Joke Stealing Is No Laughing Matter, Comedians Say It's not uncommon for comedians to borrow punchlines from other stand-up routines — but some say this practice of "joke-jacking" is becoming more common among big-name entertainers. Comedy writer Larry Getlen and stand-up comic Ralphie May discuss how comedians generate material that is both funny and original.
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Joke Stealing Is No Laughing Matter, Comedians Say

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Joke Stealing Is No Laughing Matter, Comedians Say

Joke Stealing Is No Laughing Matter, Comedians Say

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Well, have you heard this one? Two comedians walked into a comedy club. One guy gets up on stage and tells a joke. The audience laughs. Then later, the other guy gets up and he tells the same joke. You're not laughing. Well, neither are the comics. It's no joke when one stand-up accuses another of ripping of material, yet it's common practice.

In a piece for Radar magazine's February issue, comedy writer Larry Getlen described how some of the biggest names in the business have built careers on pilfered punch lines. Joke-jackers, he wrote, are as common as exposed brick walls and liquored-up hecklers.

But does anybody actually own a joke? What's the big deal if somebody else uses it, and how do comics protect their best laugh lines? If you're in the business as a writer or as a stand-up, give us a call. The number: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you could also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program, an appeal for veterans to contribute more than medals and memorabilia - museums want their stories.

But first, intellectual property rights night at the improv.

Larry Getlen joins us from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. LARRY GETLEN (Comedian; Writer; Author "Take the Funny and Run"): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And let's listen to two jokes that sound, well, very, very similar. Here's comedian Louis C.K., performing a naming joke.

Mr. LOUIS C.K. (Comedian): I'd like to give my kids an interesting name, you know. Like a name with no vowels, maybe, you know? Just like (unintelligible) -just like 40 Fs, that's his name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C.K: Ffffffffffff…

CONAN: And here's comedian Dane Cook.

Mr. DANE COOK (Comedian): I already have names picked out, I didn't even know. First kid - boy, girl, I don't care. The first one that comes out, I'm naming it Rrrrrrrrrrrr(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOK: I think it's beautiful. It's feminine, but strong at the same time. Time for bed, Rrrrrrrrrrrr.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And, Larry Getlen, that's the same joke.

Mr. GETLEN: It is very, very scarily similar, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. GETLEN: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. I guess it's remotely conceivable that on the same evening, those two comedians had the same idea.

Mr. GETLEN: Ah, it is remotely conceivable. They are both, I believe, from the same town, both Boston guys; very good chance they were in the same club at the same night. So it's really not clear what happened there. It is pretty much acknowledged that Louis was telling the joke publicly first, his joke…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GETLEN: …before Dane was. You know, it's a weird thing to come out and just accuse a comic of stealing a joke because there are so many jokes written independently that are the same joke. In this case, those are pretty unique premises. So I think the doubt is definitely there.

CONAN: Okay. Now, what happens if for, just for example, if Louis C.K. thinks Dane Cook ripped him off?

Mr. GETLEN: Well, in this case, what happens is nothing because Louis wrote on a bulletin board something to the effect of, yeah, that does sound like my joke. Just so you know, I'm not going to do anything. I guess he didn't feel that it was worth going to court over something like this. But then again, comedians never do.

CONAN: There's no comedians' court that he has requested?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GETLEN: Well, you know, there's a court of public opinion. But there really isn't because this is the kind of thing were so many jokes are written so similarly. So many comedians come from the same influences. You know, so many of us grew up listening to George Carlin or enjoying Andy Kaufman, you know? So comedians really come up with a similar mindset and see the world through a very similar prism, in many cases.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GETLEN: So it's not - that's why it's not uncommon for them to write the same joke independently.

CONAN: Well, particularly, if in some new topical situation something happens, and there are a few, well, given that lens that people see things through, fairly obvious takes on it.

Mr. GETLEN: Exactly. Exactly. And not just topical stuff but family things as well, you know? If you come from a crazy family, it's not unusual for you to kind of come up with the same joke from a certain situation.

CONAN: We're talking with Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and entertainment journalist who wrote an article for Radar magazine about the culture of joke-stealing in the world of stand-up comedy.

