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Sampling and trading jokes are a common occurrence that famous comedians have to deal with; they also deal with the annoying hassle of their jokes being stolen. Joke stealing appears to be occurring more frequently and lately it is happening in Chicago.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” says South Side Comedian Kevin White, who has had several jokes stolen and later used on national TV.
It may be survival of the fittest; but also stealing jokes can affect a comedian’s own creditability as well as their professionalism. Some comedians who are victims of theft can shrug it off and continue writing new and even better jokes, while others suffer setbacks.
Comedians may spend months writing jokes and perfecting them, but to later have them stolen can be emotionally upsetting, professionally frustrating, and offensive.
Chicago Stand-Up Comedian Damon Williams referred to theft in the comedy world as great minds thinking alike and having the same joke is just a coincidence.
But Williams adds, “There is a fine line between stealing and sampling. As a comedian you often run into a situation where you have the idea but another comedian has already fleshed that idea into a joke.”
Radio host and stand-up comedian Brian Babylon disagrees. He says he seen his fair share of “Carlos Mencia’s” in the Chicago comedy world, referring to the largely publicized accusations of Mencia plagiarizing jokes from other comedians.
Most famously, popular stand-up comedian and UFC announcer Joe Rogan confronted Mencia on stage about his alleged plagiarism. George Lopez, of “The George Lopez Show,” has also made accusations of Mencia stealing his material.
What does this say about the world of comedy? About Chicago Comedians? Does joke stealing prevent local comedians from making it big?
“This is a business,” says Babylon who believes a comedian’s jokes is their property. He feels that it is not unreasonable to assume that a comedian can become financially affected when theft occurs.
For comedians who steal, “They don’t really think about the integrity side of it, because they just don’t feel like they are stealing anything. They just feel like they are doing the joke better than the comic who first put it out there,” says Mary Lindsey, Bronzeville comedy club owner of Joke and Notes. “It happens all the time,” say Lindsey.
Lindsey says ninety percent of the time the audience do not recognize the joke is stolen unless they are heavily involved in the comedy business. Lindsey attributes joking stealing in Chicago, to the over saturation of comedy in the city and every person believing they can easily become comedians.
Burt Haas, comedy club owner of Zaines, attributes some of the theft to the demands of the entertainment industry. Celebrity comedians are under constant pressure to produce jokes faster than they can handle and sometimes the only recourse is stealing.
When asked directly about their thoughts on joking stealing the Chicago Comedians responded with mixed feelings.
“It’s desperation and I’m aggressively going after that person. You’re an intellectual thief.” and “You will become notorious for stealing,” says Babylon.
Williams adds, if a comedian has their material stolen they should not, “dwell on it.” He believes one stolen joke does not affect comedians from making it out of Chicago or establishing a name in the comedy business, he advises local comedians who are victims of theft to keep writing.
White initially felt upset when his jokes were stolen and also felt he could not make it big if his jokes were making it to TV before he did. Later he was flattered by the theft of his jokes, because it shows he is a good writer and his jokes are good enough to make it on to national TV.
Many comedians reach a point in their career where they are desperate, under pressure or are on stage performing and need a joke to save them from getting heckled. In the culture of comedy, many concepts like grasping, reaching, and stealing seems to be a natural occurrence.
Are there rules in the comedy world? What can be done about joking stealing?
Williams says the universal rule in comedy is if two comedians have the same joke then the first person to perform the joke on TV is the one that validates the joke.
Timing is most important in the comedy culture because comedians have to constantly write material that is funny enough to perform and funny enough to make it on national TV. Sometimes the best way to protect their material from being stolen is to perform it live on TV, and even that is not always good enough.
“Getting the strongest protection possible is the first step toward getting their work protected,” says Exavier Pope, Chicago Entertainment Attorney.
Pope says there are many steps a comedian can take to protect their material, which first includes getting all work copyrighted by the U.S Copyright Office.
Copyright law protects any expressible forms of ideas or information that are substantive, discrete, and fixed in a medium which includes jokes and other written material. Once a copyright has been obtained, the next step would be an order to “cease and desist” to the party committing the infringement, then move towards establishing the extent of the infringement and seeking monetary damages.
“The entertainment industry can be cutthroat at times” but Pope says the rule of thumb is, “First in time, first in line.”
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