Friday, January 30, 2009

Don't Steal Another Mans Horse

While in the middle of a Riff one night I said a friends joke. I was so guilt ridden about it I called him up from the road and told him. At the time, he was sort of my comedy mentor. We did a lot of shitty road gigs together and bonded on all those eight-hour car rides. He laughed. It was not the reaction I was expecting but I was happy to be out of the woods. He then said something that I have always tried to remember. “It happens.”

All right, you might not want to base an entire philosophy around those two words but you know what, it does happen. It’s not always a clear-cut case of theft so much as it might just be a slip. This can happen when you are riffing with the audience on a subject and bump into someone else’s bit on that subject. That’s what happened with me. Then there are those times when things are a bit blurry.

I recently did a show where the host told a joke I do only in that particular room. It’s a comment on the odd decorations they have up. The joke is specific only to that room. I have done it each time I have worked there. Another comic shot me a look as soon as the joke left his mouth. I shrugged my shoulders. I am almost positive that this is not the only joke of mine that has “slipped” out of his mouth. I say that because before the show this comic asked me if I was the guy who had a joke about this and then he asked if I was the comic that did a joke about so and so. Separately this doesn’t mean much. But there was a moment on stage where he was in the middle of doing a bit. Right in mid sentence he looked over at me and said, “Your bit about this would be perfect here!”

I kind of had the feeling that on the road my bit is being said there. In fact, I think he remembered I was in the room in the nick of time.

So what do you do?

Is this a case of honest mistake or joke theft? About the worse thing you can accuse a comic of in this business is stealing jokes. Someone recently accused me of doing it and it doesn’t feel good no matter how much in the right you know you are. It’s the equivalent of stealing a mans horse in the old west. It gets you strung up from the nearest tree! Yeah. Its that serious to comics.

I didn’t say anything to him. In the end I will always be able to produce more material. I don’t think we will be doing a lot of the same gigs together either. So a few of my bits are out there working when I’m not. So what? The comedy world is so small that ripping off another comic at this level is dumb. Its going to get back to the other comic sooner or latter. Saying a persons joke in front of them after you booked them is also hilarious. I mean, come on Dude. Even if I wasn’t there on this night other comics were. You don’t think that another San Francisco comic would call me later that night to tell me that someone else is doing a signature bit of mine?

Ah well. These are pretty good problems to have while Rome burns.


rubel said...

I guess some people naturally think like a comedian and can come up with bits while walking down the street and others it takes work. But there is still others who get their best work while up on stage, but there is no delete button up there. Being able to uncensor or unedit yourself seems to go hand in hand with being able to do that. Robin Williams used to have to pay off people who accused him of stealing their jokes, and comics walked off the stage when he came in a club but once you see his style of performance can you really blame him ? The worst thing I think would be to see a joke you have a relationship to get thrown away by a bad comic. At least if it was done with care some of the sting would be taken out of it.

Joe said...

It is a slippery slope when you start to excuse people for taking your intellectual property. It may sound silly to call a few words strung together to form a joke as intellectual property, but thats what it is. Its bad enough that web sites mine us for free content and everyone always wants a comic to their benefit shows for free, but other comics have to know better.
Robin Williams is an extreme example but you have to remember the reason why he had to pay those other comics. They were going on stage doing their act and people would boo them for doing Robin Williams jokes. With one comic, Steven Pearl, Robin took so much of his act that the guy couldn't work in the local clubs anymore.
We live by our jokes. It pays our bills and gives our egos a bump when we get to them on stage. All comics know that doing another persons joke while in mid-riff can happen. But this felt slightly different. Besides, it earns you a really bad rep. No one wants to get their career stopped at the local level because no one wants to work with a joke thief.

rubel said...

I agree, which is why I had to write you when I read one of my jokes on your blog. I freaked out a little "I'm a hack before I've even started!"