Yes, Multiple People Come Up With The Same Joke; It's Not 'Stealing' And Not Even Copying

from the let-it-go dept

A few times in the past, we’ve had posts looking at the issue of comedians copying each other’s jokes and whether or not that’s “stealing.” Of course, as discussed at length here, this is clearly a misuse of the word “steal,” but a larger point is that, like so much else in this world, there’s a world of difference between idea and execution. In fact, if you look back at the history of joke telling it was all about “joke stealing,” where people would tell and repeat jokes heard elsewhere. The real question was who could tell it better and perhaps change or embellish it to improve it. In fact, even comedians who complain about “joke stealing” seem to know this intrinsically, as can be seen in the movie The Aristocrats, which involves a ton of comedians all telling the same joke in very, very different ways.

But there’s another angle to this as well: which is that certain joke ideas are so basic that it’s likely many people came up with the same idea. Jackie sent over this great blog post by Irwin Handleman, a TV comedy writer, pointing out how silly it is for people to complain about “joke stealing” involving those types of jokes. He gives an example:

A few weeks ago, after President Obama showed his birth certificate to Donald Trump and the other racists, The Onion’s headline was: “Afterbirthers Demand To See Obama’s Placenta.”

A fine joke. But then Bill Maher went on twitter and wrote: “I see The Onion stole my placenta joke that I did in Feb 2010 HBO special”

Wow. Okay. I’ve never heard of The Onion being accused of stealing in the past. It also seemed a bit presumptuous that everyone has seen that HBO special.

Well, it turns out that The Onion headline was actually a link to something they wrote in August of 2009. Apparently The Onion recycles its content when news stories pop again. They actually did the joke 6 months before Bill did!

Does this mean that Bill stole from The Onion? Of course not. Just like it was dumb to think they stole from him. It happens all the time. In fact, just to show how ridiculous the whole thing is, The Daily Show ended up doing the exact same joke, and Rupaul tweeted it a variation of it as well.

Bill Maher should’ve done what all comedians should do when it comes to this shit: shut the hell up. Let your work speak for itself. The hacks will fade, the talented will succeed.

This whole episode was very interesting to us at our show. Because last year, we wrote a line: “Life starts at the erection”. And then 2 months later, Bill Maher said “Life starts at the erection”. Did we say anything? No. It was a coincidence, and we knew it, and we moved on.

Some things aren’t about copying at all, but just about the natural humor of the situation. And Handleman has it right. Getting upset about that kind of thing is ridiculous.

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Comments on “Yes, Multiple People Come Up With The Same Joke; It's Not 'Stealing' And Not Even Copying”

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45 Comments
xenomancer (profile) says:

Re: I Do Not Like Bill

The only way Bill could be more of a dick is if he surgically grafted a flesh tone Raiders helmet to his head and painted a line down the back. He never sees past his ego, there’s just the occasional clear spot he can see through and then dismiss as not being his reflection.

… I think Bill Maher is an ass, but he’s usually an “original” ass.

The good comedians should be able to successfully execute a common idea in an original manner anyway. The comedians that do are usually so good that the joke seems original anyway. The comedians that don’t (MENCIA) tend to be called out on failing to deliver. It seems to me that the whole joke stealing complaint is more of a means to draw attention to a comedian’s shortcomings on delivery than on the originality of content.

David Muir (profile) says:

Bill Maher apologized and said The Onion “owned” Placenta… then tweeted the following: “Just found out Placenta joke done on Real Time 7-31-09 preceding Onion’s 8-27-09 so I must reclaim first dibs! Still love Onion”

Very bizarre, these attempts to own something that people clearly think of independently. I am sure if you scour the Interwebs, these very words will have been written before by someone. I apologize in advance for inadvertently stealing them and promise I will return the words as soon as I am finished using them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Legalize Non-commercial Copying

This whole thing is yet another reason why non-commercial copying should be legal. Songs, jokes, stories, logical arguments and language uses in general, have been shared freely by humans since forever. This is how we do “culture”. Persons, wanting to lock up culture and say some bit of it is theirs, should be firmly told, “Culture is shared. Deal with it.”

David (profile) says:

Re: invent this joke

Nothing to “invent” here — it’s as old as the hills!

Y’know, you really need to tell the WHOLE joke, not just the punchline – how many people realize this is a pun on “rectum”?

(BRIEFLY: Story teller: “Some guy shot me in the asshole.” Indignant response: “Rectum.” Storyteller: “Wrecked him? Damn near killed him!”)

C’mon, folks – be honest – how many of you got this one?

tebee (profile) says:

Just suppose copyright in jokes did exist

Can you imagine a world were there first person to use a joke did get the rights to it? Everybody else would have to pay a toll to use it.

Pretty fast the world would become a humourlessness place as everyone would be scared to tell a joke in case someone else had said it first and they would get sued for using it.

So why exactly do we think Patents foster innovation?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Right:

– Heavy Metal is just noise
– Abstract art is just random scribbles and blotches
– Webcomics are made by losers for losers.

Basically, whatever doesn’t fit into your little stereotype of how reality should be is crap and whoever doesn’t think that it is crap is demented.

But don’t blame yourself: it’s basic human instinct. Except that some of us have evolved past that, and accept the fact that some people “might” actually enjoy the joke…no matter how bad it is.

PS: I don’t find it funny either.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

No New Ideas

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. If you think up an idea right now…I’d say that there is close to 100% certainty that someone else already thought up the idea before. There is nothing new under the sun. And even if you happen to think up a completely new idea, it is most likely based on ideas that you learned from someone else.

It is why copyright cannot, and should not, be about ideas but implementation. And about that specific implementation. And since you built your implementation on a mixture of your own ideas and stuff that came before — others should be able to come along and use your ideas in their implementations too.

Why is this such a hard concept for copyright maximalists to get? Oh yeah…greed at all costs. A little greed is good (for a capitalist,) but not at the expense of everything else.

Ryan says:

How stand-up comics handled joke-stealing

Years ago, I knew a teacher in L.A. who had been a stand-up comic and minor actor in the 1970s and 1980s. Among his old war stories, he once told me that a particular comedian/actor (who later became a *very* successful household name, rhymes with “Wobin Rilliams”) had a reputation on the LA stand-up circuit as a joke “thief”. Various comics complained that after telling a joke on stage when this one dude was present, they’d hear him telling the same joke on stage, the next week. (Supposedly, the majority of working comics considered this to be a dishonorable practice.)

Some people just ignored the copying. Others chewed the copier out. Everybody passed the word, behind the offender’s back, that he was not to be trusted. According to the story, the most comics would use their “B” material (older or less funny jokes) at shows where the offender was also performing.

My teacher friend opined that this “thief” comic’s success as a stand-up, and his later break into acting, was greatly helped by to the other comics’ protective behavior. In a show with five or ten other comics, this one dude was the only guy consistently using his best, funniest “A” jokes, while everybody else was pulling punches. By comparison, this one dude always looked like a stand-out superstar.

Personally, I figured that stand-up comedy in the 1980s was already pretty derivative and homogenous. The impact of outright, word-for-word copying probably wouldn’t be all that noticeable, given the cookie-cutter approaches of most comics.

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