The absurdity of joke theft allegations

Currer Ball writes about plagiarism? You might’ve heard it before…

Aristotle once said, ‘Most of us will never have an original thought during our lives.’ What he didn’t say was that he stole this line from Plato.

'Joke theft' is the biggest sin in modern stand-up, as aficionados – and the comics themselves – scrutinise every routine for similarities to others. But are we too unforgiving of mere coincidence?

First, let’s distinguish between two things. First the lifting of a routine or act of one comedian by another – which I think we can all agree constitutes joke theft and second the inevitable overlapping and repetition of material between comedian. By ‘overlapping’, I mean shared subject matter, treatment of topics, tone and style, and ‘repetition’ can include parts of routines and even gags.

To avoid any confusion, here’s an example of what I'd consider theft. It’s the most open-and-shut case I could find. The first clip, the original by Patton Oswalt; the second the plagiarised imitation by Brian Corman, Columbia University’s 2010 General Studies Valedictorian.

Henry Fonda wouldn’t acquit. The silly graduate might argue that he’s not a comedian himself, so wasn’t pinching from a contemporary to advance his own stand-up career, but the scale of his theft, the transplanting of a whole routine word for word, especially as it would have been so easy to cite the material’s original source, makes it especially egregious.

But more than anything, it’s the nature of the material that confirms it's been stolen: the story belongs to Oswalt; it’s a very personal, faintly surreal, probably fictitious recollection. That someone else could’ve written something identical just isn’t credible.

Now let’s go back to the second, more ambiguous category of so-called ‘theft’. A very famous example, aperpetuated in online forums by diehard fans, was the controversy between Louis CK and Dane Cook. Just in case you don’t know, CK thinks Cook stole jokes from him. Indeed, the pair had a (scripted?) standoff about it on CK’s sitcom, Louis.

It almost goes without saying that CK’s an excellent comedian; Cook’s not nearly as good, but perhaps not as bad as his many critics make out. Incidentally, I suspect Cook’s critical maulings aren’t entirely unrelated to his anti-atheist jokes, atheism being so prevailing in the culture of stand-up.

Let’s assume, and I’ve no reason to think otherwise, that CK does believe that Cook stole his jokes, that what we saw in that great scene was an accurate representation of how he feels. But here’s what I don’t get: what makes CK think that his observations, especially in the specific cases of Cook’s alleged theft, are anywhere near original enough not to be shared by someone else?

If we’re honest, do the comic "eureka" moments of enduring an itchy asshole and giving your child a deliberately awkward name really constitute an open-and-shut case of joke theft?

Let’s take another example. Here's CK’s five-minute slot on Letterman last year. As usual, a masterclass.

Now let’s watch Bill Burr, another exemplary American comedian, performing on Letterman two years before CK.

You’ll notice that both CK and Burr talk about wild animals on the loose, and how that wouldn’t be without its benefits – namely, to dispose of useless human beings. There wasn’t a lot of difference between CK and Burr here. Their observations were almost identical, and their treatments quite similar.

Now, because CK’s performance was two years after Burr’s, should we accuse CK of joke theft? Do I imagine that CK saw Burr’s routine, stored up the thought of safari animals roaming Times Square, then nicked it (and improved it) for his own show 18 months down the line? No.

And here’s why: the thought of dogs or lions taking out fat people isn’t earth-shattering enough for any comedian to claim exclusive ownership of it. And the same goes for a tickly anus and a boy named ‘Sue’. Shouldn’t that reason alone be sufficient for us not to tag Cook with that most damaging of sobriquets: ‘joke thief’?

And that’s where CK lets himself down. (Something he perhaps acknowledged towards the end of his exchange with Cook). By refusing to rubbish the internet claims that Cook had helped himself to his material, CK exposes his arrogance. It’s as if he genuinely believes that he and only he was comically capable of scripting material about the sensation of an itchy asshole.

I’m reminded of a set-to that played out on the pages of Chortle between Rufus Hound and Norman Lovett, the latter having accused the former of stealing a joke – something about how ‘no man’s an island… unless he’s in the bath’. Not worth stealing, you might think. Neither did Hound. In his riposte (in which he rightly expressed anger at being labelled a joke thief, given that mud sticks and that the allegation was erroneous), he explained that he’d first heard the joke told decades ago by a family member. ‘To me, it’s just something my nan used to say’, said Hound.

Not that grandmothers tend to joke about itchy assholes, but the problem in both cases isn’t the suspected joke thief, but the paranoid, overly-precious accuser, who’s got no right to claim possession of something that isn’t his.

That isn’t to say, and I can’t emphasis this enough, that comedians shouldn’t be protective about what they write. Moreover, category one theft should be condemned, and its abusers have to face the music. The toil and time that goes into crafting stand-up comedy, I can only imagine. The writing, the telling, the rewriting, the retelling, the positioning of one word here, the repositioning of a comma there, the placement of every pause and profanity, all expertly considered and delivered. However, let’s not forget another part of your jobs: the natural occurrence of overlapping and repetition of material among performers. It’s an occupational hazard.

To any comedian who isn’t slow to accuse a contemporary of joke theft – before pointing the finger, please ask yourself this: is what I’ve written original enough for me to reasonably claim it as my own? And if in doubt, take Aristotle’s word for it. Or was it Plato?

  • Currer Ball blogs here.

  • Published: 13 Mar 2012

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