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Joke Thieves, Snowflakes and Parallel Thinking

A few years ago I was featuring at a local club when I noticed the host was telling stolen jokes. He was a newer comic emceeing his first weekend, and he triggered my bullshit meter with a one-liner that seemed a little too familiar, too perfectly constructed for an amateur. Then he did a bit that bore the unmistakable formulation of a street joke, delivered far too competently by an otherwise nervous newbie. Sitting in the back of the room, I Googled a few key words and immediately arrived at those exact jokes posted nearly verbatim on multiple webpages and subreddits across the Internet.

During his set I Googled all of his material and discovered that the majority of it was boosted: one-liners, premises, even no-longer-topical celebrity gags. I told the club owner, who was aware of the ongoing heist and not happy about it but didn’t want to have to book another host mid-weekend. He asked me to let it slide.

I held my fire but sent him a Facebook message after the last show, including links to all the material he’d “borrowed.” I assured him that it was definitely not cool. He replied with rationalizations: one joke he’d heard from his guitar teacher and added to his act, another he “thought up himself” and chose to keep doing even after he later heard it told far and wide, and another he swore was a true story that actually happened to his grandfather. In the end, he admitted that he was in a bind and had to go with what would work, even though he knew it wasn’t his material per se.

In retrospect I’m not particularly proud that I called this guy out but I remember my outrage at the time: who the fuck does he think he is? The rest of us are out there bombing or succeeding on our own material developed over years of work, and he thinks he can just take a shortcut? The stolen jokes got laughs, too—his original material didn’t—which somehow made it worse. I told him that if I saw him telling other people’s jokes again I’d put him on blast.

On one hand, I could’ve been cooler about it. In the grand scheme of things, who cares? Who was he hurting? Joke thieves are like anonymous Internet trolls: the pitifulness of the crime is also a sort of punishment in itself. He was just some poor schlub trying to not eat shit on his first big club weekend, which backfired anyways. He was never asked back.

On the other hand, telling blatant street jokes onstage and expecting to not get called on it suggests an arrogance bordering on the sociopathic, a brazen assumption of the audience’s ignorance as well as a willingness to make everyone who knows better complicit in the pathetic ruse. Mostly I spoke up because it insulted my intelligence. 

In nine years of doing comedy that’s the only clear-cut case of joke theft I’ve personally witnessed. Far more often, I’ve seen comics steal an idol’s mannerisms or cadence; when I first started there was a Mitch Hedberg drawling one-liners at every open mic and a Doug Stanhope dropping his version of “truth bombs.” I’ve also seen comics reverse-engineer the “math” of a famous comic’s joke but substitute their own variables, more a case of overzealous try-hard-ism than outright theft.

I’ve found that 90 percent of the time it’s a case of “parallel writing”; there are only so many ideas out there and none of us are very original thinkers. It’s only natural that ideas would overlap in the overcrowded zeitgeist of a very specific demographic hard-wired to social media. Go to any open mic and you’ll hear the same premises pounded out over and over again—I recently saw three different comics tell “anal bleaching” jokes in the same evening.

If I hear someone tell a bit similar to one of my own, I’m likely to drop my version because it’s just not that original. No one’s trying to steal my precious ideas. Sure, there have been some high-profile cases: the audaciously terrible The Fat Jew’s wholesale Tweet theft, Carlos “Menstealia” Mencia’s documented pilfering. But most alleged joke theft exists in shades of grey. Lately I have a hard time getting outraged about it, even as the comedy Internet goes hog wild with split-screen comparison videos and overheated claims. Most recently, several female comics accused Amy Schumer of theft, which they later walked back. If you watch the videos they can seem pretty damning, but they often don’t tell the whole story.

City Arts fave Gabriel Rutledge [whose very funny road comedy memoir is now out on Kindle] wrote about being on the both ends of potential accusations:

“In 2009 I did a joke on Comedy Central. A few years later, while enjoying an evening at the movies with my wife, I heard Tina Fey's character say a very similar version of it in the move Date Night. I said, ‘Shit!’ and my wife said, ‘No way.’ That was it, though. I didn't know I was supposed to tweet about it and make one of those Joke Stealer YouTube videos. I just thought that whoever wrote that movie and I both had the same funny idea.

“Then I wrote some new jokes. I did a joke for years that someone eventually told me was a Tom Rhodes joke. I said, ‘Shit,’ then stopped doing it. It's on one of my albums, though. Someone could make a ‘Gabriel Rutledge steals’ video and it would definitely look bad. There are comedians who steal but most of them are terrible, so don't worry about it. None of us are that special. We're writing songs with the same chords as everyone else. All of our jokes are snowflakes, but it's all snow once it hits the ground. (I don't know what that means either.)”

Recently, local comic Bo Johnson and his friend Matthew Rotter posted a video they made in which Bo smuggled Matthew into a movie theatre under a jumbo set of clothes; two guys one ticket. It went massively viral, getting over five million views on YouTube and 20 million on Facebook. It was retweeted by the likes of T-Pain and Ashton Kutcher.

Not long afterward on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ben Affleck “snuck” Matt Damon onto the show employing the exact same ruse. Johnson has no doubt that they stole his gag.

“I certainly believe in parallel thinking,” he said, “But it seems highly unlikely that someone involved with the show came up with the exact same idea roughly a month after our video went viral.”

The original duo remains uncredited. As a veteran comic once told me, the ultimate law of the land is "Whoever does it on national television first owns it." In cases of alleged joke theft, profile is nine-tenths of the law.

“It was very cool to see our idea played out on such a large stage,” Johnson said, “but I would have enjoyed getting some credit.”

Snowflake photo by Alexey Kljatov. 

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