The Dark, Subconscious Art Of Joke-Stealing
For even the most careful comedians, scientists say it's far easier than you'd think
After Amy Schumer was accused of joke theft by four comedians—Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli, Kathleen Madigan, and the late Patrice O’Neal—she appeared on Jim Norton’s podcast and said she’d take a polygraph to prove she’d never do such a thing.
The tweetstorm between Schumer and two of her accusers has since been deleted, but this Buzzfeed roundup details it, as well as the alleged stolen jokes. The problem with joke theft, however, is that it’s not always a malevolent act; it might even be attributable to a flaw in the human brain. But the line between oblivious accident and intentional theft is a blurry one.
One joke goes back to 2006, when Pescatelli joked on Comedy Central’s Half Hour, “Women dress for other women. That’s why, men, if we love you, we dress you for other women, too. That’s why we dress you stupid. Because we want a woman to look at you and think, ‘He’s cute but I can’t fix all of this.’”
Compare that with Schumer’s movie Trainwreck, whose trailer features Schumer saying to her sister about her sister’s husband: “You dress him like that so no one else wants to have sex with him? That’s cool.”
Schumer is also said to have used a series of jokes about sex moves done by Patrice O’Neal from 2006. Her joke: “There’s the Abraham Lincoln. That’s where the guy trims his pubes, comes on a girl’s face, and throws the pubes so she has that facial hair.”
And then, O’Neal’s: “Have you ever heard of Gorilla Mask Her? That’s when you come in her face, and then take some pubic hair and throw it at her.”
And while the similarities in these jokes are certainly striking, it’s not entirely clear that this is outright theft.
A 2011 piece at comedy site Splitsider takes readers through the process of how you would accuse someone of joke theft, including how one should consider whether the person in question even heard or saw your joke, for starters. (Schumer is said to have opened for O’Neal.) Second, you should take into account the joke’s originality (Tim & Eric once accused Saturday Night Live of stealing a joke that strongly resembled an In Living Color sketch). Third, consider the joke’s topicality (there will be hundreds of jokes off the news, with dozens of similar jokes as a result), and fourth, be sure that the person you think stole your joke didn’t actually make the joke first (which happened to Bill Maher, they point out, when he accused the Onion of stealing a joke he actually stole from them.) Also, how close to the original is the maybe-stolen joke? Is it word for word, or just very similar?
But it’s not like established comedians haven’t been accused of stealing before. Carlos Mencia was busted for joke theft (he defended it as saying he was “a sponge”). And this account of the history of joke stealing, points the finger at Milton Berle, Robin Williams, and Dane Cook. Denis Leary was said to have lifted extensively from the late Bill Hicks on his hit comedy album No Cure for Cancer.
Comedian Patton Oswalt has issued strong thoughts on the cowardice of joke-stealing while also admitting he’s done it before, at least twice. His take: It absolutely happens accidentally. But there’s a huge difference between lifting entire bits, versus an accidental joke. Patton wrote about a night doing standup in 1988 when he told a joke that killed:
There’s a dopamine rush, for a comedian, when you cobble a thought out of thin air, when you arrange words not as a sentence but suddenly, as a joke. A for-real, plucked-from-your-skull joke. Something you created which, when you reach the part you want the audience to laugh at? And then…holy shit! They actually laugh? That’s the spike in the vein that sets the compass for your life.
Well, I’d gotten a taste. I wanted more.
The only problem was, it wasn’t my joke.
He chronicles how it happened: Watching as much comedy as he could, whether on TV or in clubs, along the way absorbing jokes and sometimes, mistakenly thinking of them as his own.
And the thrust of his essay is that while these practices are normal pitfalls of comedy writing, realizing you’ve ripped off someone’s joke and vowing not to do it again is the only antidote. What sucks is comedians who lift entire bits and do so shamelessly, as if they think that’s all part of the game. There’s a big difference between accidentally retelling a joke you thought was yours, versus, say, posting other people’s work as yours without attribution—something Instagram celeb the Fat Jew learned the hard way when he was outed for stealing most of his work from other people. (He calls it “curation.”)
But comedians who write for a living live and breathe and traffic in the same intellectual ether must grapple with this risk. Marc Maron devoted an episode of his show to it, and admitted in an interview that the accidental lift was “every comedian’s biggest fear.”
“There’s definitely a difference between someone who steals material pathologically and somebody who accidentally does something,” he said, echoing Oswalt’s take. “And it’s one of the liabilities and possibilities of being a comic, that it could happen.”
Daisy Gardner, a TV writer who started in LA standup and moved on to stints on 30 Rock, Californication and recently Married, says that while she would in no way take a side in the case against Schumer, that generally speaking, the risk of accidental joke stealing is all too common. As a standup, Gardner said lots of comics “had jokes that were in the same area. But if someone had a truly great, transcendental joke, you’d remember whose it was.”
