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Milton Berle, Carlos Mencia, and Dane Cook walk into a bar
April 1, 2014 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Given the expense and uncertainty of lawsuits, how does the comedy community enforce the proscription on joke theft? Part of an ongoing Slate series called The Humor Code.
posted by Horace Rumpole (45 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dane Cook stealing Louis CK's jokes was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. Same goes for Ari Shaffir with Mencia.

The best thing to do is to allow anyone to tell any joke just give proper credit. I have found most of my favorite bands because another favorite band did a cover of their song. No reason why this can't happen in comedy, especially since the current trend is moving away from doing the same stale act for an entire career.
posted by any major dude at 7:58 AM on April 1


Dane Cook stealing Louis CK's jokes was probably the best thing that ever happened to him

For which value of "him?"
posted by COBRA! at 8:01 AM on April 1 [10 favorites]


The best thing to do is to allow anyone to tell any joke just give proper credit. I have found most of my favorite bands because another favorite band did a cover of their song.

Proper credit, in this instance, means the club pays a pricey general ASCAP-style fee and tracks jokes, so that comedians get reimbursed, and if they do the jokes on albums, comics must pay licensing fees.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:13 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


Cobra, the him was Louis CK, but it was mostly because of the way he played it.

Bunny, yeah, they should figure out some way to reimburse the comedians similar to clubs that play cover bands. I hear some comedians make a fortune from their album tracks getting played on Sirius. I'm sure many comics wouldn't mind at all if someone wanted to recycle their old material and give them a percentage back. Imagine a world where musicians were not allowed to play covers? That's the world we live in right now with comedy. It's silly. What's even worse is how many parallel bits get thrown out by comedians because it seems to close to another comedian's bit.
posted by any major dude at 8:34 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Roller derbys already have a sort of extra-legal registry to track particpant names to prevent duplication.

The registry has a method of determining name similarity, though, which would be really difficult for jokes. Basically, you would need experts to make value judgments about jokes' identifying characteristics and what counts as enough of a creative departure to justify registry as a new joke.

(In case you were wondering, "Barefoot Cuntessa" and "Bollock Obama" are already taken.)
posted by Hume at 8:39 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


Originality isn't the only measure of talent. Mike Myers came up with The Love Guru all by himself. No one helped him out with that hot mess.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:06 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


Imagine a world where musicians were not allowed to play covers?

Stand-up specifically is different though because there's a sort of surprise aspect that's unique to kind of joke telling. When you go see popular band live, you want to hear their hit songs or your favorite song or whatever. When you go see a comedian, you expect to hear completely new original material that you haven't heard before. That may be partially just based on how things have always been, but I think there's something inherently different about stand-up that makes it less about performance and more about ideas that catch you off guard.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:08 AM on April 1 [5 favorites]


Here's a thought: Tribute bands exist. Why don't tribute comics? I would watch someone do a full-length recreation of a set by Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, or Rodney Dangerfield.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:30 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


I would watch someone do a full-length recreation of a set by Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, or Rodney Dangerfield.

This exists, and it's the worst thing in the history of entertainment.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:45 AM on April 1 [15 favorites]


Don't forget Gallagher II!
posted by TedW at 10:00 AM on April 1


When you go see popular band live, you want to hear their hit songs or your favorite song or whatever. When you go see a comedian, you expect to hear completely new original material that you haven't heard before.

Wow, you're just incredibly wrong. That's 100% wrong for sketch comedy, and for standup I've seen acts like Emo Phillips and Roseanne Barr where the audience screamed punchlines. Look at the whole career of Andrew Dice Clay. Not all comedians do the same routine at every house but some do and that's what audiences want.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:07 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Faint of Butt: Here's a thought: Tribute bands exist. Why don't tribute comics? I would watch someone do a full-length recreation of a set by Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, or Rodney Dangerfield.

Jim Breuer hosted a night of Comedy Covers at Carolines some years back. Here's his Sam Kinison.
posted by dr_dank at 10:08 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


This exists, and it's the worst thing in the history of entertainment.

oh god. oh christ. that's...oh no. oh no.

you can't just

jesus christ
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:31 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


On Talking Funny, Louis C.K. describes his theory on all this: if people see your material on TV and then hear the same material when they see you live, they'll still have a good time. But they probably won't come back — they'll think, "I know what that guy does." Whereas if they hear different material live, they're far more likely to come back next time you're in town.

