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STOP! THIEF! Intellectual Property in Stand-Up Comedy Part 1

January 17, 2011

And I was like: Baybeh Baybeh Baybeh Ohhhhh!

Ocean’s 11.  Bonnie and Clyde.  Demi Moore.  What do all these folks have in common?  Why they’re all ROBBERS!  (Granted, Demi only stole from a cradle.)

Awkward age gap BURN!

Intellectual property is an interesting topic, especially in the arts.  Copyright law protects our ideas from thievery, and in the world of physical products, most cases are straightforward.  If I started manufacturing a soft drink called “Cola’s Coca,” and packaged it in a red can with swooshy writing, you better believe I’d be looking down the barrel of a lawsuit.  Similarly, if I designed the ugliest car in existence and called it the “Pontee-ack Mayan,” there’s a certain car company that might have something to say.

…and that would be, “Congratulations, gentlemen, we have invented

the opposite of the perfect vehicle.”

These are all cut-and-dry examples of idea theft, but what about the creative realm?  In music and spoken word performance disciplines such as stand-up comedy, the lines become blurred.  It is hard to judge whether two ideas are merely a coincidence, or whether one is guilty of infringement.  I remember when the song, “Why Don’t You Get a Job” was released by faux-punk band The Offspring:


I immediately thought, “I hope those guys remembered to put Paul McCartney’s address on the royalty checks, because that is a massive rip-off of  Obla di obla da by the Beatles.  However, the music industry disagreed.  In fact, most people considered it an homage, like this analysis.

But this is a stand-up comedy blog, so screw The Offspring and their spiky haircuts.  This week we’re going to explore the impacts of thievery in comedy, some notable thieves, and what we as a community can do when these ne’er do well villains cross our paths.

Carlos Mencia

I feel that this picture roughly represents how I feel about the man’s work.

I consider myself a positive dude, but it’s hard to find something nice to say about Carlos Menstealia.  I find his material shallow and exploitative of minorities, and his stage presence at once annoying and banal.  But on top of that, the guy’s a thief.  I really took my time on this article because I didn’t want to judge until I had the facts straight, and it seems pretty clear that there’s truth here.

There are a ton of stories swirling around this guy.  Rumours that George Lopez threatened to fight him for stealing material, claims by comics who came up with Menica that they refuse to perform around him for fear of their material being lifted, the list goes on and on.  However, it was one event in particular that catapulted Mencia’s sticky fingers into infamy, and that’s the fearlessness of comic Joe Rogan.

You might know Joe Rogan as the host from the TV show “Fear Factor,” but he’s mainly a comic.  I won’t lie, I’m not a huge fan of his act, but I am a huge fan of the steps he took to confront Mencia about the rumours of joke-stealing.  What I find amazing about the confrontation which you will see in the clip below, is that Rogan stood up to Mencia, (a self-confessed bully) and took him to task when no one else would.

If you are interested in getting to the bottom of Rogan’s claims, I HIGHLY recommend Marc Maron’s two part episode on his WTF podcast where he really digs in and investigates the accusations (part 1, and part 2).  Similarly, if you check out the fantastic new documentary “I Am Comic,” you will be treated to a scene where Mencia just straight up admits to stealing:

Dane Cook

This is an interesting case, because unlike how things went down with Mencia, I don’t actually believe that Cook is guilty.  Cook was accused of stealing from Louis CK, as well as Steve Martin.  Apparently the issues with Louis CK have been settled in private, so I can’t really comment on that.

I have a few reasons for thinking that Cook is innocent of thieving charges.  First, let’s be honest.  He’s not a material comic.  I do enjoy his act, but most of the laughs come from act-outs and high-energy stunts.  Compared to a highly cerebral comic like Louis CK, it just seems like a really bizarre choice to lift a couple of frankly unmemorable bits.

