This article was originally published on July 15, 2011.
In a business where you’re only as good as your material, joke theft is one of comedy’s high crimes. Jokes about the fact that you’re an irredeemably selfish asshole? Totally fine. Jokes that someone else wrote that you try to pass off as your own? People will tell you to kill yourself.
Accusations of joke theft can do lasting damage to a comedian’s career, making it harder to book shows and harming their reputation for years. Joke thieves are out there and they do indeed suck. But in a world where it’s far easier to accuse someone of ripping off a joke than it is to prove it, some care needs to be taken when you suspect that a professional funny person blatantly stole material from another.
So, what should you do if you think you’re the victim of a joke thief? Allow me to lay out some important questions for comedians and comedy groups to ask themselves before publicly accusing someone of plagiarism.
In order for someone to steal your joke from you, they have to be aware of its existence in the first place. Is your original joke something that was on TV, in a movie, on a standup album, or in a web video viewed more than 500,000 times? Well, then it’s reasonable to think that the person in question may have seen it.
But is the joke in question from a YouTube video with a couple thousand views, or from a sketch show of yours that ran at a small, underground comedy theater in New York or LA for a couple of months a year or two ago? Unless you know for a fact that the person saw it, the chances are good that they didn’t. In the case of Last Call Cleveland, a sketch group that accused Rory Scovel and Jon Dore of stealing their material on Conan, there’s no evidence that their routine was seen by more than a handful of people; even after the video was written up by places like The A.V. Club and this website after their accusations, its view count was still around 4,100. Not exactly something that was setting the world on fire.
If your joke is one that has never been made before, one that’s unlike anything else that’s come before it in comedy, you may have some merit to your accusation. But if you’re making a joke that’s relatively obvious or is something that people have been riffing on for years, you probably can’t claim ownership of it. At the very least, you should do some cursory research to make sure you’re the first one to make the joke in question.
For example, in 2010, Tim and Eric accused SNL of ripping off their tiny hats sketch. The two sketches aren’t similar except for the fact that characters in them wear tiny hats as part of the punchline. Tim and Eric essentially claimed ownership over the comedic idea of tiny hats.
Of course, it didn’t take long for people to remember Damon Wayans’s famous Blaine Edwards character from In Living Color’s “Men on Film” sketch, whose key physical characteristic was a tiny hat perched on his head. It’s tough to say that Tim and Eric own tiny hats when it was on a highly influential sketch show in the early ’90s.
If you were the first one to make the obvious joke after an event, that does not give you ownership of that joke. Everybody is making that joke. For example, a video on Funny or Die in the wake of Brett Favre’s cockshots being made public parodied his Wrangler jeans ads. SNL then made a similar commercial parody the following week, and people accused them of plagiarism.
For one, the chances are slim that the SNL writing staff saw the original video. Two, this is the most obvious parody imaginable. If the group behind the Funny or Die sketch or SNL hadn’t made a parody of this jeans ad with Favre’s dick hanging out, about a hundred other sketch groups were lined up to make a similar one.
Nothing shuts down an accusation of joke theft faster or in a more embarrassing way than proof that the accuser actually made the joke after the accused. That’s what happened to Bill Maher, who accused The Onion of stealing a joke he made in a standup special. The problem? The Onion published the joke in question six months before his standup special aired. He had just seen it brought back from the archives on the front page and assumed it was new. Bill Maher then looked like an asshole.
Copying a joke word-for-word is one thing, but it’s tough to make the case that someone ripped you off when they only share a specific or a similar setup to your joke. One of the problems with the aforementioned Last Call Cleveland accusation was claiming that their original routine shared a setup with the one on Conan, when it was actually quite different. The crux of their bit had two standups doing the exact same routine at the same time, with the occasional bit of color different for each comedian. Jon Dore and Rory Scovel’s routine, on the other hand, had the two comedians doing completely different routines side-by-side. They performed it in a way that you would only hear snippets of each routine at any given time, but what you would hear would be enough to get the gist of their intentionally hacky bits. While the structure was the same, the actual humor of each routine came from completely different places. Essentially, Last Call Cleveland was claiming ownership of any routine in which two comedians performed at the same time.
Take a step back and look at the people you’re accusing. Do you really think the writing staff of SNL is scanning YouTube looking for sketch videos to rip off? These highly visible shows have the most to lose from joke theft. They also staff professional comedy writers who have written enough good sketches to not need to go to the internet to copy some college improv group’s video. It’s certainly possible that someone from an established show would rip something off, but before accusing them, think to yourself: Why would they?
This is not all to say that joke stealing never happens, and by established writers and comedians. It most certainly does! It’s really tough to find any legitimate excuses for Carlos Mencia’s well-documented cases of joke theft. And when South Park lifted multiple lines from a CollegeHumor Inception sketch for their own Inception parody, it was nearly impossible to come up with a scenario where they didn’t copy the lines from the video. And they ended up admitting to it, albeit while giving a lame, nonsensical excuse about not getting the joke of the video and thinking the lines were directly from the movie.
So yes, if there’s legit evidence that someone ripped you off, by all means, call them out. There’s no excuse for joke plagiarism, and anyone busted doing it deserves to be publicly shamed. But just make sure that you’re in the right, because if you’re not, you end up looking like an idiot. And not the funny kind of idiot.