“Ed Byrne has put me and my family through hell by telling lies about me in the press and on radio.”
“Dear me there are some real bullies here on Twitter. I can take rude comments but threats and cyber bullies, No!”
“I suppose I should tweet their names Ed Byrne, Simon Evans, Russell Kane, David Baddiel.”
These are some of the things Keith Chegwin has tweeted about me. The tweet at the top was sent out only last Tuesday. It’s a fairly heavy thing to put out there and a statement I feel I can’t very well leave unanswered.
For those of you reading this who aren’t familiar with Keith Chegwin, I suggest you google him as I don’t feel I could do his CV justice and when I get to the bit about hosting a chat show naked you’d probably think I was making it up.
How did we come to this? How is it that a household name like Cheggers has come to feel so aggrieved by yours truly?
In short, it’s all Twitter’s fault! I don’t know how long Keith has been on Twitter but essentially all he tweets are jokes. Puns mainly. Short jokes, obviously, but just jokes. Nothing about what he’s up to or links to funny animal clips, just 4 or 5 jokes a day, a steady trickle of them. The problem, if you could call it that, was that not all of the jokes were his. In fact very few, if any, were his and while obviously a great many were just old pub jokes or Christmas cracker jokes, some were lines from the acts of current working comedians. This, in my opinion, was a wee bit cheeky.
The joke that began this Twitter debate was by award winning comic Milton Jones. “My Auntie Marge has been ill for so long they’ve changed her name to I Can’t Believe She’s Not Better”. It’s a great joke, and one I’ve enjoyed seeing Milton use to reduce an audience to tears when delivered in his spaced out, otherworldly style. It’s a joke that some in the Cheggers camp contend “could have been written by anybody”. It wasn’t written by anybody. It was written by somebody and that somebody’s name is Milton Jones.
It was fellow comic Simon Evans that noticed this and tweeted to Keith, “Cheggers old chap, I know you’re doing this with the best of intentions but these jokes are by professional comedians and it’s simply not on to use them in this way.” If at this point Cheggers had just held his hands up and said “fair enough” that would have been the end of it there and then. Instead Cheggers blocked Simon, but not before sending him a direct message saying that all of the jokes were his and that these so called professional comics had actually stolen them from him. Simon then tweeted that Keith had blocked him for suggesting he was tweeting jokes by working comics. This led to a discussion on Twitter amongst a few comics and comedy fans about how Cheggers did indeed seem to be doing just that.
By the time I came across this debate the hashtag #Cheggersisajokethief had already been started and Keith had tweeted that he had “really upset a bunch of comics,” branding them all “jealous”. I tossed in my two pence worth by tweeting “I’m surprised by Keith Chegwin’s reaction to Simon Evans tweet about nicking jokes.” I thought this was a reasonable way of drawing attention to the discussion while making clear which side of the fence I was on. Cheggers hit back saying, “these comedians, most of them doesn’t even write good stuff, they just refresh the memory. Ed Byrne, honestly”. So I came back with “Most of them doesn’t even write good stuff? That’s the command of the English language that’s kept you off our screens for so long.” Some say this was too harsh. Making fun of his grammar is one thing but slagging his career is out of order. As far as I was concerned I was responding to being told I don’t write decent material. He heckled, I put him down. However, his next move was pure genius. He appealed to my ego! “Please Ed, stop. I’ve always been a big fan”. To which I replied, “I apologise. That was uncalled for. I just think you should credit your sources.” The latter part of this tweet was obviously picked up on by the press later. The former part has always remained overlooked as an apology of any kind doesn’t help in portraying this whole episode as a “celebrity spat”. Cheggers, to my knowledge, has yet to apologise for anything he’s said.
Keith responded by saying that any jokes he tweeted that weren’t his, the writers were long dead. This wasn’t true. Obviously, there was Milton’s joke that sparked the row, but if you were to go back through his recent entries at the time you would find jokes from everyone from Paul Merton to The Simpsons, including another by Milton Jones, one by Jimmy Carr, a few by Tim Vine and a number by American one-liner merchant Steven Wright. In fact if you pop over to Keith’s Twitter feed right now, you’ll find a great joke about playing chess in the park with old men. This is by American comedy legend Emo Philips. How do I know? Because I saw him do it when I worked with him in Dublin last summer. He seemed very much alive. So the claim that the jokes are either Keith’s or by dead people is thoroughly bogus.
