Joke theft

Joke theft is the act of performing and taking credit for comic material written by another person without their consent. This is a form of plagiarism and can, in some cases, be copyright infringement.


  • 1 History
    • 1.1 Vaudeville years
    • 1.2 1970s
    • 1.3 1990s
    • 1.4 2000s and 2010s
  • 2 In other media
  • 3 Recourse and consequences
  • 4 Transcreation
  • 5 References
  • 6 Further reading


Vaudeville years[edit]

In music halls and vaudeville, it was common for performers to “borrow” material. According to Milton Berle, etiquette only required that “the borrower add to the joke and make it his own”.[1] At the time there were few chances that a performer from one area would meet one from another and a single twenty-minute set could sustain a comic for a decade. Most jokes at the time were one-liners and there was little in the way of proof of a joke’s origin, but the value of each joke was immeasurable to a comedian.[2]
Berle and Bob Hope had a long-standing feud due to Hope’s accusation that Milton Berle had stolen some of his jokes.[2] Berle never disputed the claim, but instead embraced the title “The Thief of Bad Gag”.

Even the most famous of comics have found themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, stealing material. Bill Cosby admitted to stealing a joke by George Carlin involving an uneducated football player doing a television commercial. Cosby said that what makes the routine his own is the surreal phrase “little tiny hairs”.[3][4] Many years later, Carlos Mencia performed a bit about athletes and their parents that hearkened back to a Cosby bit from his album Bill Cosby: Himself.


In the 1970s, joke theft became more prominent with the boom in popularity of comedy. The 1980s and 1990s saw the popularity of stand-up comedy continue to increase. The advent of pay-cable networks afforded comics the opportunity to perform their routines unfettered. With this came a new type of joke theft in which the first comic to tell a stolen joke on some sort of media became the one associated with the joke.

Several comics accused Robin Williams of stealing their material. David Brenner claimed that he confronted Williams personally and threatened him with bodily harm if he heard Williams utter another one of his jokes.[5]


For many years, Denis Leary had been friends with fellow comedian Bill Hicks. However, when Hicks heard Leary’s 1993 album No Cure For Cancer, he felt Leary had stolen his act and material, and the friendship ended abruptly as a result.[6] At least three stand-up comedians have gone on the record stating they believe Leary stole not just some of Hicks’ material but his persona and attitude.[6][7][8][9] As a result of this, it is claimed that after Hicks’ death from pancreatic cancer, an industry joke began to circulate about Leary’s transformation and subsequent success (roughly; “Question: Why is Denis Leary a star while Bill Hicks is unknown? Answer: Because there’s no cure for cancer”).[9]

In a 2008 appearance on The Opie and Anthony Show, comedian Louis C.K. claimed that Leary stole his “I’m an asshole” routine, which was then expanded upon and turned into a hit song by Leary.[1] On a later episode of the same show, Leary challenged this assertion by claiming that he (Leary) co-wrote the song with Chris Phillips.[2]

In his memoir Gasping for Airtime, Jay Mohr admitted that he lifted an entire routine from Rick Shapiro’s act for a 1995 Saturday Night Live sketch. He stated that Shapiro sued the show and was financially compensated, but Shapiro later disputed that he received any compensation.[10]

2000s and 2010s[edit]

Louis C.K. has maintained a relatively quiet rivalry with Dane Cook over three bits on Cook’s album, Retaliation, that allegedly bear some resemblance to three bits on C.K.’s album Live in Houston. C.K. and Cook portray this rivalry with comedy and sincerity in an episode of C.K.’s series Louie.[11]

George Lopez has accused Carlos Mencia of plagiarizing his material and claimed that the two once had a physical altercation over the alleged plagiarism.[12] However, fellow comedian Ted Sarnowski countered this claim and stated that it was he, not Lopez, who had originally penned the joke and that he had given Mencia permission to use it when he discovered that Lopez had stolen it.[13]

In France, many famous stand-up comedians (Gad Elmaleh, Jamel Debbouze, Tomer Sisley, Didier Bourdon, Malik Bentalha, Mickael Quiroga, Yacine Belhousse, Arthur [fr], Michel Leeb, Walter [fr], Rémi Gaillard, Roland Magdane, Michael Youn, Mathieu Madénian, Olivier de Benoist) have been accused of plagiarism by the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube account CopyComic. [14][15]

