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June 10, 2008 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Take the Funny and Run, a history of notorious joke-thieves from Milton Berle and Robin Williams to Denis Leary, Carlos Mencia (previously) and Dane Cook.
posted by Navelgazer (52 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Robin Williams tells jokes?
posted by DU at 7:04 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Carlos Mencia steals names from Mexicans.
posted by Poolio at 7:08 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Interesting article, thanks.
posted by tkolar at 7:18 PM on June 10, 2008

Why is Denis Leary a star?

Because there's no cure for cancer.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:24 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I do improvised comedy. I get auditions sometimes where they ask me to improvise around the script instead of reading the script. I've seen commercials that I auditioned for, but didn't get cast in, using material I improvised.

Hey, maybe parallel thinking or whatever, but what can you do?

On the other hand, there's a local comedian who does a fantastic bit about Dog the Bounty Hunter. Once, when I was improvising, I had to do something in the style of Dog the Bounty Hunter's show. I'd never seen the show. I had seen this dude's bit about the show. I didn't steal it word for word, but I did the tropes. At the end of the scene, I copped to doing his bit in front of the audience and plugged his show.

Yeah, though, I shouldn't have done his tropes, but I'm improvising and it was all that came into my brain at the time.

I've also, I'm ashamed to admit, found myself quoting lines from The Venture Brothers word for word. While I'm doing it, I always think "what the hell? I know this isn't mine, surely some folks in the audience know this isn't mine, why am I saying it?" I think its the same part of my reptile brain that used to incessantly quote Monty Python when I was 14. Now, it is storing and regurgitating Venture Brothers. I hate that.

However, I improvising, not performing a written set. Sure, I should be able to control it, but sometimes when you start to let loose whatever is in your head, the stuff that comes out of your head is stuff that went into your head at some point.

So, the Robin Williams situation I can understand, since he mostly improvises and riffs. Furthermore, the fact that he at least tries to make amends by paying the creators of the jokes suggests positive things about Mr. Williams to me. And I haven't had many positive things to say about the fellow since Bicentennial Man, so suffice to say I am glad to be given this opportunity to feel some respect for him.

Furthermore, the Denis Leary biz sounds a little overblown.

Berle, Mencia and Cook, though? Not only are they plagiarists, but they're largely unrepentant plagiarists. I don't think its a coincidence that all three are at the top of their field, though. Stealing the best material from a wide range of comedians means that you have an absolutely killer act. The belief among comedians that you just have to suck it up if somebody steals your shit means that they're always going to be folks like those three rising to the top on the wings of other's work.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:25 PM on June 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

Furthermore, the Denis Leary biz sounds a little overblown.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and suggest that you're not terribly familiar with Bill Hicks. No Cure for Cancer contains lots of material taken from Hicks' repertoire, and Leary was just another friendly, we're all having a good time comedian without a personality before he encountered Hicks- at which point he became a raving angry person... just like Hicks. Leary got popular right around the time Hicks died.

It's kind of like a comedy-themed Buffy episode.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:53 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The belief among comedians that you just have to suck it up if somebody steals your shit

Why don't more of them should follow Joe Rogan's example?
posted by homunculus at 7:57 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Nah, I'm familiar with Bill Hicks and think he was awesome - a high water mark in modern comedy, maybe even the high water mark. I don't think Leary holds a candle to him. I agree that Leary covers a lot of the same ground - and that a lot of the material is even fairly similar - but he never even closely approaches the bite and brains of Hicks.

If he was really trying to rip off Hicks, he failed. He managed to strip away some of the surface but none of the substance.

Hicks was dangerous. Leary is a cuddly curmudgeon.

This is why I think its a bit overblown.
posted by Joey Michaels at 8:00 PM on June 10, 2008

Er, Why don't more of them should just follow Joe Rogan's example?

Shit, the DMT must be kicking in early.
posted by homunculus at 8:00 PM on June 10, 2008

The vibe between hicks and leary wasn't remotely the same to me. Hicks was a bar stool philosopher. Leary's persona was just that he was an angry, white-trash asshole.
posted by empath at 8:02 PM on June 10, 2008

Joey Michaels/empath: did you watch the youtube? Just because Leary didn't rip off Hicks well doesn't mean he didn't rip him off.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:10 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why don't more of them should just follow Joe Rogan's example?

For fear of becoming Joe Rogan.
posted by SassHat at 9:11 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Joe Rogan explains life
posted by homunculus at 9:15 PM on June 10, 2008

Anyone who's gone to a Robin Williams "trying out new material" set in SF knows that Robin Wiliams "riffing" is carefully crafted. Sit through his unhoned stuff sometime. Painful unfunny. And I say this as someone who survived BICENTENNIAL MAN.

