Monday, June 01, 2009

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.


Joe said...

Happy ending?

As in "You got an Emmy-studded career and Bobby ended up performing unnatural acts with underage livestock in Tijuana."?

WVW "biump" which is obviously a an umpire who, er, throws right and bats left.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Another pearl of wisdom, to be remembered, always.

Barry Gilpin said...

I remember the "half of them are tied up in the back" from your book. Great line.

Denny said...

I'm a comic and a few weeks ago I had to sit through a set in hollywood where this guy proceeded to steal a good chunk of his act from a friend of mine, a fellow comic who this particular performer had come to watch many times before. The crowd ate it up! They thought he was a genius. He got a far better response then my my buddy ever did with the exact same material. I told the club owner, and despite his great performance the guy was never allowed back.

Rob said...

I understand that Denis Leary's Hulu commercials are actually an old Bill Hicks bit.

Serisci -- Seriously in French.

Anonymous said...

"The Unusuals" had a scene with detectives using a photocopier as a lie detector. I almost stopped watching because I figured they stole it from "The Wire", but I think it was an homage. Now they're both dead.

Arakasi said...

I heard the photocopier/lie detector bit as an urban legend years ago - it looks like both The Wire and The Unusuals swiped it from an older source

Paul Duca said...

Joe...I can tell you "Bobby" left radio and became a successful lawyer. And Barefoot Billy shares the truth, whether or not he realizes it.

WV: "sylent"--the store brand of something made from people

rob! said...

"shovel coal with Milton Berle" sounds like it could be a dirty euphemism for something.

NotRichard said...

The photocopier made an appearance in Homicide:LOTS too. Its origin is an actual event David Simon documents in his book "A Year On The Killing Streets".

wv: hotiess, attractive snakes.

mcp said...

Out and out theft is wrong. But where is the line on repackaging material? That is, taking a old joke and using it for a sketch or the starting point of a scene?

Benny Hill did a lot of this. He got a accused of stealing material a lot. Watching his Thames shows, you can see him pushing the line several times. In his biography of HIll "Funny Pecular" on page 180, Mark Lewisohn quotes Hill in a BBC Interview about it:

"The demand is always greater than the supply. That's something we (comedians) all have to face. Let's say there's nothing really new, only a new angle to it, that's all. There's only a certain number of gags and comic situations to go round. It's up to the comics to make the most of them in their own particular way."

You could say that Hill was the first Hip-Hop comic. He would "sample" from joke books and other sources and then work them into songs and sketches.

One of the reasons Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd films aren't as funny Today is because most of their gags have been used in films and TV again and again. So, again where is the line?

Roger Owen Green said...

WV: baste.

Your revenge on your former friend.

a ghost said...

I say let bobby steal your jokes and have his moment in the sun.

I'd say your life turned out alright, Ken.

Nathan said...

A few years ago a friend of mine interviewed to be the Costume Designer on a movie...(huge movie, huge director, huge stars, etc.). She went to the interview with some sketches she had made after reading the script. The director gushed over the drawings and she thought she had the gig nailed. Later, she found out that the director hired some woman he was sleeping with at the time.

Cut to: Three weeks later, the show is prepping in Asia and she gets a call -- can she hop on a plane and come immediately to replace the designer they hired becase things just aren't working out? She showed up and moved into her office only to find the walls lined with her sketches from the interview.

I guess the director must have expected that she just wouldn't notice when the movie came out. (If you looked at one of the sketches, you'd be able to name the movie without a moment's hesitation.)

WV: prepops -- a woman's anticipation of fatherhood before sex reassignment surgery.

Tom Quigley said...

The only way to prevent someone from stealing your material is -- nope, I'm wrong.... There isn't any way...

The Curmudgeon said...

I'm pretty sure it was in one of George Burns' books... he was booked into a vaudeville house in the middle of nowhere and the manager had a list of jokes posted under the heading, "These jokes have all been used in this theater. Do not use them."

And, Burns wrote, nobody used those jokes at that theater... but every comedian passing through dutifully copied them down and used them everywhere else....

Joe said...


HA! Figures.

WVW: preurse = a hybrid car manufactured in Brooklyn

Pandyora said...

Bobby ended up changing his name to Carlos Mencia?

benson said...

This quote is attributed to Robert Murphy when he did mornings on Q101 in Chicago: "If you stole it from me, you know it's been stolen twice."

Will in London said...

Milton Berle: The Thief of Badgags (not an original joke)

bloger on said...

Intressting !

Paul Yeager said...

I guess Earl Hickey is right, Karma is a helluva thing.

J.J. said...

A guy I know started out as a comedian at the same time as a certain black comedian, we'll call him Pebbles. Pebbles and the guy I know made the rounds in the same comedy clubs. Pebbles act was okay, but the other guy's was better. Pretty soon Pebble's was struggling until one day he had a tryout for a certain late night comedy shown on the bird channel. How'd he get the gig? Seems he borrowed an act and performed it for the head guy at the late night show. he did that act on TV and his career took off...

The guy I know? He's career was okay, wrote a couple of TV shows, acted in a couple of others...Now he's a school-teacher in a inner-city school. And Pebbles? he's big time now.

Life is cruel and sometimes thieves get rewarded. Sadly it happens more than it should.

Cap'n Bob said...

I worked the California State Fair one years as a crafts vendor. Ome night there was a huge riot. The next day we vendors were cleaning up the debris. I picked up a glass bottle and yelled out, "Get your riot ammo here!" I got a chuckle from the others.
The guy who had the booth next to mine proceeded to put several bottles and rocks in a plastic bag with a sign on it saying RIOT AMMO. Ah hour later he was arrested by the police for inciting a riot and hauled off in hndcuffs.
That taught him to steal my material.

Em Kelly said...

Didn't Robin Williams have that rep early on? I remember reading some interview where a comic said: "Ladies and gentlemen, a quick impression of Robin Williams: 'Oh, I'll use that!'"

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

I'm stealing this from someone (and certainly murdering it), but you probably know the joke about a bunch of comedians who hung out for lunch every day, trading jokes. They got so tired of running through the whole bits that they agreed to assign numbers to the well-worn jokes. Well, the next day one of them comes in and says, "Number 37." No one laughs. "Delivery. It's all in the delivery," the others reply.

D. McEwan said...

"mcp said...
One of the reasons Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd films aren't as funny Today..."

Excuse me? I have most of Chaplin's major films, and ALL of Keaton's silent features and surviving silent shorts, and they are still just as funny as they ever were, which is a lot, especially with Keaton. (Not a fan of giant Republican Harold Lloyd.)

Keaton made a living after his glory years as a movie gag man, and often recycled his own material there. So when you see Red Skelton or the Marx Brothers doing old Keaton gags, they're not steals. It's Keaton himself picking up a check for reselling his own stuff.

My former partner and I used to do Abbott & Costello's WHO'S ON FIRST, only we did it as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson:

"Who is the murderer, What is the Victim, and I Don't Know is the victim's wife."

There the repurposing is part of the joke. The audience is supposed to recognize it and enjoy the idea of a Bud Abbott Sherlock, and it had original, character-specific gags in it:

Watson: "Are you sure you've been using cocaine and not novocaine?"

Holmes: "Why do you ask?"

Watson: "Because you sound like a numbskull!"

With an earlier partner, we did a version of WHO'S ON FIRST that was a Nazi interrogating an allied spy, threatening torture as he got more frustrated.

Nazi: "Who is your contact?"

Spy: "Exactly."

Nazi: "So Exactly is your contact?"

Spy: "No."

Nazi: "Who is?"

Spy: "Exactly."

Nazi: "I'm going to tie your toes to a Panzer division and invade Poland!"

Again, the piece hinged on the audience enjoying seeing the familiar routine is a very different context.

Why did I feel free to do this? Because Bud Abbott himself told me to my face in 1972 that they had taken it from earlier sources. He said to me "It goes back to minstrel shows a century ago. Who was the massa, what was the overseer, and I Don't Know was the field hand."

D. McEwan said...

(Blogger informed me my comment is too long, so here's part 2)

Just shy of 60 years ago Ray Bradbury wrote a story called "The Foghorn" which was published in The Saturday Evening Post. Not long after, he was hired to consult on a movie script. Reading it, he found that a scene in it was a direct rip-off of his story. Not merely similar, the exact same incident. He mentioned this to the producers. He shortly learned that, having been caught red-handed, the next day the producers had purchased the film rights to the story, and the film came out with Bradbury credited, and having the title which The Post had used: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

The irony is, the effects were already being done by Ray Harryhausen, Bradbury's lifelong best friend. (Harryhausen knew nothing of the theft before Bradbury discovered it.) Bradbury loves retelling this story. It's even on the BEAST DVD.

Moral: If you're going to steal from a writer, do not then stupidly hire that same writer to do your script doctoring.

And, as James Cameron discovered when he made THE TERMINATOR, do not steal from Harlen Ellison; he will hunt you to the ends of the earth. He will eat your children.

Of course, not all joke duplications are steals. 30 years ago I was in a sketch comedy troupe. We had one bit we did for months, written by John Michalski. Then one day, "The Mighty Carson Art Players" on The Tonight Show did the exact same sketch. (It was a visual bit. No dialogue at all) We had to stop doing it. We never thought for a moment that Johnny Carson was stealing our stuff; his writers had just come up with the identical gag. It happens.

When I first auditioned at The Comedy Store, just over 30 years ago, Mitzi Shore told me that my partner at the time and I couldn't do our anchor piece about the Abe Lincoln robot at Disneyland in The Comedy Store, as it was being done by the team of Samuels & Cohen, with Mitzi clearly suspecting that we had stolen it.

I'd never heard of them at that time, and we'd been doing the piece for 9 years. Later I saw the Samuels & Cohen piece, and while it had similarities, it was still a different piece, and had wholly different gags and jokes. Really only the format and subject were the same.

Later I became good friends with Jim Samuels & Marty Cohen, especially the late Jim Samuels, whom I became very fond of.

D. McEwan said...

(and part 3)

In fact, two years before I was informed that a director of a show in Orange County had staged a review with Jim's & my Lincoln sketch in it. We KNEW this guy had seen us perform it three years before at South Coast Repertory.

A few months later this boob came and saw another show I was in, in which we had reused the Lincoln sketch yet again. (It was a good sketch. We did it for almost ten years.) He introduced himself to me after the show. Mistake.

I said, "Yea, I know who you are. You're the thief who stole my Lincoln sketch."

He said: "Excuse me?"

I said, "You used my sketch in a show of yours last year?" (I gave the specifics, which I no longer remember)

He said: "Ah ... well ... yes."

"I wasn't asked for permission, paid, or credited, was I?"

"Well, no."

"Then you STOLE my sketch, and you are a THIEF!"

He turned beet red and stormed away. The director of the show we were doing told me that this thief had said to him as he left, referring to me: "Well he's a bigger shit than I thought he was."

I was a shit? For confronting a sketch thief and calling him one to his face?

And here I will name a name: ANT!!! When he first appeared on LAST COMIC STANDING, he told this joke, both in his audition and in his sets:

"A man told me 'They should take all you homos and put you on an island somewhere' I told him, 'They did, and they called it MANHATTAN'."

It's a very good joke. It made me laugh like crazy when I heard Robin Tyler tell it onstage at The Comedy Store in 1978, when ANT was still learning to walk, and hadn't yet learned the art of stealing other people's jokes. (Yes, the same Robin Tyler whose lawsuit brought about Gay Marriage in California and sparked Prop H8. She was an out-Lesbian comedienne 30 years ago.)

I have been accused of just ripping off Patrick Dennis's classic novel LITTLE ME in my book MY LUSH LIFE. The two books have similar premises, type of humor, and similar heroines, but anyone who reads both will see that they tell quite different stories, and have all-different jokes. In fact I DID keep my first edition of LITTLE ME near the computer while I wrote it, and consulted it often, to make SURE I duplicated nothing, not to mine it. As I said in the afterword, it was at once the example I was trying to equal and the pitfall I was trying to avoid.

But somewhere a painter is angrily telling a gallery owner, as he points at a painting of a bowl of oranges: "Hey! I painted an orange two years ago. This guy ripped me off!"

It's not the orange; it's the brush strokes and style

TC said...

Somewhere out there in the ether is a great story about a guy in Boston who was a low/midlevel standup, stole a bunch of people's material, and got called on it bigtime-- as in most of the Boston comedy scene, which is surprisingly tightknit, ganged up on him and made sure he couldn't work in this town. And then made sure the story made it to the national level.

B said...

Since you're american, it's quite possible you haven't seen this classic set about joke theft.

I've only done a few sets, but it always annoyed me when someone else just quotes a few lines from someone's dvd to get laughs while I've this terribly carefully planned set to avoid theft.

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan your book is plagiarized...the only thing missing was a forward from Elizabeth Hasselbeck. Kept it by your side so you wouldn't mine from it...that's the same as decompliling software, "so we don't take the owner's copyrighten, patented or trademarked code."

And if you are going to name names and should be pointed out that Joe Rogan accused Ant of stealing that joke from the movie boiler room. The screen writers were accused of stealing it from Jim David, who was accused of stealing it from Tahlulah Bankhead. So Robin Tyler wrote that joke? Before you go printing more garbage (inference intended) at least know what it is you are plagiarizing.

-Darren Lucas