If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And let's talk with John(ph). John's on the line with us from Buffalo, New York.

JOHN (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

JOHN: That's good. Well, I do improve comedy here in Buffalo, and there are times when you're up on stage and you're presented with a scenario, and you're racking your brain for something, and you actually, you know, do, you know, at times steal a joke that you've heard from a fellow comic, a friend. I mean, you just steal it because you're grasping and you're reaching, and the first thing you grab is what you use, and sometimes it happens to be a previous joke. And you don't mean to do it, but there it is.

CONAN: Do you ever fess up?

JOHN: Well, if it's amongst the group that I work with - and we know our inside jokes, so if we steal one, we know it. And if it's a comedic joke, a joke from a comic - if it's recognized, I'll fess up, but, well, at times, it just slides through.

CONAN: Aha. Okay. And so do you see anything ethically wrong with that? I mean, in extremis, when you're on stage dying, if you will…

JOHN: Well, no, because of the joy of improv, you just sort of - you're stretching your brain and you're reaching for things. And if you grab it, it's not meant. You're not purposely doing it. You're not trying to steal it. You're not using it for, of, you know, like, betterment of your career. It's just -help that scene out a little bit better.

CONAN: All right, John.

JOHN: And if it worked out, then cool. And I would think they'd appreciate the nod to their work.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And, Larry Getlen, it sounds like he might almost be describing, well, the comic you say is the greatest stoke - joke-stealer of modern times, Robin Williams.

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah. With one major difference, though. John isn't keeping those jokes in his set. From what he described, when he accidentally tells someone else's joke, he realizes that - he realizes what he did and doesn't do it again. Certain comics like Robin Williams - he has taken jokes or reportedly taken jokes over the years, but then kept them in the set or told them again. That's where the problem, I think, comes in.

CONAN: Where people's complaints about him would come in. In terms of intellectual property rights, does anybody own a joke? Can you copyright it?

Mr. GETLEN: Well, I'm not a lawyer, so I hate being - giving an official opinion on something like that, but I think legally there's probably a very good case that when you write a joke, you automatically own a joke, which is normally how it would work in copyright. But, you know, then there's a question of this is the kind of thing where different people write the same joke separately. So who owns that? That's a question for a lawyer, but I think that would get very confusing, which is why cases like this have not gone to court…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GETLEN: …or probably one of the reasons why.

CONAN: It's also difficult to, I guess, explain how a joke makes all that much difference in your professional life. What's the harm?

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah. Well, it's - again, yes. It's difficult to assess the actual value of a joke. You know, if a joke is 30 seconds and you're doing an hour routine, how much - what is the value of that? Yes. It would be very difficult to figure out.

CONAN: Could you prorate it? If he'd hired a writer, the writers charge X amount per hour or - I know in the old days, Woody Allen used to sell jokes, for example, to "Your Show of Shows."

Mr. GETLEN: Yes. And if you use the amount that someone is paid for writing a joke as the basis of this, then it certainly would never be worth it to sue…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GETLEN: …because they don't get paid that much per joke.

CONAN: Joining us now is comedian Ralphie May, currently touring across the country. He stopped by member station WDUQ in Pittsburgh to join us today.

Good of you to take the time, and nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. RALPHIE MAY (Comedian): Thank you. It's great to be here. It's my first time on NPR. That's awesome.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. I wonder, have you had jokes stolen from you?

Mr. MAY: Of course. Of course. You know, but as a comic, when you get along in years - I've been doing stand-up for 18 years - you get to a point where the little jokes, it doesn't matter. I mean, you'll see people taking your whole style, and that's such a much bigger violation. And not only mine, I mean, mine's, you know, kind of rudimentary, but guys that have certain style such as Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg and Dane Cook, you know, certain indelible styles are, I think that's more of a personal rip-off than the actual joke per joke.

CONAN: So in that sense, they're stealing not so much their jokes, they're stealing their act.

Mr. MAY: They're stealing the persona…

CONAN: Yeah. But there's…

Mr. MAY: …and that's way more personal.

CONAN: Larry Getlen?

