A Serious Look At Joke Stealing

from the no-laughing-matter? dept

Last week’s story on Joe Rogan accusing Carlos Mencia of “stealing” jokes, followed by Mencia’s decision to claim Rogan’s video of the confrontation violated his copyrights certainly got plenty of attention, including quite an interesting discussion in the comments. One reader, Chris, pointed us to a very relevant story in Radar Magazine about the common practice of joke stealing (which includes a bit on Carlos Mencia, but also outs Robin Williams as being a notorious joke stealer as well). I was thinking about this over the weekend, when I was flipping through a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor for something totally unrelated to Techdirt. The book includes 640 jokes, which he readily admits to taking from others (at least the large majority of the jokes). He notes that he’s always gathered among friends and joke tellers and tried to collect better jokes and stories from others that he’d be able to reuse himself. As he notes as well, jokes are more than just the joke, but in how you tell it. Indeed, seeing comics steal others jokes is nothing new at all — and the fact is that some comics do tell jokes better than others. It’s like we’ve said in the past about plagiarism. Sometimes people make a big deal out of it, even though it’s used to make something entirely new and creative in its own way. Joke telling has everything to do with style and timing. So there’s a good argument to be made for the idea that maybe there isn’t anything wrong with taking someone else’s jokes and using them in your act. During the original confrontation between Rogan and Mencia, Rogan claims that if the same thing were happening with a different type of creative work, like a song or a book, there would be a ton of news about it — but with a joke, no one cares. Perhaps it’s not that no one cares, but that people just want to be entertained — and the person who first comes up with a joke isn’t necessarily as interesting as someone who is funniest with that joke.

Except… there’s a price to pay for it in terms of reputation. The backlash against Mencia is exactly that price. His reputation is taking a big hit, and he seems to keep digging himself a deeper hole by refusing to admit that he repurposed others’ jokes (and, in fact, is apparently still doing so). So, perhaps the real issue here is that this is an issue that can be solved by social norms, rather than laws like copyright. If you’re going to make use of someone else’s work, it’s going to come back and bite you if you’re not willing to admit it. There is still value in being a good joke teller, even if you’re using other people’s work — but if you keep pretending that you were also the creator of that work, it’s going to come back and hurt you in terms of your reputation. While that may have been less true in the past, thanks to things like the internet, it’s going to be increasingly easy to call out those who violate the social norms of taking credit for a joke they didn’t write.

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Comments on “A Serious Look At Joke Stealing”

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Paul says:

Ya well

Stealing jokes is nothing new and it will never become old and it is true that a joke is all about how you tell it.

Mencia denying that he is stealing jokes, or at least getting ideas for jokes from others is absurd though. The best PR would be to admit that your jokes are influenced by others, and at least give partial credit to those who came before you, much like today’s musicians do.

Dosquatch says:

Re: joke stealing

f*** them if they can’t take a joke.

Umm, I think you got that wrong.

Perhaps it’s not that no one cares, but that people just want to be entertained — and the person who first comes up with a joke isn’t necessarily as interesting as someone who is funniest with that joke.

F*** ’em if they can’t tell a joke.

duane (user link) says:


While I agree with most of the article, I do disagree with the stance on plagiarism. It could be just a poor choice of words, but the issue with plagiarism is that someone else’s work is used to create something new. The issue of plagiarism is credit being given to whom it is due. In writing about any subject, we have to use other people’s ideas, even if sometimes we just restate them in a better way. We still need to give credit for the source of those ideas.

Anonymous Coward says:

“In writing about any subject, we have to use other people’s ideas, even if sometimes we just restate them in a better way. We still need to give credit for the source of those ideas.”

No, we don’t. If I read a couple different sources (e.g. encyclopedias) and learn a few facts, and then relay those facts a week later to a friend, I probably won’t say “I read that in wikipedia” after every sentence. If I regurgitate it on a blog, I may not cite the source either (unless I want to for the benefit of the reader). If my opinions are influenced by a radio talk show host, I don’t have to quote the talk show host every time I restate my opinion. Same goes for jokes I hear on television.

Unless I’m directly quoting a substantial piece of art and claiming it to be my own without changing it in any way, plagiarism is a hard thing to really prove. And as stated above, jokes have more to do with how they’re told than what they say. That can’t be copied well.

