Saturday, February 22, 2014

Stealing jokes

If there’s one thing that all writers and comedians hate it’s people stealing their material. It’s certainly an occupational hazard but there should be a place in hell for those who steal jokes. You can shovel coal for all eternity with Milton Berle. I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions but none more egregious than this:

In the mid 70s I was an all-night disc jockey in San Bernardino. Trying to be funny every three minutes for the eight 7-11 night managers and half of them were probably tied up in the back. My dream was to someday be on the radio in LA, my hometown. Considering my voice I always figured it was a longshot. Meanwhile, one of my college campus radio buddies rocketed up the radio ladder of success and was a jock on KKDJ, the first top 40 FM station in Los Angeles. Their studios were in a skyscraper in Hollywood and their studio looked out over the entire city. This WAS the big time! I heard through the grapevine that there was an opening for weekend all-nights (clearly the worst shift in broadcast history). Still, for me it was the brass ring, primetime, and the pimp spot all rolled into one. Just think, I’d be talking to 7-11 night managers in Downey and City of Industry!

I called my friend (we’ll call him “Bobby”) and asked if he’d arrange a meeting with the program director, Rick Carroll. He did and I got a appointment the following day. When I got off the air that morning I took a bunch a tapes of recent shows and cobbled together an audition tape, featuring some of my best lines of the week.

I caught an hour’s sleep, put on my only decent clothes, and barreled up to Los Angeles. Rick Carroll ushered me into his office, we had some charming chit chat, and then he said, “So let’s see what you sound like.” He put on my tape and after two sets turned off the recorder. He turned to me and said, “Are you fucking crazy?” “Wha?” I was stunned. He continued: “How can you come into my office and give me a tape and steal all of Bobby’s material?” Now I was flabbergasted. “But it’s not… this is my stuff” I pleaded. Cutting to the chase he threw me out of his office.

I ran to a phone to call Bobby. Oh, he was apologetic. He was such a fan he used to listen to me in the middle of the night and subconsciously he guessed, he “borrowed” my material without realizing it.

Yeah. Right. It was an “homage”.

Then tell Rick Carroll the truth, I said. Well, that he didn’t want to do because he thought it might jeopardize his job.

He and I are not close today.

So I didn’t get the job and at the time thought I had missed my only opportunity to ever be on the radio in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Tell you tomorrow.

29 comments:

S.S. said...

Krusty the Clown (his head damned for eternity to be a giant meat-grinder in a Simpsons/Bosch hell): "THIS is what you get for stealing jokes?!?"
Yeah, the "Simpsons" had still a few good episodes then.

Richard Y said...

Talk about a cliff hanger. At least we don't have until the next season to begin.

Anonymous said...

Here's an excerpt from Steve Martin's bio:

“Tommy Smothers came up to me and said directly, “We need an intro for this bit. Can you write it?” This question was put to me with a clear implication that my job was on the line. I said yes but meant no. I went upstairs to my office as if I were on a march to the gallows; my mind was blank. Blanker than blank. I was a tabula rasa. I put paper in the typewriter and impotently stared at it. Finally, a great line occurred to me, except it belonged to my roommate, the comedian Gary Mule Deer. But it was perfect for this intro, so why not call him and ask if I could use it? By a miracle, he was home. I explained that I was stuck. He said sure, use it. I went downstairs, handed in the line, and Dick Smothers read the joke: “It has been proven that more Americans watch television than any other appliance.” Two highly experienced writers, Hal Goodman and Al Goldman, with credits extending back to Jack Benny, came up to me and said, “Did you write that joke?” “Yes,” I said. “Good work,” they said. If, at that moment, I had been hooked up to a lie detector, it would have spewed smoke. The event must have been cathartic, because afterward, I relaxed and was able to contribute fully to the show.”

That's how you're supposed to do it.

Nonchalant Savant said...

They addressed this on Key & Peele recently: http://viralcentro.com/key-peele-high-potenuse/

DwWashburn said...

