I was at an open mic on Tuesday in Park Slope. Toward the end a woman performed. She was okay. The audience was really feeling her. I was liking the material until she started a new joke that I realized I'd heard before... on the Daily Show a couple months back (as someone slightly obsessed with the show). It wasn't even the same premise. It was word for word, the same joke, followed by the same punchlines. And she delivered it with a passion, that I can't fathom. She owned it. I was sitting in the front row, and just sat silent, hoping the rest of the crowd also picked up on it.
Whether or not the rest of her set was original, her stealing Jon Stewart's monologue definitely throws it up in the air. My question: What's appropriate? Do I call her out on it in private, someone I've never met? Luckily, I'd already performed or else I don't think I would have been able to hold back my feelings. If I was the host, I think I definitely would have brought it up. I hate this woman.
I think there's two different cases. One is where someone tells a joke that's similar to something you've heard before. This happens to everyone at some point. When it's me doing the similar joke, I'm grateful when someone tells me they've heard something like it before. It saves me hours of honing and trying a joke that I'd just have to throw out later anyway.
Well, I like it when someone knows exactly who did the similar joke and when they did it. If someone's like, "I think I've heard that before but I can't remember where." Well, then I might ask around (find those guys who have encyclopedic knowledge of comedy albums). If no one else confirms hearing it before, I might just keep doing the bit.
From the other side, I have gone up to comics and told them, "Hey, [famous comic] does a joke just like that." Or sometimes I'll just mention, "The premise is similar to another premise by [famous comic] but I think you're ok." I've found that, almost universally, good comics appreciate knowing that someone else has touched on something similar. You'd rather know than not know.
Now, back to your case. This woman is a thief. She knows she's stealing. You could confront her but you won't be delivering any news to her. If she was a real comic, she'd deserve the full Patton Oswalt shaming, scarlet letter thing. But as a (newbie?) open mic'er, there's a chance she doesn't know how wrong this is. Instead of attacking her, I might just tell her that you know the bit is stolen and that if she keeps doing it (or other stolen bits), every other comic will talk shit about her and she'll ruin her reputation.
Or just ignore her and let the chips fall where they may. This whole policing other people's material thing can get outta hand and take your eye off the ball (i.e. being funny yourself).
I sent the above to Max and he responded:
I felt pretty much the same way you responded. I've had a comic come up to me after doing a joke for the first time that I thought of on the way to the comedy club. I saw a guy walking while smoking a cigar in the east village, 4 pm... and ranted about how much of an asshole this made him.
The other comic, who I'm friendly (FB friends) with, told me it was Carlin's. I thanked him for the exact reasons you stated and was happy to never do it again. It's like having your fly unzipped. A true friend notifies you, instead of allowing you make a fool of yourself in front of everyone. Unless of course, to continue the comparison, you're aware of the unzipped fly, and this is a prop joke, and you're horrible. And I think W.C. Fields did that gag first a while back.