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Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Who Cares About Joke Stealing?

Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it's asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.

Joke “stealing” is not a new phenomenon. Hell, Milton Berle basically made a career out of it, earning himself the nickname, “The Thief of a Bad Gag.” With the rise of the Internet and cellphone cameras, however, it seems like fans have started to care more. But how did something that used to only be a comedy community matter give birth to a legion of joke vigilantes?

Let’s start with a couple examples.

Example #1:

A) From SNL. Filmed on February 20th, 1988. Focus on the part 44 seconds in:

B) From Mitch Hedberg's Mitch All Together. Recorded March 2003. Focus on the part 17 seconds in:

These two jokes, though not identical are very similar. They are at least as similar as Dane Cook’s jokes were to Louis C.K.’s. I’m not asserting that Hedberg stole this bit; maybe he didn’t watch SNL in his 20s. What is more interesting is that in the SNL sketch the refried bean premise is supposed to instantly read as hack, a term rarely levied on Hedberg.

Example #2:

Dane Cook. Start at the 38 seconds mark:

Demetri Martin:

In college, at a time when Demetri Martin was my favorite comedian, I saw both these bits performed within a sixty-day span. I felt then as I do know, Cook’s punchlines are more evocative, surprising, and funny. Yet the YouTube comments on both suggest something different.

Taken from the Cook clip:

“He fucking stole this joke from demetri martin wtf
This guy is a fucking douchebag”

From the Martin clip:

“isn’t it funny how dane cook suits the term ‘douchebag’ perfectly. i mean he really is a douchebag, in everyway. i fuckin hate him. hes not funny, and he is in love with himself“

I have no idea if Cook stole this joke and I don’t really care. The set-up could just have easily been mocked in that SNL sketch as it’s just a simple observation. The bigger issue is why does anyone care?

The most apparent explanation is that it’s moral matter — stealing is supposedly wrong. It’s undeniable that a comedian taking the joke of another comedian is bad, especially if it’s an entire routine; however, considering how much we celebrate art thieves and Danny Ocean’s eleven sticky-fingered friends, it does seem to miss at least part of the picture. If the Internet hated real thieves as much as it did jokes thieves, YouTube would be littered with surveillance camera videos. Maybe it has less to do with the comedian who wrote the joke and the comedian who supposedly stole it, and more to do with the fans themselves.

Comedy Central recently released the results to a study on the importance of comedy to Generation Y males, the demographic that represents the majority of joke vigilantes. It revealed that people care more than ever about comedy. And it seems with the rise of Twitter, the comedy people look for is more joke-joke heavy than it has been in upwards of sixty years. Albert Brooks put it perfectly with one of his first tweets: “Spent my life deconstructing jokes now Twitter turns all of us into Bob Hope.”* To take it a step further, Christian Finnegan in his argument for why Twitter is bad for comedy wrote, “Now, every comedian is expected to be either a bitchy talking head or a neo-Hedberg.” Another way one could put it is, every comedian is expected to be like the fan would be if he or she were a comedian.

That same study found that 56% of those surveyed believed they were just as funny as professional comedians. To this stat, psychologist Dr. Steven Fox (who also happens to be my father) responded, “To me it’s about projected envy, about which comedy is particularly germane as jokes are about recognition — bringing to the conscious what we unconsciously know — so that people may mistakenly overbelieve that they could have thought of them.” The current comedy environment is one in which the audience thinks they could just easily be the comedian killing on stage — well, if they had the jokes. As a result, jokes become sacrosanct — something that must be protected.

If a fan thinks he or she could be a stand-up whenever they want, they will be compelled to support a vision of comedy most like their everyday selves. The hope is for a comedian who is able to be the funniest and the most successful while still seeming like some person who simply walked off the street and onto the stage.** However, stand-up is not only about standing up and saying jokes into a microphone. When a more performative comedian like Cook, Carlos Mencia, and Robin Williams (all accused thieves) succeeds it reveals the job is not solely one of punchline scripting. That’s why it bothers people to see Cook get bigger laughs off a Martin set-up than Demetri himself — it comes off as less relatable, as not something anybody can just do.*** The exceptionally charismatic comedian can unintentionally force the audience to realize how unspectacular they themselves are. The result is an antagonistic relationship in which the comedy fan will gleefully pounce on any opportunity to point out those comedian’s shortcomings — whether it’s bumping the less famous or joke theft.

There are more people than ever telling jokes publicly, whether it’s on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, or whatever comes next. Similar bits aren't just possible, they’re likely. It might seem like SNL stole a sketch idea from a popular Twitter hashtag but it's MUCH more probable they thought of an analogous set-up from a commonplace observation. Similar premises are not stolen jokes whether it’s frying beans twice or itchy assholes — the joke is what comes afterwards. As Patton Oswalt put it “the truth is hack” so all there is left is the art and craft of what the comedian can do with it.


* Not to completely bastardize Albert Brooks hilarious joke, the full quote is: “Spent my life deconstructing jokes now Twitter turns all of us into Bob Hope. For the kids, Bob Hope is that airport in Burbank.”

**With his last special, Louis C.K. played right into this mythology by doing exactly this, actually walking directly on stage from the street.

***I do think there is a bit of misconception here as well when it comes to Martin. All the one-liner guys from Steven Wright to Anthony Jeselnik to the old Borscht Belters were and are in the business of selling themselves as much they are their twist punchlines. That is another take away from Example #2; Mitch Hedberg was able to sell that “hack” joke from the SNL sketch as novel because of the character of he created for himself. Stand-up is about performance even for those who simply stand there and rip off zingers.


If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.

