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Funny, that was my joke

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

Cosby himself admits that early in his career he came up with a bit called "Little Tiny Hairs" that he said was inspired by a George Carlin routine about a football player doing a TV commercial. In his routine, Cosby uses a hick-sounding accent to tell how he gets out of bed, goes into the bathroom, looks in the mirror and sees these little tiny hairs growing out of his face. "The phrase that makes everyone laugh is 'little tiny hairs,' " Cosby said in an interview. "But I don't get to 'little tiny hairs' if I don't have what I lifted from George Carlin, and that is the whole idea of a football player who can't act, who has an accent, maybe is an uneducated farm boy or something."

Cosby said Carlin never called him out. "I think George just flat-out became disgusted and just never bothered to say anything to me about it," Cosby said. "Except for George, every piece I've ever done I have said 'This is from Lenny Bruce's material' and so forth. I told the people where I got it and who the performer is." Carlin declined to comment for this article.

Reiner agrees with Cosby that comedians should credit other comics if they use their material. "The best thing a real comedian does is, if they hear a joke that they think is really funny, they say, 'Geez, here is this joke,' and they say who said it," Reiner said. "The funny thing is, people don't care why they are laughing. They care that you are bringing something funny to them."

BUT not all comics are so understanding.

Brenner recalled pulling up in a taxi outside an improv club in New York one day and seeing two comics punching each other on the street. "I'm paying the driver and I'm hearing one comedian yelling at the other, 'You stole my Lenny Bruce routine!' "

Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles attorney who is writing a book on humor, said it's difficult for comedians to legally claim copyright protection of a joke.

"Let's be honest, how many times have you heard over the course of time the same joke from different people?" O'Donnell said. "Humor is kind of universal, and copyright laws want to promote creativity."

Robert Cumbow, a Seattle attorney whose practice focuses on copyright and trademark law, added: "Copyright law does not protect ideas, it only protects the specific expression of an idea." However, he noted, "If I make up a joke and you come along with a version of that same joke, unless your telling of the joke is dramatically different, I probably have a claim."

At the same time, Cumbow said, it's largely a mystery where most jokes come from. "You get something on the Internet and it cracks you up and then you say, 'Who came up with this?' Chances are it is simply an expression of an older idea in a new way."

One comic who claims ownership of a well-worn joke is Ari Shaffir, a comedian known for his provocative material. Shaffir said he originated a joke about building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

His joke goes: "Did you hear that America wants to put up a 10-foot-high brick wall like 5 feet deep so no Mexican can get in? Now, who do you think is going to build that wall?"

Shaffir concedes that other comics may have come up with their own version of the joke independently, but he is not so forgiving of Mencia.

Shaffir, who joined Rogan in confronting Mencia over joke-stealing at the Comedy Store, contends he came up with the "who will build the wall?" joke around 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was first running for California governor and the issue of building a border fence was in the news. Shaffir said he subsequently told his joke at various comedy clubs around Southern California, including the Ice House in Pasadena, where Mencia was the headliner.

"I saw him in Pasadena looking at me doing the joke," Shaffir recalled.

Mencia denies stealing the joke. In an e-mail to The Times, he wrote: "I don't know what goes into the motivation, but of all the comedians having done that joke, I am the only one being accused of stealing it by Ari."

Jackson, on his Dead Frog comedy blog, has posted videos of comedians Shaffir, Mencia, George Lopez and D.L. Hughley all doing variations of the border wall joke. "I think Ari is a great comic," Jackson said. "I like his work, but it seems his allegations are impossible to prove."

More difficult to defend, Jackson said, is a March 2006 routine by Mencia on "No Strings Attached," which is similar to one Cosby performed in 1983 on Bill Cosby "Himself." The routine involves a dad who does everything to make his son into a great football player, but at the moment of his son's greatest gridiron victory, the son looks into the TV camera and goes: "Hi, mom!" In Mencia's routine, the son says: "I love you, mom!"

Jackson said he isn't accusing Mencia of ripping off Cosby but added: "It's such a piece of somebody's act that is so Cosby, why would anybody think they could get away with it?"

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