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Defensive Comedy

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Who would Paul Reubens be without Pee-wee Herman? Martin Short without Ed Grimley? Julia Sweeney without Pat? They would, of course, still be very talented performers of improv and sketch comedy. But it's nevertheless understood that a comic actor's bread and butter are his characters. As Cynthia Szigeti, former head of L.A.'s Groundlings, put it, "People feel very proprietary about their characters because that's their ticket. One of the things we used to say at the Groundlings was, 'It's not how you get in, it's how you get out.' And people would usually get out on one character. Even if they had many characters—usually it was one that catapulted them out, à la Pee-Wee."

It's not surprising, then, that the question facing any actor working in sketch and improv comedy—whether at such local companies as the Groundlings, Acme, and Second City, or on a national scale in the TV shows Saturday Night Live and Mad TV—is, How do I protect my characters? Back Stage West consulted a number of experts in the sketch comedy world to assess how serious this issue of ownership really is and what steps actors entering the medium should take to assure future rights.

What we found most surprising about this topic was how reticent most performers, directors, and executives in the industry were to discuss it. But this silence might be a result more of ignorance than of fear. As Szigeti explained, "I don't think this is talked about a lot until it becomes an issue. It's sort of like no one really says anything until suddenly someone realizes, Hey, you're going to make money off this. You created it here in this facility. Or, I, the director, helped you. And all of a sudden everyone steps forward and it becomes a big issue."

Admittedly it might be hard to see how a five-minute improv scene at a 99-Seat theatre, in which you introduce the character of, say, the wacky Italian singing barber, could lead to future prosperity. But stranger things have happened. That's the reason both the Groundlings and Acme insist that any characters created on their stages are the sole property of the actors who came up with them. As Acme artistic director M.D. Sweeney explained, "The individual owns their characters and the scripts that they create here entirely. The only issue that could ever arise in that regard is if they take something from someone else that they worked with at the company without authorization. And that has come up."

Beg, Steal, or Borrow

Of course, in a city of writers, anything you put onstage in a small venue is in danger of being lifted—by your fellow performers or by those outside the group. As in the standup comedy world, Sweeney sees this kind of "borrowing" of ideas and characters as epidemic.

"There are many 'coincidences' in this area of work, and we accept and allow for that, but there have been examples where it could not be explained as a coincidence or accident," said Sweeney. "There's a particular sketch show where we know their writers have been to our shows and then we have later seen sketches that were eerily close to things that were on our stage. And I don't know what the solution is. Pepsi came along because of Coke. Pepsi didn't invent cola, but what are you going to do? There are always going to be copycats. And it's a fine line between something that is a similarity and something that is an outright theft."

Szigeti also noted that things can get messy when it's not clear upfront who is the creator of what. Sketch is often created in groups, with multiple writers and usually a director overseeing it all. If something hits, it's not always clear who's responsible for the success. That's why agreeing on attribution is essential even early in a process.

Despite the legal headaches multiple-creator situations can bring, Mindy Sterling—best known for her portrayal of Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers films series—admitted that oral agreements are often the only contracts sketch co-writers and co-creators have with each other. If one of the partners goes on to fame and fortune because of a certain character, a courtesy call may be the only thing the co-creator can expect in return.

"The ethical thing to do is ask someone you've written with in the past about bringing a character to a show or using the characters," said Sterling. "Then you deal with whatever their response is. But, honestly, it's like, What am I going to do? I'm not going to make a big stink about it. Certainly if I were in a situation where I wanted to bring something I co-wrote with someone I worked with at the Groundlings somewhere else, I would absolutely, in a heartbeat, call them first. And if they're upset, my feeling is: It's a three-minute sketch. Let it go. There's bigger and better stuff around the corner."

But ownership issues can get a bit more complicated outside of non-paying 99-Seat venues, where a handshake may suffice. Saturday Night Live and Mad TV own all of the characters created on their shows. Said Sarah Silverman, whose new solo show Jesus Is Alive opens at the Second City Theatre this week, "I never had any characters on SNL, really, because I was only on the show for one season [1993-'94]. But if I had, they would have been owned by the show. And I signed a contract [to that effect]."

Brooke Dillman, who starred in the brief run of the sketch- and improv-based Wayne Brady Show, concurred, "You basically sign your life away because it's your first TV show. But I'm sure if they had had me do one of my previous characters, that would be something I would have owned. I don't think [producer] Bernie Brillstein would be like, 'Brooke, you can no longer do your Glenda character because you did it on the show.'"

Even outside of television sketch, different comedy groups have different positions on ownership, so it's always best to ask. Second City, for example, which recently opened a branch in Los Angeles, has a slightly different policy than that of the Groundlings and Acme. Producer Frances Callier explained: "You own your characters here. But if you create a revue at the Second City in, say, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Las Vegas, Second City owns that material. So word for word that scene that was generated at Second City is our material. But there have been times when a Second City alumnus wanted to do [material] on SNL or even Mad TV, and they called up and said, 'I really want to do this.' And that's been more than fine. They just have to get the express consent to do the actual material. Second City is a launching pad for talent. It doesn't make any sense for us to say, 'No, you can't do that character any place else.' We want our alumni to take their work they've done here and be successful with it."

Get It in Writing

But before you sell your soul to Lorne Michaels, what can you do to protect yourself now? Actually, quite a bit, says the Writers Guild of America's senior director of Negotiations and Planning Grace Reiner.

"No. 1 on the list is write down as much as you can, because there is automatically a statutory copyright to anything you place in a fixed and tangible form," Reiner said. She also recommends videotaping your work (using a camera that has a date on-screen) or at least recording the audio: "Because in case there is an accent or a manner of speech or something that you want to try to protect that would be a better way of doing it than writing down 'with odd French accent.'"

Anything written can be registered with the Writers Guild. It's easiest to do it online at www.wga.org; it costs $20 per registration ($10 for WGA members). Reiner does not advocate the shortcut some writer/performers use of mailing themselves a copy of their script. "Mostly because, Who cares?" she said. "I mean we, in registration, provide a third-party witness, unbiased. We say, 'On this day they gave us this piece of material supposedly written by this person.' Mailing it to yourself only proves that somebody mailed something. Do I really want to prove that the envelope wasn't cut open? It's just not as effective. You'll always get into issues of credibility, whereas registration eliminates those issues."

Furthermore, Reiner suggests copyrighting your material, as well. This costs $30 and can also be done online at http://lcweb .loc.gov/copyright. A copyright is necessary to sue for damages in court, Reiner explained.

Of course, no matter what you do, ownership of sketch comedy characters—and certainly improv characters—will always be a murky subject. But Reiner advised, "Understand that somebody may try to do something [with your ideas], and that's just what happens. All we can try to do is protect ourselves. And the best protection is writing it down and giving it to somebody, like the copyright office, the guild registration—and probably the more places the better."

Szigeti concurred: "It's always safer to put it in writing. If it's important to you, it's important to have it on paper. People will have selective memory as to what the verbal agreement was."

And above all, as Sweeney pointed out, be sure to keep some perspective. It is just comedy, after all.

"You can't start thinking from that paranoid point of view," he said. "We're all going to get ripped off sometime in life, but we can't walk around with armed guards, you know? It's going to restrict our lives. If you're in a good organization with good people, by and large, you can, generally speaking, trust people and just be creative and focus on that."

A lot of qualifiers, it's true. But, then again, comedy isn't always pretty.

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