Lately there’s been a lot of talk about joke theft via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, pretty much the whole internet. I’ve had a joke stolen. You can Google it, search it on Twitter and Facebook, it’s everywhere.
Here’s the joke: I bought a pair of shoes from a drug dealer but I think he laced them with something because I’ve been tripping all day.
Working It Out
I remember when I wrote the joke. I was in the computer lab at the University of Indianapolis and had just gotten out of class early. The premise had been in my head for a couple days so I got the wording down, clunky as it was, and posted it to Facebook. Soon after, a girl I went to high school with commented on it with a follow up line and I had my joke. I got her permission to use her line of course.
I tried the joke out a few times on stage like I had written it and it was wordy and didn’t get much of a laugh. The comic I was working with that week, Stewart Huff-a 12 year comedy veteran at the time, liked the joke and told me to keep doing it even though it was getting nothing. I abandoned the joke by the last show of the week because I just didn’t know how to say it right. That same show, Stewart asked the audience if I had done the joke during my set and they had no idea what he was talking about, so he did the joke and delivered correctly without the wordiness and with confidence. It got a huge laugh. That’s how I got the current wording for it-“I bought a pair of shoes from a drug dealer but I think he laced them with something because I’ve been tripping all day.”
I almost didn’t include it on my album (Mr. Turkey available on iTunes #shamelessplug). Even though it was my joke, I didn’t want people to think I stole it. Sure I have proof that I wrote it, but an audience doesn’t know that. All they know is that they read it on someone’s Facebook status or saw a meme of it and now I’m the thief. It’s not what’s the truth, it’s what’s perceived as the truth.
I eventually decided to include the joke because I feel the rest of the album contains very original material that you won’t hear anywhere else so if the rest of the jokes are unique and my own, then why would I steal just one 24-word joke? In other words, Drug Shoes fit my style…more on that later.
It’s also crossed my mind that maybe I’m not the only one that’s written that joke. Sometimes a joke is just there and it’s inevitably going to be written. Let’s say maybe me and another guy wrote the same joke, there’s still hundreds of tweets and posts with our words being passed off as someone else’s. It’s still theft. All I know is that I wrote my version.
Is It Malicious?
For the most part, I think the kind of joke theft you see on social media/the internet is not intended to do harm to it’s originator. Most times it’s a guy trying to be funny for his friends or a girl he likes in his class. It’s someone trying to be more interesting and clever than they actually are. A high Twitter follower count or writing packet submission doesn’t matter to the average person, they just want to be liked. I’m not saying this type of theft is right, because it’s not, I’m just saying it’s not intended to do harm.
In the case of comedians stealing from comedians, joke theft is very malicious and comics that steal jokes should be ostracized and pushed out of comedy. They’re not comics, they’re actors reading from a script, go act.
Wouldn’t you want to earn things with your own jokes as opposed to someone else’s? You can get that writing job or pilot deal with stolen jokes, but are you going to be able to deliver when it’s time write original content? Probably not.
How To Fix The Problem
Honestly, I don’t know how to stop joke theft. How do you stop plagiarism? Sometimes you can’t. Sure we can all be the joke police and tweet someone whenever we think a joke is stolen, but that sounds exhausting and takes time away from working on new jokes. All I can tell you is to write as personally as you can, nobody can steal who you are. Don’t write jokes so much as you write personal accounts.
When it comes to writing jokes that are just jokes (i.e. I bought shoes from a drug dealer…), it’s much easier for someone to steal those because anybody can repeat them. But what you can do is to develop a style that is all your own. You can hear a Mitch Hedberg or Steven Wright joke and know it’s theirs because it just sounds like them. Find your own style, at least if someone does steal from you, you have a body of work to compare your stolen joke to. You can’t prevent joke theft, but you can insulate yourself from it.
How do you recover from having a joke stolen? Maybe your joke was done on national TV or by a comic way more famous than you and now everyone thinks that’s his joke. You’ve already written great jokes, jokes good enough to be stolen. What’s to stop you from writing newer, funnier ones? I remember reading an interview with Louis C.K. in regards to another comic stealing his jokes. He basically said, there are other jokes out there, go write them. Listen to Louis, go write them.