Friday, December 12, 2008

Call the police, somebody stole my joke...

Stand-up comics talk about an array of subjects. They put a certain twist on things to try and stand out from the crowd. However, there is quite a bit of thievery up there on the stage. As far as I know, there is no law against stealing jokes. As a comic, I sometimes find it so blatantly obvious that a joke has been "borrowed" so to speak. Some comics that have been around for years call them stock jokes.

Stock jokes are your typical one liners and obvious jokes about people in the crowd, being on the road, hotels, airplanes, Viagra, Starbucks. Basically anything that has been done to death. If you think you have heard it have.
There are what some call street jokes, like "a rabbi, a priest, and a horse walk into a bar and the bartender says, hey is this some kind of joke"? Believe it or not, I have seen comedians do an entire act of street jokes.
"Borrowing" jokes dates back to the days of vaudeville. the same jokes were used on a regular basis by all the comedians in the Catskills. Originality was not the goal. They were hired to entertain the guests. Make them laugh. People were drinking and having fun. They don't care. This form of "comedy" is rampant and over the years it has given stand-up a bad name. When people realize they are watching a comic throw out the same old tired jokes they lose a little respect for him. Not that comedy ever got any respect. Rodney Dangerfield based his entire career on comics getting no respect. It still holds true today. Dangerfield cornered the market on one liners. Any comedian coming up today who has the guts to do one liners faces the strong possibility that people will assume he stole his jokes from Rodney. Maybe he didn't, but one-liners are a tough business. They come out as puns and usually result in groans rather than laughs.
So what is a joke? How does it start?
The joke starts with a premise. A premise is something as simple as your relationships, your job, where you live, things you observe in everyday life. Premises are only the beginning. The hard part is to follow the set up of the premise with a punch line. That is the joke. I have seen comics with excellent premises, but no punchline.
There are only so many premises. Everything has been touched on by a lot of comedians. Observational comedy has been done to death with guys like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld. What have they not talked about? It's almost impossible to imagine a new premise. A comedian cannot be accused of stealing a premise. This has happened to me. I do jokes about the weather. I have had comedians come up to me and say "I do a joke about the weather, you can't do that". I listened to his joke. It had nothing to do with my joke other than the premise was the weather. Do you think any other comics do jokes about weather? I think so.
The same goes for the news, marriage, driving, travelling, sex, babies, in laws, work, etc.
We live life everyday. The comedian's job is to point out the silliness of it all.
The thing that makes a comic stand apart from the crowd is not the premises he chooses, but how he builds his character on stage. His persona. That is the key. If you think of all the great comics, it's their persona that gets you. Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, Steven Wright are examples of comics with unique personas. If someone tried to steal it, it would be obvious.
If you listen to their premises, they are not original. it's the way their persona delivers it that makes it so original.
Many celebrity comedians become famous for their personas, but somewhere along the way, steal jokes from lesser known comics. Jokes that fit into their persona. This happens all the time. I could sit here and expose them, and maybe I should.

If you have seen Eddie Murphy's stand-up special "Delirious", there is a bit he does about the Honeymooners' Ralph and Ed having a gay encounter, so to speak. LIFTED - word for word.
Robin Williams was known for going to open mike nights and stealing jokes from new comics.
Rosie - notorious for stealing jokes on a regular basis.
Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia are among the new breed of joke thieves.
I am sure there are many more.
Shameful, yes, but going back to what I said in the beginning. Their job is to make people laugh and no doubt all of these "comedians" have done that.
Personally, I find it appalling.

No wonder respect is so rare in this business.

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