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah. There's another factor there which complicates it even further, in that when a comic is new and still trying to find his voice, a lot of times what they naturally do is just kind of assume the persona of their idols because that's all they know of comedy…

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. GETLEN: …so it's not unusual at all for a comic to sound now like Mitch Hedberg or like Dane Cook, not because they're stealing it but because that's what they think comedy is. And it often takes a couple of years for them to learn more about themselves as a comic and for that to kind of float away and for their own style to develop. So in that case, it's almost inevitable that there's going to be certain comics who are so distinctive - people are going to sound like them. I know that there's a whole generation of comics who sounded like David Attell for a while because he…

Mr. MAY: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GETLEN: …was then the really hot comic and everyone was like, they wanted to be Attell. I mean, after a couple of years, their own style develops. That makes it even more complicated. Is that theft? Probably not.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we get some more callers in on the conversation. This is Jim(ph). Jim's with us from Holland in Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Hi. I'm curious who would own the rights to old standards, like why did the chicken cross the road? Is that based on performance, if someone has a particularly strong rendition of that joke, or if any…

Mr. GETLEN: I would think that would be the joke equivalent to public domain at this point.

JIM: Mm-hmm. So, with…

Mr. MAY: In stand-up, we'd call it stock. There's certain stock lines that, you know, like heckler lines, you know, like, where did you learn to whisper, a helicopter, you know? Nobody owns those. I mean, someone first wrote it but it's been so universally used that it's common and it's called stock.

CONAN: Hmm. So, I guess the answer to your question, Jim, is anybody with the nerve to say it.

JIM: All right. Thanks so much.

Mr. MAY: Yeah.

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah.

Mr. MAY: If you're a real stocky and hacky comedian like that, you don't get much respect in the comedy world.

CONAN: And I suspect, you know don't have to worry much about people stealing your material either.

Mr. MAY: No, no, because it's already been done. But you know, oddly enough, is that those are the most popular comedians in America.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right. Here's…

Mr. MAY: …I mean, that as far as working every day and crowd-pleasing, those are the guys that, you know, are in the trenches and, yeah, they're like boat acts and casino acts and stuff like that.

CONAN: We're talking about where comedians get their jokes and who, if anyone, owns their material. More with Larry Getlen and Ralphie May in a moment, and more of your calls. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail, that address is talk@npr.org. And you can join in on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about a serious side of stand-up comedy. Joke-jacking, as Larry Getlen joined it, who writes the jokes, who, if anyone, owns them and who is ripping off who?

Here's an e-mail we got from Danielle(ph) at Griffith University. I just wanted to say that I often feel for comedians, really. Singers can sing somebody else's song and call it a cover. But even if you reference it, you can't tell someone else's joke. If you see Bon Jovi and they don't play "Livin' on a Prayer," you're devastated. But if you see a comedian and they do something you've already seen them do on TV, you feel ripped off. When I see comedians, I often hope they'll do a joke I really like because I like to see it live, but I think I'm in the minority here.

Our guests are Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and entertainment journalist, and Ralphie May, a comedian who's currently touring the country. His latest DVD is called "Prime Cut."

And Larry Getlen, I think that e-mail writer was getting to something there. Jokes, especially jokes if they're seen on TV, are only usable once.

Mr. GETLEN: Well, I'm not sure that's completely true. I mean, there are certain jokes that people want to hear again, certain favorite routines. But yeah, it's difficult because it's incredibly hard for comics to develop new material, and I don't know if people really understand that.

To use George Carlin as an example, I - he does an HBO special every two years. The period in between - and now, actually more than that, but he did it every two years in his heyday. But in those two years in between, he would spend all that time developing a new hour for the next special. So if it takes George Carlin two years to develop a solid hour, what's it going to take most comics?

It's not easy developing new, strong material so, you know, it's not like a comic can go out and do a different hour every night.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GETLEN: So they're kind of stuck in that - yes, if you go see a comic again and again, you're going to hear jokes that you've heard before.

CONAN: Ralphie May, is this something that you can empathize with, the rate at which material is burned up is ferocious.

