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.
It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.
George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.
But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.
In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”
But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”
So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.
Here’s Carlin with the Seven:
This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.
Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.
Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.
It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh.
Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!
Here’s a transcript from that performance:
George Carlin’s Modern Man
I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.
I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.
I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.
I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!
I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail.
But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex.
I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.
I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”
Have you ever wondered what the secret to success in comedy is?
Ever feel like it’s just this massively intimidating idea, like this enormous blob of ectoplasmic goop that has no shape or form?
Building a career in comedy can be so daunting.
School is so much easier! In school they tell you what to do. You know when to take your SAT’s. You’re told how many units you need to graduate, what you’re GPA needs to be.
In college, you’re told that in order to become a teacher, you have to take certain classes, get so many units, take an internship at a company and if you graduate with the right GPA and honors, you have an opportunity to have a job waiting for you when you finally graduate.
It’s a process and it’s similar for a lot of careers. It usually goes something like: High School-College-Internship-Job-Career. That’s organized and easy to conceive; maybe there’s some variation or advanced degrees for specialties like law, medicine or engineering, but it’s still a process that’s pretty well defined.
When you start out doing comedy, there is no obvious process and nobody tells you what to do. You have to find your own way as you go. You can talk to others, but there’s still no real map.
Or is there?
Comedians always ask me, “what’s the secret to success?”
My favorite response? “It’s not a secret.”
There are successful comedians and artists out there all the time telling you what they did in their careers.
I tell all my students exactly what I did to hit my financial and artistic goals.
The success guru Tony Robbins said, “If you want to be successful, find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do and you’ll achieve the same results.”
By that he means copy their methods not their products. In other words, find out how they got successful and do the same thing.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I can’t tell you how to succeed. I can only tell you what I did to reach my level of success in this business. I’m still learning and still achieving and some years are better than others.
I don’t just try to figure it all out on my own. I look to others, study their careers. I read biographies of other successful artists and listen or read their interviews. Sometimes they can reveal some pretty awesome things that they did to succeed. I jot them down and see if it might work for me too.
One of the keys to success in this business is to realize that show-business is two words and whether you’re a writer, performer or both, if you start thinking of this as building your business you’ll find that it’s a little less daunting. After all, building a business has a simple formula.
The basic formula to building a business is:
Find an Idea
Have a Plan of Action
Secure Funding to Implement that Plan
Sell That Idea to Customers on a Recurring Basis.
Most Comedians have step 1, the idea, (perform stand-up), but they want to jump immediately to step 4 without digging in to step 2 or 3.
In fact most comedians don’t even want to think about step 3, because it means they have to spend money, but let’s leave that aside for now. Let’s focus on steps 1 and 2.
Step 1: The Idea. Comedians have the idea; it’s their comedy or the idea that they want to do stand-up. But what’s really missing with most comedians is the plan of action.
The problem is that it’s missing both creatively and economically.
One of the things I suggest is to read and listen to what other comedians did in their career to get where they are.
Bill Burr is one of my favorites. His blend of honesty, passion and emotion in his material is what has propelled him to the status he enjoys today and what will continue to keep him on top.
What’s important to understand is that Bill wrote jokes for the first few years of his career. “I knew I had to know how to write jokes,” he says.
It might not have been his plan of action but looking back at his paper trail, a smart comedian might get some ideas from that plan. He then said, “I still wrote out jokes for the first ten or eleven years of my career. I was always kind of writing onstage. About six years in, I was riffing and doing that type of thing…”
If you read closely, can you see that Bill is kind of giving you his plan of action? His method? His secrets to success?
Remember what Tony Robbins said, “find someone who has achieved the results you want and copy what they do…”
The life and comedy lessons that I learned from the brief encounters I had with Robin Williams came flooding back to me since I got the news of his death.
It was 4:00PM Monday August 11th, and I was sitting at the computer writing jokes; ironically, only nineteen hours after we wrapped an Anti-Suicide Benefit Show at the Hollywood Improv to raise awareness for Depression and Suicide. That’s when I got the call from a friend and fellow comedian.
He simply said: “Robin Williams is Dead.”
