Standup Guise: Stealing Jokes Isn’t funny


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From Chicago’s Laugh Factory

By Casey Bukro

A funny thing happened on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight show: they were talking about ethics in comedy and joke stealing.

It’s no laughing matter when comics steal jokes from other comedians. How can you stop it?

The Chicago Tonight program was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Alex Kaseberg, a Winnetka freelance comedy writer, who accuses television talk show host Conan O’Brien of stealing his jokes.

“Plagiarism is a huge deal in journalism,” said Phil Ponce, the moderator. “It’s a career-ender. Why is it not a career-ender in comedy?”

Nobody on the panel of comedy experts laughed.

“There’s a history of joke-stealing” that goes back to vaudeville, answered Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Columbia College Chicago. Performers sometimes stood backstage and took notes so they could tell the stolen jokes later.

It’s not easy to prove when a joke is stolen, said comedian Dwayne Kennedy. People accuse others of joke-stealing all the time, he said, but “the topic is so broad,” it’s hard to prove.

There was some disagreement on how a comic could claim to have told a joke for the first time.

“Whoever tells a joke on stage, it’s their joke,” insisted Curtis Flagg, director of operations at Chicago’s Laugh Factory. He recognized another class of jokes, those that are “passed around” and become known as “street jokes.” Those claim no ownership.

And jokes often come in two parts, a setup and a punch line. Does ownership come with one, or both?

“There are only so many comedy ideas out there,” added Libera. Ponce wondered if a comedian could copyright jokes. Libera answered that a comic premise cannot be copyrighted, only “words in exact order.”

And attitudes toward joke stealing have changed.

Kennedy pointed out that comedian Milton Berle often bragged about stealing jokes from comics, saying they would become “some of the funniest jokes I’ll ever do.”

The amorphous nature of comedy changed in the 1950s, said Libera, with Mort Saul, considered the first modern standup comedian, and Lenny Bruce, who also developed his own comedic voice.

“Now jokes come from your own point of view,” she said. Even so, it’s still hard to claim ownership of a joke.

The Library of Congress magazine recently featured its collection of material on comedy and comedians.

It pointed out that “material” is a comedian’s file of jokes and stories, which comics typically consider “precious” and worthy of preserving and protecting. Its Bob Hope joke file contains more than 85,000 pages.

Hope joked that he personally knew 11 American presidents, and “I’ve even had them steal my material.”

The Library of Congress reported that laughter is an early human brain development. Ancient Greeks introduced comedy in their dramatic arts competitions in the 4th Century B.C. Comedic playwright Aristophanes might have been considered one of the leading joke writers of the day.

Even the nation’s founding fathers had a funny bone. Their wit and wisdom is included in the Library of Congress collection.

Benjamin Franklin, it said, described the importance of comedy in our lives by saying, “trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away.”

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