“Thou shalt not steal”
I have a new comedy hero. What’s so unusual about that? I’ve never had the opportunity to see his act. I was already a fan from his work as commentator for the UFC (and you may know him as the host of Fear Factor and The Man Show), but now I’ll forever admire and respect his bravery to stand up and speak out. His name is Joe Rogan, and he appears to be on a one-man campaign to let the world know about the lowest of the low in the comedy industry – comedians that steal.
Comics who steal have been around as long as there have been comics. The most notorious was perhaps Milton Berle, who embraced his derogatory title of “The Thief of Bad Gag.” His peers joked that Berle did not have an act – he had everybody’s act. I know this to be true, because early in my career Milton attended one of my shows in Vegas and afterward told me, “If you hear a joke you like take it.” Which I thought was about the worst advice a young comedian could get. It is rumored that Bob Hope once said something funny and Berle told him, “I wish I had said that.” And Hope replied, “Don’t worry… you will.”
It is not easy to become a successful comedian; you must have both something funny to say and the ability to say it funny. By stealing material, half the work has been done for you; it is the equivalent of entering a marathon race then hopping on the bus. The worst part is these cheaters still get rewarded at the finish line, because the only people that know they cheated are the other contestants and not the people who give out the prizes. You may be shocked to learn that some of America’s best-loved comedians are also the most despised by other comedians. (My resentment for these performers runs so deep that I refuse to pay one cent to see any movie they appear in, or raise the ratings of their television shows, for fear I might be remotely rewarding them and their thievery in any measure.) Each comedian must face this moral dilemma then decide if he values his own honor and the respect of his peers more than the trappings of fame and fortune. The temptation of a shortcut to stardom is so strong many choose the latter, and unfortunately the public remains largely unaware of their misdeeds.
I can’t stress enough how valuable jokes are to a comedian, especially if he is not a household name. When a comic first starts out he may only have a couple good lines to serve as the foundation for his career. So, when performer on the level of say, Robin Williams, attends the local comedy club then does a starting comic’s joke on television, the next time that young comic does his own material the audience will assume he stole it from Robin, thus derailing his career. It’s a sad fact, but the public will always believe the more famous comic wrote the bit; that is why this form of thievery is so devastating to the victim. Since humor is considered in public domain there is very little legal recourse for this type of crime; that is why the comics themselves have to self-police the industry since the club owners, agents, and television producers, are more concerned with someone just getting the laughs as opposed to where the laughs originated. I thank God that Joe Rogan has the courage to step forward to serve as our Comedy Police Commissioner.
Here is a list of the accused perpetrators of repeated unrepentant plagiarism:
Perhaps the most notorious contemporary joke thief in the industry, he is known as “the comedic Wynona Ryder.” One of the first lessons I learned in comedy was to never perform if Robin is in the club; the world famous Improvisation Comedy Club in Hollywood even devised a warning system with lights to alert the comic on stage that Robin is present.
Radar Magazine quoted Scott LaRose, a veteran stand-up, saying Williams knows he has a problem but is virtually helpless to stop it. "Everybody knows he's a genius, but he's like SpongeRobin SquarePants," says LaRose. "He's just a big sponge." Another comedian reported, "I remember watching Letterman last year and Ray Romano was on. Ray did a bit that he has been doing for a while about implanting phones in your head to make them more convenient. The next night Robin Williams was on the show and did the same bit word for word. Dave looked like Robin had dropped a turd into his coffee cup (Letterman produces Ray's show)."
Naturally comedians tend to address disturbing issues with humor; there is a joke making the rounds about a deli in New York that had a sandwich named after him, “the Robin Williams,” they give you a bun, but you have to steal the meat.
Joe Rogan appeared on syndicated radio’s Opie and Anthony Show and accused Dane of stealing his, and other comedian’s material. He then backed up his claim by playing clips from Louis CK’s cd, “Live In Houston,” followed by Cook doing almost the same bits on his cd, “Retaliation.” I encourage you to decide for yourself; these clips can be found by doing a YouTube search for: “Dane Cook Steals Jokes – Proof.”
