Thou Shalt Not Steal
Jokes are what a stand-up comedian kills for. Jokes are the root of his natural tendency to make funny things that are tragic or taboo. What’s beautiful about that truth is that it’s unintentional and innocent for someone to be so consumed with the skill of making strangers laugh. It’s not a consciously philosophical pursuit; it starts with provoking a hearty chuckle.
Jokes are hard to write. Writing good jokes is even harder, and writing good jokes that work consistently, with all the little details and nuances plotted out to perfection, is a fucking crucible. So when someone steals a joke, which could very well have been months or years in the making by its true author, it means a lot of rage and aggression are coming their way.
Living off the fat of someone else’s hard-earned land is not uncommon in today’s world, especially in the world of comedy. Joke thieves frequently rear their ugly heads, often followed by a lashing from the community and the comic whose material had been commandeered. The cases include the likes of Nick Madson, who ripped off Patton Oswalt word for word; The Fat Jew, who poorly attempted to blur the line between plagiarism and careless curation; and Dennis Leary, who stole a closer from Louis CK when he was still a rookie. Allegedly.
Comedians are a rare and misunderstood breed of artist. Their community is so wide and diverse in terms of personalities, attitudes, moral compasses, and even opinions on what is funny and what is not. However, it remains relatively small compared to other professions in show business. Yet, however comedians may differ in their style and approach, they reach common ground in a place that only a select few get to see, after a long period of commitment. That is the lifestyle of a touring comedian. Touring comedians travel for months out of the year in perpetual motion, performing stand-up for drunken patrons all across the county and abroad. Their performance is carried out alone on a stage, talking to strangers and trying to get a laugh any way they can. Through this they share a special connection with one another, a connection that revolves around the often lonely and exhausting reality of life on the road.
The camaraderie that comes from a shared decision and the willingness to follow a calling is a strong one. Therefore when a comedian commits the unforgivable sin of joke stealing, it cuts the community deep and heavily undermines the integrity of the rest of said comic’s material.
Accusing another comic of joke thievery is not something taken lightly by comedians, because they are aware of all its implications. It insults the very core of what it means to live and breathe in that world. Often when cornered or confronted about their sins, a perpetrator will deny and squirm his way through the accusations. The last thing the joke thief wants is a screaming tirade from a comedian like Joe Rogan, who broke down, cited the joke, and brought the comedian, onstage for a confession, which is exactly what happened to Carlos Mencia at The Comedy Store in Hollywood, California in 2007.
As is clear from the video, comedians take the disgraceful act of joke stealing to heart and never really forget about it. It’s like stealing a classic movie’s storyboard from the director, or plagiarizing the outline of a great novel from its author. But with wit and will and creative license, the world of comedy seems perfectly capable of sorting out its atrocities and embarrassments with the funniest and harshest joke of all: the truth.