Archive for the ‘stealing material’ Category

Being influenced vs. copying

May 22, 2017

Hey Dave – I’ve been working on material and continue to search for my comedy voice. Although I want to do some improvising, I want a good amount of material to work off of. Someone said I have a somewhat eccentric and iconoclastic persona and should take advantage of that. Therefore, I’ve thought about using Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright as influences and been writing material similar to theirs, especially since I like it. However, I’m afraid I’m not using them as an influence but just copying them. Is there a thin line between the 2 or just between fishing and standing there doing nothing? – JK

Hey JK – I was lucky to have worked with the late great Prof. Irwin Corey at the NYC Improv and interviewed Steven Wright for a magazine article. I consider both extremely smart and extremely funny. I also know that if I even tried to write like either one, I would be lost and confused. In fact, my brain hurts just thinking about it. But as usual I have a few thoughts about the topic, so instead of standing here doing nothing let’s go fishing for an answer…

“How did you say that?”

Yes – there is a line between being influenced and copying. Ideally it should be a wide one.

As Prof. Corey would have said, “Let me explain…

I often compare comedy to music. I’ve done this frequently in my workshops, books, and in more than a few previous FAQ articles. Basically, you can’t reinvent the wheel. And when it comes to music, someone somewhere had to hum the first tune. In comedy, someone somewhere made someone laugh for the first time. Musicians and comedians have been building on those firsts ever since.

One of my favorite all-time bands is The Rolling Stones. They’ve influenced countless bands for over fifty years and are considered by many to be the greatest rock’n roll band in the world. There are many bands that have copied their formula for success, but there is still only one Rolling Stones and their place in music history is written in… well, stone.

But who influenced them? Rock historians can trace the roots of their sound back to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and many others.

Did they copy? Yeah!

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They tried their best by performing a lot of cover songs when they first started out. But it’s not what made them superstars. Mick Jagger found his own voice as a singer and Keith Richards found his voice on the guitar. The duo ended up writing their own material and classic hits based on the type of music they liked and giving it their own spin based on their individual talent and personalities.

Like the Stones, comedians start by emulating what they like.

“How did you play that?”

Keith Richards is not going to play Bach or Beethoven because he likes Chuck Berry. Based on the way you described your humor in today’s email, I doubt you would consider bringing props on stage like Carrot Top or going redneck like Larry The Cable Guy. You like Prof. Irwin Corey and Steven Wright so yes, they are both are going to influence you as a comedian just like Chuck Berry influenced the Stones as musicians.

But the big difference between being a comedian and being a musician, The Rolling Stones can (and often do) play Chuck Berry songs during their concerts. But comedians can’t go on stage and say, “Here’s one from Steven Wright” and do a few of his best jokes.

That’s copying and comedians can’t do that – period. Its called stealing material. There are some that do – and most of us know who the big-name guilty parties are. There’s a total lack of respect for these thieves from other comics and industry people, and a lot of us wonder how they can sleep at night. Must be the drugs, but that’s another article…

Being influenced is not the same as stealing.

Creative artists, (comedians and musicians to only mention two) don’t reinvent the wheel. They can build on what’s already there. Just like in many original Rolling Stones songs you can hear a Chuck Berry riff or Bo Diddley beat in the background, comedians can’t help but be influenced by the type of humor they like.

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For example, Carrot Top didn’t invent prop comedy. As little kids many of us can remember holding up two paper plates on the sides of our heads and pretending to be Mickey Mouse. Carrot Top probably did that too, thought it was extremely funny – and built on it.

You as a writer and performer need to do the same, but with your own influences.

I think you understand your style of comedy. It’s similar to Prof. Irwin and Steven Wright, but when it comes to writing and performing it’s important for you to realize you are also very different. There’s no way you would have the exact same experiences or live in the exact same environment (city, neighborhood, families, education, jobs, etc.). You have a different life, different personality, different relationships and different conversations.

You also have your own personal thoughts about all of these experiences.

That’s what you need to put into your writing and performances – your spin. Don’t think about what Prof. Irwin Corey or Steven Wright would say. But respect that you admire what they do, are influenced to perform comedy in the same style, and then say it in your own words. Basically, they are intelligent writers and your writing should also have some intelligence to it.

I remember two comedians I worked with in LA. Sorry, I won’t name-drop this time, but one is now an international movie star and the other is an all-time favorite television character. They both admitted to being HUGE fans of Jerry Lewis. They loved every movie and consider him to be the HUGE influence that got them both into the comedy biz.

No caption needed

But never in a million years would you see either of them on stage yelling out Lewis’ famous line, “HEY LAAYYYDEEE!” That would be stealing. But I’ve seen both make wild faces and pretend to slip and fall during their stand-up comedy sets similar to what Lewis did in his classic films while talking about their own personal experiences and thoughts.

That’s being influenced. And to take it a step further, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx were doing pratfalls long before Lewis.

The idea is to use your own mannerisms and personality to deliver your material to an audience. You are not going to hold two paper plates to your head and hope people laugh. You’ll want to dig deeper and put some thought into why something is funny from your personal point of view and then convey that to an audience.

Everyone is influenced by someone or something. It’s human nature. Again, none of us can invent the wheel because it’s been done – and car companies are still building on it. The same can be said about comedians when it comes to writing and performing comedy material.

But understand what makes you unique from everyone else (we all are) and explore topics that interest you based on your style of humor. Keep writing and performing. Eventually you’ll find your own comedy voice. Then in interviews you’ll be asked who influenced you – and you can tell them. I’ve interviewed comedians for my books, magazine articles and newspaper columns and believe me; every comedian has someone who inspired them. What made them successful was when they realized they couldn’t copy, but could use that influence to build on.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Chicago and Cleveland Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.