I do wonder if people hadn't ripped off Woody Allen as much, would he have stayed funny?
posted by Gucky at 9:21 PM on June 10, 2008

I wonder if the person who first used the cross-out-something-somebody-wrote-to-change-the-meaning-and-then-write-"Fixed That For You" gag on here sits around stewing all day at how often he (or she?) gets cribbed.
posted by The Gooch at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine recently told me to watch out for certain punchlines in one of my favorite, a-little-bit-famous-but-not-huge comedian's act, because he claimed a stand-up he knew "sold the guy his act."
posted by Cyrano at 10:24 PM on June 10, 2008


This business of comedian stealing from comedian is SOOO 20th century. I have discovered the new wave of joke theft, and I'm so proud of it I'll share my secret.

1. I surf Reddit for sensational posts about anomalous events or moral conundrums. The Russian flying dildo video was a good example.

2. Scan through the comments for teh funny. For this one, the term "cockblocker" seemed like comedy gold, so I make a mental note of it.

3. Eventually someone will post a link to at least some of the sensational Reddit links to Metafilter.

4. Gotta be quick! You want as many eyes on the comments as you can, so post your witty rejoinder as soon as you can.

5. Make sure to re-word your comment just slightly, so that Google won't bust you. Thankfully I've never crossed Joe Rogan, either...

6. Watch your "favorite" bean counter grow!!

Please note, the previous was pure fiction, as all my attempts at humor are purely my own. This should be obvious, as I can't hold a candle to Metafilter heroes like Robocop, Florence Henderson, Cortex, or Hal9k.
posted by Tube at 10:39 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Boy, I wanted to find Bill Hicks funny, but never did.

Coincidentally, I find Denis Leary to be very unfunny.

So, a copy of something unfunny (to me) remains unfunny, so therefore, I do not care.

Robin Williams, also, is interesting to watch, but he has never actually ever made a joke that wasn't obvious from, say, 5000 miles away.
posted by newfers at 11:21 PM on June 10, 2008

Why Dane Cook is a Huge Bag of Douche [via Hot Chicks with Douchebags (previously)]
posted by Poolio at 11:33 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is admittedly one of the many reasons I never had the balls to pursue a stand up career. I studied comedy routines extensively as a kid, and it is still a passion of mine. I'm no comedian by a long shot, but I am forever a Student of Comedy.

I still find the entire concept of stand up fascinating. However, I got so many jokes and stories and oneliners and insults and connections to connections to randomness running around in my head, I am literally incapable of telling anymore when I come up with something I think is funny, did I come up with that or did I hear it somewhere? Who did I hear it from? Sometimes I can figure it out, and other times I'm oblivious.

This is not a problem if you're just trading barbs back and forth among friends, but once you get up on that stage, there's real legal implications that can come down on you if you tell a joke that sounds kinda like a joke someone else (with a lawyer) once told. I could be completely innocent, sincerely tell a joke that I thought I made up, and find myself raked over the hot coals by other comedians who believed otherwise. Sounds like more trouble than it's worth.

In most cases I don't think these 'joke rustlers' intended to cause harm. Robin Williams is a big example. He has not been known for his crafting of humor, but in his improvisational style and his machinegun technique to humor. He berates his audience with cultural references and historical connections. One might need a bibliography after his routine if they wanted to cite his sources - he's all over the map from Shakespeare to what played on television last weekend.

His style of delivery and how he improvises his art makes it fully impossible for him to be forced to check every quip that's about to come out of his mouth for royalty checks. Were he to attempt to silence himself every time something he's about to say might have been written by someone else? He'd have absolutely no act. He'd be silenced permanently. That brilliant laser pointer wit would be lost forever, because of legal red tape.

In some cases the theft is harder to defend, like Mencia or Cook. Even then though, I think they've rationalized that they sufficiently changed the joke, improved upon it, to such a point where the version they tell is theirs and they'll defend it. I'm reminded of The Aristocrats. The same joke told repeatedly by several different talented comedians. Who owns this joke? No one. Yet each person who tells it in that film embraces the joke and makes it their own - it's the only way to tell it well.

Still, the other side of the argument is equally valid. Doesn't matter if Robin Williams needs that freedom of expression. If he used intellectual property that another comedian (one not blessed with the ability to improvise but instead slaves on the wording of a monologue in order to maximize laugh potential) worked so hard to perfect, it is criminal. It may or may not be illegal - that's for courts to decide, but it is immoral. It's stealing.