In 2011, Australia’s Got Talent contestant Jordan Paris presented an act of stand-up comedy and quickly proceeded to the semi-finals.[16] However, it was later revealed that he had plagiarised his jokes from comedians Lee Mack and Geoff Keith. The television network gave him a chance to redeem himself and allowed him to compete in the semi-finals using his own material. Paris’ effort this time was self-deprecating, joking about his plagiarism and his large teeth. The first joke went well, but the rest went downhill. It was later found out that the joke that went well – “I just sacked my two writers – Copy and Paste” – had been done in 2009 by comedian Jeffrey Ross, about Brad Garrett, at a roast of Joan Rivers. Ross had said, “This guy has two writers, their names are Cut and Paste.”[17]

In January 2012, blogger and comedian Troy Holm was ridiculed on the social networking site Facebook[18] for stealing jokes and stories from comedian Doug Stanhope and posting them to his blog from 2010, claiming them as his own work,[19] including Stanhope’s “Fuck someone uglier than you” routine,[20] which was found on Stanhope’s Acid Bootleg.[21] Troy Holm also plagiarized Stanhope’s story of an encounter with a transsexual prostitute[22] nearly verbatim, substituting himself as Stanhope, and changing a few small details,[23] causing a backlash from Stanhope’s fans. This catapulted Troy Holm into an internet icon which started the “Occupy Troy Holm” Movement.[18] Stanhope commented on the Occupy Troy Holm Facebook page that “To the few people who seem to think this is overboard…and it is…I don’t think that you know the levels to which this guy has been ripping me off. He didn’t take a tit-fuck joke and use it as a status update. He’s been living my entire life as though it was his, changing some names and then promoting with twitters… Look at his site and most the entirety of it is me, including the comments where he uses my stuff to pass as his own conversation. And on Twitter. So who is he ripping off for that stuff that isn’t mine?”[18]

As part of his website Stewart Lee hosts Plagiarists Corner where he cites examples from indivduals such as Jack Whitehall, Ricky Gervais, Clint Eastwood and even himself, as using material similar to his own.

In other media[edit]

Joke theft is not limited to stand-up comedy. Often jokes in film and television shows are taken from comics or even other media.
Dick Cavett wrote about joke theft in his autobiography. He’d written a bit about eating Chinese-German food and, an hour later, being hungry for power. After a few days of performing the bit, he discovered a column by Earl Wilson which attributed the joke to Rip Taylor. However, after calling Taylor to ask him to stop using the bit, he discovered that not only had Taylor never performed the bit, he had never even heard it and laughed heartily at the joke’s humor. It was then that Cavett discovered that some journalists often falsely attribute jokes to the wrong comics.[24]

Cavett and Woody Allen often cited to each other the many instances of their jokes appearing in television shows without their permission, sometimes even falsely attributed to each other. Allen’s jokes, when he still lacked access to television, were regularly stolen by top mainstream shows The Red Skelton Show and Laugh In.[25]

Several episodes of The Simpsons, including “Missionary: Impossible”, “Treehouse of Horror XIII” and “The Italian Bob” have poked fun at Family Guy, implying that MacFarlane’s show is guilty of stealing jokes and premises from The Simpsons. However, the producers of both shows have said that there is no serious feud between the two of them and their shows.[26][27]

In 2017 the Australian television show host Grant Denyer was interviewed on the radio programme The Grill Team, which is on 2MMM. In the interview, The Grill Team's co-host Matty Johns told an amusing anecdote about introducing a child to the board game Test Match. Later that morning, Grant Denyer was interviewed on the radio programme The Kyle and Jackie O Show, which is on KIIS 106.5. In that interview, he told the same anecdote about Test Match, passing it off as his own.[28]

Recourse and consequences[edit]

There is, historically, very little legal recourse taken in cases of joke theft. Some comics, however, have chosen to exact their own justice. W. C. Fields reportedly paid fifty dollars to have a thieving comic’s legs broken.[2]