I replied simply. “Of the last four jokes, one was by Milton Jones and one was by Lee Mack. Both working comics”. This has recently turned out to be only half true. While the Auntie Marge joke is Milton’s, the joke about Snoop Dogg getting together with Chas ‘n’ Dave to do a song called “Knees Up Motherfucker” is not by Lee Mack after all. He said so when asked about it in a recent interview with Metro. So, fair enough. My mistake. This, then, is the lie that Cheggers has now seized upon, in an attempt to make it seem like I made the whole thing up out of pure spite, and it’s the reason he has seen fit to drag the argument back into the open. But the fact that Lee Mack isn’t one of the plethora of comedians whose jokes Keith was tweeting doesn’t change a damn thing. Keith was still doing working comedians’ jokes without giving them credit. That remains indisputable. The fact that one of the examples I gave at the time was incorrect is inconsequential.
Of course, the next argument is: So Keith was nicking jokes. Who cares?
This is a very good point and one there really isn’t an answer to. I don’t actually expect anyone other than comedians or hardcore comedy fans to really give a shit about the issue of joke thieving. I’ll admit, when I heard “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, I just thought it was a good song. It didn’t know that it ripped off the Rolling Stones and I didn’t care. But people in the music industry clearly cared a great deal.
The point of this blog is not to get you to agree with me that Keith Chegwin should give credit to the comics whose jokes he was tweeting. The point of this blog is to let you know what I said so you can decide if I deserve to be called a cyberbully.
Because what you see above is the extent of my “cyber attack” on Keith. Four tweets.
As regards talking about it to the press, I gave a quote to The Times saying that Keith had “broken a gentleman’s agreement that existed between comedians”. Ooh. Them’s fightin’ words!
As regards talking about it on radio: The next day I was asked to go on a Radio 4 show called PM. They were to interview Keith, me, and veteran writer and entertainer Barry Cryer about this joke thieving debacle. I was reluctant to take part, to be honest, mainly because I felt the whole episode had already gone on long enough and also because I was already taking a fair amount of abuse from Cheggers’s fans. However, I was also getting a lot of tweets suggesting I was saying people shouldn’t tell jokes unless they’ve written them themselves. “So I suppose we’re not allowed to tell knock knock jokes anymore”, that sort of thing. After a while I began to realise these people weren’t just being deliberately obtuse, they genuinely didn’t get my point, which was that if you’re going to broadcast jokes by working comics to a following of 50,000+ people, it would be good practice to give the writer credit.
So I agreed. Keith was interviewed first (prerecorded, not live) He now claimed he wrote most of the jokes himself and the rest were by people like Tommy Cooper who, in Keith’s words, “isn’t going to complain”. I have two problems with this. The first is that the great modern punslinger, Tim Vine, suffers quite often from people misattributing his one-liners to Tommy Cooper. This, I will concede, isn’t Chegwin’s fault, though, and is really a separate issue. The main problem I have with Chegwin’s assertion that Tommy Cooper isn’t going to complain is that Tommy Cooper is possibly the greatest comedian Britain ever produced. He was a genius who brought joy to millions and died of a heart attack onstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Personally, I think he deserves more respect than to have his back catalogue plundered by somebody trying to build an Internet following, without so much as an “as Tommy Cooper once said…”
Keith finished his interview by telling all the comedians who were currently slagging him off to send him copies of their DVDs as he was having trouble sleeping! Ho ho! This, obviously, was just a good natured jibe and was absolutely fine for him to say because, well… you know…it’s… Actually, it’s never been fully explained to me why it is that Chegwin can say whatever the fuck he likes to people but nobody’s allowed say anything back without being branded a bully, but there you go.
Then the host came to myself and Barry. Barry stated that jokes, as in “knock knock” or “Man walks into a pub” sort of jokes are anybody’s but “when it comes to a comedian’s material, that is sacrosanct”. That’s from Barry Cryer, who has been in this business longer than myself and Cheggers put together. Then the host put to me a notion many in Cheggers’s camp had put to me before: “if on Twitter you only get 140 characters a lot of the time there’s no room to give credit.” The simple answer to this is a second tweet. “That last joke was by the very funny Milton Jones”. That way, Chegwin gets to raise a laugh for his followers and perhaps, in turn, a few of them will look out for this Milton Jones chap in the future. Everybody wins. Would that be such a hardship?
The thing is, that’s how Twitter is supposed to work. People are constantly saying things like, “That last link came via @Glinner by the way”. Giving credit where it’s due is considered proper form on Twitter, or maybe that’s just amongst the people I follow.
