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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!
Dave Schwensen is the author of How To Be A Working Comic: An Insider’s Business Guide To A Career In Stand-Up Comedy, Comedy 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 Clubs, private coaching by Skype or phone, and to receive our bi-weekly newsletter visit www.TheComedyBook.com
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