Ask Ash: Understanding the Joke Thief

brick wall thiefThis is not in response to a direct question, but there’s been another spat of internet chat on the subject of joke thieves, particularly involving people I respect.  This was brought to the fore again by a recent streamed discussion on Extralegal Norms at Harvard University.

“It’s a “cancer in the industry”: comedians stealing each other’s jokes.@JimMendrinos#copyrightX” – @MiTLibScholarly on Twitter

“there’s a lot of people in the industry who should drown in their own saliva” – Jim Mendrinos

Joke thieves are a (rightfully) vilified fact of life in the comedy community.  They cause stress and sow fear in the lives of creators as well as rob opportunities from those who are deserving.  Who could be so vile, so destructive to the world around them and would want the hate and loathing of their peers?  “No one” is the correct answer.  This is something that we must keep in mind if we want to lessen the effect this behaviour has on our industry.  Brow beating, finger pointing and McCarthy-esque outings are only going to polarize our community and not get to the roots of the problem.

“No one is a villain in their own mind.” – Harry Crews

Let us try to identify the types of joke thieves, work out their motivations and figure out what we can do together to curb their behaviour.

Casual Performer

Who:  The casual performer is someone out for a good time.  They don’t see a career in comedy, they’re the office cut-up, funniest one of their friends.  They probably forward videos, post pictures from various sites on their Facebook, and as a lark they decide to get onstage to tell a few jokes.  Some seek out comedy clubs, some just go to a local open mic or even a karaoke club – some place that’ll give them a stage and a mic.  They just want to have fun, and they’ll bring their supportive friends with them.  They’ll do versions of jokes they’ve read online, even bits from their favourite comics (sometimes even giving credit to the original performer).

Problem:  The obvious problem most people see is that the Casual Performer (CP) is taking stage time away from people who need it to develop, who want it more.  That’s the wrong way to think of it.  The problem with the CP is that they are a comedy fan.  They love it, they just don’t know how to create it so they mimic what they like.  The most damaging problem is that CP’s bring out people.  They are the funny one of their friends, they’re constantly told they should get onstage – and bars that are more concerned with drinks sold and butts in seats overlook the poor quality of their act.  Correcting their behavior has to be done delicately.

 “Obviously this person has to be publicly humiliated as an unimaginative hack.”  No.  As a performer, this type of person IS your audience.  Polarizing them, publicly humiliating them, does nothing but turn them against you (or your room / club).  Their friends will take their side, because that’s what friends do.  Then you have a group of people who are upset with your room / club AND they may even insist to the CP that you were wrong and that they must continue.  An axiom of the hospitality industry is if one person leaves unhappy, you lose 16 potential customers.

Solution:  Take the CP aside privately, and encourage their… something.  Mic control, presence, timing – maybe there was something original in their act.  As someone they’ve seen onstage, who praises them, your encouragement will mean alot and they’ll be more willing to listen to what else you have to say.  Kindly suggest if they intend to continue that they should make sure their act is original and not a ‘tribute’ to someone else or include jokes they’ve read on the internet (depending on their crimes).  Take time to work with them if that’s what it takes.  An exposure to the craft should help show them what is truly involved, hopefully garnering them a greater respect for the stage time and the work of comedians.  This method keeps the CP in your community, as well as their friend network, growing your audience.  It’s best to remember they are a comedy fan, they just don’t know how it works.

Danger:  The CP may not change his ways, you’ll need to keep an eye on them if they perform at other rooms.  It is only after they’ve obviously disregarded any advice and continue stealing material / doing street jokes, that you may wish to approach people who run other rooms and warn them about the CP.  A community working together can help stop this behaviour.  A booker that  that’s more concerned with butts in seats then quality could find a CP an attractive act.  In that case, it’s up to the community to say no.  Refuse to perform on a show that includes the joke thief.  Some people will cave for the stage time, even if you explain to them why BUT with enough good acts staying away, the booker’s show quality will fall, with that the attendance and the money.  That will get the booker (or his boss)’s attention.

mouse thief

Subconcious Stealer

Who:  Usually the Subconscious Stealer (SS) is a member of the community who may unintentionally lift themes, voices or unusual word choices from the other acts they see in the community.  Their social life may revolve around shows, they go to them often, even when not on.  They pay attention to all the acts and laugh even at jokes they’ve seen many times before.  They love the scene.  They tend to be strong performers (similar to, but not as strong as the Performing Sponge, below), if not gifted at writing, the know how to sell a joke.