Mr. MAY: Yeah, that's the biggest thing is you can't un-ring the bell once the general public has heard it. Like, once I do it as a special - I tape two in one night - I burn all that material off and just start it fresh, start at anew. And here, you know, 16 months later, I'm ready to do two more specials. And it's - but that's definitely not the norm, and that didn't happen overnight. That's 18 years of working ferociously and getting to know who I am, and having the confidence that everything I say can - will be funny if I choose it to be so. And I think that that's the biggest thing with comedians is that, you know, when you steal a joke - and everybody goes, oh, it's just a joke.

But if it takes you - if you write 15 to 20 minutes a year, if you're lucky -and a lot of very, very popular comedians around the country can't write five new minutes a year. They - when you get three of those minutes stolen, that's stolen equivalent of like six months of your work, after you've honed these bits and you've got them down, you got these jokes done. And then, there's also other jokes that you just don't care about, like I wrote a joke yesterday that I'm sure will be - if it hasn't already been done, it will be done soon, which is, I heard that Lance Armstrong and Ashley Olsen are dating. You think that's because he misses twins, you know? It's just the easy joke that's out there is so subtle. I know someone's going to have it…

CONAN: All right. Let's…

Mr. MAY: …you know, eventually, and that's why you can't do the obvious joke. You have to go a little deeper and go - and make it personalized to where it's you and only your voice.

Mr. GETLEN: There's another aspect to this, which really annoyed me when I was researching the story. On a lot of the fan bulletin boards, there were discussions of different comics and whether they had stolen jokes. And, you know, some of the fans were saying, yes, he definitely stole, it's terrible. And then, there were a lot of fans who would write and say, I don't care if he stole a joke. He's the best performer. Who cares if - who wrote the joke? He performs it the best. As if people are saying, well, it doesn't matter, you know he's - let the other comic lose that joke. This guy did it, you know, the best. Well, it's crazy.

CONAN: That's the point of this e-mail we got from Michael(ph) in Portland, Oregon. It strikes me that delivery is as much, if not more, of a trademark than the joke itself. It reminds me of the prison joke - new inmate checks in. And after the lights are out, someone down the cellblock yells, 42, and everyone laughs. Soon, another inmate yells, 36, and once again everyone laughs. The new inmate asks his cell mate, Bubba(ph), what it's all about.

Bubba explains that everybody knows all of the jokes, so to save time they've just assigned numbers to the jokes. The new inmate thinks for a while and he yells out, 59, no one laughs. He looks at Bubba and asks what's wrong. And Bubba replies, it's all in the way you say it.

Mr. GETLEN: Nice, nice, nice, nice. Yeah, well, you know, it is in the way you say it, but that doesn't give you permission to say someone else's thing. It's like, like if I see you have a jacket on and I try it on and everyone agrees that it looks much better on me than on you, and I go, great, it's my jacket now. Is that fair? I don't think so. I think it's the same thing.

CONAN: Let's get…

Mr. MAY: Exactly.

CONAN: Let's get William(ph) on the line. And William is calling us from Sacramento in California.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi. Nice subject today.

CONAN: Thanks.

WILLIAM: Hey, what about the - I just want to get their comments about there's a lot of flak about a recent comedian that was joke-stealing, and he was even called out by Joel Rogan and a big flak on YouTube. You saw video of it, saying that this comedian wasn't even of Hispanic descent and everything. I mean, it was pretty…

Mr. GETLEN: You're talking about Carlos Mencia?

WILLIAM: Yeah, exactly. I just want to see what they thought about that, and to what length? I mean, was Joe Rogan just trying to get his own publicity or is that something that a comedian should do if it's pretty blatant.

Mr. GETLEN: Well, Carlos is one of the people that I wrote about in the article. And I have to say, like, there were certain comics like - for example, Dennis Leary has been accused over the years of stealing jokes. And when I interviewed different people in comedy about it, it was very divided. You know, there were a lot of people who said, you know what? I knew Dennis in Boston and he was doing that stuff before. And then there were some people who thought he did steal, and it was mixed.

