Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Stealing Stand Up Material

I’ve talked about stand-up comedians stealing material before, but this is a great story about payback.

Before women comedians Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Elayne Boosler, there was Jean Carroll. We’re talking ‘40s/’50s. I’ve seen some of her ED SULLIVAN SHOW appearances on YouTube and she was damn funny. There’s an article in Emmy Magazine about her and she talks about comedian Alan King stealing one of her signature bits. Here’s that excerpt:

I wrote 95 percent of my material. When he was starting out, Alan King stole "That Dress Is You!" but changed it to buying a suit. One time, when we were, coincidentally, doing the same charity show, I insisted that I go on first — and I did his entire routine, word for word, about sending a kid to camp.

Afterward, I said to the audience, "You like that routine? It's not mine. It belongs to the fellow backstage who now has no act to do for you. Maybe this will teach him not to steal people's acts anymore."

So Alan didn't go on because he couldn't. Years later, he admitted that he'd stolen my act. His cop-out was that he was a poor kid and couldn't afford writers.

I love that story sooooo much. God bless you, Jean Carroll.


VincentS said...

Great story, Ken. Revenge is a meal best served cold.

James said...

Wonderful timing. I saw her a couple times on Ed Sullivan re-runs (including the dress buying routine) and thought she was great; except for these re-runs, she seems to be completely forgotten.

normadesmond said...

Old-fashioned cajones, nice.

Brian said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: In light of the Jean Carroll anecdote, have you ever seen your material show up in other sitcoms?

I remember watching random sitcoms during the 70's, back when they would show pilots that didn't make it onto the network schedule, mostly during the summer. Several shows talked about "the heartbreak of psoriasis" and I recall seeing this joke on two different shows:

CHARACTER 1: I have to go the bathroom.
CHARACTER 2: OK, just don't take anything to read.

Writers took the opportunity to do stories about best-seller "Iron John" by Robert Bly. I saw no overlap of jokes, but Anything But Love, Murphy Brown and Designing Women (!) all had takes on Iron John.

WB Jax said...

Along those lines, Ken, I've often wondered if many of the really great jokes heard in sitcoms as "The Odd Couple" and 'Frasier" were actually things writers of the time once heard on the radio (perhaps on some show that had a fringe following) or in a play (by someone like Coward) or in a comic novel as it's hard to imagine someone not originating such "pearls" many years/decades earlier.


From "The Princess" ep of "The Odd Couple"

Felix: (To Oscar, who appears at a royal reception dressed in his usual work clothes): I told you to wear a morning coat!
Oscar (looks down at his wardrobe): I wear this coat every morning!

Great joke.

So, is there a difference between stealing material and "remembering it?" Wonder how you, Ken, and the other writer members on the blog feel about this (and do you give your fellow writers "a pass" when you know where the joke originated)?

Brian said...

Here is Jean Carroll in action. Does anyone else detect a similarity in Wendy Liebman's delivery to Carroll's?

Brian said...

This is an article about her years in Vaudeville.

If you want to see her in those days, don't use the article's link, use this one:

As an add to my previous post, I think that Ellen DeGeneres' delivery is reminiscent of Carroll's during her solo years.

Pat Reeder said...

Great story. During the current troubles, Laura and I are finally getting around to watching "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," and I had assumed they based that character at least in part on Jean Carroll, with the very fast wit and elegant gowns. There are some great clips of her on YouTube, and you can see that she was way ahead of her time.

As for "Mrs. Maisel," we really like it, even if her material is a bit anachronistic (she gets away with post-Carlin style sex jokes and F-bombs at a time when Lenny Bruce was getting arrested for far less.) One thing I did appreciate in the early episodes was showing how many comedians were ripping off Bob Newhart's material and claiming it was accepted until you were established enough to have your own material. They show various no-talents showing up at open mics at 2 a.m. and repeating the "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue" routine like bad actors reciting a Shakespeare soliloquy in the public domain.

Michael said...

Shelley Berman used to claim Bob Newhart stole his act, using the telephone. Except before Berman, George Jessel did it, and he got it from a vaudeville act, Cohen on the Telephone. So the acts may not be entirely new, but the jokes may be. I always think of Dick Cavett's line that he built his career largely on one joke: that he tried a new restaurant that combined German and Chinese food. An hour later, he was hungry for power.

But I'm reminded of the story of a roast of Jack Benny. Fred Allen went on and was brilliant, because he was Fred Allen. The next speaker was a then-little known politician who was there only because he was the governor of Benny's home state of Illinois: Adlai Stevenson. When he got up, he said that before the roast began, he and Fred Allen were sitting and looking at their speeches and thought, wouldn't it be funny if we switched? So, he said, "I am now going to deliver the speech that Fred Allen wrote." It brought the house down.

By the way, later, Benny was at a dinner where JFK spoke and the Kennedys were big fans of Benny. JFK came to the table and called him Mr. Benny. When he left, Benny said, in that classic delivery, "I wish he'd call me Jack. Every president I've ever known has called me Jack." Eunice Shriver said, "What did Lincoln call you?" Benny was trying to think of an answer when Stevenson leaned over and said, "He called him Kubelsky because he hadn't changed his name yet."

Adlai wrote his own stuff.

thirteen said...