My wife stole my parents' biggest joke when she married me.

Mike said...

I'm confused. Is Roseanne innocent?

While I applaud anonymous typing that fine anecdote, there was a giveaway. The line was funny.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I stole your line. It was terrific when I heard you say it on an aircheck. When I used it on the air at KSD in St. Louis, afterwards I felt like I was either wearing someone else's clothes or using another person's toothbrush. I felt 'dirty.' I DID.

...and I never did it again.

The line? "...his mouth tasted like the inside of a Russian horse doctor's bag..."

I used it going into Jewel Akins' "Birds and the Bees." It felt great...for fifteen seconds.

Write on,

BBA

Johnny Walker said...

Having really enjoyed your stint on Marilu Henner's show -- like REALLY enjoyed it -- I hope you're going to announce your own show. The perfect material to listen to while I work!

SharoneRosen said...

when I was still on college radio at CSUN, I was hosting a Sunday morning Jewish music show (oh yeah baby, that's the big time). I joked whenever possible. A few days after my Sunday show, I heard the afternoon jock at KLAC use one of my jokes! At first, I was thrilled, "hey, hidden Jewish big shot listens to my show!" And then.. hey... wait.. that was MY... oh, never mind. By the time I became a DJ at KLAC (several small market jobs later), he was long gone.

Breadbaker said...

So your thoughts about the flap over Shia LaBeouf? http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/20/opinion/james-franco-on-shia-labeoufs-recent-antics.html?_r=0
My own are that this is the behavior we sometimes see when three year olds get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

Mike Barer said...

A little off subject, but when I worked at KYYX in the early 80s, Rick Carroll, who at the time was program director at KROQ, was a consultant for our station. KYYX had adopted the Rock Of The 80s format that was successful for K-Rock. I met Rick, who has since passed away, and remember him well.

Mark said...

This piece by Kliph Nesteroff captures perhaps the most blatant (and saddest) case.

http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2007/05/would_you_belie.html

Pat Reeder said...

I was the head writer for a couple of years for the Morning Punch radio comedy service before launching our own prep sheet, the Comedy Wire. One of our chief selling points was that we provided original material. I even recorded/watched all the late night comics' monologues to make sure they didn't do any lines that were too close to what we'd already written, so it might seem like we stole them, even if we'd hit on the same idea independently. Usually, it wasn't a problem because our news deadline was so much later than theirs that it was more likely they'd do a line that sounded like one we'd sent out a day or two before. I usually chalked that up to great minds thinking alike, but every so often, I'd hear Leno do a line that was so similar to one of ours, and based on a minor point that I knew came from the 17th paragraph of a news story, that I'd wonder if one of his free lancers was subsidizing the cost of his Comedy Wire subscription by reselling our lines.

We finally stopped doing the syndicated service to multiple stations and now do the same thing directly for Cumulus and All Star Radio's Daily Comedy Exclusive service because it became too hard to sell and collect money from individual stations. Two reasons: consolidation (giants like Clear Channel buying up all the stations, slashing the budgets and replacing longtime local jocks with the same syndicated programs) and the rise of the Internet creating a vast source of free material to steal (Cracked.com, By Ken Levine, etc.) We used to tell stations that if they stole material from the Internet, everyone would know it, plus their competitors were stealing the same material. But it didn't sway enough people to make staying in business worthwhile. Sad.

benson said...

To quote Chicago radio ledgend Robert Murphy, formerly of Q101 and for now on WLS-FM: "If you stole it from me, you know it's been stolen twice".

Question Mark said...

What's the professional protocol for an inadvertently stolen joke? Like, you write or say a clever line that you think is coming from your brain....but after the line airs/prints, someone else clues you into the fact that, "hey, so-and-so used that same line in an episode of X two years ago." (In today's media age, I can't imagine how horrifying it would be for a writer to be alerted of their unconscious plagiarism via hundreds of snarky tweets.)

Michael O'Shea said...