Secondly, Cook is also confronted in this episode of WTF by Marc Maron, and his defence really got me thinking about how show business tends to fixate on attacking highly successful artists.  There’s a lot of venom directed at Cook, and I think a lot of it just has to do with his huge success.  In short, I think a lot of people are looking for reasons to take him down a peg.  The old pile-on as it were.

As an interesting footnote, it’s kind of a funny story that Dane Cook confronted another comic who he apparently accused of stealing his “essence.”  Cook elaborates on WTF that he merely chatted with the comic in question about aping his style, or persona.  Again, I don’t know if a thief would go out on a limb like that and expose himself to ridicule with such a confrontation if he was himself stealing.

Here is the supposed evidence:

Robin Williams

This is chronicled in good detail in the Richard Zoglin’s book Comedy on the Edge – essentially, Robin William’s style relies heavily on improvised humour.  It’s part of what makes him a great comic.  As a side-effect though, he would often “absorb” the material of other comics he watched, and it would come out in his act.  Apparently, David Brenner threatened to physically attack Williams if he caught him stealing material.  Again, I feel that this is a much different scenario than Mencia.  Williams was apparently pretty good about things, and if a comic confronted him about a bit, he would compensate them for the offence.  Not really the behaviour I’d expect from a moustache twirling villain.  Once again, Marc Maron broached the topic on an episode of WTF.

___________________________________________________________________________

So those are a few real-world examples of drama surrounding joke stealing.  I think the interesting thing to note is that the damage is done.  Despite the fact that all three of the above examples were totally different, they all suffer from the same social stigma.  If you ask any comic or comedy enthusiast to give three examples of joke stealing, those are probably the names that will come up.

Tomorrow we’re going to get into some ideas of how to deal with joke thievery, but before I leave you going to bed paranoid that your one-liner about strip clubs is going to be lifted, let me reassure you that joke stealing is extremely rare, and you will probably never come close to being a victim.  Why?  A lot of reasons:

1) Your stuff probably isn’t good enough

In the days of old school comedians, it was common to commission writers to produce material.  These days, contemporary stand-up is all about the individual and their specific experiences.  It’s a lot more difficult to lift a persona than a one-liner.  And from my experience of having written hundreds of one-liners to yield like five good ones, most amateur’s short jokes probably aren’t good enough for a professional comic to risk permanently damaging their reputation to steal them.

2) In this age of information-sharing, thieves get caught lickety split, son

The internet has brought about an unprecedented era of accountability in all walks of life.  From Wiki-Leaks to citizen journalism, no scoundrel is safe from the collective judgement of millions of nerds.  It’s simply too risky to steal.

3) It’s just not a good marketing model for professionals to rip you off

If a professional entertainer is too lazy to come up with material, it’s in their best interest to pay someone to do so.  Again, we live in an age where public perception of an artist is almost as important as their art.  To throw credibility away for two minutes of jokes is ludicrous.  It’s way more likely they’d use a fraction of their income to acquire material legitimately.

4) Most comics are pretty honest

Maybe not about settling up their bar tab, but most comics are in this game because we like to spit truth.  It’s the art form.  The days of the 90’s comedy boom are long behind us, and most people who are getting into stand-up have no expectations that they will become an overnight millionaire.  Without the chumps looking to make a fast buck, all that’s left is performers that respect the art form.

Come back tomorrow where we’ll take a look at some ideas for how to deal with a thief, and some common assumptions that can lead you to falsely accuse someone of thievery.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 12:55 pm

    I think another blatant persona thief is Aziz Ansari. His delivery is pure Mitch Hedberg. Especially if you listen to his early stuff.

    • Anonymous permalink
      September 19, 2011 10:03 pm

      you’re stupid. aziz is way more energetic, and deals with stories that flow, rather than non sequitors.

    • dan permalink
      February 4, 2013 10:57 am

      i couldnt agree more. the tone, the cadence, its pure hedberg. stealing his delivery is like grave robbing.

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