The problem is this theft is so vague and impossible to properly define or convey.

If I came up with something witty, and made no money with it, then another with connections overhears what I said, gets on a stage and makes money with it, did he steal potential money from me? I never woulda gotten on that stage. I never woulda been able to use his connections to find a paying audience. Is what he did wrong, or is it just being opportunistic? He took the bull by the horns. I did not. So, one could argue that I'm at fault for not working as hard as he did to find a way to make that joke profitable. Or is that blaming the victim? Is there a victim here? No. There's not. So what's the big deal?

Apparently, in some circles, it's a VERY big deal.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:24 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Will Jordan: "I was afraid that anything I would write would be stolen. It's a stupid reason, but I think it's the truth."

I was afraid of both that and the opposite. I was afraid if I ever tried to make it as a stand up comedian, what few really good completely original jokes I could hammer out would get pilfered leaving me with nothing, AND I feared that I'd look in the mirror one day and realize that I too was a culprit. It'd dawn on me that the night before something came out of my mouth that a fellow comedian had said the week before, and in the moment on stage I sincerely thought I was just coming up with it off the top of my head, but twenty-twenty hindsight would make me feel like an utter heel.

I honestly don't think this is something comedians ever do on purpose - it just sorta happens and when it does what can be done about it? It's live theater. You can't take it back. Some comedians wouldn't want to, if they sincerely believe they've improved upon the joke and made it their own, they honestly don't see the wrong that happens there.

This is a topic I've reviewed for many years and have been silent witness to its history. I really don't think there's an answer here, and that pains me greatly. Cuz in my youth I woulda liked getting up on that stage, even if it was just to bomb. It woulda been fun to try.
posted by ZachsMind at 12:47 AM on June 11, 2008

Here's a video of Rogan confronting Mencia at a club. Warning: cheesy, annoying music abound.
posted by farishta at 12:47 AM on June 11, 2008

That video makes both of them look like giant assbags. When I saw that Rogan had confronted him, I figured he got up on stage and hilariously berated Mencia, you know, hilariously. Nope, he just yelled about how Mencia steals jokes. What happened to the awesome comedians?
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:56 AM on June 11, 2008

The Gooch: "I wonder if the person who first used the cross-out-something-somebody-wrote-to-change-the-meaning-and-then-write-"Fixed That For You" gag on here sits around stewing all day at how often he (or she?) gets cribbed."

I used to believe I was the first person in MeFi to use the phrase, "get off the lawn," but then I found a reference in The Blue somewhere that predated mine so I felt like an idiot, and it never mattered cuz I unwittingly blatantly stole "get off the lawn" from Bob Nelson's HBO special Nelson Schmelson anywayz. But for a few days there once I was like, "hey that was MINE and no one's acknowledging that!" Pretty fuckin' lame.

I wonder when was the first time a Monty Python quote was ever regurgitated onto MeFi?
posted by ZachsMind at 1:01 AM on June 11, 2008

Comedian Stewart Lee on plagiarism (youtube - contains references to UK comedians)
posted by bokeh at 1:52 AM on June 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Because there's no cure for cancer.

posted by Eideteker at 4:38 AM on June 11, 2008

At any rate, we're lucky comedians never look at MetaFilter to see how much poaching we do. It'd probably look something like this:

Comedian: Hey, you can't comment that! That's my joke!

MF User: I didn't see your flag upon it.

C: That's preposterous, you can't plant a flag on a joke.

MFU: No flag, no country. I mean joke. No joke, no flag. Umm, wait—

original comment flagged, deleted

Peanut Gallery: Eh, that joke was racist against comedians anyway.
posted by Eideteker at 6:18 AM on June 11, 2008

Nobody is 100% original. Having said that, it would be nice to see Mencia stuffed head first into a septic tank, or at a minimum have his show on Comedy Central get pulled off the air.

Seriously, listen to Mencia for once. What does he always say? "Get a Mexican to do it." So, Comedy Central, do what Carlos says: Fire his ass and hire an actual Mexican comedian.

Williams... meh. He's significantly less funny without the frantic 80's coke buzz. He's still good, sure, but there are a lot of up and coming acts I'd prefer to see instead.

Dane Cook? I just want to see him get punched in the face. Repeatedly. Preferably by someone that, by all rights, ought to have no chance at actually beating up a grown man, yet somehow manage to beat the shit out of him nonetheless.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:50 AM on June 11, 2008

bokeh: That link is genius. "Insist that it is your beer, and that you brewed it at home in your house, even though your home lacks the most rudimentary of brewing facilities". That's how you take someone to task for stealing. Maybe Joe Rogan can steal that bit for use on Mencia.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:52 AM on June 11, 2008

Did that guy really just compare Carlos Mencia to Shakespeare?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:53 AM on June 11, 2008

(these comments are really long. dang.)
posted by Dizzy at 7:25 AM on June 11, 2008

Bill Hicks blah blah. Here's my litmus test. I never laughed watching or listening to Bill Hicks. I laughed at Denis Leary.

