Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Comedy

July 7, 2007

No Joking Matter

Stand-up comics are starting to fight back against joke plagiarism. But many are unsure where to draw the line between outright theft and similar jokes that evolve from parallel thinking.

Adam Conner-Simons

Plagiarism in the public sphere is nothing new. Luminaries from Stephen Ambrose to Martin Luther King, Jr., have been accused of stealing other people's creative ideas. Stand-up comedians, though, have not generally been held to the same ethical standards as other public figures. A notoriously derivative genre, comedy has bred a culture of thievery as far back as 19th-century vaudeville. In the 1950s, one-line legend Milton Berle poked fun at his own thievery, once saying that a comedian made him laugh so hard, "I nearly dropped my pencil."

Carlos Mencia
Comedian Carlos Mencia has been accused of stealing jokes from everyone from Bill Cosby to George Lopez.

Carlos Mencia

These days, however, stand-ups take charges of plagiarism far more seriously. "Stealing jokes is the steroids of comedy," comedian Steve Hofstetter tells Gelf. "The root of comedy is truth, and if you're doing someone else's truth, you're not doing comedy."

Joke theft has become a particularly hot issue thanks to the recent public feud between Fear Factor's Joe Rogan and Carlos ("Mind of") Mencia. At a February show at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the two comics had a verbal spat in which Rogan accused Mencia of stealing material. An edited video of the confrontation soon appeared online and, within days, had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. (Neither Rogan nor Mencia responded to Gelf's requests for comment for this article.)

That video opened a floodgate of accusations among comedians and observers, who uploaded dozens of videos onto YouTube, meticulously dissecting comics' routines and theorizing about who lifted what from whom. Famous comics, including Dane Cook and Robin Williams, were accused of taking whole cloth from their peers.

Of course, it's easy to watch a video clip and promptly conclude that the comedians in question are stealing; when the viewer sees two comics back-to-back talking about seemingly identical ideas, it seems like case closed. But many comics caution that there is an important distinction between stealing jokes and using similar premises. For instance, a Mexican-border-wall routine Mencia supposedly took from Ari Shaffer is so simplemindedly stereotypical that one YouTube video shows four different comics—and a folk singer—saying essentially the same line.

"But who do you think's going to build the wall? Mexicans!"

Many comics, in fact, go so far as to say that it would be impossible not to tread similar ground. "There's so much parallel thinking because we [comics] are all trying to tap into the same public consciousness," Skyler Stone of Comedy Central's Con tells Gelf. And as the riff on Mexicans-as-cheap-labor shows, there are always stereotype shortcuts. "Bill Clinton equals blowjobs," comedian Adam Hunter says. "Period."

Rogan's anti-Mencia diatribe isn't his first foray into thievery-accusations. Last December, Rogan went on the Opie and Anthony radio show (mp3) and made comments about comedic powerhouse Dane Cook, using audio clips of Cook and fellow stand-up Louie CK running through similar routines (You can see a video comparing the routines here.)

Rogan is quite sure that Cook is a thief, and other stand-ups like Dan Smith also have trouble explaining away Cook's coincidental routines. "It's hard to deny that there are an awful lot of coincidences [in his routines]," Smith says.

But other comics chalk up the similarities to parallel thinking. "Dane tackles very familiar concepts, which lends itself to people thinking he's stealing," comedian Dwayne Perkins says. (Cook didn't respond to Gelf's request for comment for this article.)

Several comics tell Gelf that the Cook controversy just highlights the tendency for comics to be criticized once they find mainstream success. "It's always the comics that make it that are thieves all of a sudden," Hunter says. "It's human nature to take out the guy on top."

There's nobody more "on top" then Cook, whose two-disc Retaliation was the highest-charting comedy album since Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy in 1978. "There's probably a certain sadness that this [kind of popularity] can only happen once every 20 years," Stone says. "For every Dane Cook, you're always going to have 50 bitter comics in the back room saying, 'Why aren't I that guy?' "

Hofstetter disagrees somewhat with this premise that comedians only take out popular comics, citing Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock as world-famous comedians who have never had the authenticity of their jokes questioned. And Smith adds that Mencia and Cook had bit-stealing reputations in the comedy community long before they became famous.

If the Mexican routine was the false positive of joke theft, Bill Cosby's bit about football is the undisputed steroids test for Mencia. Comic Dan Nainan says he was "shell-shocked" when he saw a video comparing Mencia and Cosby's versions of the joke. Hofstetter says that this clip represents perhaps the clearest instance of plagiarism he has seen. "Cosby's delivery has a very long set-up, whereas [Mencia's] is typically ‘punch-punch-punch,' " he says. "When you are doing a joke that's not even in your style, it becomes pretty obvious."

