Stealing Comic Gold

Most comics don’t have the restraint to keep a good joke to
themselves. Yet when their own joke comes out of another’s mouth,
every comic cries foul. Unlike other professionals of the word —
screenwriters, poets, novelists — comics rarely have the luxury of
copyright laws to protect their work. By the same token, plagiarism
is nearly impossible for a comic to prevent. The nature of the
profession, which thrives on  mostly unrecorded stand-up
performances at comedy clubs, leaves no documentation to protect
against fellow comics in the audience stealing the jokes that get
the most laughs.

Traditionally, stealing jokes and the ensuing battles over
authorship is a behind-the-scenes affair. The comic and actor Joe
Rogan, however, brought comedy’s cardinal sin to a public audience
when he confronted Comedy Central’s primetime star Carlos Mencia on
stage at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles this past February. The
ugly spat found its way to
YouTube, where close to a million people have
watched the video in the past six months. But to a greater effect,
feud has brought attention to an issue that was once only the worry
of comedians.

The many claims against Mencia’s alleged comic thievery were an
occasion for
Gelf Magazine‘s Adam Conner-Simons to
explore the unwritten ethics of stand-up comedy. He finds that for
purists like comedian Steve Hofstetter, ‘The root of comedy is
truth, and if you’re doing someone else’s truth, you’re not doing

What constitutes telling the truth, however, and stealing a joke
is a murky matter for some. Comedy Central’s Skyler Stone tells the
magazine, ‘There’s so much parallel thinking because we [comics]
are all trying to tap into the same public consciousness.’ So jokes
about current issues — like the absurdity of building a wall along
the US-Mexican border — end up sounding like an echo chamber on
comedy circuits.

Of the countless comics making the rounds on the scene, only the
handful with television exposure and CD releases are able to stamp
a joke as their own and have any legal force behind it. These are
the same comedians, however, that can use a copyright to lay claim
to hijacked material. Radar‘s Larry Getlen explains the
situation like this: ‘When a comedian is the first to tell a stolen
joke at a major gig or on national television, the public
associates the material with that comic… A comedian can write the
best joke of his career only to lose it to a sort of ‘finders
keepers’ rule.’

The way some comics give a lifted joke their own spin can make
it difficult to cry foul and have those charges hold in court.
According to Getlen, legally challenging another comic has few
advantages. It would be akin to the Beatles suing the Rolling
Stones for using the same three chords in a two-minute pop song.
Instead of going to court, comic Lisa Lampanelli tells the magazine
that the best way for comics to get back at joke thieves is for
them to keep doing their jobs. ‘If you’re gonna be a freakin’ baby
and whine that somebody stole your jokes, guess what?’ she quips.
‘You can write more.’

Or, take revenge. As Rogan’s oft-viewed showdown with Mencia
suggests, the internet might be the best police force to combat
today’s comedic pickpockets. By uploading material to sites like
YouTube, comedians can protect themselves from the vultures
circling their hard-won routines. The method forces the burden of
proof from the accuser to the accused, effectively creating an ad
hoc registry of comedy copyright. Plus, it’s more laughs for the
rest of us.  

Go there >>
No Joking Matter

Go there, too >>
Take the Funny and Run

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