In the stand-up world, stealing another comedian’s joke is a serious offense. Since it is impossible to legally protect or patent a joke, enforcing the standard against joke theft falls to the comic community itself. But, as organizational theorist Patrick Reilly writes, this type of application is not straightforward.
Reilly writes that joke stealing is a relatively new concept. Until the mid-20th century, comics mostly performed on touring circuits with live audiences, often telling jokes that had been circulating for years or that they had heard from another comedian. This began to change in the 1960s, when the rise of television appearances and comedy albums made double jokes more annoying and also easier to catch. Audiences began to listen to comedy less for comic book acting skills, and more for their individual comedic voices. And the birth of comedy clubs in the 1970s meant that comics interacted more, forming tight communities sensitive to perceived harmful behavior.
“Representatives from television and film attended comedy clubs to scout for new talent,” Reilly writes. “Playing other people’s jokes would signal a lack of ability or, more tellingly, could deprive the original author of deserved opportunities.”
Enforcing the norm against joke theft can be intense, especially given the tight-knit nature of comedy scenes. Accused joke stealers can lose bookings, be socially ostracized and even face physical abuse.
Observing and occasionally performing at comedy clubs in Los Angeles between 2010 and 2015, Reilly found that joke stealing came up often. In a 2011 case, an artist was caught verbatim copying five minutes of material from a recently defunct comic book. Two of his comic colleagues exposed him publicly.
“After a video of this episode appeared on the internet and circulated widely, he left Los Angeles and stand-up comedy altogether, never to return,” Reilly wrote.
But most cases of possible joke theft are much more ambiguous. Some involve one performer rewriting another’s work so that it is not identical. In other cases, two comics simply stumble upon similar ideas. Reilly describes how, on one occasion, he told a joke about editing the video of a wedding he performed to make himself look better. Another comic took him aside to warn him that “Saturday Night Live” had coincidentally done a recent skit about embarrassing auto-tuning moments, advising him to change the joke to make it less similar.
But Reilly writes that it’s rare for comics to expose themselves publicly as joke stealers. When this happened, he found that it correlated less with the severity of the theft than with the offender’s perceived authenticity in the world of comedy. For example, many comics have repeated the accusation that superstar comedian Dane Cook stole jokes. The theft was far from clear, but many fellow comedians thought Cook rose to fame too easily without interacting in socially appropriate ways in the comedy scene, and many simply disliked his work. A similar dynamic has played out with lesser-known comics as well, highlighting the tricky issues involved when a community attempts to enforce standards.
Support JSTOR everyday! Join our new membership program on Patreon today.
JSTOR is a digital library for scholars, researchers and students. JSTOR Daily readers get free access to the original research behind our JSTOR stories.
From: Patrick Reilly
American Sociological Review, Vol. 83, no. 5 (October 2018), p. 933-958
American Sociological Association