In fairness to all the comedians accused of stealing, there are four possibilities to consider before you find them guilty:
One: the joke is so old or in such widespread use it is considered “stock.” (I’m not proud to admit it, but there have been a few times I have told a joke so old that if Adam and Eve returned it might be the only thing they would recognize.)
Two: it is a matter of parallel thought and each comic came up with the joke independently.
Three: they paid an unethical comedy writer to create material and unknowingly bought recycled jokes.
Four: (the truly shameful option) it is just outright larceny.
According to Larry Getlen, of Radar Magazine, “Rogan isn’t the only one who has accused Cook of lifting material. Another veteran comic recalls seeing Cook performing one of his very physical routines at the same club. “I go, ‘Don’t do that bit,’” says the comic, “and [Cook] goes, ‘Oh, sorry man. I won’t do that bit.’ But he did it plenty of times after that.” Dane Cook’s reputation for supposedly being a thief has become so widespread that even a mainstream publication, Mad Magazine, put him on the cover and made light of it.
During a national radio appearance Rogan also accused Leary of stealing. This led to a war of words that played out for days in the newspaper in which Denis responded with something to the effect that if Rogan would worry more about his career than mine then he wouldn’t have to be on a show watching bartenders eat worms (Fear Factor). However, to the best of my knowledge, he did not deny that he had stolen material, which would be difficult to do since there is so much evidence to the contrary. In his book, “One Consciousness: An Analysis of Bill Hicks' Comedy,” Paul Outhwaite devotes an entire chapter to word-for-word examples of Leary lifting jokes. This controversy is also mentioned in Cynthia True’s book, “American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story.”
Before he died from pancreatic cancer, Hicks was asked about Leary stealing his material and stage persona, Bill responded sarcastically, “I have a scoop for you. I stole his act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did.”
Comedian Lenny Clark reported that during a televised roast for Leary a carton of cigarettes was left backstage with a note reading: “Wish I had gotten these to you sooner. (signed) Bill Hicks.” The joke was cut from the final broadcast.
I had heard that one of Leary’s final retorts to Rogan was, “I’d like to see him say that to my face.” Well, so would thousands of Bill Hicks’ fans, because Joe happens to be a full-contact Tae Kwon Do champion.
On February 10th, 2007, Rogan gained national admiration amongst comics when he confronted Carlos Mencia on stage at LA’s Comedy Store. The event was captured on tape for Rogan’s internet reality broadcast, “JoeShow.” (You can see it by searching You Tube for: “Joe Rogan Carlos Mencia.”) The clip also features testimony of Mencia’s thievery from comedians: Ari Shaffir, Bobby Lee, and George Lopez, who told Howard Stern last year that Mencia stole 13 minutes of his act for an HBO special, inspiring him to pay Mencia a personal visit. "I just had enough," Lopez recalled. “So one night at the Laugh Factory, I just picked him up and slammed him against the wall.”
Radar Magazine reported Nick Di Paolo claims the Comedy Central star also swiped material from him, and notes that “every Latino comic wants to kill him.” According to Rogan, the famed Comedy Store in Los Angeles has even instituted a Mencia early-detection signal similar to the Improv's for Williams, though considerably less high-tech. "Every time he walks in, the guys in the cover booth just start yelling 'Mencia's here!'"
I’m sorry to report that Rogan had to pay a price for making the public aware that there are unethical comedians that build their careers on the creativity of others. The Comedy Store banned Joe on the grounds that he violated club policy by filming his show there. Wikipedia states “Furthermore, according to Rogan, his agent and publicity firm (who also represents Mencia) forced him to either apologize to Mencia or be dropped from the agency. Rogan claims he chose to leave the agency rather than apologize.”
My new hero was left to lament, “People take plagiarism so seriously in all other forms of media, whether its music, newspapers, books, but with comedy, it's like, 'You're on your own, fucker.”
Well, Joe Rogan is not entirely on his own, this heroic comedian has my full support.
“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com