I really didn't get Carlos defenders that much, you know? There were - George Lopez, I think, attacked him at a club and talked about it on "Stern." There were a few others who, as soon as Carlos' name came up - and I did speak to Joe for the article as well - were really angry at him for it. So, you know, from what - from my research, from what I see, it does seem he's - he had taken some people's jokes. That's what it seems like. Ralph? What do you think?

Mr. MAY: You know, he - I got to be honest with you. I just stay out of this, the whole thing with these guys, is because they're both millionaires and shame on them for being in L.A. and not working on a Saturday night. But that on the Internet, that the previous e-mailer was - or the caller, rather - was talking about, happened over a joke that is - was so easy.

I mean, all the late-night talk shows did the same joke and stuff like that, but the only problem was that the guy who says that Carlos stole it from him happened to be opening for Carlos when he wrote it. And Carlos was exposed to it over a week and thus the rub. But I think that, you know, there's a lot to be taken in that as well, you know, as whether it's jealousy to a point over someone's success, and the person accused, like knowing that they're successful, but are they cool about being a success or they rub it in people's faces?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MAY: You know, that's one thing to steal a joke, you know what I mean? The old guys, if you'd go to the Friars Club, you know they all talked about Uncle Miltie, big joke thief, blah, blah, blah. And Miltie would say, yeah, I'm a thief, I'm a joke thief. But, you know, hey, I needed it and, you know, none of these guys ever really mattered.

And when I talked to Buddy Hackett about it, he is like, you know, he was very funny. He did what he did and he had hilarious attitude. We didn't really care. It's only the younger comics that get so wrapped up in it, you know? I think that Joe was not trying to get his own press. Joe vehemently believes in stand-up comedy in its purest form and also stridently works to protect the young comedians, and that's all he was doing with that. He thought that Carlos had victimized a younger comedian, a friend of his, Ari Shaffir, by taking his joke, and he had just had enough because no one does stand up.

I mean - and when Joe Rogan did stand up to Carlos, his agency dropped him. He was barred from the Comedy Store, a place that Rogan had donated over $8,000 in audio equipment to update the system for young comedians. And, you know these words and these good deeds don't get mentioned as much. People think it's just a crazy, vehemently, you know, witch hunt…

CONAN: No good trend goes unpunished, yeah.

Mr. MAY: …after Carlos.

CONAN: Yeah. William, thanks very much for the call.

WILLIAM: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got, this from J.D. I steal jokes all the time, otherwise I'm simply not funny. But I suspect probably not professionally, in any case.

Let's get another caller in. And this John(ph), and John's with us from Plymouth in Michigan.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, guys. Great show, great topic. I'm a professional magician. And if you want to talk about joke-stealing or, you know, we do sleight of hand, we do sleight-stealing, it is all over the place especially in the magic industry and it's especially hard to regulate since we're all trying to keep our stuff secret.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOHN: But…

CONAN: When you do sleight-stealing, you mean sleight of hand?

JOHN: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

JOHN: Exactly right. And so this particular move is attributed to such and such a magician. I just recently published this one, one magician might say, but, oh, wait, we found that one was published over 40 years ago.

CONAN: Hmm.

JOHN: So it's an even more difficult to regulate as a magician, because…

CONAN: And the individual tricks in a magic act, I guess, even stand out more prominently than, you know, the rapid-fire series of jokes in a comedian's act.

JOHN: Exactly, because of the things…

CONAN: Because there's fewer of them, yeah.

JOHN: One of the things people say is, well, there's nothing new in magic. I mean, how many ways can you find a selected card or, you know, change a coin into another coin? So as magicians, we're constantly striving to set ourselves apart, which is even more difficult, I think, for magicians than for stand-up comics because we have even more limited arsenal.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Interesting, and no copyright protection for you either?

JOHN: Well, there can be. I mean, if somebody has, you know, actually published such and such, we can always go back to find a copyright date. But then again, there's a company that's run out of Panama that republishes books whose copyrights have long expired. You can get these books for free because they are now in the public domain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. John…

Mr. GETLEN: If it's a - if it's a magic trick, since that's actual physical creation, wouldn't that be a patent issue?

