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STOP! THIEF! Intellectual Property in Stand-Up Comedy Part 2

January 18, 2011

Welcome back to part 2 of this week’s article on stealing in stand-up comedy (part 1 found here).  Even though the following clip of the classic 90’s cartoon COPS has a tenuous relationship to our topic at best, I do love Mark Dailey’s voice (RIP bud).

I always thought I could turn that Miss Demeanour around.

I ended off yesterday talking about why thievery in stand-up comedy is pretty rare, and probably not something you need to worry about.  However, it does happen, so today we’ll look at some strategies for how to proceed if you smell a rat.

Best comic book title EVER.

First thing’s first: Are you mistaken?  The only thing worse than a stand-up comedy thief is somebody who throws around false accusations.  If you’re watching a comic and think the material is stolen, take a moment and ask yourself these questions:

Am I a comic?

If the answer is no, you probably shouldn’t get involved.  If you feel you must, try to record the set on a phone or digital camera, then send a copy to the comic whose work you think has been lifted.  Let them be the judge.  Many times casual consumers of comedy will mistake a common premise or subject as stealing.   Which brings me to…

Is it merely a similar premise?

This is not the same as stealing a joke.  A musician wouldn’t accuse a peer of stealing because he wrote a song using the C – F – G – C progression.  That progression is found in the vast majority of pop songs.

It’s simply common ground.  The same situation occurs with premises.  A premise is just a topic, a platform that we can all share.  How you craft your punchline, tags, etc. after leaving that platform is the intellectual property.  Think of how ridiculous it would be to approach a comic and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that doing jokes about the President is kind of my thing.”

Could it be a coincidence?

This happens a lot with current event humour.  We recently had an election in Toronto, and the stand-up comedy scene was abuzz with jokes about our new mayor, Rob Ford.

We put this man in charge of the biggest city in Canada.

There are only so many angles from which to mock Ford: his weight, his haircut, his general buffoonery – the list is long, but finite.  A great example was a catchphrase used in his Mayoral campaign: “Let’s stop the gravy train.”  Considering that Ford is more than a few pounds past his weight index, you better believe I heard dozens of fat jokes that used the gravy train reference in some way to form a punchline.  The joke was begging to be told.  What was interesting to me was the subtle variations on how comics would craft their payout.

Some jokes are very easy to see, and as a result, many comics will come to similar material by coincidence.  It’s one of the pitfalls of a well-tred premise.

Look hard at the wording

The beauty of humour is that it’s so intricate.  A joke that appears off the top of a comic’s head might have taken months or even years to sift through all the possible word variations, phrasings, cadence of delivery, etc.  As a result, most jokes are crippled if even one or two words are changed.  This is a bonus for comics because it acts as a water mark.  If someone has stolen a joke and it’s gonna fly, they won’t be able to change it much.

Could the comic have accidentally absorbed the idea?

Honest mistakes do happen (see the case of Robin Williams in part 1 of this article).  If the comic in question seems like a decent person and has a good reputation, it’s very possible they incorporated one of your jokes without malicious intent.  This doesn’t excuse the act, of course, but might give you reason to think twice before publicly humiliating them.

Is the person ignorant?

People outside of stand-up think of jokes as public domain.  We are used to standing around the water cooler and recounting favourite lines from movies or TV shows.  This happened not too long ago with Patton Oswalt and I cover the incident in more detail in the Patton Oswalt shout-out.  A guy ripped off big chunks of his sets and performed them verbatim.  What the guy did was wrong, but it appeared he just didn’t understand his offence.  He wasn’t a comic, just trying to do comedy, so he did some comedy without thinking things through.

Don’t worry, he was publicly shamed, but in the end, it wasn’t really an issue because he wasn’t interested in seriously pursuing stand-up comedy anyhow.  I’m glad he got a reality check, but it’s hardly the heist of the century.

If none of these questions gave you pause, confrontation is


Happy hunting, you comedy vigilantes.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too physical like this interview from “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2013 9:15 pm

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    • April 24, 2013 1:56 pm

      Hey, this was all created in WordPress, they have some basic themes you can choose from and customize. I put together the header graphic and stuff, but most of the heavy lifting is done by the template and wordpress.

  2. April 8, 2013 10:35 pm

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    • April 24, 2013 1:55 pm

      I’d say I’ve very much enjoyed using wordpress – it’s easy to buy a url and re-direct so it looks more official. Main problem is if you ever want to monetize they don’t allow it with a free account. But if that’s not on your radar, WordPress is great

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  4. August 16, 2013 1:47 am

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