Many mid-sized cities develop a comedy ‘flavour’.  The acts that do well, get booked more often, and become the acts to emulate.  Audiences become educated that the style of the often booked act is how comedy should be, and reward other acts of that style with laughter and applause.  Comedians checking their setlist for jokes that hit will then trim the jokes of the style that didn’t… reinforcing that city’s flavour.

Problem:  Some writers like to use unusual words, a different phrasing, cadence or persona to set themselves apart.  If other acts start using that phrasing, cadence, persona or vocabulary – it’s no longer special, no longer unique – and it muddies the water about who the audience may think did it first.  Truthfully, most audience members don’t care who did a joke first as long as they laugh.

Solution:  Again, quietly approach the performer and have a polite conversation.  Ask them if they think they’ve any similarities between your phrasing / character / cadence and the one they use in a certain joke.  It’s best to have back up (either recorded proof or a single normally neutral person as you don’t want to appear to be ganging up on the SS) as a witness to say “yeah, that is a lot like…”  Try to let them see that stylistically they’ve drifted towards you and encourage them to be more themselves.  Most, if it presented to them as a non-attack, may realize your point.  Worst case, they may accuse you of drifting stylistically towards them.

Danger:  It’s possible the SS does perform your material better.  The fact they camp on the scene means more people may have seen your style from them first.  Some SS may be better networked than you, with more industry friends – making them feel like they’ve stolen from you could blacken your name.  Many of the higher echelon comedians who are accused of stealing their acts (more than just a couple of jokes) have found greater success then those that they’ve allegedly stolen from.  Many have successful careers as actors.  Sometimes the solution may only be to ask to write for the SS, you are still working in the industry and you’ll be able to use their connections to further your next career move.

“Your enemy is never a villain in his own eyes. Keep this in mind; it may offer a way to make him your friend. If not, you can kill him without hate — and quickly.” Lazurus Long (Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYwaWvN5kMo&w=560&h=315]

 Victim of Success

Who:  A rising star, someone who may be a ten year overnight success.  An act who has achieved a growth in success and now is feeling pressure to follow it up.  I touched on the concept of ‘Second Album Syndrome‘ in a previous article.  Their goal is to further grow their career, or at least maintain the new lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed too.  If they realize they’re stealing another comic’s material they can justify it to themselves by saying they’ve worked hard, gave others a hand, were stolen from and deserve their success.  Now they have bills to pay, and they must be paid rather than slide down the socioeconomic ladder.

Problem:  This act is now a goldenboy, they’ve been accepted and praised by the masses.  They spent 10 years developing an act that has now exploded and garnered them a lot of success.  Their problem is, now, they have to develop another act (as good as or better than the act they took 10 years to build) in less than 12 months, or lose any momentum they may have gained.

The VoS may not even realize they’re doing it, in that way, they share some traits with the SS.  Now that they really have to push themselves to create material they may find themselves drawing concepts from deep memories, unknowingly, of acts they saw years ago.  Or they could be douchebags with a cocaine habit that they need to feed and judge the risk of stealing some unknown’s material with the fear of not having a solid second album (or DVD).

Solution:  The solution is fairly similar to the solution for the SS.  Talk with them quietly.  It’s very important you have proof of ownership of your material.  Many comedy celebrities have a posse – a team of friends they count on, either to help develop material or write it for them.  It’s possible the material you think was ripped off was actually ripped off by a writer and passed on to the unknowing VoS.  Usually some arrangement can be reached, and if necessary (and you have solid proof of when you created your material and where they VoS saw it), you may want to think about pursuing legal action if your material was tantamount to their success.  Usually it doesn’t have to go that far (as long as no public humiliation has happened).

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xP-m4tE4ys&w=560&h=315]

If there is someone who’s gained a reputation for stealing material, make sure they don’t see yours.  Stories abound about how comedians would drop off shows if they heard Robin Williams was in the room – just because they feared he’d steal their material.