“You have a better chance of stopping a serial killer than a serial thief in comedy,” said comedian David Brenner. “If we could protect our jokes, I’d be a retired billionaire in Europe somewhere – and what I just said is original.”[29]

According to a 2018 study in the American Sociological Review, “most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous, owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery,” and it observes that accusations of joke theft can reflect peers’ perceptions of a suspicious comic’s membership in the stand-up community and overall craft as much as the similarity between jokes.[30]


In 2014, an academic paper called transcreation [31] a literary technique used by Italian comedian Daniele Luttazzi, one of the most corrosive and influential Italian stand-up comedians (in 2002 he was among the targets of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Editto Bulgaro): Luttazzi adds references to famous comedians’ jokes to his work as a defense against the million-euro lawsuits he has to face because of his satire. For example, in March 2012 Luttazzi won a legal battle against La7 broadcasting company, which in 2007 abruptly closed his late show “Decameron”, accusing him, among other charges, of plagiarism from Bill Hicks. Sentence: It was original satire, not plagiarism. Luttazzi got 1 million 2 hundred thousand euros as compensation. [32] He calls this ruse “the Lenny Bruce trick” (named for the comic of same name). In 2010, a smear campaign accused him of plagiarism [33][34], but, in a personal blog entry published five years prior, Luttazzi himself offered his blog readers a prize if they were able to identify a “nugget” (i.e. a reference to a famous joke), calling the game a “treasure hunt”.[35] Luttazzi also calls the charges “naive”, explaining why those jokes are not “plagiarized”, but “calqued”, which is a fair use of original material. He uses a joke by Emo Philips to prove that the meaning of a joke depends on its context.[36] Luttazzi’s blog lists all the comedians and writers quoted in his works.[36]


  • ^ a b Berle, Milton (1989) Private joke file, Introduction, p. xxiii, quotation: .mw-parser-output .templatequote{overflow:hidden;margin:1em 0;padding:0 40px}.mw-parser-output .templatequote .templatequotecite{line-height:1.5em;text-align:left;padding-left:1.6em;margin-top:0}

    Of course, in the days of vaudeville, it wasn’t uncommon for a performer to “borrow” a joke from another performer. Etiquette demanded only that the borrower add to the joke and make it his own. Bert Williams, a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, pilfered a story about fish and added enough laughs to turn it into a classic fifteen-minute routine. Naturally, that routine happens to be in my file.

  • ^ a b c d Larry Getlen (14 February 2007). “Take the Funny and Run”. Radar. Archived from the original on 17 February 2007. Retrieved 12 January cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background-image:url(“//”);background-image:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//”);background-repeat:no-repeat;background-size:9px;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background-image:url(“//”);background-image:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//”);background-repeat:no-repeat;background-size:9px;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background-image:url(“//”);background-image:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//”);background-repeat:no-repeat;background-size:9px;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background-image:url(“//”);background-image:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url(“//”);background-repeat:no-repeat;background-size:12px;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}
  • ^ Welkos, Robert W. (24 July 2007). “Funny, that was my joke”. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 21 December 2008. Retrieved 27 November 2009.
  • ^ Cosby, Bill (1 June 2009). Late Show with David Letterman – Bill Cosby’s Race Against George Carlin (TV). CBS. Retrieved 27 November 2009.
  • ^ Richard Zoglin (2008). Comedy at the Edge. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1582346243.
  • ^ a b Kevin Booth and Michael Bertin (2005). Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-719829-0.
  • ^ Joe Rogan (2005). “Carlos Mencia is a weak minded joke thief”. Archived from the original on 18 December 2005. Retrieved 28 October 2006.
  • ^ Rogan, Joe (October 2003). “Joe Rogan answers 20 Questions”. Playboy Magazine (Interview).
  • ^ a b Tim McIntire (1998). “Dark Times: Bill Hicks: Frequently Asked Questions”. Archived from the original on 20 March 2006. Retrieved 28 October 2006.
  • ^ Mohr, Jay (2004). Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live. Hyperion Books. pp. 276–79. ISBN 978-1401300067.
  • ^ Sean L. McCarthy (26 October 2011). “Dane Cook confronts Louis CK in an honest way about joke theft. Read the transcript, watch the video!”. The Comic’s Comic. Retrieved 12 December 2011.
  • ^ Goldyn, Debra (2 May 2007). “Is Carlos Mencia a thief?”. Advocate. University of Colorado at Denver. Archived from the original on 7 October 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-14.
  • ^ Kozlowski, Carl (29 March 2007). “Carlos Mencia Just Said That”. Los Angeles CityBeat. Archived from the original on 16 February 2008. Retrieved 14 July 2007.
  • ^ Henry Samuel (2019). “France’s top stand-up comics outed for plagiarising US counterparts”. The Telegraph. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  • ^ anonymous (2019). “CopyComic”. anonymous. Retrieved 27 August 2019.
  • ^ Waters, G 2011, ‘Australia’s Got Plagiarism: rip-off comic exposed’, Brisbane Times 26 May 2011
  • ^ Nancarrow, D 2011, ‘Oops. He did it again: Rip-off comic plunders joke about plagiarism’, Brisbane Times, 29 June 2010,
  • ^ a b c “Occupy Troy Holm”. Facebook. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  • ^ [1]
  • ^ “Fuck Someone Ugly”. 13 July 2010. Archived from the original on 3 January 2012. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  • ^ “ACID Bootleg – Doug Stanhope – Listen and discover music at”. 26 June 2012. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  • ^ Sicko (album)
  • ^ [2]
  • ^ Dick Cavett, Christopher Porterfield (1974). Cavett. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pp. 227–228. ISBN 978-0151161300.
  • ^ “Shecky! Interview: Dick Cavett!”. Retrieved 11 July 2012. quotation:

