“Stealing Jokes” – My Thoughts

Ironically, I stole this image from a Google image search
Ironically, I stole this image from a Google image search

You’re waiting your turn to go up on a show and suddenly you hear a bit that sounds real familiar. You’ve never seen this comic before but you know the next three punch lines. Hell you don’t just know ‘em, you wrote ‘em. “Hey, I’ve been doing that joke for weeks. What the hell?”

Many comic fear having their material stolen. I think it’s more rational to fear the microphone exploding in your eyes and blinding you than it is to be afraid that your precious jokes will be stolen. Sure this happens occasionally, but it is not as often as some comics like to think. Two of the most ridiculous statements I’ve heard over the past year are: “I don’t do open mics because they steal my jokes” and “LA open mic comics go on youtube, watch NYC open mic comics and take their material.” Both statements are excuses. The first is to excuse a comic’s laziness or lack of motivation to get on stage as much as possible. (Although I do think open mics become less valuable after you’ve been on stage a few hundred times.) The second quote is an excuse usually said by someone who doesn’t have a good video to post. It’s much easier to say “I’d post a video but I don’t want my material being stolen” instead of saying “I don’t have a video where the audience is laughing for five straight minutes, I need to get funnier.” Which of course begs the question, why are you worried about your unfunny material being stolen? If you’re afraid of getting your jokes stolen, you should put ALL of your videos online. What could make for more convincing evidence that you did a bit first?

If your jokes are being “stolen” something else might actually be happening: You’re writing hacky material or are being too topical. There’s only so many ways to do a marijuana joke and every comedian and their mother has written a Tiger Woods, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton joke. Your punch line about “eighteen holes” or “a hole in one” wasn’t stolen, it was just so obvious that five other comics thought of a very similar joke. I remember reading Lisa Lampenelli’s book and she mentions how at the Comedy Central Roasts she’d have a pen with her to cross out the jokes on her set list that the other comedians had already done about the guest of honor. Did all those professionals steal each other’s jokes? No! There’s just only so many Pamela Andersen fake tits and Tommy Lee has big cock punch lines one can think up.

So how do you solve this joke overlap? Make your material more personal. Very few comedians can steal my Russian family material because it would be inauthentic and make no sense to their stage persona. So focus on your life and find the funny in it. Hint: It usually involves pain. A comic, I forget who once told me, “comedy = pain + time” and “until you’re at George Carlin’s level, nobody gives a shit about your political opinion.” I agree: focus on your unique life situation and figuring it out how to get the audience to connect with it. Should you still write Tiger Woods jokes? Yes, because that’s still working on writing a joke, and if you get picked up by a TV show, you’ll need to be able to generate topical jokes daily. Just don’t be surprised when you hear three very similar jokes from comics you’ve never met. (And yes, I know I need to make my material more personal too, it’s a work in progress.)

Ok, let’s say your jokes are personal and they’re actually being stolen. In a fucked up way, it’s an honor to get your jokes stolen, that means you’re getting funny! And you should only be afraid of getting jokes stolen if you’re not planning on developing as a writer and performer. Fear of jokes being stolen means your jokes are coming from a place of scarcity, not of abundance. It shows you believe there to be a limited amount of jokes you’ll be able to write and that one of the 10 or 12 jokes you were able to come up with has been taken away. This usually means you’re not writing enough.

Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Conan and all those guys deliver ten to fifteen minutes of new jokes every show (sure they have a whole writing staff, but that’s not the point). If you’re trying to be around the comedy business for a long time you’re going to need write hours and hours of good material. Having one bit stolen here or there won’t make a huge difference. If you’re so funny that all your material is being stolen, start lifting weights, then say something. A comedian may have had your joke go into his subconscious and come out months later as a similar joke. Talk to them first and figure out who’s been doing it first. Comics don’t want to be known as joke thieves because once they have that reputation, everyone avoids them and 95% of your gigs are through other comics.

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  • 14 Replies to ““Stealing Jokes” – My Thoughts”

    1. You make excellent points, I agree with almost everything you said here. What fun is talking about that though? So instead, I’ll add in my halfway off topic tangent:

      “Hint: It usually involves pain. A comic, I forget who once told me, “comedy = pain + time” and “until you’re at George Carlin’s level, nobody gives a shit about your political opinion.” I agree: focus on your unique life situation and figuring it out how to get the audience to connect with it.”

      People don’t care any more about Carlin’s opinion on politics than anyone else’s. The thing with politics jokes is they should STILL focus on your unique life and situation just like you suggest on the other material.

      It’s all about POINT OF VIEW, having a strong one, that’s interesting enough for others to listen to. Carlin’s was the best, so he could cover politics, as well as any other issue under the sun (his god) … and every damn second was compelling.

      What I’m trying to say is, great post 🙂

    2. Hey Jay,

      I agree that a strong point of view makes any topic easier and more interesting to write about.

      I find it easier to develop a point of view when doing personal material. I’d think this would apply to most newer comics, figure out what’s important and funny about yourself first, see what kind of persona or viewpoint that creates, then write every other topic you address from that view point.

      If you look at Carlin’s body of work you’ll notice he first focused on himself for years, and only later did he move on to politics and the like.

      Cheers,
      Ben

    3. You’d also have more street cred with the more Russian sounding name of “Boris.”

      However, knowing you in real life, there’s no way an audience would believe you got into a PhD program 🙂

    4. Nice zinger, and it’s a close call — it depends on how you count it and when Conan’s last show will be.

      I was in the program for 6 miserable weeks before dropping out but I legitimately spent the summer learning math. I went through a Calculus book, a stat book and a linear algebra book – I’m not sure if the NBC execs did that much analysis before axing Conan…

    5. I just reread this article and had a new realization:

      No wonder Lisa does the same material at every single roast. She’s crossing out all her new jokes so we just get the honor of hearing her talk about having sex with black dudes again…

      —-

      As far as stealing jokes goes, you mentioned hack jokes get rewritten independently but the cold truth is so do original jokes. It’s shocking sometimes to hear someone else had your same thought, but there really are only so many jokes in the universe…and even the good ones get repeated with no theft involved.

      —-

      Good article 🙂

    6. Excellent article. Although at the end of the article where you wrote “In communist Russia joke steals you…” seems like something I once saw Yakov Smirnoff do.

    7. Again, another good insight. What I’ve noticed is some comedians will have similar jokes and they attribute it to “parallel thinking”. While there is such a thing, the real reason I think is that the comedian hasn’t dug deep enough to find his point of view. A good example is your bit about your Russian family. When a comedian has a joke that is close to one of mine, I just take it as a challenge to carve out my point of view even further. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

    8. Great points on joke stealing… I always tell my students that a comic worried about other people stealing their jokes is a person who was not meant to do comedy.. There are so many Negatives in this business and that happens to be one of them… Imitation truly is the greatest form of flattery….

      Sam

    9. agree wholeheartedly, and needed the comic hug for relief–got my own nerves, POV, ideas, problems–and ways to solve them. your Intelligent insight helps everyone write–write on, thanks sharing is caring.

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