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The comedy police

February 27, 2017

Hey Dave – I was at an open-mic last week. A comic went on stage and “called out” another comic who had gone on before him for stealing jokes. He did this from the stage. But afterwards he couldn’t prove it and no one else could remember hearing the jokes anywhere else before. We think he was wrong and he handled it wrong. Any thoughts? – D

Hey D – I always have thoughts. And when they’re thoughts about comics or speakers stealing material, they’re never good thoughts.

Keystone Cops

There oughta be a law!

What a jerk.

Wait… let me rethink. We might have two jerks here. Allow me to think out loud – or at least in LOUD writing.

JERK #1:

This honor goes to the comic who “called out” the other one from the stage. First of all, as he admitted later, he had no proof for doing this. Maybe he thought it was funny to be on the edge – which can sometimes be very funny. But in the situation you described, it’s not funny when it’s at the expense of someone who is also using an open-mic to become a better comic (the purpose of doing these).

Of course this is assuming the first comic actually didn’t steal any material.

The comic who accused the other should’ve talked with him off stage and not dissed him in front of an audience. A little courtesy is due, unless that comic is known for stealing material. In that case I’d say go ahead and trash him. I’m sure most comics will agree.

But without proof and only working off a hunch, the more professional way is to take that person aside and talk with him – privately – about it. This is a topic in my book Comedy FAQs And Answers with Bill Engvall answering the question.

Bill talked about the comedy police.

"Hey, I've heard that joke!"

“Hey, I’ve heard that joke!”

Basically, when you think a comic is stealing material, mention it to him/her – off stage. In other words, honest comics will police each other. They’ll warn each other if another comic is doing the same joke or bit. But if the warned comic continues with it – then there could be repercussions.

I’ll give you an example of that in a moment, but in the meantime…

The comic may not even realize he/she is doing it and has actually written a joke too similar to a joke someone else is doing.

I’ve seen it happen…

Two comedians – one in NYC and the other in LA – wrote the same joke. They didn’t know each other and as far as I know from talking with both, had never even played the same clubs. But the one in LA was booked for an appearance on the television show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv and did the joke.

I know because I was standing off camera at the time.

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After the taping I mentioned it to the other comic in NYC and he immediately told me he had to stop doing the joke. The comic who did it on television was now the owner because of the audience exposure. He never felt the other comic stole it from him because they weren’t in the same comedy circle. He felt bad because the joke was based on his appearance, but then again it worked that way for the other comic also.

The bottom line was that he understood how the business works. He could never do that joke again without a member of the comedy police calling him out on it.

So it’s possible a comedian might be doing material too similar to someone else and not realizes it. The best way to handle it is without grandstanding in front of an audience. Tell that comic after the show and give proof. If he continues – then everyone can trash him.

Just like the following…

JERK #2:

Navin R. Johnson

“The Jerk” not “a jerk.”

If a comic or speaker is stealing material and is caught, a wise move is for that comic or speaker to NOT do it again and to start writing. Otherwise they risk suffering the consequences.

Here’s what I mean…

There was an open-mic comic in NYC when I was starting out. He was a nice guy and it didn’t hurt his standing with us that he ran a popular open-mic where new comics could get stage time.

He wasn’t any better than any of the other comics just starting out. They were all working on creating material and trying to figure out how to deliver it on stage. Every once in awhile someone would come up with a good joke or bit – which would become a keeper in his or her set.

This guy was also developing his act, but every few weeks he’d travel to Florida where he told us he was a headliner. We knew his family lived there, but he always said he went for work and visiting his family just meant he had a place to stay for free.

But the headliner part of his story never seemed right.

If that was true, the Florida comedy scene must have been really hurting and a smart move would’ve been for all the other new comics to move there for headlining gigs. Of course I’ve learned from first hand experience that’s not true (and yes, that was a positive shout-out to all the comics I met at my Tampa workshops last year!). Other possibilities were that he had friends booking clubs or was delusional. We just couldn’t figure out which.

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Then a real headliner from NYC told us what was going on. He had just played a club in Florida and our “friend” was opening for him. He was doing the best bits he had stolen from the open-mic comics playing his open-mic club.

Say what?!

The reaction was worse than getting “called out” from on stage. Let’s just say no one would play his open-mic anymore (he lost it) and no one that ran an open-mic would give him stage time. Word spread around the NYC comedy scene and eventually I’d heard he had moved back to Florida to pursue his floundering comedy career. Actually I heard he was parking cars, but I have no proof to call him out on that.

But I do have this proof…

A few years later I was the talent coordinator for the TV show A&E’s An Evening at the Improv in LA. He called – out of the blue – and tried to play the friend card with me for an audition. To make a short story even shorter – he didn’t get the audition.

Stooges Police

We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

Chalk another one up for the comedy police.

So I guess to answer your question, yeah – I think it was wrong for the guy (jerk #1) to call the other comic out from on stage. If he really thought there was an issue of stealing, he should’ve have talked with him in private. The other comic may not even have realized it, but if there’s proof he should stop.

If he did steal, a warning from a member of the comedy police should convince him not to do it again.

If you’re already part of your area comedy scene you already know what a small world it really is. If it’s obvious this comic is stealing and continues to do so, the word will get out and it’s doubtful anyone would ever want to work with this jerk. Odds are better he’ll be parking cars somewhere before he ever has a chance to “own” anyone else’s jokes on television.

Have a comment? Please use the form below.

Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!

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Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up ComedyComedy FAQs And Answers: How The Stand-Up Biz Really Works, and Comedy Workshop: Creating & Writing Comedy Material for Comedians & Humorous Speakers.

For details about upcoming comedy workshops at the Chicago, Cleveland and Tampa Improv Comedy Clubsprivate coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com

Copyright 2017 – North Shore Publishing.