JOHN: It's not always an actual physical apparatus. It can be a routine, or a sleight of hand or…

CONAN: Cutting a deck of cards is…

JOHN: Yes.

CONAN: …cutting a deck of cards.

JOHN: Right. Think of it more as like a theatrical performance.

Mr. GETLEN: I see.

CONAN: Okay.

JOHN: Yes. So then it can be more of a copyright issue.

CONAN: Right. Thanks very much for the call, John.

Let's see if we can go now to - this is Wayne and Wayne's with us from Philadelphia.

WAYNE (Caller): Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

WAYNE: Hey, real quick. Just recently, within the last couple of weeks, I heard an interview with David Brenner. And he told a story out - he used to be so upset that he would actually - he would write his jokes. He would write a movie script and have a character in it be a comedian who's saying the jokes, then he would copyright the movie script so nobody could steal it. I thought that was pretty smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's not bad.

Mr. MAY: That sounds like a lot of work.

WAYNE: It is.

CONAN: It's also - sounds like the…

WAYNE: (Unintelligible) realize that, and he doesn't do it anymore.

CONAN: Also sounds like the solution of a man with a lawyer on retainer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: I mean, to be that worried about a joke, I mean, wow. How narcissistic are you? Really? You're going to worry about a joke? You're going to spend, you know, six months with writing a movie script to have some guy tell a joke. That's a - that's (unintelligible).

Mr. GETLEN: That better be a really funny joke, wow.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MAY: Yeah, it better be like landmark, you know?

CONAN: I don't think it was anything involved in writing a good movie script. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: I guess you're right.

CONAN: Anyway, Wayne, thanks very much for the call.

WAYNE: Sure, no problem.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and entertainment journalist, and with stand-up comedian Ralphie May. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And, Ralphie May, I have to ask you, sometimes it's not so much you stealing material from somebody else. Tell us the story of the time that Sam Kinison offered you material.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: I was 17 and I was - given the opportunity, I won a talent show contest sponsored by a local radio station to have the opportunity to open for Sam, Sam Kinison, and I was excited. At that time, he was probably the biggest thing in stand-up comedy. He was making the rock 'n' roll. And on the ride over from the venue that had the contest to the ballroom at the University of Arkansas. He was like, kid, are you nervous? And I'm like, no. He goes, kid, there's thirty-five hundred people there and none of them paid to see you. And I'm like, okay. Wow.

Yeah, I started getting more nervous. And my anxiety built, and he goes, kid, do you have a closer? And I go, no, what's a closer? He goes, it's a big joke at the end of your show that, you know, really sets the audience off. And it makes you look great. I go, no. He goes, well, here, use my old one. What you need to do is just start cursing at the audience. The more you curse and scream at them, the more they'll love it. Really? He goes, yeah, really insult them. Okay.

I'm about four minutes in and I'm doing way better than I should have. I'm only supposed to do seven minutes. And I flipped a punch line in a set up and my joke bombs. And then, I do another joke and I don't have the confidence to pull it off, and that joke bombs. And I remember what Sam told me, so I was like, hey, you stupid inbred, Ned Beatty, you know, pig-banging, you all bang your mothers, blah, blah, blah. Okay, thirty-five hundred people in unison, boo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: They started booing me and I started to cry a little bit onstage. I'm only 17, right? I leave the stage without being introduced - no fanfare, no music, no nothing.

Sam comes running out onstage, going, can you believe that kid? Coming out here and talking to you good people like that. He will never be in comedy again. Now, I'm really crying. And I go to a payphone to call my mom collect to come pick me up. And Bill Kinison, Sam's brother, comes over and he hangs the phone up and said that that was the funniest thing Sam had ever seen. He never thought you'd have the guts to do it. You set him up perfectly. Thank you, thank you. We want you to come to the after party.

As I dry my eyes, I was like, yeah, yeah. Like I was part of the big conspiracy planned. We went to the after party, no place where a 17-year-old should be. It was late '80s, so there's huge rails of blow everywhere and girls with extremely big hair listening to Cinderella. And Sam comes out of a room and he's like, kid, order some pizza. And so I ordered 10 large pizzas. And when the pizza man comes to the door, Sam pays for the pizza and tips him three little baggies of cocaine. And 30 minutes later, we get a phone call, hey, you guys need more pizza?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: If you need some more pizza, we'll be right over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I have to acknowledge that we got that story thanks to Larry Getlen who got it from Ralphie May and published it in a previous piece. But it's a great story.