When we were in Vegas a few weeks ago, my girlfriend managed to convince me to go see the Bee Gees tribute band that plays at Excalibur. And she had a great time, and I managed to endure it, and she was raving about it afterward. But I doubt she'll want to see it again.

I don't doubt that Andrew Dice Clay has loyal fans, just as I don't doubt that some people see tribute bands over and over again, but I think they're in the minority.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:36 AM on April 1


Damn that Carlin impersonator is the creepiest thing since hologram Tupac.
posted by item at 10:45 AM on April 1 [4 favorites]


This exists, and it's the worst thing in the history of entertainment.

At about 1:50 there's a guy in the background that is filming, holding his camera high above his head. But the frame cuts off his hands, so it just looks like he's a guys strung up by his hands, swinging back and forth, head back as he tries to endure this endless torture. "Can't you just waterboard me already?"
posted by Kabanos at 10:49 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


I figured that enforcement involved Patton Oswalt coming to your house to give you a purple nurple. Or maybe a Comedy Special Branch of insane mimes, who never get tired, never give up, and live only for revenge.
posted by thelonius at 10:49 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Another example of openly performing other comedians' material is Joke Thieves in the UK.
posted by larrybob at 10:52 AM on April 1


Wow, you're just incredibly wrong. That's 100% wrong for sketch comedy, and for standup I've seen acts like Emo Phillips and Roseanne Barr where the audience screamed punchlines. Look at the whole career of Andrew Dice Clay. Not all comedians do the same routine at every house but some do and that's what audiences want.

Why on earth would you pay to hear jokes you already know? That seems completely daft.
posted by nerdler at 10:57 AM on April 1


Wow, you're just incredibly wrong. That's 100% wrong for sketch comedy, and for standup I've seen acts like Emo Phillips and Roseanne Barr where the audience screamed punchlines. Look at the whole career of Andrew Dice Clay. Not all comedians do the same routine at every house but some do and that's what audiences want.

I do agree about sketch comedy in terms of fans wanting to see the same sketches they are familiar with, but even in sketch comedy it's not like music. There's an expectation of new material if the audience doesn't change. For example, SNL recycles popular characters and catchphrases regularly (which people get sick of eventually), but they don't regularly perform the same exact sketch with the same exact punchlines over and over again to an audience that already knows all of the jokes. There has to be at least some effort to change the details even if they use the same formula, and once that stops working they have to figure out something else.

A local band might play the same few songs every show and have the same set of fans in their town that always come out, but a sketch group like Second City doesn't do the same exact sketches for same audience for years. Stand-ups can get away with using the same material in a lot of different places because outside of the top few big names people just show up to a comedy club to see whoever is there that night instead of actually being fans. Even Gallagher, who had one prop comedy bit that was the only reason anyone showed up to see him perform, came up with new material to fill out the rest of his set.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:19 AM on April 1


Comedy is odd in that the humor in a joke largely comes from the surprise. I can listen to a song I've heard hundreds of times and still be moved by it. Hearing the same song performed by different artists just gives me more ways to appreciate it. On the other hand, I guarantee I'm not going to laugh at the punchline to a joke I've heard a hundred times, no matter how great the joke is. This gives comedians an incentive to dissuade copycats from exposing audiences to their material before those audiences have a chance to hear the original performer.
posted by tdismukes at 11:27 AM on April 1 [3 favorites]


Why on earth would you pay to hear jokes you already know? That seems completely daft.

I also expect bands to play songs I have never heard before, because I already own MP3s of their old material.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:41 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


BREAKING: Monsanto buys rights to "The Aristocrats" for $20B, sues everyone
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:45 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


the aristocrats are in the public domain by now.
posted by bruce at 11:51 AM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Another example of openly performing other comedians' material is Joke Thieves in the UK.
posted by larrybob at 10:52 AM on April 1 [+] [!]


That's actually quite an interesting idea - have one comedian perform another one's set (with permission) in its entirety. The idea is to see how the individual performer's personality forces identical material to accrue new meanings and nuances on the night. Imagine an old-fashioned sexist nightclub comedian swapping sets with a modern feminist comedian, for example. Or a deliberately structureless rambling comedian swapping sets with a highly-disciplined teller of traditional jokes.

