Jokes Aren’t Free

A couple of years ago, I was waiting for the bus to go to work. It was sometime after Thanksgiving, a little before December, which I know because I overheard this man talking to someone on his phone.

“Yeah, Thanksgiving was real busy. But you know it’s only Christmas Eve, Part One.”

One thing we’re all guilty of is quoting someone else, whether the quote is a hundred percent accurate or not. Many of us are descended from a culture that used oral history to pass stories and information down the generations. So it’s only natural to remember a well spoken phrase, or a song, or a line from a play, or a joke that sticks with us until we find the appropriate time and place to share it.

If what this man told his unseen conversational partner at the other end of the line seems familiar to you, it’s because that man was not the genius he was pretending to be. I assume there was a conversation later that day, wherein that man tearfully confessed to trying to act it was his observation all along; the idea that Thanksgiving is followed by a huge shopping event that may as well be considered Christmas. I can’t condemn the man, because I too am guilty of sharing that insight in conversations with friends, family, and customers who were not fully keen to the words of one Lewis Black, enough so that they either thought, “Hey this guy is a Lewis Black fan, too,” or, “You ripped that off from Lewis Black.”

Yes, the joke about Thanksgiving being Christmas Part One is from the mind of Lewis Black. He is also the genius behind an often repeated phrase, “If it weren’t for that horse, I never would have gone to college.”

Do you remember in school, when you were assigned a research topic to write a report about? If your teachers were anything like mine, then you were required to write a bibliography, to properly cite where you got the information you were using in the report. Your teacher might have also mentioned citing your quotations. If you failed to do this, you probably got points taken off from your final grade.

A well written joke may not seem as serious as the final grade on a term paper. But the best comedians are the ones who put their heart and soul into the craft of taking their insight and presenting it in a thoughtful, intelligent way that makes you chuckle and guffaw. You don’t see the work and the effort that goes into their craft. Writing the joke, refining it, rehearsing it and working it into their sets in the hopes that they will keep your attention for long enough that it is impossible to forget who they are and why they made you laugh. And somewhere down the line, just maybe, they will get paid for telling this and other jokes of a similar nature, as they should be because they are ones who did the handwork to make you laugh.

So what makes it right to pass that joke off as your own?

We’ve all told jokes that weren’t our own. Anyone reading this probably knows of a joke that got passed around at a family gathering or at school. The joke about the toilet paper comes to mind and actually, there was a poster on a forum, who told this story;

“I had a customer buy some toilet paper at our store. Later they came back and told me, ‘you should call this toilet paper Clint Eastwood, because it don’t take crap outta nobody’.”

Most responders pointed out out that it was an old joke. Whether the conversation happened exactly as the poster described, or whether they were just trying to pass of an old joke as their own, I can’t say. We don’t know who wrote that joke or when it started, but it’s well known enough that it would be like that episode of Seinfeld, when George shows a magazine picture to this group of models and tells them that she was his wife who passed away, unaware that that particular model just happened to be one of the women in the group, who was rightly creeped out. If you are new to comedy and taking the stage for the first time at an open mic, you might not think twice about telling the story about the blind man going sky diving in the course of your set. But if you proceeded to tell every single joke in popular culture as if it were your own, the response, if any, wouldn’t be encouraging. So why do people think that it’s okay to do the same thing with the original jokes of well established comedians?

It’s true that a lot of people can come to the same conclusion without necessarily ripping one another off. Target had a line of products called “Feed America”. Each product had a number sewn into the label that indicated how many people Target would donate food to if you bought that product. Later, I bought a shirt on clearance that said it feeds 12 people. I then asked, “So, does this only feed four people now, because I didn’t pay full price for it?”

Whenever you see those advertisements that say, “If the Red Sox win, your kids eat free,” it would be a logical conclusion to ask, “But if they lose, do our kids have to pay the bill?” However if I were to talk about poker as an Olympic event and I were to list all of the various currencies of the world, including the price of a “cup of coffee”, a “baby”, and other culturally relevant forms of barter in relation to betting on a poker game, I would be flat out ripping of the words of Steve Hofstetter.

An open mic comedian actually did try to pass of one of Hofstetter’s jokes as his own, only to be quickly called out by a loyal fan. I don’t know anything about that comedian, except that now he is always going to have that mark on his social grade effecting his long term record. Maybe he’ll learn his lesson and recover, and actually go on to write very successful material of his own, but he’s always going to have the ghost of that mistake following him; especially if he tries to get work at one of the clubs owned by the aforementioned comedian he stole from.

If stealing another comedian’s work is career suicide, why is it acceptable for someone to tweet, meme, or include a joke in their forum signatures without citing the source? We cite the names of authors, the titles of books and songs, but it seems like comedians are fair game. And some people actually don’t see the problem of stealing and passing along their jokes, without giving credit where credit is due.

I won’t preach. I will invite you to join the recent Twitter movement, sparked by Steve Hofstetter, to speak out if you also believe that plagiarism of any kind is unacceptable, whether you’re a comedian, a writer, a singer, or any kind of artist that wants to be properly known for your work. Please use the hashtag #JokesArentFree and don’t turn joke thieves into online celebrities with book deals.

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