Friday, July 15th, 2011

So You Want to Accuse Someone of Stealing Your Joke

Earlier this week, a Cleveland sketch group accused Conan O'Brien of stealing a routine of theirs for his show. Upon examination of their claims, it was pretty clear that the accusation was baseless for a number of reasons. This sure made them look bad! This sketch group I had never heard of before is now known in my mind as a group that accuses people of plagiarism in order to get attention, which is a shitty thing to be known for.

In order to prevent another unfortunate incident like this from occurring, I thought it'd be beneficial to lay out some important questions for comedians and comedy groups to ask themselves before publicly accusing someone of plagiarism.

Is it likely that they saw your joke?

In order for someone to steal your joke from you, they have to be aware of its existence in the first place. Is your original joke something that was on TV, in a movie, on a standup album, or in a web video viewed more than 500,000 times? Well, then it's reasonable to think that the person in question may have seen it.

But is the joke in question from a YouTube video with a couple thousand views, or from a sketch show of yours that ran at a small, underground comedy theater in New York or LA for a couple of months a year or two ago? Unless you know for a fact that the person saw it, the chances are good that they didn't. In the case of Last Call Cleveland, there's no evidence that their routine was seen by more than a handful of people; even after the video was written up by places like The AV Club and this website after their accusations, its view count is still around 4,100. Not exactly something that was setting the world on fire.

Is your joke highly original?

If your joke is one that has never been made before, one that's unlike anything else that's come before it in comedy, you may have some merit to your accusation. But if you're making a joke that's relatively obvious, or is something that people have been riffing on for years, you probably can't claim ownership of it. At the very least, you should do some cursory research to make sure you're the first one to make the joke in question.

For example, last year, Tim and Eric accused SNL of ripping off their tiny hats sketch. The two sketches aren't similar except for the fact that characters in them wear tiny hats as part of the punchline. Tim and Eric essentially claimed ownership over the comedic idea of tiny hats.

Of course, it didn't take long for people to remember Damon Wayan's famous Blaine Edwards character from In Living Color's "Men on Film" sketch, whose key physical characteristic was a tiny hat perched on his head. It's tough to say that Tim and Eric own tiny hats when it was on a highly influential sketch show in the early 90's.

Is your joke topical and obvious?

If you were the first one to make the obvious joke after an event, that does not give you ownership of that joke. Everybody is making that joke. For example, a video on Funny or Die in the wake of Brett Favre's cockshots being made public parodied his Wrangler jeans ads. SNL then made a similar commercial parody the following week, and people accused them of plagiarism.

For one, the chances are slim that the SNL writing staff saw the original video. Two, this is the most obvious parody imaginable. If the group behind the Funny or Die sketch or SNL hadn't made a parody of this jeans ad with Favre's dick hanging out, about a hundred other sketch groups were lined up to make a similar one.

Are you sure they didn't make the joke first?

Nothing shuts down an accusation of joke theft faster or in a more embarrassing way than proof that the accuser actually made the joke after the accused. That's what happened to Bill Maher, who accused The Onion of stealing a joke he made in a standup special. The problem? The Onion published the joke in question six months before his standup special aired. He had just seen it brought back from the archives on the front page and assumed it was new. Bill Maher then looked like a petty asshole.

Is the new version very similar, or does it only share some specifics?

Copying a joke word-for-word is one thing, but it's tough to make the case that someone ripped you off when they only share a specific or a similar setup to your joke. One of the problems with Last Call Cleveland's accusation is that their original routine shared a setup with the one on Conan, it was actually quite different. The crux of their bit had two standups doing the exact same routine at the same time, with the occasional bit of color different for each comedian. Jon Dore and Rory Scovel's routine, on the other hand, had the two comedians doing completely different routines side-by-side. They performed it in a way that you would only hear snippets of each routine at any given time, but what you would hear would be enough to get the gist of their intentionally hacky bits. While the structure was the same, the actual humor of each routine came from completely different places. Essentially, Last Call Cleveland was claiming ownership of any routine in which two comedians performed at the same time.