I saw Alan King at an appearance in 1968. He went at Nixon, but there was nothing clever about it. King's whole riff was that Nixon was ugly and looked shifty. Gee, really?

I also don't miss comedians working cigars, as King and Berle and many others did. Talk about your bygone eras.

PolyWogg said...

One of the few EPs of Sunset Strip series was an EP where they did a skit, they aired it in NYC only to realize that it had been stolen from someone else and they did a replacement skit in the mid-west live, and then realized that the person they stole it from had written it while workign for them, it was just never used, so they did own the rights. I'm sure it was unrealistic, but fun plot.

But it makes me think of a FRiday type question...did you ever have writers in your "group writers" rooms where someone went several weeks without getting any of their material "in"? Not really the same dynamic I guess...maybe more about needing to fire writers who just didn't fit in / couldn't produce over time?


James Van Hise said...

Patton Oswalt tells the story of confronting someone who'd been stealing his material and the guy replied, "Didn't you just get your stuff from a joke book?"

blinky said...

Remember The Dick Van Dyke show "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen" where Rob submits a sketch about a talking bowling pin to The Alan Brady Show, but it might get them sued for ripping it off The Uncle Spunky Show.

Ed said...

Great story Ken.

Now we have Amy Schumer making millions from stolen material.

Mike McCann said...

A couple of things:
@Michael, thanks for the Jack Benny/Fred Allen quotes. I'd heard that same story involving the Kennedys, with one difference -- that it was Mary Livingstone, not Mrs. Shriver, who asked the question. Read that back and it "sounds" like (what Jack's great writers did so well in giving to) Mary.

Ken, Jean Carroll was a bit before my time. While she appeared on Ed Sullivan Shows with the pop-rockers that drew my attention (and yours!), I have no recall of her. But when I went to some YouTube clips a moment ago, she has to be the real model for Mrs. Maisel -- you can see part of character Rachel Brosnahan brings to life in Jean's body language and delivery. I see a lot more of Jean than Joan Rivers in that Emmy winning portrayal.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Why do we expect comedians to be original? In music, stealing is called a tribute act.

Mike Bloodworth said...

One of the lesser known examples of ALLEGED theft is "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode, "Chuckles Bites the Dust."
As I understand it Chicago's Second City, in one of its reviews had a sketch where at a man's funeral someone couldn't stop laughing because of the absurd way the man died.
It was sometime after that show that MTM did the "Chuckles" episode.
I'm not claiming that MTM stole the idea. It may just be a coincidence, but many at Second City believe they were ripped-off because they did it first.

Ken, you knew David Lloyd. Did the subject ever come up?


P.S. By the way, despite its many accolades "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is one of my LEAST favorite MTM episodes.

Anonymous said...

Who stole from whom?

Billy Bevan at Sennett or Paul Parrott at Roach



Michael Shriro said...

There is the Benny Hill Defense. This is from the Benny Hill Bio "Funny, Peculiar" on page 180 where the author quotes an interview Hill gave:

"These days you're always hearing artistes talking about 'my' material, or saying that somebody pinched 'my gags. But, if you go into it,you'll find it's not theirs any more that it's anybody else's."

As an example, Alan King wrote about seeing Danny Thomas doing his famous jack routine. Thomas acts out getting stuck in a rainstorm with a flat and without a jack. Thomas on stage acts out walking back to a service station getting madder and madder as he thinks the station attendant will take advantage of him. Finally, he gets to the station and tells the attendant "You can take your jack and shove it." King, an expert on comedy, thought it was so original that he changed his entire act.

Except, the British Comedian Max Miller told a similar story about a plow at least ten years before. Did Thomas steal the story from Miller? No. More than likely both of them heard the same old joke and changed it to fit their styles. Benny Hill said he did that all the time. But, he probably heard some objections from Miller, Buddy Hackett, Bob Newhart ...

Troy McClure said...

He was a poor kid who couldn't afford writers? That's got to be the most bullshit excuse ever for plagiarism. That would literally be like a singer saying he lipsyncs to a session singer because he can't sing.

If you can't write your own material as a comedian, then you're in the wrong profession.

Troy McClure said...

I used to be a fan of Denis Leary until I found out he stole a lot of his material from Bill Hicks.

MikeKPa. said...

Being poor doesn't excuse you for being a thief. He wasn't Jean Valjean and jokes aren't bread.

Joe said...

I remember a "Frasier" episode where Niles thought Maris was having an affair with her fencing teacher. To communicate with the German man, Niles had to ask his questions in English to Frasier, who spoke to the maid in Spanish, who spoke to the fencing teacher in German. The comedy was in the multi-level translation.

It was VERY similar to a scene in I love Lucy.

Pat Reeder said...

To PolyWogg: I think that episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" must've been inspired by what happened when Jay Mohr was on "SNL." In his book, "Gasping for Airtime," Mohr admitted being so desperate to get something on the air, he lifted an Irish bartender joke from comic Rick Shapiro and turned it into a sketch. Shapiro sued, and Mohr claims the show had to pay him a settlement, but he denied that he ever got paid. Or maybe it was inspired by one of these other plagiarism accusations:

Lothar said...

So Alan stole an act and to pay him back, Jean stole a second act from the audience that surely paid entrance for. The longer I think about it the less I see greatness in this story.