Jesse David Fox is a freelance writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). The only thing he ever stole was a toy from the M&M factory in Las Vegas and it gives him anxiety still fifteen years later.

  • Lindsey Bahr@facebook

    I like this: "Maybe it has less to do with the comedian who wrote the joke and the comedian who supposedly stole it, and more to do with the fans themselves."

    I hadn't really thought too much about joke stealing till I got a one-two punch with that Louie episode and Born Standing Up. Not sure if you've read it, but in the book Steve Martin talks about the moment he realized he'd have to stop borrowing/stealing things he liked from other comedians. For him it looked like a moral decision. He was starting to get famous and decided that some responsibility went along with that. It seemed kind of sweet.

    Ultimately, you're right, it doesn't matter. Fans are just being louder about it because we can. With youtube and twitter time stamps we feel like we can track these things now – and that defensiveness is 100% tied up with our own crippling insecurities.

  • Agent M

    Language dick here… stealing jokes is not a moral matter. Ethical, maybe. But a good article! And how 'bout that Cook clip… a beginning, a middle, a punch – almost like a real comic!

  • theBULL

    The hate on Dane Cook is really annoying. Never understood it. Loved the episode of Louie where C.K and Dane talked about the issue between them. It was nice to see them two talk it out.

  • Dirk

    Does Demetri Martin read this site? If so, I'd love to hear him articulate why one would care about joke stealing. Fans of Demetri Martin would then care for similar reasons.

    Maybe Dane Cook can perform the joke better, but it's not his to take. Big guy taking from someone smaller who will no longer be able to use said stolen thing (Demetri, who's whole appeal is being unique/quirky doesn't want to see audience members whispering to each other "I saw Dane Cook do this SAME joke."). No one likes that kind of stealing from an underdog. That's why people care.

    In music, when people perform other people's songs — even perform them better — and make money off of it, they either give credit/payment to the original artist or face potential law suit. This would be awkward to do in a comedy routine, yes, but too bad.

    (This comment is in regard to conscious joke stealing.)

  • Brian xl

    why is joke stealing a problem? Because its theft. Directly from a person. I don't go into a carpenter's shop and take a table and then tell people its my own.

    • LoriA

      @Brian xl And if a thought or story were at all analogous to something concrete like a table, you'd have a point!

  • akivaddict

    "The exceptionally charismatic comedian can unintentionally force the audience to realize how unspectacular they themselves are."
    This is an exceptionally brilliant theory.
    (…Thinking about removing the quotes and posting it to my Facebook.)

  • dwinn

    Just because delivery is important, doesn't mean that changing delivery excuses ripping off jokes. Anyone could go tell Groucho Marx jokes all day and appear funny, but Groucho is funny, not them.

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    "The exceptionally charismatic comedian can unintentionally force the audience to realize how unspectacular they themselves are."
    So I don't dislike Dane Cook's comedy for his frat comedy style but because I secretly find him threateningly awesome? I don't buy it. I think there are plenty of charismatic comedians that give off a very professional/polished vibe (I'm thinking of Aziz Ansari and John Mulaney as recent examples of very charismatic performers with great specials) and I think that's very different from me telling a few jokes to my friends or co-workers. This generation does have a lot of people that think they can do anything, but that's not something that doesn't just apply to comedy but all kinds of other artistic fields being flooded by mediocre material. But everyone has to start somewhere. Anyways I think I went kind of off-topic from joke stealing and I disagree with the article but I do think this has been the best "Unpopular Opinon" yet, especially for the comedic material used as evidence within. Thanks.

    • akivaddict

      @Firas Alexander I agree with you that hatred for someone like Dane Cook doesn't stem from jealousy. I just thought it was an insightful quote because it presents the theory that you can alienate the audience by seeming less like the relatable everyman.
      But it also says something about the nature of a comedy audience and how you can create critics out of every fan when you develop a distinct style with easily discernible/quantifiable attributes (as exemplified in the physical comedy of aforementioned comedians like Robin Williams and Dane Cook). They force the audience into seeing them as a performer specifically, with performance “greatest hits” features (you can see the same thing in a content context- like how Abbott and Costello never got away from a stage without an encore performance of “Who’s on First” and Jeff Foxworthy’s audience would tear the American Legion down post-show if he didn’t do a redneck joke or two).
      When you have such distinguished physical bits, an off-night means everyone will notice. If Barbara Streisand has a chest cold the night of an appearance, people will take note …but they are more likely to be forgiving- would a comedy audience be so kind?

      Good article!

  • Dirk

    Another way to look at this: would you also say "Who cares?" about a band like Led Zeppelin taking riffs from blues guys and implying they (Zeppelin) wrote those riffs? Sure I think I do like Zeppelin's take on those riffs better than what the blues guys would do with them overall, but, on the other hand, Zeppelin took something from someone because it was undeniably great, didn't pay them or credit them, and used it as the backbone of a song that made them lots of money (that was not shared with said blues guy).

    To play off Brian xl's comment (see? I credited him.), if a carpenter makes an awesome wood chair, but I upholster it all super great, is it okay for me to say "I made this chair"?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nick-Douglas/69100171 Nick Douglas

    Iiiii was at SxSWwwww and Iiiii know what hashtag you're referrrrring toooooo!

    That… that was my sing-song voice.

  • derp

    no one owns jokes. no one owns words. and i can say what i want, anytime, that's freedom of speech. people plagiarize me, i plagiarize. except i have been copied from childhood. in 2nd grade people started copying me.
    to be funny and kill a crowd is far more important than who made it up. musicians steal everything and call it a cover. they dont own the notes. they didnt invent their guitar.
    so what. get over it.
    you have never had the right to not be offended.
    original author, your writing needs work. it was hard to follow.