Does it make sense that they'd steal your joke?

Take a step back and look at the people you're accusing. Do you really think the writing staff of SNL is scanning YouTube looking for sketch videos to rip off? These highly visible shows have the most to lose from joke theft. They also staff professional comedy writers who have written enough good sketches to not need to go to the internet to copy some college improv group's video. It's certainly possible that someone from an established show would rip something off, but before accusing them, think to yourself: why would they?

This is not all to say that joke stealing never happens, and by established writers and comedians. It most certainly does! It's really tough to find any legitimate excuses for Carlos Mencia's well-documented cases of joke theft. And when South Park lifted multiple lines from a CollegeHumor Inception sketch for their own Inception parody, it was nearly impossible to come up with a scenario where they didn't copy the lines from the video. And they ended up admitting to it, albeit while giving a lame, nonsensical excuse about not getting the joke of the video and thinking the lines were directly from the movie.

So yes, if there's legit evidence that someone ripped you off, by all means, call them out. There's no excuse for joke plagiarism, and anyone busted doing it deserves to be publicly shamed. But just make sure that you're in the right, because if you're not, you end up looking like an idiot. And not the funny kind of idiot.

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  • Victor Torres@twitter

    and if you really know your joke was stolen? Write new ones. It sucks if people steal your jokes but you should be constantly writing newer, funnier stuff. The thieves will never get far once they are found out they cannot really write good solid jokes.

  • Phil Davidson

    Nice one, Adam.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    People always ignore the fact that there's a decent chance that other people may independantly think of a similar joke. In college, I used to joke that the more offensive a song was to women, the more likely they were to dance to it. A few years later, Chris Rock had a similar joke in his stand up special (the songs referenced were different, thats about it). Now, I told this joke to friends, it was before YouTube, and I'm not a standup, so there was basically 0% chance Chris Rock knew me at all, heard me tell the joke, and then stole it. If anything, I was happy I told a joke (which I'm sure I wasn't the first to make anyway) that a huge comedy star also thought of, and also though it was good enough to include on TV. At no point did I think "Chris Rock stole my joke," if I was mad about anything it was that if I ever did standup, I couldn't use the joke, because now just about everybody heard Rock tell it.

  • cory dodt@twitter

    What makes this accusation galling is that both jokes were obviously written by comedians who spend a lot of time thinking about stand-up comedy and the ways in which it might go wrong. (Listen to Marc Maron's podcast some time, and you'll come away with the impression that's all they ever think about.) There must be a thousand comedians who have thought of this bit. Why does this particular troupe think they were the first to get there? Shows a lack of critical thinking.

    • Jason Farr@facebook

      @cory dodt@twitter Yep. And then having a childish and pissy way of responding. I wonder what their response to this is now.

  • Charles Michael Guidry@facebook

    I disagree with this article's claim that a video has to be popular for it to merit intellectual theft. Only an idiot would rip from a popular (500,000+) video as that many people would know it's hack.

    As far as the argument that a named comedian would never see this podunk live show, Robin Williams has been to a local comedy club with a wig, shades and a hat, sitting in the back.

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      @Charles Michael Guidry@facebook The CollegeHumor video the South Park guys ripped off had been viewed over a million times.

    • Jason Farr@facebook

      @Adam Frucci and @Charles Michael Guidry@facebook It does happen when the original material was heavily viewed. Look at Mencia's stuff. But he is an idiot, I suppose.
      It doesn't have to be that popular for it to be intellectual theft, though. Jay Mohr stole from some guy for a bit on SNL in the 90s. Nobody knew that guy he stole from but it was word-for-word a rip so SNL ended up having to pay the guy even though they didn't know what Mohr had done until it was brought up.
      But that's not the point Adam was making. He wasn't saying that a video has to be popular to merit intellectual theft. He's saying if hardly anyone has seen it there is a good chance the person you want to accuse hasn't seen it either. And that's a valid point.