Anyway, that was that. I had said my piece and I wasn’t going to say anymore.
Later that evening, however, Chegwin saw fit to post the other two tweets you can see at the top of this blog. Having already told you about what myself and Simon said, let me tell you that David Baddiel simply asked, “has Cheggers gone mad? Or started drinking again?” for which he later apologized, and Russell Kane quipped “for a laugh, why don’t all us comics change our Twitter avatars to pictures of Keith Chegwin”. For that Cheggers called us all cyberbullies and claimed we were threatening him. He put out one tweet naming us, and then for good measure, another tweet giving our Twitter names, lest any of us go unpunished for our evil, bullying behaviour. I have to say, I only read the first couple of messages I was sent following this call to arms, and then I went to the pub. There is however quite a good blog about it here.
I think the interesting thing to note about this is how reluctant Keith is to give any credit to comedians who write the jokes he tweets, but how willing he is to tweet the names of comedians who complain about him.
It all died down the next day and everyone went back to doing what they do. Keith, having unleashed his followers on those who dared voice an opinion, went back to tweeting jokes and the rest of us went back to ignoring him. I’d get the occasional bit of abuse about the issue, but no matter.
Then in November of last year, something odd happened. Having been tweeting merrily for months, Cheggers suddenly stopped, claiming he had received death threats. I think it goes without saying that even if this is true, it’s nothing to do with me.
Then in December, on my way home from a gig, I got a bit of Twitterstick from some bloke. A quick check of his site showed he was a follower of Cheggers and I remarked that I had received some abuse from “one of Chegwin’s dullards”. This was enough to tempt Cheggers back to Twitter the following morning with the message: “@mredbyrne having a go at me yet again. Somebody I’m not even following has had a go at him. It’s nothing to do with me. Leave me alone Ed” So, I deleted the offending tweet and sent a message back to Cheggers assuring him that I had no wish to reopen hostilities and that (having now looked at his site and seen the remark about death threats) I was sorry to see people were giving him shit.
I didn’t take him to task about the fact that it didn’t make any difference that Cheggers wasn’t following the bloke. The point was that the bloke was following Cheggers and therefore may have been labouring under the misapprehension that I was a bully. What would be the point? I was done arguing with him.
Cheggers went back to maintaining Twitter radio silence, which meant a tweet about me having a go at him now sat above tweets about how he’d been receiving death threats. Inevitably, Chegwin fans over the past month or two have started to put 2 and 2 together to come up with the square root of Edbyrneisacuntillion and so I’ve had to put up with allegations that I’ve driven him from Twitter by getting people to threaten his life. And as if that wasn’t enough, last Tuesday comes the tweet that adorns the top of this blog. Obviously, as soon as it was posted I was met with a torrent of shit from, to be fair to them, misguided people calling me every name under the sun.
Looking back over what I have said about Keith Chegwin, you could accuse me of a number of things. Maybe you think it’s all a bit petty and silly. Well, have you seen my act? I’ve made a living out of being petty and silly for over 15 years now. Maybe you disagree with the very notion that a person can own a joke. Fine. We don’t agree. But to call me a bully for voicing my opinion? That seems unduly harsh. To call me a nasty piece of work for publicly discussing the issue? Seems unfair. To hold me responsible for death threats? Utterly laughable. And for someone to say that I put him and his family through hell by telling lies about him? That is, at best, a gross exaggeration designed to engender sympathy, and at worst, a deliberate and calculated distortion of the facts designed to incite people to send me abuse on the Internet.
Let’s give Cheggers the benefit of the doubt and say it’s the former, because if it’s the latter, well, that would be the very definition of cyberbullying, wouldn’t it?
So that’s where we are now, and that’s the reason I’ve decided maybe Twitter isn’t for me. It’s not that I feel I’m being driven from Twitter by Keith Chegwin’s fans. It’s just that if weighing into a Twitter debate means I’m still getting grief about it nine months later, I just don’t think I can be arsed with it. And if saying what I said really can put a man and his family through hell, that’s simply too much power for somebody like me to wield. So, for now, at least, I think I’ll give Twitter a rest. #bitfedup
P.S. This blog is not to be seen as a call to arms. I don’t want anyone hurling abuse at Chegwin as a result of anything I’ve said here. I’ve written it to explain my absence and to simply put people right with regards to what was actually said at the time.
For more on what was being said about this at the time, here are some links:
And, for the sake of balance: