Monday, July 28, 2014

What can be done about stealing jokes?

Read a recent article on what recourse a comic or writer has if someone steals his jokes. The short answer: nothing. If you sue for copyright infringement it’ll cost all parties involved anywhere from $373,000 to $2.1 million. It better be one fucking great joke.

Stealing gags have been around since the beginning of time. The article cites an example. Milton Berle – notorious for stealing other people’s material – used this joke: “A man comes home and finds his best friend in bed with his wife. That man throws up his hands in disbelief and says, ‘Joe, I have to—but you?’ ”

Now compare that to this joke from the 4th century tome Philogelos, the world’s oldest-known joke book: “Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny,’ He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’ ”

Proof positive that Milton Berle was sixteen centuries old when he died. I will give him this; he improved the joke. The early version really explained the joke. What was with these people?

So if you can't take legal action, what’s to stop someone from pilfering jokes?

There is somewhat of a code between comedians (although enforcing it is probably laughable). If there’s a question of ownership over a particular joke, the comic that delivered it on TV first gets it. This seems unfair to me. Struggling comics don’t get on TV, while Robin Williams merely has to pick up the phone.

Comics tend to ostracize other comics who steal material. Jerry won’t let them ride in his car.

If the problem gets too severe some clubs blackball them. For poor Dane Cook that means he can only work in arenas.

You can always beat the shit out of the guy. Although, admittedly, not a lot of ex-Marines or former boxing champions go into comedy.

As a comic you can develop a persona that’s very unique to you. Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Emo Phillips, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Wendy Liebman (to name but a few) – their material is dependent as much on delivery and character as the written words themselves.

You can try to monitor your material and cut off the pipeline to plagiarists if you can find it. Before I had a blog I would review the Oscars and send it to everyone in my address book. One was a highly rated major market talk show host. I found out from several listeners that he was using my material the next morning and claiming it was his. That’s the last thing he ever received from me.

Sometimes people can get caught stealing material and look stupid as a result. I remember seeing a lounge performer at the Burlingame Hyatt who stole routines from Steve Martin. And this was when Martin was at the height of his popularity. Everyone in the room looked at each other and thought, “Is this guy an idiot?” (I then thought, “What the hell am I doing in a Burlingame Hyatt looking for entertainment?”)

A recent study has determined that there is less joke stealing among comics now than the old Milton Berle days (of the 4th-20th centuries) and they conclude this informal “code” has made the difference. Personally, I think it’s the internet. Up until a decade ago it was possible for a comic to play clubs, work the circuit for years and no one other than drunks and fellow comics knew who he was. Now every comic is on Twitter, has a website, and clips of their stand up act is on YouTube. And all entries are dated. It’s much easier now to point fingers.

But fear not, comedy warriors.  I have the answer. I know how to end joke stealing.   Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists. You may say, “C’mon, that’s not going to work.” Oh really? How do you think the big Hollywood studios put an end once and for all to film piracy? I rest my case.

And this is my idea. Don’t you go stealing it.


Toledo said...

Do you go stealing it? Wait a minute. Didn't you steal it from the big Hollywood studios?

Dan Ball said...

There should be a IJDb: Internet Joke Database.

Core said...

I know Christian Weston Chandler had a problem with people stealing his material. He put everything on youtube to begin with so it was always time-stamped, problem solved.

Johnny Walker said...

Haha. Very good.

RockGolf said...

" Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists."

Reminds me of the parody anti-pirating ad on The I.T. Crowd.

You wouldn't steal a handbag.
You wouldn't steal a car.
You wouldn't steal a baby.
You wouldn't shoot a policeman. And then steal his helmet.
You wouldn't go to the toilet in his helmet.
And then send it to the policeman's grieving widow.
And then steal it again!
Downloading films is stealing. If you do it, you will face the consequences."

Anonymous said...

I live in Burlingame. And I was just wondering the same thing.

Anonymous said...

One of the most uncomfortable things I've ever seen is a video of Joe Rogan confronting Carlos Mencia on stage during his act.

Rich D said...

Speaking of Wendy Liebman, Ken do you have any thoughts about comics like her, and Tom Cotter two seasons back, going on a show like AMERICA'S GOT TALENT to revitalize their career?

Cap'n Bob said...

Do these people belong to a union? If so, can it help?

Phillip B said...

So what is a joke worth?

A few months ago David Letterman confessed to stealing a joke from a comedian named Steve Mittleman. He described how it happened on the air and, cited the source of the joke, and apologized. The incident was recounted by Mittleman on a a podcast I've posted below.

The two things I find remarkable is that Mittleman says comedians almost never confess to stealing a joke - especially not publicly. And Letterman says on the air (cut from the pod cast) that to make amends the Late Show will be sending Mittleman a check for $75.

Is that fair value?

John Corcoran, Jr. said...

Excellent piece. Reminded me of another Berle story. Two comics are standing with Berle, when one of them scores with a great line. Berle says. "Great joke. I wish I'd told it." Second comic says, "You will, Milton, you will."

Stealing material can be avoided in some instances in the same way one avoids plagiarism. Change it (switch it) enough to make it your own. Mort Sahl has stolen (switched) his own material every four years for one of the great political jokes I've ever heard.

"In the past this country has had leaders like Washington and Addams and Jefferson. Now we end up with Obama versus Romney. You know what that means? Darwin was wrong."

I think the first version Sahl told was Lincoln vs. McLellan.

Victor Velasco said...

Great post, Ken. Hey, keep an eye out for my new book about grow- ER, UH - being raised in the 60's; you'll love it

PolyWogg said...

While I hate to say anything positive about a Matthew Perry show, the Sunset Strip episode was pretty good where they realized they'd stolen a sketch from a comedian. It went out in NYC, they did mid-west live to fill that gap and delete the sketch, and then realized that the comedian had written it years before when he was a writer for the show, so they did own it, allowing them to do it live for West Coast too.

Bud Wlkinson said...

Editing 101: You certainly meant "cites" instead of "sites" ... and "very unique" is, well, redundant. Still, you could be a TV weather person saying "heavy downpour," which is also redundant.

Roy G. said...

Are you sure the guy at the Burlingame Hyatt was supposed to be a comedian and not a Steve Martin tribute band? *rimshot*

John Corcoran, Jr. said...

@Bud "Very unique" redundant? Yes, that is a true fact.

Donald said...

The late David Brenner physically confronted Robin Williams about his alleged joke theft, but overall, his philosophy was, "I can create faster than they can steal."

Brian O. said...

$75 for a joke on Letterman is NOT fair value. With his ratings the show lost money for that minute.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Isn't the old maxim that you should steal from the best? I think the big difference came in with TV - until then you could tour the vaudeville circuit and people wouldn't find out so much. After TV, and especially after VCRs, everyone could.

But a certain amount of swapping and reworking of old material is normal - Shakespeare did it with folk tales and Chaucer's work, and so all the way back to the Greeks. In comedy, if you look at the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, et al - they all took each other's routines and built them into their own versions, just as musicians did and do - I remember learning in music theory class about the way that the classical composers quoted each other in new compositions.


Anonymous said...

'Reminded me of another Berle story. Two comics are standing with Berle, when one of them scores with a great line. Berle says. "Great joke. I wish I'd told it." Second comic says, "You will, Milton, you will."'

D. McEwan said...

Once, many years ago (40 of them, to be exact), a man came to see a show I was in, and for which I had written some sketches. As it happened, this man had, a year before, directed a sketch comedy show in which he included a sketch, a parody of the Lincoln robot at Disneyland, written by myself and my then-partner, Jim Diederich, without credit or permission. I'd had numerous witnesses to his having done that tell me of this, including the director of the show I was in at the time, and he and several others also witnessed what occurred backstage on this occasion. The man had originally seen the sketch in a show at South Coast Repertory three years before, when I'd performed it, and was properly credited and compensated.

The man introduced himself to me to congratulate me on my performance in the show. I said: "I know who you are. You're the thief who stole my Lincoln sketch."

He froze, turned pale (You could actually see the color drain from his face), and he said "What?"

I said: "You used Jim's and my Lincoln sketch in [the show he'd staged] last year?"

"Well, yes."

"You didn't ask us for permission, nor credit Jim and I, nor pay us. That's called 'Stealing.' I earn my living writing comedy sketches..." (I was, at the time, employed full-time writing for a comedy radio show and for a popular local comedy TV show, so this was quite true.) "When you use my material without permission, let alone payment and credit, you are stealing from me."

He blustered out noises but managed no words and stomped off in a huff. The director of the show I was in said that as he passed him, the joke-thief had said, "Well, he's a bigger shit than I thought he was!"

I found the confrontation highly satisfactory.

Steal from the best, but sometimes, you're stolen from by the best. Back in 1979 and '80 I was in a comedy troup that did sketch comedy every week at The Comedy Store. We had a sketch we did, a wordless mime sketch, quite short, but which always worked. I did not write this one. Another member of the troup, John Michalski, had written it. We did the piece every week for months. And then one night, on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson and The Mighty Carson Art Players did our sketch. No changes had been made to it. It was EXACTLY John's sketch as we performed it, but with Johnny Carson playing John's role.

We all knew for a fact that a certain representitive of The Tonight Show who shall be nameless here, though I assure you I remember his name, had seen us do the piece more than once. We saw him seeing us. I highly doubt that Johnny Carson knew the piece was stolen.

But what the Hell could four unknown comics do about it when The Tonight Show steals from them? Nothing. We all wanted to work. All we could do was be flattered.

But we've never forgotten.