Stewart Lee mentioned this idea on a recent episode of his Comedy Vehicle, saying he'd approached Michael McIntyre about the two men swapping sets for an evening, but never heard anything back from him. Things would really get interesting when you reached that level of famous comedians joining in, as this would give people the level of familiarity with the original material needed to see the new interpretation in sharp relief.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:03 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]



I am reminded of the hours I spent in San Francisco hanging around the peripheries of the comedy scene in the eighties. I just loved me some Stephen Pearl, and the poor guy couldn't catch a break because of Robin Williams. Who did the whole Comedy Blender thing, and "didn't intentionally steal material, he was just too fast to remember that he heard it somewhere first."

Bullshit.

I find it really hard to watch Robin Williams in anything now, just because I have no respect for him.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:45 PM on April 1


> Not all comedians do the same routine at every house but some do

Bill Cosby is notorious for this. I've talked to people who saw him years later and thousands of miles away, and as far as we can tell, it was the same act. But although Cosby must have told those jokes thousands of times, it was our first time hearing them, and we had a good time.
posted by foobaz at 12:48 PM on April 1


Cosby is more of a raconteur than a traditional standup comic, so hearing the same stuff is like re-reading good short stories.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 1:36 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


foobaz, every joke seems fresh and new if you've never heard it before. there are probably folks here who've never heard...

a peasant was arrested by some knights and brought before the king. the king told him "here's what's up. the french ambassador is in town to negotiate a treaty with me, and i am committed to the success of this negotiation. about an hour ago, the ambassador caught sight of your wife in the market, and took an immediate shine to her. they're together now as we speak. you have two options...

"option one is, you be a good sport about this, subordinate your selfish interests to the welfare of your nation, and you'll get your wife back in four or five days. i will give you a purse with 100 gold coins and issue a proclamation in my court commending you for valiant but unspecified services to the realm. if this does not appeal to you, option two is, i put you on trial for treason and have your head off of your shoulders by lunchtime. tell me, my man, what's it gonna be?"

the peasant said "sire?"

the king said "yes?"

the peasant said "how many gold coins will you give me if i let the ambassador have her for a whole month?"
posted by bruce at 1:44 PM on April 1 [4 favorites]


The best thing to do is to allow anyone to tell any joke just give proper credit.

People pay to see live in person comedy shows under the premise that they're getting original material. If standups who didn't use their own material started citing their "sources", people would stop coming to their shows. This is why it's called "stealing" a joke. Nobody's going to pay to see some random guy tell the greatest hits of Louis C.K. or whoever. I mean, we have recorded media. If I want to hear Louis C.K.'s material, I'll go watch a Louis C.K. standup special.

There isn't really a space in live comedy for Works Cited. That's not what standup is. So saying "well it's OK as long as you give proper credit" is not really a thing.
posted by Sara C. at 1:51 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


Why on earth would you pay to hear jokes you already know?

Well, presumably you know the jokes from a standup special or a comedy album or the like, and you're paying for the spectacle of seeing this comedian you're a fan of performing their material live in person.

I doubt anyone would pay some unknown schmoe to do Emo Philips' or Roseanne Barr's material, unless it was as a self-aware concept a la the Joke Thieves thing or Jim Breuer's thing.
posted by Sara C. at 1:59 PM on April 1


Is The Zero Marginal Cost Society The End Of Capitalism... Or A Way To Fix Capitalism?
posted by jeffburdges at 3:27 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]


This brought to mind Greg Proops. I listen to his podcast a lot and he always gives credit to his comic friends when he references one of their jokes. He will say something like, "As my friend ____ ____ says..." and he tells the joke. It's nice, you get to hear a good joke and the writer is given credit. That is how it is supposed to work.
posted by zzazazz at 3:49 PM on April 1 [7 favorites]


sigh.

Okay, E, A, and C walk into a bar and order a beer, but the bartender says, sorry, I don't serve A minor.

Never mind.
posted by mule98J at 7:01 PM on April 1 [3 favorites]


I think I came across this in a different MeFi thread — on Mark Maron's podcast, Yakov Smirnoff discusses what it was like being a comedian in the Soviet Union, and how "joke theft" wasn't even a concept.
posted by Lexica at 7:28 PM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Bill Kirchenbauer does a Vegas show openly called "Legends of Comedy", and while he may not garner the highest respect among peers for this work, no one is upset. I believe he has licensed or otherwise worked out a deal with the comics involved.

