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Funny, that was my joke

COLUMN ONE

It's no laughing matter when comedians feel someone has stolen their stuff. A generation ago it was rare, but the old code is breaking down.

July 24, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

SO, these comedians walk into a comedy club, and a nasty dispute breaks out over who is stealing jokes. The audience laughs, but the comedians don't seem to find it funny at all.

The scene was the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip earlier this year, and on stage were Carlos Mencia, host of Comedy Central's "Mind of Mencia," and stand-up comic and "Fear Factor" host Joe Rogan. Mencia let it be known he was upset that Rogan had been mercilessly bashing him as a "joke thief" and derisively referring to him as Carlos "Menstealia."

As the crowd whooped and hollered, Mencia fired back at Rogan: "Here's what I think. I think that every time you open your mouth and talk about me, I think you're secretly in \o7love\f7 with me...."

A video of the raucous encounter soon appeared on various websites, igniting a debate over joke thievery that is roiling the world of stand-up comedy. An earlier generation of comics was self-policing, careful about giving credit, often adhering to an unwritten code: Any comic who stole another's material faced being shunned by his peers. Now, though, the competition is so much greater and the comedy world so decentralized that old taboos about joke theft seem to be breaking down. That, in turn, has led to an outbreak of finger-pointing among comics that some say is starting to smack of McCarthyism.

Still, for a comic convinced that his material has been ripped off, it's no laughing matter.

"You have a better chance of stopping a serial killer than a serial thief in comedy," said comedian David Brenner. "If we could protect our jokes, I'd be a retired billionaire in Europe somewhere\o7 -- and what I just said is original."

\f7Bill Cosby, who has had his own material ripped off over the years, said he empathizes with comedians who are being victimized by joke thievery.

"You're watching a guy do your material and people are laughing, but they're laughing because they think this performer has a brilliant mind and he's a funny person," Cosby said. "The person doing the stealing is accepting this under false pretenses."

BOBBY Kelton, a veteran of stand-up who appeared nearly two dozen times on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," said that when he started out in the business, fellow comics such as Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis all knew the rules.

"No one dared use another's material," Kelton said. "If they did, the word would get out and you'd be ostracized.... Then, as the comedy boom hit and tens of thousands of people got into comedy, that all kind of went out the window."

To be sure, joke theft went on even during those golden years. The late Milton Berle was famous for pilfering other comedian's jokes.

"His mother used to go around and write down jokes and give it to him," recalled Carl Reiner. "He was called 'The Thief of Bad Gags.' " Reiner said that in those days, comedians would work on different club circuits, so it was possible that they didn't know when someone was stealing their routines.

Today, however, websites like YouTube post videos comparing the routines of various comedians, inviting the public to judge for themselves.

One example is a comparison of three comedy bits on Dane Cook's 2005 album "Retaliation" and three similar routines on Louis C.K.'s 2001 CD "Live in Houston."

Louis C.K. jokes: "I'd like to give my kid an interesting name. Like a name with no vowels ... just like 40 Fs, that's his name."

Now compare that to Dane Cook's material: "I'd like to have 19 kids. I think naming them, that's going to be fun.... I already have names picked out. First kid -- boy, girl, I don't care -- I'm naming it \o7'Rrrrrrrrrrrr.' "

\f7And both scenes might seem familiar to fans of Steve Martin, who did a bit decades earlier called "My Real Name," in which he uses gibberish when recalling the name his folks gave him.

"Does this mean Louis C.K. and Dane Cook stole from Steve Martin?" Todd Jackson, a former managing editor at the humor magazine Cracked, writes on his comedy blog, www.dead-frog.com. "Absolutely not. This is a joke that doesn't belong to anyone. It's going to be discovered and rediscovered again and again by comics -- each of whom will put their own spin on it."

Radar magazine, in a recent article about joke thievery among comics, called Robin Williams a "notorious joke rustler" who is known to cut checks to comedians after stealing their material.

Jamie Masada, who runs the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, likened Williams' act to a jazz player. "He goes with whatever comes in his mind. That is what he is. He doesn't go sit down and write what he is going to say on the stage." If he learns later that he has used someone else's material, Masada added, "he goes back afterward and says, 'Here is the check.' "

Williams declined to comment for this article.

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