I worked with Robin Williams every week for two years back then, but we got lifted from by The Mighty Carson Art Players, not by Robin.

John Corcoran, Jr. said...


Wow, thanks for sending that link. Who knew Whistler would lift a joke from Berle like that..

I gotta stop responding. I'm going blind from those "not a robot" eye tests....

Cap'n Bob said...

Reminds me of an incident at the California State Fair in Sacramento in 1977. I was a vendor selling leather goods in a small covered area with about a dozen other vendors. A riot had broken out the night before and some debris was left behind. I held up an empty bottle and said, "Get yer riot ammo here," just loud enough for my fellow vendors to hear. The guy in the booth next to me put a couple of bottles and rocks in a clear plastic bag with a sign on it, RIOT AMMO, $5.00. An hour later he was arrested.

That's what happens when you steal my jokes.

Pseudonym said...

Let this be a lesson to everyone: don't steal material from Drew Carey.

Gordon Bressack said...

I was briefly a standup comic in NY and FLA in the 70s. I was sitting at the bar at The Comic Strip drinking for free. I said something funny. Everyone laughed. A comic (last name Miller) said "Hey, that's a funny line. I'm gonna use it." Damned if he didn't go right up on stage and use it.

Another time I was hanging out at Dangerfields and said something funny. Rodney said "Funny line, kid." and stuck something in my pocket. It was a $50 bill. I asked what that meant. Another comic said "It means Rodney just bought your joke." In neither case did I have a choice but at least I profited in the Rodney joke appropriating incident.

Many years later I was asked with three other writer friends to impersonate the Texaco Four and sing Milton Berle's intro at a Friar Club event celebrating Milton's 80th year in show business. I was standing back stage surrounded by Cesar Romero, Steve Allen, Tony Martin and other older and perfectly coiffed show biz vets. Just as Milton passed by me I whispered to a friend, "I'm getting high from all the wig glue back here." Milton made no acknowledgement, just shuffled by me to go onstage and the fist thing out of his mouth was "I was getting high from all the wig glue back stage." In this case I LOVE the fact that Milton Berle stole a joke from me. I have three Emmys but I think that was the highest honor I've ever received.

Mike T. said...

Jack Benny: "When you take a joke away from Berle, it's not called 'stealing,' it's called 'repossessing.'"

cadavra said...

But is there an expiration date on jokes? We just wrapped a short in which the entire point is that the comedy team does jokes and sketches that have been around for decades. (We're honest crooks, though; the credits will read "Based on ancient vaudeville routines.") But let's face it: When was the last time anyone did "Niagara Falls" on TV or in a movie? "The Hollywood Palace," maybe? That's 50 years ago! Most of the cast and crew had never seen this sketch before and were delighted. If we can introduce a piece of classic comedy to a new audience, then that doesn't necessarily strike me as such a bad thing.

PolyWogg said...

I wonder if the basic challenge is the nature of joke telling -- when you hear a funny joke, you pass it on. You don't recount Act 2, Scene II of Hamlet, you don't recite all the dialogue from Gigli, you don't dance about architecture, but most people who see comedians automatically steal a joke or two and tell their friends. Since people grew up doing it, often as the first way they learned jokes themselves, I wonder if it doesn't seem like stealing to them but just part of what joke telling is -- take one down, pass it around.

Of course, the other problem as Ken has typed about in other posts, most people don't "write" jokes for TV anymore. They have "funny" situations, but not actual jokes. Which might mean that they're more apt to steal, cuz they've never written one themselves that they'd care about protecting.


D. McEwan said...


When I was working with a partner (now long dead), we used to do Who's On First? as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: Who is the killer, What is the victim and I Don't Know is the victim's wife. (And "I Don't Give a Damn!" was the motive.) Of course, the very recognizability of the routine and the novelty of giving it to Holmes and Watson, was the real joke, though I did put some original lines into it: "Who?" "Who!" "Who?" "Who!" "Stop hooting at me!" "Are you sure you've been using cocaine and not novocaine?" "Why do you ask?" "Because you sound like a numbskull!" Anyway, it always played like gangbusters. Bud Abbott had told me personally, when I interviewed him, that it had begun as an old minstral show routine a century earlier. Who's the Massa, What's the overseer, etc. And when they performed it in England, they tried switching it to cricket, but the positions were too confusing, so they made it about the orchestra: "Who's the conductor, What's the violinist, etc.

AndrewJ said...

Regarding joke theft, Emo Philips quoted Oscar Wilde's line "To lose one parent is tragedy, to lose both is carelessness" -- namely, that if you're a comedian with 500 jokes and one of them gets stolen, them's the breaks, but if you have only three jokes and one of them gets stolen, you shouldn't have been a professional to begin with.

Baylink said...

For the record, cadavra, I do Niagara Falls (well, Cucamonga) every week. It has been an audience participation joke for the Rocky Horror Picture Show for at least 20 years now.