Furthermore, I was under the impression that Robin Williams bought jokes/has writers, but I could be wrong.

And while I do appreciate the hate directed at Joe Rogan, he did a bit once about how most of us are basically stupid, that most of us have no idea how any of the technology we use works
that culminated in a very hilarious punchline.

Also, Louis CK is brilliant.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:20 AM on June 11, 2008

A very very long time ago before I discovered the Internet I used to frequent RIME which was a BBS based distributed discussion forum. My favorite was the COMICS forum where a couple of actual comic book writers were regulars.

One of these writers was Steven Grant the guy who wrote the original Punisher mini-series.

There was once a running debate in which he INSISTED that he and his friends coined the phrase "Bingo Bango Bongo" when they were teenagers and he was annoyed that the phrase was used on Quantum Leap (by Al) without credit. He would not accept that the phrase pre-dated him. Writers hate plagiarism even when it isn't really plagiarism.

Nice guy though. He once solicited names from the forum to use as characters he would kill of in his books. I was killed in a Batman comic book.
posted by Bonzai at 8:37 AM on June 11, 2008

Stealing jokes : comedy :: Sampling riffs : music
posted by Nelson at 8:43 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

XQYUZYPHYR steals his jokes from Bernard Righton.
posted by jack_mo at 8:56 AM on June 11, 2008

Robin Williams tells jokes?
posted by drezdn at 9:06 AM on June 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've done comedy around the DC area for years. My own brand of absurdist comedy. Original jokes, I must say. The only problem is that some audiences are getting dumber and they don't understand original material. What I'm getting at is...(looks both ways)..some of my black audiences just sit and stare at me while I do my act. They expect me to do black jokes but that's not part of my act. If another comedian comes on after me, also black, he does your mama jokes and white people dance like this. He brings down the house. Sometimes you have to copy....but not me.
posted by doctorschlock at 9:23 AM on June 11, 2008

These comedians should just become members of the RIAA and then no one will steal their material ever again.
posted by wabashbdw at 10:09 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I see what you did there, drezdn.

But now your comment needs to get more favorites than the original.
posted by Eideteker at 12:38 PM on June 11, 2008

I could be completely innocent, sincerely tell a joke that I thought I made up, and find myself raked over the hot coals by other comedians who believed otherwise. Sounds like more trouble than it's worth.

What you're missing is that comedians are a community. Some of my favorite times in comedy have been hanging out with colleague/writing buddies, trying out our new lines for reactions and giving each other tags (those extra lines after the punchline.) You can be damned sure they'll let you know if your joke has been done.

Early on was I was proud of a line about the absurdity of people who take the elevator 2 floors to work and pay to use a stair machine. My friend Lee says "Gallagher's 3rd album." Gallagher! Cripes.
posted by msalt at 10:39 PM on June 11, 2008

It appalls me that not one of you has even brought up the whole Gallagher vs. Gallagher Too story. In the end, stale comedy, both original and borrowed, wrecked a family.
posted by jsavimbi at 10:30 AM on June 20, 2008

"What happened to the awesome comedians?"

A few months ago, I stumbled upon some community forum for swedish stand-up comedians, where the most active thread happened to be a flame war over some trivial and utterly irrelevant issue. That thread was a was a black hole of unfunniness; not a single trace of humor anywhere in sight. Nor any traces of intelligence.

It's possible that comedians really think that you're born with a limited amount of funny in your brain, and that you just have to save anything even remotely funny for the next "trying out new material for 3 minutes max" gig at the local stand-up comedy club. But I find that hard to believe, and haven't really been able to watch stand-up comedy since.

(On the other hand, I've noticed that I no longer cringe when reading Youtube comments. Strange, isn't it?)
posted by effbot at 10:45 AM on June 20, 2008

Gallagher vs. Gallagher Too

I don't know all the details but didn't it start out as "you can do my act in small towns I can't get to, bro"? Definitely a fascinating case.
posted by msalt at 12:09 PM on June 20, 2008

Watch "Robin Williams Live at the Met" and then any set or interview he does today. He hasn't come up with anything new in 20 years. He's riffing off the same jokes he was making in the 80's, using different words.

I saw a show, and it was the exact same jokes he was telling for decades now, he just changed the subject matter.

