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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    PrometheeFeu (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 7:30pm

    I have a good one for you: [This joke is no longer available due to a copyright claim under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Remember, copying is stealing.]

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Jay (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 7:45pm

    Re:

    [This comment redacted because of a copyright claim]

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 8:02pm

    Re:

    When copyright goes wrong ...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Seth, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 8:15pm

    I Like Bill

    I like Bill, but he's an arrogant prick at times. His ego is too big for him to see past it sometimes.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Any Mouse (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 8:18pm

    Wait. Bill Maher is a comedian? When's he going to get funny?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    David Muir (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 8:42pm

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 8:45pm

    Re:

    Copyright is good because it can be used to prevent people from copying bad jokes.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 9:22pm

    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."

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Pixelation, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 9:50pm

    Erection humor

    The only joke is between Bill Maher's legs.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    lynnewu (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 9:58pm

    invent this joke

    "...wrecked 'em? The lawsuit nearly *killed* them!"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    tebee (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 10:48pm

    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?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Prisoner 201, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 11:10pm

    Re: Just suppose copyright in jokes did exist

    That is a scary thought tebee, what a terrible thing it would be.

    As for here and now, what if some "big" artist puts a joke in one of his/her lyrics, will it be safe to retell the joke in a public place?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    The eejit (profile), Jun 7th, 2011 @ 11:18pm

    Re: invent this joke

    "You are hereby charged with attempted murder by the depraved heart standard. How do yuo plead, Mr. Stone?"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    FuzzyDuck, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 11:57pm

    Re:

    Funny he didn't use the word "steal", when it turned out that he wasn't the first to use that joke.

    By Bill Maher's own standards he stole the joke from the Onion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    FuzzyDuck, Jun 7th, 2011 @ 11:59pm

    Re: Erection humor

    I think Bill Maher already owns that joke.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Greevar (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 12:03am

    Well it would seem this whole fiasco has become some unholy abortion!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 12:16am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    xenomancer (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 12:22am

    Re: Re: Just suppose copyright in jokes did exist

    "will it be safe to retell the joke in a public place?"

    Only if ASSCAP gets a piece of the humor.

    *ASSCAP and all derivative jokes (C) Bill Marr

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymuse, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 2:17am

    stealing ideas

    It's very common in the arts for a number of works to simultaneously express an idea - it's a zeitgeist thing. The difference is in expression.

    I used to like Bill Maher but it looks like he...
    *slips on sunglasses*
    ... Got kicked by a MAHER.

    YYEEAAAHHHHH!!!!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 2:43am

    "Afterbirthers Demand To See Obama's Placenta."


    A "fine joke" !!!!!! OMFG !!!!!


    You would have to be one sick prick to consider that joke, amuzing, or even remotely funny.... But then again, we all know about the "US Sense of humor"..

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    The eejit (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 2:53am

    Re:

    It's even funnier for us Brits, too. Here, we eat the greedy little bastards, then bathe int he blood! Honest!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 5:29am

    I've only came up with one joke in my life. My young kids love it:

    What did the milk say to the cereal?

    Do you wanna get together for breakfast?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 5:45am

    So the re-telling of a joke is analogous to the broadcast or transmission of a perfect digital copy of a song or motion picture?

    The desperation runs deep amongst the freeloaders this morning.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 5:53am

    Re:

    You, sir, have no sense of humor.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 6:38am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 6:43am

    Re:

    Just one thing: Does it matter if the copies are "perfect"?

    If I download a "ripped" version or a downgraded version off the Internet, it isn't infringement anymore?

    If it doesn't matter, then yes, they are analogous.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    Pixelation, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 7:32am

    Re: Re: Erection humor

    "I think Bill Maher already owns that joke."

    Well, then I wouldn't want to claim it as my own.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    The Vandals (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 8:17am

    Joke Stealing

    Great article Mike. I love that Jackie follows Rupaul.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 8:21am

    Re:

    And I'll probably use that with my nephew in a few years, totally not remembering where I got it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    icon
    Ron Rezendes (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 8:24am

    Re:

    Oh hell no, troll!!

    Nothing in this thread even remotely suggests anything about a broadcast or transmission of a digital copy of a song or movie.

    Move your silly ass trolling to another thread please!!

    Preferably just take it back under your bridge with you and call it a day!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    David, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 9:13am

    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?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    David, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 9:19am

    Get a sense of proportion, PLEASE!

    I really don't think that Maher was being serious - he simply acknowledged something (incorrectly, as it turns out, but still).

    No biggie - nothing to see hear folks, please move on.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 9:36am

    Re:

    I liked it too.

    But then I think Laffy Taffy jokes are the best.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    icon
    Atkray (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 9:38am

    Whoops

    That was me I got logged out somehow.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    icon
    ltlw0lf (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 9:44am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 12:17pm

    Re:

    Almost as desperate as TAM bringing up songs and motion pictures when they were never mentioned. It's almost like he's just a shill.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
    identicon
    Matt Ion, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 5:35pm

    Did anyone else notice how Jay stole PrometheeFeu's joke (comments 1 and 2)?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 8th, 2011 @ 6:56pm

    There was a joke about the word "assume" on the 1970s sitcom "The Odd Couple" ("When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME"). That VERY SAME JOKE was used decades later on "8 Simple Rules..."!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    icon
    The Vandals (profile), Jun 8th, 2011 @ 7:02pm

    Odd Couple: Assume

    Bad News Bears II (the search for Curly's gold) made a huge deal about that assume joke. Good example. It's all in the execution.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    icon
    Travis Miller (profile), Jun 9th, 2011 @ 12:41pm

    example

    Obvious immigration joke:

    "Kick out the Mexicans and build a wall?
    Who's going to build it?"

    And I've seen people claim this joke has been stolen by people.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
    identicon
    Ryan, Jun 10th, 2011 @ 8:48am

    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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
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    Shine (profile), Oct 20th, 2011 @ 10:45pm

    I like jokes!

    I like telling jokes even if my kids say I am not good at it. I think people fighting over who the original writer of the joke is could kill the joke. And that's sad. BTW, I also don't like Bill Maher.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43.  
    identicon
    Medina, Oct 27th, 2011 @ 6:26am

    I don't usually talk that much but when i say something i made my friends laugh.Maybe because i have a inborn sense of humor.haha.Yes, i am not that much talkative but i guess i am a born joker?h

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    identicon
    Andrew, Dec 3rd, 2011 @ 6:30am

    Re: example

    That's funny.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
    identicon
    Ann, Mar 30th, 2012 @ 10:53pm

    I like reading jokes and even if I liked a joke I will not go around looking for the original author of the joke. I just enjoy the joke and sometimes share it with others so they can laugh too.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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