I was thirteen when I first saw a comic glance at his notes on stage, and I remember wondering why I was surprised to see this. Did you think he was making all this up on the spot? I asked myself. Well, I guess I did. Years later, when I began regularly attending comedy shows and would end up seeing the same set a dozen times a year, I began to have a similar feeling. What, I again asked myself, did you think comedians come up with a new routine for every show? Well, I guess I did. After all, isn’t that the rouse that so many standups employ in their act, that this is all a spontaneous, one-sided conversation?
Young fans of standup inevitably go through these revelations. At some point, we develop the moxie to learn that the character a comedian is on stage isn’t necessarily who they are off-stage (though sometimes they can be, for good or ill). Even though I’m a child of the indie-comedy generation, I still have no problem accepting a certain amount of theater and artifice in someone’s set.
Though if that’s the case, why do we get so punk-rock preachy at the idea of a standup comedian not writing their own jokes?
In Judd Apatow’s 2009 dramedy, Funny People, Adam Sandler plays a wealthy, yet emotionally and creatively bankrupt has-been looking to return to his standup roots – when he inevitably bombs with his own material, he hires Seth Rogen to write him some jokes that will get him the laughs he so desperately needs. This is the perfect illustration of how alt-comedy culture views the type of standup who would buy jokes: A pathetic old crank who can’t get it up anymore and now requires a surrogate of creativity.
Case in point: The two most common grievances comedy fans have against Larry The Cable Guy is that his accent isn’t real, and he doesn’t write his own jokes – and therefore, he should not be considered a real standup comedian.
Today a comic like Ben Kronberg can proudly hold his notebook while on stage, reminding the audience that jokes are written beforehand. And T.J. Miller can tell an autobiographical story that eventually turns into a surreal piece of fiction, shattering the illusion of an auteur whose stories are plucked from his real life and recited on stage. Yet if either one of those comics finished their sets by casually admitting that they didn’t write any of their jokes, there would inevitably be some comedy purists in the crowd who would feel cheated.
For the record, I’m almost certain that neither Kronberg or Miller are buying their jokes. But in 2014 this is still a common element of the standup comedy business, and like homosexuality and drug-use before they became socially acceptable, the buying and selling of jokes is often done in secret and almost never publicly admitted, thereby preserving the illusion that their monologues came from the same mind that’s speaking them.
“With people like Ron White or Larry The Cable Guy who are touring constantly, they may be in the same city twice inside a year, and appearing on television, just burning through material, and they always need something new,” says Deacon Gray, a twenty-eight-year veteran of standup, who has often sold jokes on the side to headlining comics. “That’s why people like Chris Rock only do a special once every five years, because it takes them that long to gather that material themselves. But you take someone like Kathy Griffin, I guarantee that almost all of that material comes from other sources. There are very few comics like Louis C.K. or Bill Burr who can regularly crank out their own, new material.”
Deacon Gray lists off a number of well-known comics that he has written jokes for, but prefers that their names be kept off the record, due to the career-threatening taboo of buying jokes. Gray works as a house comic at Comedy Works in Denver, Colorado; here his act is often seen by headlining comics, who sometimes will be interested in purchasing a joke or two from him. Though Gray says that it’s not often that the comic themselves that approach him, but an assistant or another comedy writer, who will arrange the sale. No contracts are ever drawn up, or copyrights notarized. These are gentleman’s agreements. Discretion isn’t requested, but it is expected.
Though this wasn’t always the case.
“In 1988 I sold my first joke to Jimmy Walker,” says Gray, who was just starting out in Oklahoma City comedy clubs at the time. “I didn’t know that that was something you could do. He walked into the green-room and just announced ‘I’m looking to buy material, and I have these topics.’ He wanted to write about how there were different TV ads for white people and black people – because that was when McDonalds started doing ads for black people.”
