Male Plagiarism in Comedy Is No Joke
Comedy is a boy's club, and joke thieves prove it.
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The list of dudes in comedy who have been accused of plagiarism is very, very, long.
Conan O'Brien, who is going to appear in court—for allegedly stealing monologue jokes from someone named Alex Kaseberg—is the latest known descendant from a long line of beloved dudes in comedy who are also alleged joke thieves. The case is surprising since stealing jokes, much like overly confident dudes, seems like an intrinsic part of comedy culture, and, like many things for overly confident dudes, consequences are rarely enforced.
Maybe thieving is a comedic trend set by older comedians like Milton Berle, one of the 1950s most popular comedians. Berle was known as the "Thief of Bad Jokes" for stealing jokes throughout his entire career—some dating all the way back to the fourth century. Or maybe borrowing is just one of the natural ways in which comedians, like Robin Williams himself, find inspiration. The late Williams had no qualms with accusations of indiscriminately stealing other comedians' jokes and was even rumored to compensate authors who brought them to him.
There are many notable cases of alleged joke theft: Dane Cook who stole from Louis C.K.; Carlos Mencia who stole from Bill Cosby; Two And A Half Men that stole from Roseanne Barr; Saturday Night Live that stole from many different people; Chris Rock who stole from Aziz Ansari; the Instagram famous @thefatjewish who stole from comedians and children alike; and the dude who stole the joke you just said by just repeating it louder so that everyone laughs at him instead.
Stealing jokes often seems like no big deal. A comedian steals a joke, a blog outs him, he apologizes, end of story until the next episode of his cable show. It is long argued that premises for jokes and sketches can be inspired at any time and similarities can be chalked up to "parallel thinking," but that euphemism only seems convenient for one type of comedian. When jokes come from authors like Ashton Kutcher and Chuck Lorre, who have created comedy for major networks and who tend to come out of such accusations unscathed, maybe it is no big deal. But the slap on Conan's ginger-haired wrist, which according to Kaseberg's lawyer is "a victory" for "lesser known writers," represents one type of circle jerk in the comedy industry that no one really talks about.
When comedians don't credit the work of others, inadvertently or not, they don't only commit an offense that's apparently admissible in a court of law; they also perpetuate decades-long views and opinions. Comedians who are not "lesser known" are overwhelmingly white and male and to comics at the top like Jerry Seinfeld, diversity is a non-issue that he does not "care" about, because whether or not different voices emerge in comedy does not affect him.
On the other hand, when comedians steal ideas from women and people of color specifically, they both profit from unpaid labor for which they continue to refuse to pay. Even on the most diverse writing room in late-night television, run by the only female host in late-night Samantha Bee, only half the writers are women and 30 percent are people of color—which is brag-worthy in the comedy world. To clear up one myth: Thirty percent is not a lot and not impressive!
Of course, stealing hasn't been truly exclusive to men in comedy. Amy Schumer is one rare example of a female comedian being called out many times for her own show's lack of creativity. Maybe it isn't necessarily only a dude problem, but until men either stop stealing or there are enough women in the industry to break the trend––sorry dudes, I guess you'll just have to live with the stereotype.
Joke stealing might also be an indication that comedy's cultural norms should welcome change. Maybe normalizing homages in comedy, which other art forms called "remixes" or "pastiche," in a way which gives due credit really is necessary for people to start acknowledging their purloining. Especially in an online comedy world where young people of color are rarely credited not to mention paid for their viral work.
Dude comedians who steal jokes are just one part of a well-oiled machine that pushes back against non-white, non-male, new voices in the online, television, and greater comedy worlds. Men in comedy need to be more creative and stop regurgitating their peers' jokes, and if they can't, underrepresented comedians who can should be hired. Until they do, it seems unlikely that anyone—dudes or otherwise—will care about the indeed "lesser known" voices.
Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.