Joke theft... or just coincidence?

Simon O'Keeffe on the biggest sin in comedy

I recently saw a comic performing an open spot here in Dublin that almost exclusively comprised jokes from Mock The Week. I really wanted to go up to him and say, ‘What’s the point in doing that?’ But was overridden by my desire not to talk to him.

Beyond naïve newcomers, there have been some high-profile accusations of comics stealing material: from US heavyweights such as Dane Cook, Robin Williams and Carlos Mencia through to Joe Pasquale and Jim Davidson.

To most comedians, plagiarism is a very offensive allegation to have leveled at them. I recently dropped a line from my set as at two college shows, audience members accused me mid-gig of stealing it from Dylan Moran. The line was:

‘If you want to express that you’re drunk to anyone, of any age, anywhere in Ireland, all you have to do is pick any word at all in the English language and add “fucking” to the start of it and “-ed” to the end of it. You could walk up to a complete stranger in town tonight and say, “How’s it going, I’m absolutely fucking windowed”, “You should see my mate he’s absolutely fucking trousered.”

I had been doing it for about two and half years without incident. I love Dylan Moran but don’t ever recall seeing him do it on TV and have not seen him live in a long time. I would never purposely do someone else’s material, but I dropped it anyway as it was getting old and I found the accusation off-putting. Plus a lot of people find it hard to believe you would not be familiar with all the work of a big-name act.

About a week after I dropped it, I was alerted to a near-identical Michael McIntyre routine (with middle class English people replacing the Irish). Fair play for what he has achieved, but McIntrye is not my cup of tea, so if a heckler ever accused me of ripping him off, things would have gotten very testy.

On a previous occasion, in Belfast, I was accused of stealing from Bill Hicks. After careful consultation with massive Bill Hicks fans, it turns out we both had done jokes about smokers. I don’t think moral copyright extends that far. The irony is I have seen very little of Bill Hicks’s stand-up, deterred by annoying Bill Hicks fans who think everyone should worship him.

And it’s happened the other way around. Months after I started performing a routine drawing an analogy between a domestic hallway and a vagina, I saw Junior Simpson on The Stand Up Show using a similar idea. I had never even heard of the man before seeing the show.

So if I have done other comedians’ jokes by accident, is that what’s happening elsewhere? I know of two acts who still hate each other, years after one accused the other of stealing his CSI: Newcastle routine. No offence, but that is such an obvious and generic idea, how could you not contemplate that someone else could also have come up with?

Sometimes us comedians can think too much of ourselves to contemplate the idea that we are not the only one who thought of something. I once encountered an open spot who was adamant Ardal O’Hanlon had stolen one of his jokes. The two jokes were about having a wank on a train.

Household names are more likely to be accused of stealing other comics’ material, firstly because their work is so well known that word of similarities soon gets around; and secondly because if they are particularly mainstream, the scope for their material can often narrow to well-worn paths such as Ryanair, differences between men and women etc, where overlap is most likely. There was a saying among older Irish comics that if you had jokes about the Bible, Dave Allen had done them first.

Some well-established acts have tried to blame their writers for stealing jokes, which sadly does actually happen, although it is not a great excuse. And on the comedy circuit it often seems that once a particular joke or performer is ripped off or imitated, other scurrilous performers think it’s fair to follow suit as they hadn’t broken the seal.

Innocent mistakes occur. I have known other acts on the Irish circuit to come out with routines that were done by former performers they were unlikely to be familiar with. To their credit, they dropped the routines straight away.

To help guard against accidental plagiarism, Adam Hills once told me to be especially wary of material you came up with the morning after getting drunk at a gig. How much comedy you’ve heard is also a factor; the veteran comic Kevin Gildea told me once that his first thought upon writing new material is not whether it’s funny, but whether it’s definitely his.

Deliberate joke theft does go on, however. The US comedian Carlos Mencia has defended himself against substantiated accusations of plagiarism by saying the material in question was so generic anybody could have thought of it, and everyone did it. He also claimed it would have been impossible for Jewish comedian come up with a joke about Mexican illegal immigrants before a South American comedian.

Forget his barrel-scraping nonsense, conscious and deliberate joke theft is almost unforgiveable – but coincidences do happen.

Published: 7 Dec 2009

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