Is There Ever a Justification for Joke Stealing?

No other comedian is currently more despised by the comedy community than Carlos Mencia. The performer has faced a number of criticisms over his two-decade career, including making jokes that were racially insensitive (and many others that just weren’t funny), “bumping” less popular comedians by showing up last minute to stand-up shows and performing hour-long sets, and most infamously, stealing jokes.

The controversy reached a boiling point when comedian Joe Rogan confronted Mencia on stage at The Comedy Store in LA in 2007, accusing him of stealing jokes written by George Lopez, Ari Shaffir, and Bobby Lee (all of whom have publicly confirmed the rumors). The most cringeworthy example of Mencia’s alleged theft is a joke that bears a striking resemblance to a famous joke by Bill Cosby:

Last May comedian Marc Maron interviewed Carlos Mencia on his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron (you have to listen to it – the Huffington Post compared it to the Frost-Nixon interview, and I agree). Mencia claimed that he did not steal any jokes, though he regrets that his ego and competitive nature made him the collective whipping boy for the comedy community. He claimed that he had never seen the Cosby special in question, and that the “I love you mom” joke was inspired by his brother and nephew, who played football in school.

“I am a sponge,” Mencia said. “I don’t write things down.”

Although Maron was particularly (and justifiably) tough on Mencia, especially in the second half of the interview, the host closed out the podcast by lamenting how the Internet has turned what should have been a private matter between comedians into an international incident.

“I believe this stuff should stay within the community and be dealt with by the people involved,” Maron said. “And because of the Internet, everyone got involved. I’m sure there are some people out there… who feel like it’s their job to police comedy. It’s a sad indication of where we’re at now, that nothing is really personal… there are some people out there who are plinking away at their keys, making judgments about people’s lives, who are just bullies. Bullies beget bullies, and that’s a reality.”

One of the many effects the Internet has had on comedy is this wave of YouTube watchdogs who go into panic mode whenever television shows or comedians make jokes that sound even vaguely familiar. In the past month alone these fact checkers caught SNL using tiny hats in a sketch (a gag apparently patented by Tim and Eric), Jimmy Fallon repeating a joke originally written on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien (the joke was submitted by one of Fallon’s fans on Twitter), and South Park directly plagiarizing jokes for its Inception parody episode from a video on CollegeHumor (Trey Parker and Matt Stone subsequently apologized).

Carlos Mencia isn’t the only comedian accused of joke theft. Dane Cook used at least three jokes that sound very similar to ones from Louis C.K.’s album Live in Houston. Dennis Leary made a joke about a person with an electronic voice box arguing with an intercom in a fast food drive through, almost exactly how Judd Apatow delivered the same joke a few years earlier. And we’ve all seen countless videos crucifying Family Guy for ripping off The Simpsons.

Conspiracy theories are contagious. The human mind is hard wired to create order out of chaos, to invent and perceive connections between random, isolated events. It explains gambling addictions, Jesus’ face on tortilla shells, and why still images on a movie screen appear to be “moving.” We naturally connect dots and fabricate patterns because it comforts us, it reassures us that things happen for a reason.

Coincidence, it seems, is just not interesting enough to be remotely plausible.

The problem I’m having with the debate over comedians stealing jokes is that the argument is drowned out by extremes. It’s either “I don’t know many comedians, but this guy makes me laugh and I love him, so I don’t care what he does as long as it’s funny,” or “This guy said a joke that sounds a lot like this other comedian’s, and that means he’s an untalented hack, so fuck him.” Meanwhile, the possibility of parallel thinking is often dismissed as a cop out or refuted by the claim that it’s a professional comedian’s responsibility to be aware of every joke ever written. I’m sure Bill Cosby is an expert in the comedies of Moliere and Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence.

I’m not interested in arguing the definition of comedy plagiarism or belaboring the point that all comedians emulate someone sometimes, and that true “originality” is dead. (South Park made that point better than I could.) Instead, I would like to consider the possibility that two comedians can unconsciously come up with the same joke, in the same (or similar) wording, without actively stealing from each other. One explanation relies on science (or pseudoscience), while the other relies on more of a conspiracy theory.

1. “I forgot I heard that before.”

In 1970 George Harrison released the song “My Sweet Lord,” a song that sounds remarkably similar to The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” released eight years earlier. The producers of “He’s So Fine” took Harrison’s people to court over copyright infringement. Harrison’s defense was that he “subconsciously” copied parts of the song while writing “My Sweet Lord,” without realizing he had ever heard the melody before. The affliction is a psychological phenomenon known as cryptomnesia, or “hidden memory,” in which thoughts and ideas that seem new and original are actually memories of forgotten experiences. Helen Keller is another famous victim. Her book The Frost King contained elements from a fairy tale signed into her hand years earlier, an experience she had completely forgotten about.

Is it possible that Mencia and co. suffer from cryptomnesia? Had the comedian heard the Cosby joke at some point during his career, forgotten about it, then subconsciously “rediscovered” it while watching his nephew?

