Should I Stop Doing My Joke?
A comedian walks into a bar and sees a poster with a saying that is similar to a joke he’s been doing. It’s not the same joke, but it almost has the exact set up line.
He panics. A thousand questions run through his mind: “What do I do?”
“Did the guy who did that poster see my act and use a version the joke?”
“Did I see that poster some time in the past and it stuck in my head?”
“Should I stop doing my joke?”
Okay, that wasn’t a thousand questions, but you get the gist.
This complication… that’s what I’ll call it, a “complication,” because that’s all it is. It’s parallel thought, it’s… whatever.
The point is there’s a poster out there and it has your joke–or a version of it–printed right on it. So you know that there are probably more posters out there
And at this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not it was your joke or not, someone else has used it at a commercial level and that might have negative impact on you.
So what do you do?
An old friend of mine, who had a lot of success as a comedy writer in show business once said to me, “if it’s inherently yours, keep it.” I like that; If it’s inherently yours…
That means if you really came up with that idea from scratch, keep it. Okay, let’s go with that for now.
But what if someone comes up to you later and says, “You know that one joke you do? I saw it on a poster.” Or worse, “You know that joke about Pop Tarts? I just saw Paula Poundstone do that joke on an old “Tonight Show.”
Then I would–and this should be imperative–do the research and find out how similar the poster or the Paula joke is, to my joke.
What “the same” means:
There is a difference between similar and the same.
Different people have different ideas about what the definition of “same joke” is. I have seen this a million times. I remember doing some material about getting pulled over by a cop.
In my act-out, the cop says, “Do you know how fast you were going?”
My character responds in a surfer-like voice, “You think at that speed I’d risk taking my eyes off the road to check the speedometer?”
This was such a favorite joke of mine that I had a cartoon drawn and I had it printed on a T-shirt and sold hundreds of them at shows around the country.
A few years later, a version of that joke showed up in the movie “Liar, Liar” with Jim Carrey.
I received a ton of phone calls saying that “they stole” my joke.
I did my research, which consisted of watching the movie–and since Jim Carrey can be entertaining, the research wasn’t brutal and decided that I would continue to do the joke.
The joke was similar, but not the same.
When To Drop The Joke
There does come a time, however that you can decide to drop a joke from your act.
One night while I was on the road in right in the middle of my show, this guy in the audience–who, tragically, bore a similar appearance to Homer Simpson–shouted, “You stole that joke from “Liar, Liar!”
Doh! What do you do with that?
First of all, don’t panic. There’s no reason to if you know you were at the helm during the incunabula of the joke.
I knew inherently that I had written that joke way before that movie was ever written, but I had to respond to the heckler, then decide what I was going to eventually do about the joke.
So I said to the guy, “Doh! You know, Homer, (which got an immediate laugh, thankfully, because I needed one at this point), things like this happen a lot in comedy, but before you accuse someone of stealing a joke, you really have to look at two things: One, the similarity of the two jokes and two, the chronology…
“First of all, it’s not the same joke, so it’s not a ‘stolen’ joke. Second of all, if there is going to be an accusation of stealing, let’s just say that I did that joke on television in 1992. ‘Liar, Liar’ came out in 1997.
So to accuse me of stealing that joke is like me accusing you of stealing your look from Homer Simpson.”
Now, because I was already getting laughs from that audience and they were on my side, that statement elicited an applause break from that audience and quieted down the heckler, (if I wasn’t getting laughs, the audience might have looked at me like the pompous ass that I can sometimes be!).
Deciding To Drop The Joke
But even though I knew that the joke was inherently mine, since that movie caused that person in the audience to question my integrity, I decided to drop the joke, if simply to avoid that kind of interruption in the future.
But mostly I keep doing my material. I learned this lesson by watching other professional comedians–especially those who are vastly more successful than I.
Learning From Top Comedians
Jim Gaffigan does a joke that is exactly like mine. I’m not going to quote the exact joke, but the set up is identical and punch is really close. Let’s just say that my joke ends with “four Moms, five Dads,” and his joke ends with “Nine parents…”
My joke about that is “Wow, Gaffigan is so genius, he even does the math in my joke!”
But would I ever accuse Jim Gaffigan of stealing my joke? No way! I just chalk it up to parallel thinking and let it go. Gaffigan works his ass off and is a top notch comedian and joke writer. That stuff just happens.
Or take Jerry Seinfeld. He was doing a joke about Pop Tarts lately that struck me as being similar to Paula Poundstone’s Pop Tart routine she did in the eighties.
It’s not the same routine, but it does address Pop Tarts from a similar angle.
Or the amazing Louis C.K. If you really listen to him, is the subject matter of his routines original? Kids, Family, Money, Growing up, Relationships, etc.
Are any of those ideas original? No! But his point of view, insightfulness and honesty are genius.
Where would he be if, before he wrote anything, he said to himself, “I can’t talk about kids… other comedians already do that.”?
So stop worrying about originality for originality’s sake.
Doing that can cause a comedian or a writer to do go into paralysis.
The only thing I can say about that is, don’t let it stop you from writing the joke in the first place.
There are several reasons that a joke shows up in a similar form somewhere. Parallel thinking, common subject matter, writing about the same current events, are some of the more benign reasons.
Laziness and blatant plagiarism are a couple of others.
Don’t Worry. Be Funny.
But worrying about that shouldn’t even enter your mind during the creative process. Just as editing the material is never step one, (it’s step two, three or four), figuring out whether your joke is original should also never be step one.
Just write the damn material and worry about that later.
Instead of sitting there at your notebook or your computer and worrying about whether or not something is original, just write about stuff you are passionate about.
Write the stuff you really want to talk about, then turn it funny by finding the surprise, the paradox, the incongruity or several of the other proven comedy structures available to you to trigger laughs.
As long as you are staying true to your integrity as a writer and trying your damnedest to come up with ideas that come from your own experience or your unique point of view (embellished, sometimes of course for the laughs), then you don’t have to obsess about whether or not it’s original.
“As long as it’s inherently yours…”