Stan Laurel once said, “All comedians steal from all comedians.” If you waste enough time looking into it, you might be surprised to learn that it’s practically become a tradition over the years: Milton Berle was infamously known as “The Thief of Bad Gags,” Robin Williams & Carlos Mencia were repeatedly accused of stealing jokes, and Denis Leary got so good at performing material written by other people that he turned it into a successful acting career. Some comedians, like Woody Allen and Ricky Gervais, have even admitted to stealing.
That makes it all the more confusing when the people collectively known as “The Internet” decide to shame someone like Amy Schumer or Trevor Noah for allegedly stealing jokes, while a long list of others go seemingly unnoticed. Whether Amy or Trevor’s jokes fall under the category of parallel thought or intentional plagiarism is still up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: they’re in good company. If you’re part of the camp that considers borrowing a taboo, feast your eyes on some of these additional comedy heavyweights who repackaged others’ jokes and somehow managed to avoid making headlines (or hashtags).
10. Marlon Wayans
It’s odd when a seasoned comic borrows from another seasoned comic, but that’s exactly what Marlon Wayans did in January of 2016 when he used the following joke during an appearance on The Tonight Show: “I got white friends. I think you need them, especially for when the cops pull you over. When the cops pull you over, please let your white friend do the talking.” If the millions of views these kind of clips get on YouTube are an indication of anything, it’s that people still watch The Tonight Show – lots of them. Yet, somehow, not a person is bitching – not even on Twitter – that this joke was very similar to one Dave Chappelle did 17 years ago, during his first hour-long HBO special. “Every group of brothers should have at least one white guy in it. I’m serious, for safety. ‘Cause when the shit goes down, somebody’s gonna need to talk to the police,” Chappelle says in 2000’s Killin’ Them Softly, before telling a story about getting pulled over with a white friend of his.
Trevor Noah gets accused of stealing a Chappelle joke…internet shitstorm; Marlon Wayans does it on national television…literally nothing. Google it, you’ll probably end up right back here.
9. Katt Williams or J.B. Smoove
At the beginning of his 2007 standup special, American Hustle, Katt Williams does a bit where he performs various mimes to the beat of the song “Hustlin’,” by Rick Ross. The song is played over and over, with Katt instructing the DJ to turn it off and then play it again each time.
The bit proved popular enough to be recreated, albeit in animated form, for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV the following year. But before that game was even released, Curb Your Enthusiasm star J.B. Smoove was performing a comparable bit in which he continuously tells his DJ to turn off and restart a 50 Cent song.
A small number of fans have made note of the similarities, with some claiming that J.B. has been performing his version (clearly with a different song) since the Def Comedy Jam days in the 90s, but earlier footage has yet to surface. Until the internet smartens up, it’s not entirely clear who did it first, but the resemblance sure is striking – sort of like Katt Williams after being cornered by a teenager.
8. Whitney Cummings
Just about every year, comedians come together at the Comedy Central Roasts to bash a celebrity and trade insults with one another. What few seem to have noticed is that some of those insults have not only been traded, but recycled by other comedians on several occasions. One such example comes from the 2009 Roast of Joan Rivers, where Whitney Cummings left quite an impression with unsparing lines like, “The only thing lower than Greg Giraldo’s ticket sales is Mario Cantone’s T-cell count.”
If that sounds slightly familiar, it might be because just five months earlier, at the Larry the Cable Guy roast, Lisa Lampanelli could be heard telling Maureen McCormick that she was “more unstable than Robert Reed’s T-cell count.”
Different targets, but pretty much the same joke, on the same channel, five months apart. You can talk about viewers having short attention spans anyway, but at least Lisa waited a little longer before doing the same thing to Whitney…
7. Lisa Lampanelli
Yeah, turns out the borrowing between Lisa and Whitney was not an isolated incident, nor was it a one-sided thing. Back in 2011, when they roasted our current president, Lisa took aim at Jersey Shore’s “The Situation” (who oddly enough had a book published), saying, “I tried ordering your book on Amazon.com. Amazon said, ‘Customers who bought this book also bought a rope and a stool.’”
Whitney, who was on the dais that night and can be seen nervously shaking her leg after hearing the joke, had this to say to David Hasselhoff at his 2010 roast: “I actually tried to buy one of your songs on Amazon.com. It said, ‘Users who bought this item also bought a shotgun.’” You’d think a roast would be the perfect environment to call someone out on such things, but evidently it’s a non-issue. Maybe there’s some kind of backstage agreement we don’t know about — something along the lines of, “You borrow my joke, I borrow yours.” That would certainly explain our next entry…
6. Jeff Ross
Looks like Whitney Cummings isn’t the only Lisa Lampanelli fan in this bunch, as the “Roastmaster General” himself is seemingly pretty fond of her jokes as well. Particularly, one she did at the same Larry the Cable Guy roast that her earlier T-cell joke was lifted from. With the Chris Brown/Rihanna assault case fresh in everyone’s mind, the “Queen of Mean” set her sights on the aforementioned Cable Guy’s already-tired catchphrase (you know the one) with this controversial line: “You’ve beaten that concept so hard, it’s now dating Chris Brown.” Two years later, once again at the Trump Roast, Jeff Ross targeted the very comedian whose work he was sampling: “Her vagina is so beat up, it’s nickname is Rihanna,” he quipped. After the kind of groans you’d expect from that sort of joke, Lisa herself decided to chime in – right then and there. Her response? “I like that.” Of course you would Lisa, you basically wrote it.
