So you’re a comedian. You write jokes for a living, or some fraction of a living, or, anyway, you write jokes. Some people make bread; some make the tiny mechanical parts of a refrigerator; every so often, someone makes a building disappear in a one-night-only television spectacular. As for you, you do bits.
Which is great! There’s nothing like a good bit, except maybe a good loaf of bread. Here at Paste Comedy we love bits, care about bits, want the best in the world for bits. That’s why we’re asking you today: Has a more powerful comedian than you used your bit? Did they use it without permission, attribution and/or any form of compensation? On stage, on Twitter, on television, wherever bits may be? We want to know.
Joke theft is hardly a new issue, nor one that comedians take lightly. Many of the best-known allegations of joke theft, though, involve famous comedians pilfering from other famous comedians: Milton Berle from Bob Hope. Carlos Mencia from George Lopez. Dane Cook from Louis C.K.. Denis Leary from Bill Hicks. Amy Schumer from Patrice O’Neal. What we’re interested in are cases of joke misappropriation by established comedians from those who are still coming up.
Which isn’t a new phenomenon either, of course. Robin Williams, for one, had a nasty reputation for lifting bits in his younger years. When Jay Mohr was on Saturday Night Live in the ‘90s, he saw Rick Shapiro tell a joke at a club and later turned it into a sketch; NBC later settled with Shapiro for an undisclosed amount. In 2010, South Park copped lines—inadvertently, they said—from a CollegeHumor video. In 2014, a group of Groundlings performers accused SNL of stealing a sketch from the theatre, with one teacher claiming SNL had been lifting their material for years.
Then, last week, Keegan-Michael Key went on The View and used a bit written by Anne Victoria Clark in a viral Medium post. Called out on Twitter, Key later said he had cited the post in a pre-interview, but forgot to mention it on air. He gave a nice apology, but the whole event is pretty disturbing. Key is a brilliant, successful comedian, responsible for one of the greatest sketch shows of all time. Why does he need to use someone else’s material? Why not write his own? And if he’d do it on The View, has he done it before? Would he do it again?
Not all bits go viral. Most bits live and die in comedy clubs and bar backrooms, sketch revues and improv shows. Few victims of joke theft have tangible evidence to point to, let alone evidence as compelling as a bit about The Rock that was recognized by The Rock himself. And even the most obvious cases rarely result in any sort of accountability for the perpetrator, which makes it difficult to discuss what, exactly, that accountability might be. Should Key pay Clark? Probably. How much? I can’t say. At the very least, he shouldn’t have done it, but he did, and unless he makes some transparent accounting—explains how and why he did this, how he’ll make up for it and how he’ll avoid doing it again—then everything he writes in the future will be stained by the fact that he used a younger, less successful comedian’s joke on The View.
And that’s what we want to hear about: the misappropriation of jokes by comedians with significantly more power than the jokes’ originators. Whether you’re a stand-up comic, an improviser, a sketch writer, a cartoonist, a humorist, an intern, whatever you may be: tell us your stories. You can reach me via email at email@example.com and my editor at firstname.lastname@example.org, and my DMs are open.
We’ve added the Twitter exchange between Key and Clark below.
Note: This was edited on 12/13/2017 to add Key and Clark’s Twitter exchange. The sentence about Key’s pre-interview was also lightly edited.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.