I've also heard horror stories about Robin Williams heckling or shouting in the audience at local gigs. One comedian put out the microphone and asked him if he just wanted to finish up the set for him.

He can be funny. Sometimes, he's just annoying.
posted by Chuffy at 12:20 PM on June 20, 2008

I ran into Robin Williams at a few open mics and showcases around San Francisco in about 1999, when he was starting to put back together his comedy show act after a long break. Saw him do, oh, 3 hours of material or so. Only one bit that he did was recognizably similar to any San Francisco comics on the circuit, and I knew them all at the time. On the other hand, I didnt' think he was particularly funny. Hack premises and punchlines, spoken quickly which makes them seem more clever than they really are.

I will say that he was friendly, down to earth and did not pull any star attitude or use his fame to skip steps in the process. He was out there as a lunch bucket comic, waiting his turn, grinding it out.
posted by msalt at 1:06 PM on June 20, 2008

XQUZYPHYR! That's the best joke I've ever heard in my life! Where'd you hear that from? I don't recognize it.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:13 AM on June 22, 2008

I honestly like to think of Mr. Williams as a performance artist who lives for the process. He enjoys getting out there and walking out on that limb, interpreting the response of the audience and just doing his thing. Since he works on the edge (or wants at least to appear so) he's gonna make mistakes and he's shown before that he's willing to own up to said mistakes.

MSalt's description coincides with how I imagine Mr. Williams to be. So I'm gonna pretend MSalt is right, and to all the Williams' haters out there, "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU LA LA LA!"
posted by ZachsMind at 7:53 AM on June 22, 2008

They're all Lenny.
posted by aiq at 8:59 AM on June 22, 2008

Stealing jokes : comedy :: Sampling riffs : music

Really? How are these two related? One is taking another person's material outright and trying to pass it off as your own. The other is using parts of a creative work to add to your own creative work. Not to mention the fact that the musician is required to credit the sampled artist.

I'll never forget the argument I had with one of my university mates. He truly believed that there were only so many concepts in the world for comedians to play around with. Therefore, stealing jokes is an "inevitable" phenomenon. Therefore, comics should expect it to happen and y'know, "deal with it."

As someone who regularly hangs out with comedians (my boyfriend is one and I write about them) I can tell you that logic would not fly with them. Comedians see their bits as gold. They spend a lot of time thinking them up, trying them out on stage, having them bomb, changing the delivery, tweaking the wording, trying them again on stage, maybe getting a few laughs this time... Rinse and repeat. The only time I've seen comedians be "generous" with their bits is when they think of a joke that doesn't fit with the kind of humour they're aiming for.

My boyfriend has done a few shows with a known joke stealer (which is a total headache for Mr. Menomena because then he's paranoid about having his own jokes stolen). We drove out to a small town for a gig and I didn't even need Mr. Menomena to tell me. Within a few minutes I could pin-point exactly which jokes were stolen and I could even tell you who he had taken them from. Of course, no one in these small towns knows any better, and fortunately for him, he lives in a city with a tiny, almost nonexistent English-speaking comedy community, so no one tells him off. He does road gigs and takes le creme de la crop from his fellow travelling comics, people he rarely has to see. And because many of the club owners and managers don't care, he still gets work. In my city, the community is pretty tight-knit, so stealing a joke is a pretty big social faux-pas unless you honestly believe that you can get ahead without the help of your fellow comics. Few, if any, are that stupid.
posted by Menomena at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2008

Well put. Also, focusing on Mencia and Robin Williams ignores the reality that for 99% of comics, there is no money to be made by stealing material. It's lots of driving to crappy gigs in tiny towns for little money.

The vast majority of joke-stealing comics are just committing career suicide. It's doesn't have to be direct theft either; shopping well-worn, crowd-pleasing routines (wives stop giving blowjobs! Men sure like big titties!! har har) has the same effect.

With Mencia and Robin Williams, they're in the tiny minority that hit it big and get on TV for whatever reason, and then need more material than they can come up to fill their air time. Most big time comics (such as Chris Rock, Jake Johannsen, etc.) are great writers and/or hire great writers to solve that problem. (Rock hiring Louis C.K., for example.) If you are in the scene, it's not hard to find brilliant comics happy to write for your TV show.
posted by msalt at 11:08 AM on June 30, 2008

Comedians see their bits as gold.

So do musicians.
posted by Nelson at 2:16 PM on June 30, 2008

Comedians see their bits as gold.
>>So do musicians.

Well, they oughta, since they get royalties (including for samples.)
posted by msalt at 3:45 PM on June 30, 2008

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