    Woody’s best lines would show up, while he was still confined to little Village clubs, on the Red Skelton show and that alleged entertainment, Laugh-In.

  • ^ Nathan Rabin (26 April 2006). “Interview: Matt Groening”. The A.V. Club. Onion Inc. Retrieved 12 December 2006. The rivalry is very affectionate…
  • ^ “Family Guy Timeline at”. You know, it’s funny. Matt Groening and I actually have a great relationship…
  • ^ Cohen, Leah (28 January 2017). “Grant Denyer Banned From Triple M and KIIS FM Radio Stations For Stealing Story”. Yahoo7Be. Yahoo!7. Archived from the original on 11 November 2017. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  • ^ Welkos, Robert W. (24 July 2007). “Funny, that was my joke”. Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 10 May 2017.
  • ^ Reilly, Patrick (17 August 2018). “No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy”. American Sociological Review. 83 (5): 933–958. doi:10.1177/0003122418791174. ISSN 0003-1224.
  • ^ Caimotto, M.Cristina. “Transcreating a New Kind of Humor: the case of Daniele Luttazzi”. Retrieved 5 August 2017.
  • ^ “Luttazzi vince la causa contro La7”. 10 March 2012. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  • ^ “La Rete contro Luttazzi: “Copia” I dubbi dei fan, il tam-tam cresce –”. 9 June 2010. Retrieved 9 June 2010.
  • ^ “Luttazzi copia – Parte 1”. Archived from the original on 12 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
  • ^ Luttazzi, Daniele. “Caccia al tesoro”.
  • ^ a b “Tutti i post”. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  • Cinema / television / video

    • Video mashup
    • Re-cut trailer
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    • Remake
    • Parody film
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    conceptsRelated artistic

    • Originality
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    • Genius (literature)
    • Genre
    • Genre studies
    • Parody advertisement
    • In-joke
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    and forms

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    • L.H.O.O.Q. (1919)
    • “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939)
    • Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010)


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    Related non-
    artistic concepts

    • Cultural appropriation
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    • Academic dishonesty
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    Further reading[edit]

    • Oswalt, Patton (14 June 2014). “A Closed Letter to Myself About Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes”. Patton Oswalt. Patton Oswalt. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
    • McDonald, Soraya Nadia (28 July 2015). “Joke theft isn’t new. Joke theft via Twitter? That’s just the latest wrinkle”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 3 February 2019.
    • Yim, Celeste (19 May 2017). “Male Plagiarism in Comedy Is No Joke: Comedy is a boy’s club, and joke thieves prove it”. Vice. Retrieved 3 February 2019.


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