Originality is such a hard thing to come by these days that it’s no wonder you’ll see so many movies, TV shows and music that look and sound the same. When is the last time you heard a song or movie that you couldn’t compare to something else prior? Probably never. That doesn’t mean that originality or creativity has died, but just means that people have a brand new way of seeing things. One of the greatest movies of all times, Star Wars is often compared to Star Trek. They have forums of geeks and nerds sighting the familiarities between these two, I’ll save you the time and say that I’ve seen all the Star Wars series and none of the Star Trek franchise despite their many TV shows and spin-off movies but I’m aware of how they tend to overlap each other in some aspects.
As a comedian, I’ve been accused of joke stealing once or twice. This is a big deal in the comedy world, it’s alright to pay homage or reference other comics but straight stealing is frowned upon and can potentially get an up and coming comedian like myself blackballed. I’d like to take this time to defend myself. I don’t intentionally go out with the mindset that I’m going to rehash old Richard Pryor and George Carlin jokes. They just happen to be my idols and I can only hope that one day I’ll be on the same level that they were. When it comes to comedy pretty much every subject matter has been touched on at one time or another. I can’t think of any subject matter that a comedian has refused to touch or hasn’t touched. Does that mean that every comic who does an observational joke has to cut Jerry Seinfeld a check? NO, as long those comedians find their own way to take on a particular subject matter then it’s fine. How many times (as a black comic) have I heard other black comics do racial humor that is reminiscent of Chris Rock or D.L. Hughley? But I try not to sit back and think of how they’re stealing the material of those artists.
Many famous comics such as Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and Dennis Leary were often accused of stealing their jokes for years but they’ve gone to become legends in their own rights. Carlos Mencia is probably the most well-known joke thief in comedy, people have said that he’s stolen from George Lopez (among others) but was George Lopez the first Hispanic comedian to hit it big? Freddy Prinze was/is the biggest Latino comedian to date. You may not be familiar with him but you’ll know his son Freddy Prinze Jr. from all those awful 1990s and early 2000s movies (She’s All That, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Head Over Heels).
A true comedian has the right to pay homage to those who inspired him. They’ll let you know who their inspirations were if you take the time to ask them. If it wasn’t for podcasts like Marc Marcon, Greg Fitzsimmons or The Joe Rogan Experience, many people wouldn’t know that a lot of these comedians not only draw inspiration from their lives but also the people around them. Tupac didn’t have to be in a gang or deal drugs to tell the stories of the people who did, but yet no one accuses Tupac of stealing.
It hurts me creatively when someone accuses me of joke stealing. I was doing an open mic in Washington D.C., I had a joke that didn’t have a great punchline. I realize as I told it that I needed to work on it. The host of the show comes on and does a much better punchline for my joke, it was awesome. (It goes without mentioning that during that show many of the comics after me used my joke as a set up for their many jokes). I didn’t think much of what the host said other than that it was funny. I must admit that the host of this particular show was/is a guy that I admire, he’s often pulled me aside after my set to offer comedic advice, which I took to heart. I’m open to any form of criticism (as long as it’s constructive).
Months later, I was doing a show in NYC, I used my joke as a set up but unitentionally used the host from DC’s punchline. It was a throw away joke that the audience laughed at but didn’t really pay attention to. The rest of the set was all stuff I had been working on. I emailed the host to tell him (out of respect) that I used his punchline in my set. Mind you, I didn’t have to tell him anything and it would’ve stayed mine. I get this long email back basically saying:
‘Your NYC show really pissed me off. You need understand that saying a line someone else wrote or came up with is stealing. I do shows at the same place in NYC so if I wanted to say that line, they would think I’m stealing from you. If I ever hear you doing anything like that again I’m going to publicly post on facebook and you’ll have a hell of a time getting stage time in this area…’
He went on to talk about blackballing me from the local DC comedy scene, which is small enough already but having someone who’s a host at a weekly show blacklist you is terrible. I wanted to take it racial with him (he’s white) and say something like ‘What you think all black people are crooks?’ But I didn’t do that.
My first reaction was to take it to the streets, I may not be the hardest but I did want to crack his teeth in after reading this the first time. After I calmed down and read it again, I realized that (knowing the guy) he was only trying to help me in his own way.
So I ask the question for any comics and/or fans of stand up comedy, is it stealing when my original set up for the joke it what paved the way for his great punchline?
Keep in mind that I emailed him out of respect to let him know I used it when I could’ve not said anything. I think it’s a 50/50 split at least but knowing myself I may be in the wrong. What do you think?
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