Should you confront a joke thief?

Max Reisman wrote to me:

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.


Dustin R. said...

Great post. You said that if you accidentally covered another comic’s joke you would discard it. But would it be OK to use a basic premise with different wording and punchline? For instance, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a version of Carlin’s/Kathleen Madigan’s (I’m not sure who came up with it first) line about “instead of buying me a drink just give me the cash” turned into “instead of giving me (blank) why don’t you just give me (blanks origin).” The outline is almost mathematical where you have that formula, for lack of a better word, and you just insert your variables.

There are only so many ways you can phrase something for comedic purposes so at what point would taking a "formula" become unethical? What if you have a killer line that uses the above formula? Would you use it or would you try to make it original and perhaps not get as big a laugh? Maron always says that comics are all drawing from the same well of reality but do you think it’s possible for everyone to have their own bucket?

Abbi Crutchfield said...

If you're always pushing yourself to be original and honest, you won't be sharing much of the same formula (joke structure) with anyone. Unless of course you find your voice, nail a specific style of writing, and then a generation of comedians that follow try to emulate you.

Don't overthink what is funny and getting laughs. If you're afraid of sounding like someone else you'll never write or tell anything. Just keep creating, and your style will evolve, and you won't rely on the old way you used to tell jokes.

You can use a "basic premise" / formula as a starting point. It will get you laughs which will give you confidence to try new things, and the success of new things will give you confidence to leave old stuff behind. I hope.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

"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 agree to this approach. Maybe if you tell someone they'll be thankful you pointed it out, or maybe they'll get weird and deny it and claim 'parallel thought'. If it wasn't intentional, and they end up seeing the celeb doing their bit on TV, they won't think, "Why didn't anyone TELL me?!" they'll think, "Whew, I'm glad no one else noticed. Time to stop doing it."

Matt Ruby said...

"But would it be OK to use a basic premise with different wording and punchline?"

Yeah, but it's close. If you think the basic gist of what's funny is the same as the other person's bit, I'd stay away.

myq said...

Usually you won't hear someone do something word for word that someone else does, so I think it makes sense to err on the side of the possibility that it's parallel thought, and you're trying to help the person out by letting them know that there are other people out there doing similar material, and you wouldn't want people to get the wrong idea (or as it may be, the right one).

I think this makes sense even if it IS word for word, that you could just say you heard something similar from someone, and you were concerned for the person's perceived integrity and well-being. Whether or not they've taken something intentionally, knowing that you know can be useful information.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Do you guys have a lot of experience with people taking things well? I can just as easily see you saying, "Hey you worded that similarly," and someone thinking, "Yeah? Well that's how my mind works! What are you trying to say? That I don't deserve the laughs I just got? Are you JEALOUS? Must be jealous. DON'T HATE THE PLAYER HATE THE GAME."

Matt Ruby said...

Do you guys have a lot of experience with people taking things well?

I've only commented like this to people I know and usually they react ok to it. I think comics with the right attitude feel it's better to know than not.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Yeah, it's probably good to point out these things to people you know and who respect your point of view.

Jonathan said...

I think it depends on who is telling the joke in question. If it's someone who's been around for a while, chances are they aren't stealing your joke. If it's an open mic-er, then perhaps (like Matt originally said), they just don't know better.

Myq, this actually relates to you. I wrote a tweet recently that said "the mascot of the super bowl should be a superb owl". A few weeks later I saw Myq had a new clip on rooftop comedy. I watched it, and sure enough the joke included a bit on "superb owl". I didn't think Myq ripped off my tweet and wrote a whole premise on it, simply because I know Myq is an excellent joke writer and wouldn't expect him to resort to reading others tweets for joke ideas. I looked back at when I posted the tweet and when the video was posted, and sure enough Myq's video was posted before I sent my tweet. This has happened a few times to me with more established comics using similar premises, and to be honest it's a great feeling. I don't consider it as losing a premise. Instead, I think of it as "oh, I think just like some of the established guys..that's a great sign."

myq said...

Jonathan, if you steal from me again, I will murder you.

That's how you talk to people.


PS I agree that talking to someone that you don't know is an iffier situation than someone that you do. But also, if someone is doing something blatant, and addressing it might be helpful to everyone in the long run, I don't think there's any obligation per se, but it could be reasonable and nice, even if you don't know that they're going to react positively (to your murder threat).

Jonathan said...

Myq, please don't kill me.

Max Reisman said...

Yeah, I'd just like to reiterate that it wasn't my joke being "stolen." It was Jon Stewart's monologue, pretty much word for word, from 2 months back. Maybe she thought since there was a difference in their genders no one would notice, but I did. And I said nothing but then went and took my rage to the internetz!

Side note: Same place, the next week, Matt's there and does a joke, which was similar to one I'd been doing for a little over a year. I thought Matt was having fun with me (which I guess is pretty ego-inflated) but he wasn't. Just a coincidence.

But that was an example of the same premise but not the same wording/jokes/tags.

Also, can we just call stealing jokes, doing covers? And so when we go up to the comic, we can say, "Hey, nice kfc burrito bowl cover, but I think the original's better. Your delivery sounds like autotune."

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