Whenever two people are arguing about whether standup comedians should write all their own material, one of them inevitably makes an analogy to songwriters. The two narratives have followed a similar path. The first half of the twentieth century saw more of a socialist-anarchism to the vast catalogue of vaudeville jokes and blues and folk songs, with dozens of versions constantly splintering off throughout the country. And then Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce challenged the format, subsequently raising the standards of their respective genres and forever linking performer and author in the eyes of the public. It had to be real, man, it had to be honest; the crowd wanted to see you up there, not a character.
In the summer of 2013 British comedian Stewart Lee mapped this transition eloquently in a speech given at Oxford University. The video of his speech was widely circulated around the U.K., due to Lee’s outing certain British comics for using joke writers, while ultimately concluding that he would like to see “standup comedians who rely heavily on writers be stripped of whatever artistic or financial awards they received in their careers, like disgraced, drug-taking Tour De France cyclists.”
During that same summer, Patton Oswalt posted a 6,000 word diatribe on his website, commenting on rape jokes, hecklers and (most notably) joke theft. It was a very poignant and eloquent piece of writing, offering insight that only a practitioner of standup could provide. Since no one was about to step up and defend the practice of shamelessly stealing another comic’s material, the essay was widely celebrated for its thoughtful take-down of this universally loathed practice. Though buried within the subtext of this writing was the idea that any standup who uses material other than his own is a hack that deserves no respect.
When telling the story of his early years as a fresh-faced comic attending open mics, Oswalt admits to the familiar practice of unwittingly stealing a joke he’d once heard another comic deliver, then forgetting he’d heard it and mistook it for his own. And when another comic points out he’d appropriated someone else’s joke, he says “my ego kicked in. And, I mean, my real ego. Not ego’s sociopathic cousin, hubris, which would have made me defensive, aggressive and ultimately rationalize the theft. No, the good kind of ego, the kind that wanted success and fame and praise on my own merits, no matter how long it took… I wanted any success or fame I had coming to be my own. To be built on a bedrock of my own creativity and risk.”
Oswalt goes on to say that his ultimate motive is to destroy “the continued, false perception the bulk of the general public has about standup comedy,” which he describes as the belief that “comedians don’t write their own jokes. They all steal. All great artists steal. You can’t copyright jokes. It doesn’t matter who writes a joke, just who tells it the best. Don’t musicians play other musicians’ songs? There are only so many subjects to make jokes about, anyway. I’ve seen, like, five different comedians do jokes about airplanes – isn’t that stealing, too?”
Arguments like this get to the heart of what it means to be a standup comic. After living through the artistic implosion that was the 1980s comedy boom, Gen-Xers like Oswalt are terrified of standup receding back into the douchebag culture of brick-walls and sports jackets with rolled up sleeves, where some hack with a John Oates mustache explains the difference between how men and women drive. Whether the jokes were stolen or purchased is almost irrelevant in this context, because they weren’t authentically derived, and so they must be terrible.
These arguments dismiss the performance aspect of standup, or imply that you cannot properly deliver a joke unless you wrote it yourself. Later in his essay, Oswalt recalls a situation in the 90s where a friend of his had developed more than an hour of good material, but wasn’t ascending the comedy club ladder. So another comic began shamelessly stealing his material, and subsequently began getting feature gigs with it.
The crux of the story was that this thief was a dick – which he undeniably was, particularly for not dropping the stolen jokes after Oswalt’s friend asked him to. But an option that fails to materialize is that the progenitor of the jokes could’ve been selling his material to the performer, since it seemed to be the case that one person was more talented at writing jokes, and the other was better at delivering them.
The problem is that there is no accessible marketplace for these transactions to occur, since it’s always done in secret – often with a middle-man and no legal documentation. And this will never change so long as the public doesn’t evolve a more sophisticated understanding about the theatrical elements of standup comedy: namely that comics aren’t thinking these jokes up on the spot, they’ve often told them 800 times over, they aren’t necessarily autobiographical, and sometimes they aren’t even written by the person speaking them. And that’s OK.