  • Andrew Neilson@facebook

    I have a picture of myself wearing a homemade t-shirt in 1980. It says "eat the rich". Aerosmith wrote a song with the same title. I actually stole the idea from a National Lampoon article called "eat the poor". So people think up the same crap all the time.

    • Peter Moore@facebook

      @Andrew Neilson@facebook Some friends and I designed and printed Eat the Rich t-shirts in Berkeley in the early '70s. They had a skull,crossed knife & fork and some nice script lettering. We sold a shit load of them and everyone thought we came up with the slogan. We didn't. I'd seen a some shirts with just block lettering made by some people from Santa Cruz at a demonstation against Spiro Agnew in San Jose.

    • Tim Moyle@twitter

      The phrase "Eat the Rich" came from Jean-Jacques Rosseau (1712-1778). See this link for more info:


  • Icky People@facebook

    There is a lot more evidence of Carlos Mencia stealing other comedian's material than just Bill Cosby…

  • UncleBob Martin@facebook

    When I was editor of Fangoria magazine — thirty years ago! — we ran a letter from a reader. To this day, I remember it word for word:

    "What ever happened to Mister Ed? I bet he's a talking bottle of glue by now!"

    Within a month, David Letterman had a bit featuring a gluepot saying "Wilburrr" in basso profundo.

    I did not hesitate to editorialize about the theft, citing that our reader was probably crying himself to sleep every night.

    But, in all seriousness, I was flattered to think that, just maybe, a Letterman staffer thumbed through our book and was inspired.

  • blingladen

    Ricky Gervais' joke at the Golden Globes about Hugh Hefner's young runaway bride was first done by Kathy Griffin, right down to the gag reflex and looking at the watch.

  • Rick Ferguson@facebook

    I thought LCC's response was good natured and not angry or bitter. You have to understand that this is not the first, or even the second time a sketch by LCC has shown up on other shows. MadTV did a version of their AIrBand Mockumentary, with very similar lines, and SNL did a sketch about people being stuck on an escalator that was a video by LCC as well. Also Mike Polk wrote a piece called "Look at my Striped Shirt" It was published in a book by the same name, and a video was posted on YouTube. Soon after, a video called My New Haircut came online, using many of the same phrases and thoughts. The My New Haircut guys were even in talks to produce a movie based on that idea. That is when legal action was taken by Mike Polk and they were forced to stop pursuing any projects related to My New Haircut. So you see when you are consistently getting hacked, it no longer seems like just a coincidence.

  • Will

    "Do you really think the writing staff of SNL is scanning
    YouTube looking for sketch videos to rip off? These highly visible shows
    have the most to lose from joke theft. They also staff professional
    comedy writers who have written enough good sketches to not need to go
    to the internet to copy some college improv group's video."

    Jay Mohr did it

  • than wu

    So if someone made a joke about border crossing then no one can make it again? People have been making jokes about border crossing for 30000 years when people crossed other people's territories. Modern information technology and information sharing has made us anal. Let's face it, there is nothing new under the sun. This is why you can't even find an original email id anymore? It's been taken by people across the world unless you really have a unique name. Try finding a band name!!! This is why bands are going to phrases now cause all the good names have been taken. And this applies to just about everything. I wrote a song and had a song title that I thought was so original that no one would ever think of. That was my chorus! Only to find out there was a whole website with that name somewhere in the world.

    Copyrighting jokes is like copyrighting words and phrases. It doesn't make sense. As George Carlin said, "lots of comedians are thinking in parallel". The world was great when you could be the king of your town when people didn't know better and they thought you were original. Now within a google search someone will hang you and say you took it from somewhere.

    This has happened from the beginning of time. A lot of the higher mathematical concepts such as Euler's equations and other profound gems of the west were discovered in places like India and China hundreds of years ago. But Europeans re-discovered the same ideas unknowingly and the credit goes to them. The world has been operating in this mode for a long time; that is, claiming ownership without knowing someone across the world already did that or discovered that hundreds of years ago.

    We are headed toward a frightful, dog eat dog, I'll do anything to get fame, future!