When I was on the air I would publicly declare; "If someone steals from me, theft has occurred twice!"

Todd Everett said...

Michael O'Shea said...

When I was on the air I would publicly declare; "If someone steals from me, theft has occurred twice!"


Maybe you should sue Robert Murphy.

Yarrum said...

Wow do you all take yourselves seriously. Having grown up around standup comedians, they were always putting themselves in someone else's 'true story' and accusing eachother of stealing jokes. Berle acted like it was a joke that he stole jokes, but he did, and there was a lot of resentment. Didn't make Milty any less popular. I've met more than a few disgruntled sitcom writers that swore the pilot or episode they pitched to a show was exactly like what they later saw on TV. Comedy is not for the faint of heart. If anyone's career is dependent on one joke that someone else used, they should probably find a new line of work.

Anonymous said...

Wow do you all take yourselves seriously. Having grown up around standup comedians, they were always putting themselves in someone else's 'true story' and accusing eachother of stealing jokes. Berle acted like it was a joke that he stole jokes, but he did, and there was a lot of resentment. Didn't make Milty any less popular. I've met more than a few disgruntled sitcom writers that swore the pilot or episode they pitched to a show was exactly like what they later saw on TV. Comedy is not for the faint of heart. If anyone's career is dependent on one joke that someone else used, they should probably find a new line of work.

mmryan314 said...

There is a way to steal lines and it's by citing the originator. For instance- yesterday - someone asked me if I've ever tried quitting smoking. I told them that it was the easiest thing I'd ever done. I cited Mark Twain's " Quitting smoking is the easiest thing I've ever done.I've done it a thousand times".Very simple-credit where credit is due.

Pat Reeder said...

To mmryan314: That's what I always did on our radio comedy service. If there was a really great line that fit a particular news story perfectly and it was said by Groucho Marx in 1933, we'd toss it in and attribute it.

To Yarrum/Anonymous: I doubt that anyone who's a professional comedy writer thinks his or her career is dependent on one joke. I also mentioned that I usually chalked it up to great minds thinking alike. It's just annoying when you discover that one person is ripping off everything you think of, such as happened to Ken. Or to cite another example, when Entertainment Weekly refused to review our book, "Hollywood Hi-fi" because it didn't come from one of the hot shot PR agents they dealt with, but a month later ran a full-page article based on their own totally original idea of digging up outrageous, long-forgotten celebrity records.

BTW, I hope your career isn't dependent on remaining anonymous.

DBenson said...

From a Vaudeville history I don't have at hand:

A comedian was approached by a small-town amateur about some jokes for a lodge meeting; he generously provided his whole act.

The amateur was such a hit at the lodge he was persuaded to go pro. And he did, using the same act. He lucked into a gig playing before Teddy Roosevelt, and thereafter billed himself as the Man Who Made the President Laugh.

In time the original comedian found audiences growing hostile. He was informed they resented him for ripping off the Man Who Made the President Laugh, who was now on that circuit.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

So what we're really talking about here is not so much stealing a joke but stealing an act?

wg

Dale said...

So it is not a case of Good comedians borrow, great comedians steal?

emily said...

'Guessing "Bobby" was Charlie Tuna...

Ken Levine said...

Emily,

No. It was not Charlie Tuna. To my knowledge, Charlie works very hard on his preparation. It was somebody who is now no longer in radio.

Lance Ballance said...

Ken, you are 100% correct on Charlie Tuna. I had the pleasure of working with him at KBIG, and I was always amazed at his level of prep and work ethic.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I think I know. He's a 'gem' of a guy, some say.

I'm sorry for stealin' that line.



tim said...

In 1969, I produced an unusual, new half-hour ID for WLRN, the campus radio station at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. A month later, the great WFIL Philadelphia (an hour down the road) started running a half-hour ID that was so similar that my jaw dropped. Coincidence? Almost certainly. At least I felt good that I independently came up with an idea good enough to air on Famous 56.