Danger:  The danger to your career, is evident.  If you’re a lower echelon comedian entering a flame war with a rising or established star it may damage your career chances  even if you have documentation to point to.  If you’re an upper echelon comic with a new star using some of your old material, it may be seen as sour grapes to attack their use of your material / concepts – like you can’t handle seeing someone else succeed or do what you did but better.  Comedians must remember that average audience members don’t care who wrote something, just who made them laugh.  Without documented proof, you’re a crackpot.  You’ll upset those that are currently working on projects with the VoS – burning bridges.  You risk coming across as whiney and you’re inviting others to come in and examine every joke / performance you’ve done.

line 2 Cutting Edge Hack

Who:  The Cutting Edge Hack (CEH) may be the most oblivious of joke thieves.  Habits include having a notebook, paying attention at shows and being excited by good ideas.  They tend to sidle up to performers they respect often exclaiming how well written a piece is.  They rarely give ‘tags’ to their friends.

Problem:  Most all of us can agree on what hack is.  But how does something become hack?  I’m sure someone somewhere wrote a very funny joke about airline food – and then a lot of other people made similar observations.  Now the idea of airline food is a joke.  Well the Cutting Edge Hack is similar to the person who wrote the 2nd joke about airline food.  They like to spot ‘trends’ in comedy, so they can appear hip and have jokes about the same subjects that their idol / friends do.  They don’t see this as stealing, they’re just using a tired premise – yours.  They’ll see an idea that another comic does, and then put their spin on it.  They may be good writers, but just not good creators.  Maybe they’re lazy, or maybe they don’t have much world experience – so they live vicariously though the jokes of others.

Solution:  If this happens, speak to them quietly.  Most likely they don’t see borrowing a concept as stealing.  The best solution I can think of is building a community.  Where comedians will write together often, where comics give tags to each other when they think of them.  In that kind of atmosphere it’s easier to educate newer comics to the sense of propriety and that working together you get stronger.  By thinking of tags for other comics you will learn to write for other’s voices, a good skill to have if your career goals include becoming a writer.

Danger:  Handle it wrong and you will gain the resentment of someone who thinks you’re jealous.  They may even think you’re version of the joke is hack – something they’ve improved on.  That you can’t handle better they can write your joke (which is now theirs).  You’re just trying to keep them down and can’t handle their success.

line 1 Performing Sponge

Who:  The Performing Sponge (PS) is a fantastic performer, with great presence, an affinity for mimicry and is able to sell sea water to a drowning man.  Everything they experience and see they can bring to the stage.

Problem:  Everything they experience and see, they can bring to the stage – including acts they’ve gleaned.  Sometimes it’s subconscious, most I’ve encountered have theatre training, which compliments their gifts and help refined them.  In theatre you’re handed a script to interpret.  You develop improv skills so you may act or speak as your character without the need to formulate what comes out.  If they hear an idea – they see it as fair game.  It’s not the idea (script) that is important but the interpretation, on which they put their stamp on.

Solution:  Again it comes down to a quiet, private chat.  This form of thief shares much with the SS, VoS and CEH.  They may have respect for the acting craft but may not realize that stand-up comedy is a separate discipline with it’s own set of rules.  Most people serious about theatre will respect that when pointed out.  With this sort of joke thief, respect goes a long way.  They have skills you can recognize, and indirectly by sampling your material, the show they respect skills you have.  It is in both of yours best interest to educate each other and come to an amicable solution.

Danger:  The danger comes is the PS refuses to recognize the rules of material ownership in comedy and decides to continue doing material about whatever they come across, including other people’s jokes (premises, set-ups or even word for word).  These types of acts can be very popular, asking bars not to book them, or other acts to refuse to be on shows with them may be hard – but if they borrow from all they work with, it will get easier.

Hopefully we can better understand the motivations of the joke thief, to recognize them sooner and deal with them effectively.  Summarizing what is above:

  • Approach them privately and quietly (not publicly or via rumour)
  • Assume it was done innocently.  Remember, parallel thought can and does happen
  • Have proof that is easy to point to, be open to the thought they may have been first
  • Do it as soon as you can, the longer they do another’s joke the more they’ll feel it’s their own.
  • Try to build a rapport, mentor them on stand-up writing etiquette

These things will help build and strengthen a community, and that will make all comedy communities stronger.  What you must remember is, that someone may steal a joke from you, but they don’t steal your ability to write better jokes.

Yours,
Ash

 

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About Ash

Paul Ash is that special kind of person who sees the best in everyone, except himself. His self loathing comedy is peppered with rural charm and big city cynicism. This “muppet king of comedy” has been described as the “encyclopaedia of funny” and has an over ten year relationship with the Festival Just For Laughs, the world’s largest stand-up comedy fest.