Joke theft: Is it really an issue in comedy?

There are several levels of comedy plagiarism, says Paul F. Tompkins.

PAUL F. TOMPKINS: Like many things there are many levels to the idea of taking someone else's material because we hear these things and we absorb them. And over the years I've certainly had material that I've done that I either realized later, you know, after I'd done it a couple of times oh, you know what? I think I heard somebody do a thing like this and I'm kind of unconsciously absorbing it, you know. A big part of it for me and I think for a lot of comedians is when you have an idea that seems too good to be true you check with other people and say has anyone done this because it seems like someone must have done this by now. And, I mean, the fact of the matter is a lot of us arrive at the same ideas at around the same time or at various times, you know. I've had people – I've seen people do routines that I knew they didn't take from me but they had – because for whatever reason I had stopped doing it a long time ago. There's no way they would have heard this bit. But it ends up being pretty much the same thing. But I'm not going to go up to them and say, 'Hey, you stole my bit', you know. Because you learn – over time you learn the difference between when someone is just taking a thing and someone has arrived at the same idea that you have.

It's entirely possible to plagiarize other people's material. It's absolutely you can hear something and you can say hey, you know what? I didn't write that but it sounds good and I'm going to do it. And whose ever going to know. It's also entirely possible to do it without realizing it and to consume so much stuff and you're around other comedians a lot and you see other people perform. And if you're doing that a lot you can easily fool yourself into thinking the idea came out of your mind. It's almost like it's on a – you have all these thoughts that are on this sort of cycle and things pop up and go down. So you might have a thing that you liked, you processed, oh I enjoyed that. You might think about it for a bit. Then you might forget it, it slips into your subconscious and then months later it comes out and you don't realize oh no, I got this idea because I saw someone do this whole thing. So it is possible and there are people who do it knowingly and there are people who do it by accident. I would say that just about any comedian you're going to talk to will probably say yeah, I've had that experience where I did a thing that I thought I made up and it turns out I'd heard it from someone else.

You know, I don't know what the Joseph Campbell equivalent to storytelling would be for comedy but there are certain situations and certain feelings, certain points of mockery that all come down to the same thing just varied ways of telling them. Politics is a thing that is kind of the same over and over and over again. But we have to find new ways of poking fun at it and letting the air out of people and satirizing things that are worthy of satire. But, you know, the idea of making fun of people that are more powerful than you, relating to strangers by sharing an embarrassing story or something that frustrates you or something that you think is worthy of ridicule. Like these are the basic tenants of comedy and we're all going about it in our own different way. We each have our own style but yeah, when you boil it down like there are certain things that human beings just are predisposed to laugh at and we're just kind of all putting our own spin on it.

  • Comedian Paul F. Tompkins explains the complexities of plagiarism in the comedy world; comedians all spend time together, processing the same current events—to some degree, it's natural that they may arrive at the same conclusions and jokes.
  • "There are certain things that human beings just are predisposed to laugh at and we're just kind of all putting our own spin on it," he says.
  • Some comedians may do it knowingly and others completely by accident, almost by osmosis. There are levels of plagiarism, and if you ask most comedians, says Tompkins, they will have had an innocent experience of realizing something they wrote was not truly theirs.

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