His funniest bit is his website, which has lorem ipsam on the front page and other templatey goodness.
posted by msalt at 11:01 PM on April 1


"joke theft" wasn't even a concept.

Joke steals you!
posted by thelonius at 11:47 PM on April 1 [1 favorite]



That's actually quite an interesting idea - have one comedian perform another one's set (with permission) in its entirety. The idea is to see how the individual performer's personality forces identical material to accrue new meanings and nuances on the night. Imagine an old-fashioned sexist nightclub comedian swapping sets with a modern feminist comedian, for example. Or a deliberately structureless rambling comedian swapping sets with a highly-disciplined teller of traditional jokes.


I know a group of comedians in the DMV who did this, but they did it for one another, not an open crowd.

I follow local comedy a lot. I have seen some comics' sets half a dozen times. I don't want to see someone else do them. None else could pull off Mike Eagan's set, it suits him and his personality.

One of the feature comics that comes to my town (we have a monthly comedy show, but have gotten some good names) stole a joke from Kelly Terranova. First, Kelly has been to that club several times over the years and done shows at other localish places.

We knew the joke was stolen, plus, his delivery of it was off. Where Kelly always gets a huge laugh, the thief got a small twitter.

A comedian's act comes so much within him (unless he's a known thief) that someone else doing their act always comes off odd.

It's a shame that a couple of the most famous comedians have stolen so much from others, that if they are in the audience many comedians will refuse to perform.
posted by SuzySmith at 1:27 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I used to work for a former television sitcom actor, and he came in one day and said "how do you like this? I wanted to buy my wife something useless and expensive, so I bought her chemotherapy."

I said "I loved it 15 years ago when Emo Phillips did it."

He's still using the joke.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:34 AM on April 2


I bet that joke kills down at the cancer clinic.
posted by thelonius at 8:40 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


nerdler: "Why on earth would you pay to hear jokes you already know? That seems completely daft."

Audiences wanting to hear the same jokes they had already heard on Steve Martin's albums is specifically cited in his memoir as one of the reasons he became disaffected with standup and moved into movies.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:18 PM on April 2


Audiences wanting to hear the same jokes they had already heard on Steve Martin's albums is specifically cited in his memoir as one of the reasons he became disaffected with standup and moved into movies.


Wow, how noble. He did Father of the Bride, one of the worst movies ever made, because he was "disaffected"? The Jerk was just an extension of his standup and "two wild and crazy guys." I'd love to read where he says this pretentious garbage because he's always struck me as incredibly decent and not the sort of person who insults the audiences who made him a multi-millionaire.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:34 PM on April 2


Furthermore, I think he was talking about skits and parody songs like "King Tut," which were what really made him big. Of course people want to hear songs again. But if you want to be superior about that, don't do parody songs and arrow-through-the-head schtick in the first place.
posted by msalt at 3:38 PM on April 2


Well, the nice thing about movies is that you go into work for like three weeks and then you're done and have nothing further to do with it aside from going on a few late night shows and attending the premiere. When you do a standup tour, you get up and do that same set night after night, for months. I can definitely hear "DO THIS PARTICULAR JOKE!" getting very old, very quickly.
posted by Sara C. at 3:39 PM on April 2


ethnomethodologist: "He did Father of the Bride, one of the worst movies ever made, because he was "disaffected"? The Jerk was just an extension of his standup and "two wild and crazy guys." I'd love to read where he says this pretentious garbage because he's always struck me as incredibly decent and not the sort of person who insults the audiences who made him a multi-millionaire."

Come on. Father of the Bride isn't even close to being the worst movie Steve Martin has made, let alone one of the worst movies ever made. Bringing Down the House, for example, is an obviously worse Steve Martin movie. Also, he made Father of the Bride 10 years - and numerous movies - after stopping standup, so it was hardly like he dropped out to make it.

The passage from Born Standing Up I saw when looking briefly was this:
THE ACT WAS SHIFTING into automatic. The choreography was in place, and all I had to do was fulfill it. I was performing a litany of immediate old favorites, and the laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:56 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


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