It was clear from the Maron interview that Mencia suffers from some kind of pathological affliction. His steadfast defense of his jokes, despite how similar many of them appear to other comedians’, and all the hate he’s received over the alleged plagiarism, suggest that this stems much deeper than an inflated ego or a desperation to protect his reputation. Maron described Mencia as “wired differently,” and when he asked former Mind of Mencia writer (and Mencia ex-protege) Steve Trevino whether Mencia was aware of what he was doing, Trevino responded, “I think he doesn’t know. I think he’s ill.”

George Harrison lost the suit (setting judicial precedent for cryptomnesia victims being liable for copyright infringement), and Helen Keller was so embarrassed by the incident that she never wrote fiction again. Carlos Mencia is becoming an outcast from the comedy community, with many comedians refusing to open for him, but he hasn’t yet admitted or shown any real contrition for his sins, even after being presented with overwhelming evidence of them.

Maron’s podcast did characterize Mencia as having a sharp memory. Maybe there’s another explanation.

2. “It wasn’t your joke. It was OUR joke.”

Psychologist Carl Jung researched the idea of the collective unconscious, that the human species has embedded within our brains a universal set a values. It is from this collective unconscious that literary professors developed a list of situational, symbolic and character archetypes. The character archetype of The Hero, for example, springs up in legends and lore of cultures from all over the world, from stories in the Old Testament, ancient Indian Sanskrit texts, even in myths passed down through generations of African tribes. These cultures were separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, yet they seemed to be interested in the same types of stories and characters.

On that line of thought, I think it’s also possible that every human being has coded within his DNA a basic, natural progression of humor, and that because all comedians follow this instinct, it’s fairly common for two comedians who have the same initial idea to take a joke in the exact same direction.

Bear with me, here.

On the surface the prospect of a collective sense of humor sounds counter-intuitive. Within a single culture, there is still a vast range of opinions on what makes “good entertainment.” Even the Thursday night line-up on NBC contains four distinctly different comedy programs. It’s unlikely the entire human race will be able to agree on whether Carlos Mencia is funny.

But just for kicks, let’s assume such a “universal joke” might exist. A joke contains two parts: a setup and a punchline, both of which attempt to illustrate a truth. A simple thesis statement about the world or human nature. “Fathers don’t receive any credit for raising their sons,” something most of the audience believes (or has heard of) before the joke. When the joke starts, it enters its setup phase, when we are momentarily distracted from that initial truth. “The story of a father lovingly raising and teaching his son.” And then finally we reach the punchline, when our expectations are suddenly reversed in an ironic fashion. “Hi mom!”

That element of surprise, the ironic gap between expectation and reality, is common to all humor. The greater the irony, the more surprising the twist; the more compelling the truth, the better the joke. All humans innately understand this. Old men know to exaggerate details of a story to make the absurd elements more extreme. Comedians’ instincts are more refined, but it’s all the same thought process: “How can I tell this in a way that will hit closest to home with my audience?”

So if you look at it that way, doesn’t it seem possible that two isolated comedians who start with the same, basic truth could each stumble upon a single image that perfectly illustrates that truth? From a joke-writer’s point of view, there’s just something about “Hi mom!” that seems brilliant. There are probably hundreds of different examples that work, but “Hi mom!” is one of those punchlines that when you arrive at it, you just know that the joke has reached its full potential. It’s one of those rare, objective moments in comedy writing. You just know.

Objective is universal. It’s not a process owned by the imagination of one person, but a process shared by the collective imagination of all human beings. Anyone theoretically can come up with any great joke; It’s just not common anyone does. Now, if you think that Carlos Mencia isn’t imaginative or smart enough to make the same profound connection made by Bill Cosby, that’s fine. Mencia isn’t particularly clever. But the “electronic voice box” joke shared by Dennis Leary and Judd Apatow? Two clever men, two honorable comedians, and a joke that both of them could easily have come up with on their own. And probably did.

Now I know it sounds like I’m offering some absurd insanity defense for comedians who steal jokes. It’s probably easier for most of us to believe that an up-and-coming comedian might, in desperation for material, steal a joke from a lesser known comic, or that a lazy or overworked writer might use material from another source without attribution. That’s a perfectly legitimate explanation. I’m not trying to exonerate Carlos Mencia by suggesting he shared a metaphysical connection with Bill Cosby. Indeed, the guy probably just stole the joke.

What I am proposing, however, is that when we hear a joke that we’ve heard before, our first instinct should not be to demonize and brand someone a plagiarist. Instead, we should accept that until we know all the facts, we can never know what is going on inside a comedian’s mind, and that although it’s easy to assume the worst in people, the idea that two people might have the same idea is a much more powerful and inspiring possibility.

If we approach every alleged joke stealer with the same vicious outrage that we spew at the Carlos Mencias of the world, then any virtue of justice once allowed by the free marketplace of the Internet will soon be swallowed up by an angry mob.

“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Erik Voss is pretty sure that he’s never stolen a joke.

Is There Ever a Justification for Joke Stealing?