic stories were still reasonably funny but some of the material lacked the sense of punchy satirical immediacy that it may have had in Jubilee year.

Likewise last night at Wembley Arena Eddie Izzard did a routine about the Olympic dressage, mimicking and anthropomorphising the absurd tip-toe movements of the horses. I've lost track of the number of stand-ups who have done a similar routine. Rhys Darby was particularly quick out of the stalls, doing this when I saw him last July. I then saw Michael McIntyre do an equine mickey take in September and I'm sure there have been many more since. Luckily most of Izzard's material was about Richard The Lionheart, animals and God, so being slightly out of date did not really raise its head there.

I'm not saying a law should be passed limiting the number of comedians who can do jokes about a particular subject. And sometimes, of course, a subject is irresistible. Thatcher at the moment for instance – Izzard imagined her having tea with Pinochet in hell –  "All the tables are by the fire…" It is just that some stories are picked up on by everyone and even if the punchline is original I have to stifle a yawn when I hear a reference to, say, The Apprentice, Justin Bieber or the Coalition.

It is an occupational hazard for comedy critics – and it must happen to regular punters too – that we see material overlapping. Sometimes they have all been watching the same news reports or watching the same Twitter feed, sometimes they are just going through the same stage in their life. In the space of a fortnight recently  I saw four middle-aged male comedians do gags about having a prostate examination – obviously you've got to see the funny side of having someone insert a finger into your rectum. I guess it is a subject that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "digital comedy".

And a couple of weeks ago Omid Dajlili, 47, talked about getting to the age where if he dropped a pen he prefers to buy a new one rather than bend down and pick the old one up. A week later Eddie Pepitone, 54, mentioned that when he drops something on the floor these days his first thought before creakily bending down to pick it up is "do I really need it?"

It is only natural that comedians of a similar vintage will echo each other. And I guess it is inevitable that comedians looking for new comedy material will draw from the same pool of events. TV comedy programmes have a similar issue. I was just watching a clip of the Sky Sports reporter getting hysterical during the Watford v Leicester match –  I'd say the chances of that appearing on 10 O'Clock Live or Have I Got News For You this week are pretty high, although it faces stiff competition from the audio clip of the merry Radio Stoke DJ.

Maybe there could be a rota system so that when a comedy-worthy event occurs only five comedians should be allowed to bagsy it. But that does not allow for a skilled comedian such as Daniel Kitson having an utterly different take on the issue. There are no hack subjects, just hack comedians making hack jokes about hack subjects. I'm sure if he has talked about them Daniel Kitson had a fresh insight on the Olympics and the Jubilee. And frankly I can barely wait until Kitson hits his mid-forties and gives us his unique insights into a doctor sticking their finger up his bum.

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