5. Will Ferrell
OK, this one’s slightly different from the rest because the borrowing in question occurred in a movie, but it still counts whether it was done in character or not. If you’ve ever seen 2008’s Step Brothers, chances are you’ll recall Will Ferrell firing back at his on-screen nemesis (played by John C. Reilly) with the often-repeated comeback line, “I remember when I had my first beer.”
Actually, there’s a good chance you might recall it even if you haven’t seen the movie because it’s been passed around the internet in the form of countless memes since it was first heard in theaters almost a decade ago. You know who else has been the subject of countless memes that use that exact same quote? Steve Martin, the guy who used it in response to a heckler during a standup show 30 years before Will Ferrell said it.
So, was the joke borrowed by Ferrell – or the writers – as a tribute? Yeah, most likely. But as far as people too young to get the reference are concerned, the line will always be attributed to a character by the name of Brennan Huff.
4. Bill Cosby
America’s bygone dad might not be appearing on any “Greatest Comedians” lists again any time soon, though facts are facts: he was one of the most groundbreaking standups of the previous century, which should make his appearance on this list at least a little bit surprising. Now, Cosby may very well have enough allegations against him at this point, but interestingly, taking a joke without permission is one thing he’s actually admitted to. Back in 2007, he told the LA Times that a bit he once did about “little tiny hairs” was stolen, in part, from fellow groundbreaker George Carlin: “The phrase that makes everyone laugh is ‘little tiny hairs,’ but I don’t get to ‘little tiny hairs’ if I don’t have what I lifted from George Carlin, and that is the whole idea of a football player who can’t act, who has an accent, maybe is an uneducated farm boy or something.”
Cosby’s rendition was included on his very first album in 1963, yet Carlin never took the time to call him out. Our next entry wasn’t quite as lucky…
3. Joan Rivers
Yet another pioneer apparently guilty of reusing Carlin’s material was Joan Rivers, according to an interview with the man himself. In 1982, Carlin told Playboy that he couldn’t believe that Joan, whom he admired very much, had performed a piece he’d been doing for years during one of her appearances on The Tonight Show. The joke, as he told it, went, “When my mother was pregnant with me, she carried me very low. In fact, for the last few weeks, my feet were sticking out.” He followed that up with, “However, she did tell me it came in handy on stairs,” which Joan used as well. Carlin suggested that Joan may have bought the joke (from an obviously lazy ghostwriter) and he expected to find out for sure after having mentioned it in the interview. Strangely, Joan doesn’t seem to have ever addressed the issue – at least not publicly – and always spoke highly of Carlin, even going so far as to honor him when he posthumously received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2008.
2. Richard Pryor
Starting to rethink your stance on joke theft yet? After all, if Comedy Central’s #1 greatest standup comedian of all time was doing it, it can’t be an unforgivable offense. Who would dare call Richard Pryor a thief, you ask? Would you believe me if I told you that none other than Richard Pryor said it about himself? That’s right, and he said it right alongside George Carlin during a 1981 interview on The Tonight Show – does that show have a long history with thievery or what? When asked by Johnny Carson if he’d ever maybe unconsciously used someone else’s line before, Pryor bluntly said, “Oh, on purpose.” He went on to explain how he’d steal Dick Gregory’s material out of Jet magazine and use it in his stage act. He also admitted to having some success with Bill Cosby’s material: “I made a lot of money as Bill Cosby,” he bragged.
Wow, OK, so in summation: the great Richard Pryor told the world that he stole jokes, and nobody gave a shit. If you hated reading this one, you may want to skip the final entry.
1. George Carlin
Your eyes are not deceiving you: the comic once referred to as one of the most stolen-from in the business made it onto the list too. It almost pains me to point it out, but again, these are facts: in one bit from his 1988 HBO special, What Am I Doing in New Jersey?, Carlin advises the audience on how to talk a cop. After inquiring as to whether or not he pays the cop’s salary, he says (to the unseen officer), “You’re a public servant, get me a glass of water!”
This same joke – complete with the paying of the salary, the public servant part, and the glass of water punchline – was done on the debut episode of The Abbott & Costello Show way back in 1952, and probably predates that.
Carlin, having been influenced by Abbott & Costello, more than likely knew this and used the line as a way of paying homage. But it didn’t stop there: in the same HBO special, Carlin does a bit where he suggests ways of keeping people on their toes. One of his suggestions, in the event that someone offers to buy you a drink, is to ask them for the money instead. Huntz Hall pulled that gag in at least two Bowery Boys movies in the 50s, and seeing as how the Bowery Boys did plenty of borrowing themselves, it’s also possible that this one was done earlier as well.
Now, let’s get something straight in closing: this article is in no way intended to be an exposé, nor is it an attempt to hurt anybody’s legacy. Keep in mind, this is information that’s already publicly available – Richard Pryor exposed himself on The Tonight Show for Christ’s sake! Alright, that last sentence didn’t come out right, but look: the point here is that even some of the comedians who so many of us put above all others were not above borrowing jokes. And if you can look past that, then why not stop waving that finger at newer comics for possibly stealing one or two lines? I’m not saying we should all bite our tongues if someone comes along and recites another comic’s personal stories verbatim and tries to pass them off as their own, but maybe something as petty and insignificant as this…
…isn’t worth having a goddamn Twitter meltdown over.
Tony Alpsen writes and at least attempts to draw a comic strip called Ying & Yan over at tapastic.com/series/yingandyan and yingandyan.com. His work has also been published by Cracked and National Lampoon.