Chris says:


While I agree with most of the article, I do disagree with the stance on plagiarism. It could be just a poor choice of words, but the issue with plagiarism is that someone else’s work is used to create something new. The issue of plagiarism is credit being given to whom it is due. In writing about any subject, we have to use other people’s ideas, even if sometimes we just restate them in a better way. We still need to give credit for the source of those ideas.

Sue me, I dare you.

lar3ry says:

It's an old story

This has gone on for a long time.

Milton Berl was constantly accused of stealing jokes to the point where it became part of his typical banter when he was with another comedian. He’d pretend to be insulted, and the audience laughed. Alan King started his career doing George Jessel’s material (he admits this in his auto-biography). Jessel was incensed by this and never forgave King.

I also remember hearing about the problems that comics would have at the famous “roasts” at the Friars’ Clubs. With a single target, there would be many people coming up with the same jokes, and the comics that were on later would have to listen carefully to the jokes being told and try to figure out how to come up with something different if a few of the jokes they planned were already told. Who is the originator here? The comic who is lucky to give a joke first?

Mencia was called out by Joe Rogan for stealing material from a person that previously opened for him. Whether or not he did so isn’t important. I know of a few comics that have more important things to do than watch their opening act… hearing the same jokes over and over makes them unfunny. Mencia might have been subject to the same problem that the Friars comics had: a lot of Mencia’s humor is about Mexicans. It’s quite possible that he came up with the same joke that somebody else wrote. It’s also possible that he stole the joke.

The “right” thing would have been to laugh it off. It’s not very easy, especially when he was called out on stage in front of an audience, but comics are expected to be able to deal with the unexpected, and being seen as not having a sense of humor about the situation could be deadly to a comic’s career.

Chris says:

Lar3ry; point valid, however irrelevant.

Apparently you haven’t the vaguest idea of just how hard it is to become a successful comic. Telling a joke that is similar in nature, i.e. it’s a joke that pokes fun at a gender, race, scenario; no one has a problem with. Telling a joke the exact same way when you’re a person called out by the collective community that has a SERIOUS PROBLEM with it, is what’s wrong. And THAT is what Joe’s trying to shed light on.

People spend years, even the better part of a decade trying to make a name for themselves in the comedy business. When someone gets the recognition they’ve earned and then sees some fraud just walking on the scene and getting the limelight they don’t deserve, they need to be called out. That’s what’s happening here, and everyone knows Mencia’s been doing it for years. This is just the first time anyone’s cared to make it widely known to the public. The 3minutes or however long clip is just one very isolated small instance when it’s become public knowledge. For those of us who care we always knew Ned was a hack and will continue to be if he’s able to salvage what shred of a career he might have left.

ScytheNoire (profile) says:

It's all in the delivery

Joe even said in that video, Carlos Mencia is a good performer, but he was pissed that he was taking credit, and becoming rich and famous, off of someone else’s work. Now if he told the joke and it was written by someone on Carlos’ staff who was being paid to write jokes, then that would be a totally different thing, but Carlos was gaining fame from others work.

So while the delivery is key, and great performers will be great performers, if someone is great at coming up with jokes, hire them. It reminds me of Larry David, who comes up with a lot of funny shit, but he worked with someone who was a better performer for many years, and that ended up helping them both, along with many others.

So just give credit where credit is due.

ehrichweiss says:

the thing that gets me is..

The thing that really makes it a tough case was stated by the comedian, Arin, in the video. Mencia asked if a Jew was going to come up with a joke about Mexicans and Arin replied that it was on the news so it was fair game. Well, if Arin could have gotten his idea from the news then couldn’t Mencia have gotten it the same place as well?

What most people don’t realize is that there are only so many ways to make a joke so they all look/sound the same if you remove the “content”. The late Steve Harvey(hope I’m getting his name right) wrote a book that clearly showed how one could make their own jokes from the patterns of old jokes. No big freakin’ deal. Joe and his friends clearly didn’t recognize this concept because they accused Mencia of rewriting Pryor’s material as well.

I’m not saying he didn’t steal the jokes, only that there are very few original jokes in the world if you look at them from the proper view and claiming one is entirely your own is likely to make you look like a liar in one regard or another.

NotCarlos_justUsingHisName says:

Entertaining joke stealer

I have been a fan of Carlos Mencia for a few years. Several times I have had the feeling that I had heard the joke he was telling before. I was watching one of his DVDs yesterday and it had a joke on it he took from Bill Cosby of all people. The joke is decades old – basically a rundown of all the work that fathers put in to teaching their sons to play football for years and years and then the kid becomes a football star, looks at the camera and says ‘hi MOM!’