While most of the comics Gelf talked to were happy to discuss specific accusations of plagiarism, many others are unwilling to talk about the issue. In the Rogan video about Mencia, Rogan is seen talking informally to comedian Bobby Lee, who, when asked to repeat one of Mencia's jokes, said that he could just use one of his own jokes and it'd "be the same thing." Within weeks of Rogan putting the video online, though, Lee uploaded his own response, saying that he had never had a joke stolen by Mencia. "There's this unspoken rule in comedy that you're not supposed to shit on other comedians." Hofstetter says. "[Calling someone a joke thief] is like pointing at a guy at the street and saying 'he's a rapist.' "

Comedian Kyle Cease says that the current comedy culture creates an unhealthy and overly suspicious environment among comics. "When people are just blindly throwing out accusations with comedians, you are playing with fire," he says.

"It's got to be a pattern when you accuse someone," Hofstetter adds. "If it's one or two things, you could have seen them edited or out of context."

There's also an undeniable hierarchy of joke-stealing, in which comics who regularly appear on TV are often assumed to have written the routines. Cease says he's seen situations in which comedians with similar routines agree that the first person to put it on TV gets to use it. Smith avoids performing in front of Mencia for precisely that reason. "He's on TV everyday," Smith says. "He has the power to make me look like the thief."

"There's this unspoken rule in comedy that you're not supposed to shit on other comedians."—Stand-up comic Steve Hofstetter
The whistle-blowing Rogan has emerged relatively unscathed considering his vitriolic attacks on comedians, with even pro-Mencia comics admitting that they admire Rogan for his obvious passion for stand-up. His status as a rich, famous comic/actor gives him a platform that lesser-known comedians lack. "He's in a good position to confront Mencia," Smith says. "It takes someone in power to call out someone else in power."

The Mencia kerfuffle has highlighted the different expectations that different forms of media face. "I can't wait for the day when comedians' jokes are treated with the same amount of respect as writers," Smith says. "Because that's what comedians are: writers who perform what they write."

Related on the Web
February’s Radar Magazine includes an impressive look at the history of plagiarism in comedy.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.







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Comments

- Comedy
- posted on Jul 12, 07
Linda Sue

Lisa Lampanelli shouldn't have said that....everyone accuses HER of stealing old hack lines from the 50's but she is wonderful in delivery. I personally love her!

She's so physically unactractive...with the cigar..down right repulsive! LOVE HER! I'm also sure she's in the closet but she is wrong about the theivery. People shouldn't have to write more jokes when they're stolen. People like Mencia shouldn't steal. Shouldn't he be able to afford a writer by now?

Joe Rogan was RIGHT! Everyone else who disagrees are punks.

- Comedy
- posted on Jul 17, 07
Ron

yeah, as much as i used to like mencia, he's def a fake. first of all, his show's the exact same thing as chapelle's, even the jokes are the same...on top of that, he's whole theme about mexican stereotypes means nothing to me because he's from honduras and was raise in the US! Joe Rogan's right, if writers can't steal Shakespeare, comedians steal acts

- Comedy
- posted on Oct 01, 07
Vivian Martinez

To Linda Sue: you are obviously young. Lisa Lampanelli rips off ALL the old FRIARS Jokes. She's DEFINITELY a liar...she's not even Italian AND her act about fucking black guys? NOT....probably into black chicks....totally created herself ....glad she's a woman and doing it...LISA LAMPANELLI come OUT of the closet....it's okay to be gay! WE LOVE U!

- Comedy
- posted on Apr 28, 08
mllerref88

Why is it that today's culture insists on making demagogues out of unoriginal, second-rate comedians (Leary, Cook, Mencia), while the real innovators (Louis C.K., Bill Hicks, Zach Galifianakis) are never fully appreciated for their brilliance? It makes me wonder where popular culture is taking us when banality seems to take precedent over originality and creativity. And it's not just comedy. The music and film industries are inundated with these parasitic monuments to mediocrity.

The only difference, is when plagiarism arises in any other industry, there's usually a lawsuit within the week. There are intellectual property laws for a reason. It takes a lot of talent and effort to come up with these bits, and someone profiting off of another's material is disgraceful. For the amount of money people like Dane Cook and Mencia, (or should I say Ned Holeness, that's his real name), make there's absolutely no excuse for not coming up with original material. The fact that there's even a question about originality with these people should warrant the loss of all sponsors and banishment from public performance. But, yet again the all-mighty dollar reigns supreme over integrity and justice.

Anyone who values stand-up comedy as a true and original art form should be just as outraged as Rogan.

- Comedy
- posted on Aug 20, 10
A NY Comic

You know what's funny? Quoting Dan Nainan in this article, since he's a major league joke thief himself! What's even worse... he steals jokes told in MOVIES, and tells them to foreign audiences. What an ass!

- Comedy
- posted on Aug 30, 13
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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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