She said the same thing happens in a writer’s room—raw ideas and similar premises get passed back and forth, she said. “In a writer’s room, it’s very very easy to make this mistake,” she said. “Different writers may genuinely believe they are the first ones to pitch an idea, even if a version of it was pitched by someone else two minutes before.”
In fact, this phenomenon is incredibly common in idea generation of any kind. It’s called cryptomnesia, thinking you’ve stumbled onto an original idea that in reality you’ve heard before. They can even replicate it in the lab—it takes a skilled mix of forgetting and remembering at the right moment, according to Dr. Douwe Draaisma, a researcher on memory and forgetting.
According to an excerpt from his book Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations at Science of Us, he explains that there are dozens and dozens of experiments that have reproduced the notion that in the midst of brainstorming and producing ideas, folks will unfailingly present ideas as their own that they did not come up with. What’s more is that it isn’t deliberately devious—people still over-attribute to themselves even when they are told they will be awarded money for correctly assigning the idea to the right person.
There is a “next-in-line” effect: those who came immediately before you in the brainstorming session run a slightly higher risk of having their ideas stolen by you, probably because you were already thinking about your own contribution as you listened. Ideas presented in chaotic circumstances, such as during brainstorming sessions or disorganized meetings, are also more likely to be incorrectly claimed at a later date.
Interestingly, there is one criteria Draaisma says that will increase the odds of cryptomnesia even more: When you ask the participants to make an idea better. In other words, the very act of trying to perfect an existing idea—or say, a joke—makes you more likely to think it’s yours. And arguably in the comedy world, given that you’re all working with a lot of the same material, that is in essence the name of the game.
Swimming in the same general sea of inspiration is how art gets made—was it a coincidence that so many bands suddenly sounded a lot like the Strokes after Is This It landed in 2001?
Comedy scenes are no different. Comedian and advice columnist Chris Crofton, a former Nashville comic now in Los Angeles, says in his decade-plus of doing comedy he sees a few different kinds of joke-lifting going on in clubs, but the most common kind is essentially hearing people work through the same jokes riffing on the same subjects over and over in comedy nights around town.
“These are people getting all their news from the same places,” he says by phone. “They all read Twitter, Facebook, and all the same things trend at the same time. So everyone tackles the same subject at the same time. There’s a million ways to write jokes, but one way is fairly traditional—you attack a current topic, and pull it apart and make a joke out of it. There are 15 billion comics now, too, so they are bound to start coming up with the same jokes about the same thing.”
Plus, he says, there’s the added problem of the fact that we’re all exposed to so many of these jokes now due to the Internet and social media. “You could live in a town in the 1970s and never hear any jokes at all, except like the one you heard at the grocery store,” he says. Now, there’s Twitter, where everyone is a cut-up. “You read that at light speed all day long and you don’t remember where you read what.”
He says he attends numerous comedy nights where untested comedians lift jokes.
“I see amateur comedians do it a lot,” he says. “And they tend to be lifted off famous comedian’s specials,” he said. “It’s not word for word, but I’ve seen people steal Louis bits, I’ve seen people still Chris Rock bits. Nobody cares, because they’re open mic people.”
But to illustrate how easily it can happen with more established comedians, too, Crofton recalls a special he saw with John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, where they took questions from a live audience, one of which was, “If you could have dinner with someone alive or dead, who would it be?” To which Mulaney responded, “Dead.” Crofton said he’d seen the same joke that day on Twitter, by a comedian they both followed. But Mulaney even joked at the event that he had a feeling he may have taken it, but shrugged—so what? It’s a common joke.
Crofton says he doesn’t think of that as stealing. Crofton himself has closed a set or two with a series of iterations on sex move jokes. “These are street jokes,” he said. “Watercooler jokes. No one can claim a sex move joke because sex positions jokes have been going around forever. Maybe someone made up the first one, but that’s a locker room joke—there’s no way you can trace that. People can do any variation on those. If [O’Neal] is the first time you saw a sex moves joke, that means you’ve never left the house.”
While none of this justifies lifting, it’s important to understand why in such an incestuous world of artful creation, that the very conditions in which comedians work, makes lifting difficult to avoid. The only real system of checks and balances in the early workshopping of jokes in the club scene comes from other comedians, as was the case with Oswalt.
“If there’s the suspicion that the joke has been done, and you can figure out who said it and can identify the joke, you cut it,” Gardner said. “But a suspicion, however, may not be enough to warrant cutting something. It depends on the room.”
Or, hope that someone will tell you. Only now, the forum for doing so is as public as the one providing all those jokes ripe for the lifting.