Years ago, I had a joke in my set about Islamic Martyrs: “They get 72 virgins in Heaven,” I would say in a confused voice. “How is that Heaven? Virgins are awkward and untalented and don’t know what they’re doing. Wouldn’t men want 72 whores? Professionals, women that know what they’re doing, have tricks in their arsenal and aren’t afraid to take control of a situation and really give it to you? It’s why you never see female martyrs; no woman wants a man that’s going to blow his load during foreplay.”
It always got a laugh, but as I soon discovered, was such an easy premise that many other comedians were doing a similar variation of the joke; a version even ended up on the television show Rescue Me.
Seeing that, I immediately dropped the bit from my routine.
I still try to avoid universal topics—traffic, politics, whatever celebrity is in the news at any given moment—but every so often slip into a moment where I spit out a thought that is too common to be original. What’s odd is, I once had a comic accuse me of stealing something so old it made me ashamed that I had actually spewed forth the sentence from my mouth. I was also stunned by the fact he was trying to defend his authorship of the idea.
The “joke” itself was a simple one-off sentence about the weather, and how weathermen always get it wrong. That day, I had left my car windows open because it was sunny out and the weatherman had said the night before: “Clear skies all week!” Unfortunately, clouds rolled in and rain drenched the interior of my car. I mentioned it on stage saying, “It must be great being a weatherman; you screw up 90% of the time, but never get fired.”
It wasn’t even a joke; it’s something normal people say in casual conversation. Even worse, it wasn’t even a part of my act. I had only said it because it happened; the irritation of driving while sitting on hotel towels was on my mind.
After my set, the other comic approached me and said, “You know I have a bit about weathermen that is almost exactly like yours…” He arched an eyebrow and paused, giving me a look and insinuating I had been watching his act and stolen the line from him.
As I was in a club new to me and he was the old dog there—a man who golfed with the owner and drank with the manager—I apologized profusely. It was an accident, I told him, which was the truth: I honestly did not mean to step on his toes, and I really should have watched his act to make sure I stayed away from any of his core jokes. But I still wondered what made him need to puff his chest and defend a throwaway comment that was in no way, shape, or form original to him.
It has always been odd to me when, standing in a comedy club watching a comedian do an unoriginal variation of a pop culture icon—OJ Simpson, The Croc Hunter, Monica Lewinski, etc.—another comic tells me in full seriousness, “That guy up there stole my bit.”
Really? Did Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel, et al, did they steal your bit, too?
Unfortunately, there are people in this business who will embezzle material. I don’t just mean the Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia stories you’ve heard, I mean unknowns who at regular comedy clubs; people who slowly take jokes from other comics they work with.
I remember the first time I realized I had been hacked, that a joke had been stolen from me. It was years ago, and I had just finished performing in a city in Iowa. After the show, a man with a wide smile and drunken laugh approached me amiably, slapping me on the back in congratulations of an excellent set and saying, “I heard you on The Bob & Tom Show the other week!” He then mentioned a joke I had just done on stage, and how he had heard “me” do it on the radio last week.
The problem was, at that point in my career I hadn’t been on that particular show yet. Unlike the weatherman comment, my act was now about stories personal to me, my life. That meant someone was taking a piece of my life and pretending it was theirs.
I was frustrated, but what could I do? I didn’t hear the program, the man didn’t remember the other comic’s name, so I was left knowing that someone out there had stolen a joke of mine and done it on a nationally-syndicated radio show. In essence, it was now his. He would be credited with the joke, and if I did it again people would think I stole it.
Another time, a comic I knew—someone I considered a casual friend—did a line of mine with me right in the room. He did a somewhat different set up, but the punchine was mine; he stole the sentence, cadence and inflection verbatim.
I had dropped the bit a few years prior, so while it bothered me to discover what kind of person he was, it didn’t affect me professionally. But I did wonder: at what point do you lose your soul in this business? When does being a comedian go from self-expression to saying whatever possible in order to get a laugh?
Maybe I hold the art form to too high a standard, and think others should feel the same way I do even though it’s obvious they do not.
What’s hilariously ironic regarding the comedian who said I stole a weatherman comment from him is: at the end of our week together, he gave me some notes on my act, some suggestions on how to generate bigger laughs.
One of his suggestions involved lying to the audience.
I tell personal stories about my life, and one of them involves performing for the troops in Iraq. I tell a story about being in front of the Oklahoma National Guard, and because that’s how it happened, that’s how I tell the story. The comic suggested I always use the state I was in, to fire up the locals.
“When you’re in Wisconsin, say it was the Wisconsin National Guard. When you’re in Florida, say it was the Florida National Guard. People get a kick out of hearing about their state, and you’ll get a huge laugh every time.”
I smiled and thanked him for the suggestion, and even went so far as to nod my head and say, thoughtfully, “Yeah… I’ve never thought about it like that.”
But I had thought about that. It is something I thought about from my first years in comedy after working with a comedian who used that very unoriginal trick to open his own shows. I remember the man well, because he had me fired from a club so he could work with a friend of his. I had driven 4 hours to perform, got one show under my belt, and received a phone call the next day: “Heard the audience didn’t like you; I’m going to let you go.”
I was stunned.
The show the night before had only fifteen audience members, and in full candor none of the comedians had generated much laughter. Had I done fantastic? No. Had I been awful? No. Had the headliner generated more laughs than me? No. The audience had been as indifferent to him as they had me and the opening comic.
It was only a few weeks later when local comics from the town informed me what had actually happened regarding the headliner and his interest in hanging with his friend all week.
But that’s beside the point; the comedian in question opened his show with, “You people in [insert generic location here], you’re crazy drivers! Do you even know what the difference between red, yellow, and green is??”
He yelled this in an over-the-top manner, trying to mimic Lewis Black.
I saw the comedian work several cities, and each and every time the people in that particular city were the “craziest drivers in the world.”
It disgusted me, that someone would pander so blatantly in order to try and win the audience over, and I vowed to draw people in using my material, and not try to make them like me by trying to make them like me.
So years later, when it was suggested to me I cater to an audience’s ego using cheap tricks, I winced.
I get on stage to try and turn my thoughts into laughter, and I want those thoughts to be original. My job first and foremost is to entertain the audience, but if something isn’t working, I feel it is better to drop it and write different material, not reduce what I’ve written to the realm of lowest common denominator to make it “work.”
Will this hold me back?
I hope not.
Yes, some of the most popular comedians are millionaires because cater to stupidity in the American public. But I believe there are niche markets out there for every performer, and even if I don’t launch to “Blue Collar” heights, I’ll be able to find a group of people who support and like what I do enough so I can pay my mortgage and provide for my wife and daughter.
Here’s to crossing fingers.