Carlos didn’t even tell it very well.

Linguistical says:

The Aristocrats

Didn’t anyone see The Aristocrats? All comedians, writers, musician’s, artists, etc. will eventually do something that is similar to somebody else’s work. If Mencia tells every joke word-for-word the same way other comics do, then you have something. But doing as many shows as he does I’m sure he’s bound to tell a few jokes the same as somebody else whether he came up with the same idea or just not realize that he heard it somewhere else.

I agree that he should have copped to it and it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. But, that’s the problem with ego.

And by the way, who gives a crap what a no-talent hack like Joe Rogan says? The only way that guy could be funny is if I get to watch someone hit him in the head with a shovel. He should stay away from comedy and stick to something he knows, like eating horse ass.

Anonymous Coward says:

How do you say Irony?

Carlos Mencia went on the Mikey radio show in San Diego to discuss the Joe Rogan incident.

Carlos discusses the fight and starts talking about the new bits hes doing. The new bit he is discussing is actually a stolen bit from another radio show!

The DJ announces Carlos is banned from the Mikey show now for using stolen material then all hillarity ensues…

If you listen to the audio, Carlos specifically said he made up the idea himself. About 2/3rds into the audio Carlos says: “…And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to have a stereotype olympics’…”.

At least in the audio, he doesn’t say the guys come up with the idea, he says HE DOES. He then tells you the details and passes it as what he did.


JustAVoice says:

Limited Material

Mencia is a racial and topical comic. This causes a lot of overflow into other comics of the same genre. Ari didn’t come up with the idea of a large wall along the border, anti-immigration nationalists did, he just commented on it.

As humans we absorb things though out our lives and don’t remember where we get them from, that’s just the nature of the human brain. The fact that he says he creates all his material says to me that he takes credit for the details and considers the outside influences to be inspirational. Its the nature of the business. His ego could use a little toning down for his own good, but that is his character so its a compromise.

Lastly, the people he ‘stole’ from should be the only ones to throw a fuss.

TheJ says:

I didn’t know who Rogan even is until this bit came out and I read some stuff about him. So I don’t know his comedy or whether he is funny or not.

As has been said, jokes will be retold, in different forms, all the time. I heard Jeff Foxworthy in his Totally Committed show yesterday tell a joke fairly similar to George Carlin. The subject and the substance was the same, but they were told very differently (and it didn’t seem like a hard one to come up with).

However, I read the day this story came out that it was more than Mencia just “being influenced” by other comedians. More like him sitting in the back of comedy clubs watching other comedians, and then later being heard telling the exact same jokes.

I don’t think it would be so big if this whole comedy thing was just a hobby or a pasttime. But for a lot of people it is a [potential] career, and when someone like Mencia, that has a much more public outlet to tell jokes, starts telling it, he gets the credit and publicity for it, even though he might suck at telling it, he gets seen and heard more than a newbie or less known with a comedy club being the only outlet for them. Since Mencia already has a lot of publicity for the stuff he says, he will get credit for a “new” joke before/instead of the original, less known creator will.

Tom (profile) says:

Researching the origin

Ok, so I am a new comedian. I want to write a joke. Do I first have to reference Bob Hopes joke vault 85,000 pages of jokes (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/jokes.html) and every copyrighted joke out there? AND, then give credit on stage for each joke used???? “First folks, a KNOCK KNOCK joke from my neighbor Stevie, yeah, the checks in the mail kid, …., and second, from Bill Cosby, “…”, and finally, one from Steven Wright, performed last year in Vegas.

Oh, get real! Or, is there soon going to be a JIAA sueing anyone who tells a copyrighted joke without paying a licensing fee. It’s truly getting rediculous. EVERY performance is going to be destroyed by listing credits. There are some very famous comics who make a living at it. At local clubs, many just do it on weekends trying to make an extra buck. That will certainly go away as all the money is going to have to go to joke writers.

Does this also mean that we can’t make a joke about he president anymore. Jay Leno’s writers will see/hear the president do something, write a joke, and hand it to a lawyer to copyright. No comic will be able to interact with the audience, that’s all been done already.

This is so stupid, oh, and nobody can talk about the priest, the minister, and the rabbi anymore. That jokes been done (um, who do I give credit to?).

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