There was that long silence that follows that kind of message. Longer than normal. That kind of silence that seems to stretch forever. The kind of silence that would make you really uncomfortable on stage.
I did what I usually do when I hear news that I can’t totally process emotionally; I went to jokes: “Leave it to Robin to do this right after the Anti-Suicide Benefit. Ha! If the benefit didn’t raise awareness, this sure will.”
Then I cried.
I didn’t plan it. I didn’t feel it coming on. It was just one of those things that happened spontaneously, you know?
I didn’t cry when Carlin died. That news seriously bummed me out, but I didn’t cry… and Carlin mentored me.
At first I refused to believe it. Like a lot of comedians, I had worked with Robin several times. I even drove him in a limousine every day for a couple of weeks early in my career, when I was cutting down my road work to try to save my marriage.
I remember Robin said to me, “Save your marriage? F*@k your marriage. Save your life!”
Then in a character voice, almost disgustedly, he said, “You’re a comedian. A chauffeur YOU ARE NOT!”
He said, “Yeah Bitterman, you missed the turn about a half-mile back!” Then he launched into a Dudley Moore laugh from the movie “Arthur.”
It was a good laugh. But, that sunk in deep. And later that week after I dropped him off at his jet, I quit the limo and went right back out on the road for good.
I worked with him a couple of times after that. We weren’t buddies. We didn’t call each other or anything. The time I spent with the man was minuscule in a chronological sense, but his impact is eternal. And each time I bumped into him or had the honor of working with him, he was always, ALWAYS kind.
That’s one of the things he taught me. That in this business, where sometimes people can be so back-stabbing, angry, resentful and use their success to try to diminish you, he was just Robin, all the time.
He taught me that synergy works better than enemy and that being kind to your fellow comedian, your fellow human doesn’t ever hurt your career. It always helps.
Robin Breathed Life Into Comedy
Robin’s career was, in a word, stellar. From the time he was picked up to do “Mork and Mindy,” he was off and running. He was a comedian, but a comedian who had goals beyond just doing stand-up. He started as a comedian in the Bay Area in the seventies, then went off to “study” at the The Julliard School of Drama in New York.
When he went back to the Bay Area, he was a different comedian. He was doing characters on stage. Characters were not new in comedy, Carlin did characters, but it was the way he was doing the characters; BIG, BOLD COMMITTED. He was blowing the doors off the clubs!
He was a pure entertainer. I know, he had a bit of a reputation for stealing jokes. Hell, he stole a couple of mine. But somehow that was different. He was “Robin.” He breathed life into comedy. I could always write new jokes.
He taught me the power of incongruous act-outs in comedy, (a version of solo-sketch comedy), that if you give the audience a clear premise: Like in this video, where he does his version of American soccer and South American soccer, then segues into American Football referees. The set up is clear cut. He sets up the characters, then just brings them to life.
You watch Robin Williams do comedy and you can’t help but feel a bit manic. Because, from the moment he takes the stage, that’s the way he performed and there’s a theory in theater science that the audience is in whatever state the performer is in. When you saw Robin perform, you had no choice but to leave that experience, charged up.
Depression and Suicide
Early reports coming in from the news is that his death was an apparent suicide. Now I think I understand why I cried when my friend called. The sheer dichotomy. In a weird way, Robin, who struggled with addiction and depression and was open about it, represented a certain hope for many.
I have never experienced addiction or depression. The closest I’ve been to that is drunk and tired.
Then it kind of hit me why Robin’s death made me cry when Carlin’s didn’t. Carlin died of so-called natural causes; a heart-related issue. Robin’s death was mired in a more profound tragedy. He died of something seemingly treatable, but obviously misunderstood.
There are close to 15 million people in the U.S. that suffer from depression. And if a man who had the resources to afford and access all the help he needed to deal with it can’t find a way out, what are the other 14 million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand going to do?
We need you back, Robin.
Today I’m going to Amazon to buy every Robin Williams comedy video I can get my hands on. Maybe Robin can still help play away the pain and give others hope.
Robin Williams affected us all in one way or another. For me, he was partly responsible for where I am today. One marriage down but still making a living doing comedy.