For years Milton Jones has been honing his comic skills. Now he’s taking on his biggest challenge yet. Roz Laws reports.
Comedians may seem a jovial bunch, but joke theft is considered a deadly serious matter.
At the centre of a recent row was Keith Chegwin, accused of posting gags on Twitter and claiming them as his own.
One of them was: “My auntie Marge has been ill for so long we changed her name to ‘I can’t believe she’s not better’.”
But several other comedians were quick to point out that the jokes had been written by other people, and that that one-liner belonged to Milton Jones.
An unapologetic Cheggers denied stealing from the likes of Milton, Jimmy Carr and Lee Mack.
Milton maintained a dignified silence throughout the bitter public battle, but now he has spoken out about the vexed issue of plagiarism among comedians.
“I stayed out of it because you don’t want to be known as the whinging comic,” he says.
“I let my friends stick up for me. But the cheek of it was Chegwin saying that he had written the jokes himself. I don’t know how he was planning to get away with that.
“Where I draw the line is if people are making money out of someone else’s work. That’s wrong.
“There are certain acts who are jukeboxes of other people’s material, which is frustrating.
“Sometimes it comes to blows and people refuse to work with each other and appear on the same bill.
“It’s a bit of a minefield. People contact me with jokes they’ve written, but I tell them I’m not even going to read them. Partly because it’s usually dreadful racist nonsense, but also because if I then use anything like it in my act, they’ll say I nicked it.
“In music, record companies would take someone to court for plagiarism, but comedians are so hopelessly unorganised into any sort of structure or union that a punch in the face is the best we can do!”
Milton, along with Tim Vine, is the king of the one-liner. He first came to wider prominence through radio, recording eight Radio 4 series including The Very World Of Milton Jones.
In fact in a survey, when asked who they would like to hear more of, Radio 4 listeners listed Milton as the only living person in their top 10.
He seems to have suddenly become more famous, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Mock The Week, but he’s been around for almost 20 years. He won the Perrier Newcomer award in 1996.
The 46-year-old Londoner has built up such a solid fan base that his current Lion Whisperer tour has doubled in size, from 40 to 80 dates.
“It feels like I’m at the bottom of Mount Everest, looking up,” he says. “I know what I’m going to be doing almost every night for the next five months.
“But I like that people are coming to see me specifically rather than turning up at a general comedy night where I have to spend the first five minutes winning them over.”
Milton has a striking personal style, with brightly coloured shirts and hair sticking up. Does that take a lot of work from his entourage of make-up artists and stylists?
“No, I just mess my hair up at the last minute with some Wella wax. I don’t have an entourage, it’s just me. I still drive myself around.
“I used to do my act pretty much as myself, but as soon as put the bright shirt on and do my hair, people go ‘Oh he’s mad!’. I create a bit of a world around this character, which helps me.
“People remember me now as ‘the bloke with the shirts’.
“I am still recognised to some degree when not wearing them, especially by kids. I think Mock The Week is the naughty show that kids stay up to watch. If I see a group of them coming towards me, I hide.
“But I don’t mind if people want to talk to me. What I find much weirder is if they just stare. I was in Starbucks the other week and realised someone was watching me eat a sandwich. I had to leave in the end, it was too unnerving.”
So what would Milton do if someone said ‘Go on, tell us a joke’? Surely his type of humour means it’s easy to come out with a quick riposte?
“Actually I sometimes find it really hard to remember my own jokes,” he confesses. “It’s tricky when I’m not in character and don’t have the adrenaline of a performance. It’s quite hard to just turn it on.”
But he does respond well to my challenge to come up with a joke about Birmingham, having enjoyed his description of Merseyside as “somewhere between murder and suicide”.
“Did you hear about the Brummie who fought in Vietnam and kept getting flashbacks to being in Birmingham?” he replies.
“I do like Birmingham, though. It’s the only place in the country where you can go on stage and say ‘it’s rubbish here, isn’t it?’ and people go ‘Yeah, it is’. If you said that in Manchester, they’d lynch you.”
Milton is a married father-of-three and a practising Christian, whose gentle comic word play is a world away from the acerbic style of comedians like Frankie Boyle.
The controversial Glaswegian has been hitting the headlines for making offensive jokes about the Queen, people with Down’s Syndrome and, most recently, Katie Price’s disabled son.
Milton’s take on it is: “I can’t see the point of shocking people for shock’s sake. If you are going to be shot for something, make sure it’s worth being shot for.
“The targets worth hitting are people abusing their power. A lot of targets that the likes of Frankie Boyle hit are just easy, so it becomes bullying.
“The danger of shock tactics is that you paint yourself into a corner. The next thing you do has to be even more shocking. Where does it end?”
* Milton Jones’s Lion Whisperer Tour comes to Bromsgrove Artrix on February 24, Birmingham’s Glee Club on March 9, Worcester Huntingdon Hall on March 19, Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham on April 23 and Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn on April 27.