”Good artists copy;
great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

“The problem isn’t
that he stole, the problem is that he stole too much.” – Willie Nelson’s
comment on Robin Thicke

In everyday life, when
we tell each other jokes, we just tell them without citing sources. We say, “A bishop, an imam and a rabbi walk
into a bar…” not, “Let me tell you this joke I read in ‘Dirty Gags for Parties
V.7 as written by Guy Laffsalott: A bishop, an imam and a rabbi walk into a bar…” Even without the citation, no one ever
responds, “Did you come up with that?”
It’s taken for granted it was heard somewhere else.

That mentality has
carried over into Twitter, where someone sees something funny and thinks, I
like that, I’m going to share that as well.
Except, often, that person types it as their own rather than retweeting
the original post. Now there’s just as
much chance that the person who typed it later will get credit for it as the
person who first posted it. And, in the
extreme, someone like the Fat Jew can turn it into fame and fortune.

There’s been a lot of
debate lately over joke theft within standup.
Is creativity owned, should we impose capital punishment on hack comics,
does anyone actually care, etc. I have
seen a lot of standup live in the last several years and I’m glad to say that
outright theft has been extremely rare.
It’s often clear which comics have influenced the comic on stage, and
jokes can sound familiar, but I haven’t personally seen very much theft.

The last time I was in
Gothenburg, however, a local comic went up and had a joke that killed. A week later, I saw Jimmy Carr in Stockholm
do the same joke, word for word, except in English. Parallel thinking, that two comics think of
the same joke on the same topic by chance?
Doubtful, this was too close, and it’s far more likely that the local
comic heard Jimmy Carr do that joke on TV.
But did he sit at home, twirling his mustache evilly and laughing
manically as he stole the joke with malice and intent, or was it something

One night, just before
I took the stage to host at my club Taboo, I thought of a funny line I wanted
to do. I went up and said, “Hi, I’m
Ryan, I’m from America. I know what you’re thinking, ‘Typical immigrant, here
to steal our jobs and women.’ No, I’m not here to steal your jobs.” Got a good laugh, I was pleased. I realized not five minutes later that, not
only did that joke belong to another Stockholm comic, except in Swedish, I’d
heard him deliver it at least a dozen times.
My brain just filed it away and presented it to me like it was
mine. Bad brain.

I’m willing to bet this
is the same thing to happen to comics like Robin Williams and Dane Cook,
notorious for taking material. “Notorious,”
that is, amongst comics; the vast majority of their fans don’t know, or know
and don’t care. It sucks to be an
unknown comic with a killer line that ends up being used by a celebrity,
because the general public is going to assume it was the celebrity that thought
of it first.

I tend to be very
careful and hypersensitive about my material.
There are only so many minutes on stage and I don’t want to spend any of
it saying something that isn’t mine.
Which is a shame for my career, because I have seen so much standup in
the US in the last thirty years that no one here has ever heard, I could steal
left and right and get away with it easily.
But that’s not me.

Richard Lewis said
that once he started performing, he stopped going to clubs and listening to
other comics, because, if he thought of a new joke on a certain subject but
heard another comic talking about the same subject, not even the same joke, it
just made him abandon it. I’m not that
sensitive, but on occasion I’ve asked a comic if they mind that I do a similar,
but not identical, joke to one of theirs.
I’d rather err on the side of caution.

It’s been said that,
at any one time there are only seven stories in Hollywood. For example, Armageddon and Deep Impact came
out the same summer, as did Mission to Mars and Red Planet. It’s like standup, there are only so many
subjects that are going to be discussed. The vast majority of comics are single and
there’s not many ways to discuss single life in a unique way. Same goes for discussing married life. But there, the key can be to NOT be wildly
original. Jeff Foxworthy said, “The best
compliment I can get from someone after a show is, ‘I thought the exact same
thing!’ That’s the thing with observational comedy- people see something, react
to it, and then go about their day, a comic has the same reaction but holds
onto it, polishes it into a joke.”

As an expat comic, I
have the same fish-out-of-water view of Sweden as the rest of my peers. We react, often, in the same way to the same
things, which can lead to problems when we’re deciding what to joke about on
stage. Almost every time, if I hear
another expat joke on the same subject I have a joke for, it just makes me want
to abandon my joke. I’d rather do material
that works anywhere, not just Sweden, anyway.
Someone once suggested that we expat comics have a draft to decide who
gets to joke about which subjects: “Ok, you get to joke about ‘utfart’, I get ‘fika’,
I’ll trade you ‘slutstation’ for ‘lagom’.”

I like making comics
laugh more than making the crowd laugh.
One night, I did a harsh, topical joke about life in Sweden and a comic
laughed so hard the crowd laughed at him.
Since it was topical, I only did it four or five times within a few
weeks before it felt dated, and I abandoned it (which is why Carlin never did
topical humor). Six months later, that
comic was telling the same joke, except the topical reference had been removed
and he’d built a whole bit around it.
While not word-for-word theft, there’s no way he wasn’t influenced by my
line, even if he didn’t think, “I’m going to steal this line.” My ego screamed, FUCKING HACK STOLE MY
FUCKING JOKE! Then I relaxed. It was a joke I’d abandoned, had no intention
of using again, and he’d built on the line successfully. My ego was soothed at the thought of being
such a positive influence, though I doubt that comic even remembers my line or
would even agree that it’s the same.

I’m not as generous,
though, if I hear someone do a joke of mine that I’ve used many times and
continue to use. In one case, I noticed one of my peers had tweeted a line of
mine, except in Swedish. I asked the
comic if she planned to say it on stage, she said yes, I reminded her that she’d
heard me do that line 1000 times and would do it 1000 more, because I like
it. Irritated, she said, “Fine, take it,”
and deleted the tweet. An odd feeling to
be told you can take a line that’s already yours.

There are those who
roll their eyes at comics getting upset over theft and say, “Just write new
jokes then.” On the face of it, it’s not
bad advice, but that negates the emotional reaction to it happening. Besides, some darlings are just too precious
to kill.