Mr. MAY: I thought I remembered Larry Getlen.

Mr. GETLEN: Yup, yup, yup. Couple of years ago, man. We talked about this and that.

CONAN: All right, here's an e-mail from Chris(ph). I'm a comedian. At least once a year, I copyright my material, which involves recording a CD, filling out some downloaded forms from the U.S. Copyright Office and sending the CD to the Library of Congress. I'm not sure if it would hold up in court. But at least, it's something I can do to protect myself from having any of my material stolen. I'm very defensive of my material. My jokes are like my children.

However, legal issues aside, the best defense from having someone steal your act is to be so unique and uniquely yourself that nobody can do your material with any conviction or value except yourself.

Well, I guess that's a solution, but not…

Mr. GETLEN: That's a great point actually.

Mr. MAY: Well said.

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah. That is a very important point. The more unique and personal your material it is, the harder it is to steal. That is an absolute truth.

Mr. MAY: Yeah, that's why you see all these jokes and question with very few exceptions, possibly over the Dane Cook and Louis C.K. thing of being the one example of exception to that rule is generally, these jokes are very easy. They're very - like, I do a lot of pop culture. And knowing that, I'm going to step on other people's stuff that talked - and other people are going to step on mine because it's well-trod land. And you just have to find out what's - what best suits you.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll talk more with Larry Getlen and Ralphie May about who owns a joke and what can you do when some other comic steals your material. We'll also speak with the curator of Wisconsin Veterans Museum. If you or a family member is a vet, we may want to talk to you. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In just a couple of minutes, we'll be speaking with Bill Brewster, the curator of collection for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. But right now, we're still talking with Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and entertainment journalist, and with a stand-up comedian, Ralphie May, about who owns a joke and what to do if other comedians steal your material.

If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, e-mail: talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Johnny(ph). Johnny calling us from Eugene, Oregon.

JOHNNY (Caller): Hello, gentlemen, a great show.

CONAN: Thanks.

JOHNNY: I wanted to ask about what happens when you have a talent like well, Bill Hicks comes to mind, just a volcanic smoldering bucket of talent, and then he kind of goes and dies. What do you do when you've listened to that guy forever and you can, you know, his jokes are all in your head, but, you know, they're his stuff, and he's dead. Can you use it? What's the etiquette there?

Mr. GETLEN: Or do you mean onstage or amongst your friends?

JOHNNY: Oh, definitely on stage - and I don't even mean word for word. I mean, you know, Hicks, like a lot of other folks just brought in new kinds of material, new kinds of things to talk about, and, you know, Dennis Leary being famous because there's no cure for cancer.

CONAN: That because the other comedian you were talking about died of cancer.

JOHNNY: Exactly right.

CONAN: Right.

JOHNNY: Look, what happens when a great talent dies? What do we do with that stuff?

Mr. GETLEN: You enjoy it and leave it out of - don't let it come out of your mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: Yeah.

Mr. GETLEN: It seems pretty clear to me on this one. I don't know.

JOHNNY: Well I'm…

Mr. MAY: Yeah, exactly.

JOHNNY: Is that what happens? I mean, do people kind of…

Mr. GETLEN: Well yeah, but especially in a case like this, you know, when a Bill Hicks passes away, he's so revered that everyone knows the material. You try doing those jokes onstage, you'll get crucified.

CONAN: And I guess…

JOHNNY: Yeah you're…

CONAN: I was going to ask, Raphie May, isn't that the ultimate sanction? The audience knows what you're doing and will start hissing.

Mr. MAY: It's never the audience. The audiences are not…

JOHNNY: Yeah it's - because like people like…

CONAN: Go ahead, Ralphie.

Mr. MAY: The audience is not a well-versed - I mean, with very few exceptions -are the comedy aficionado enough to be able to decipher Bill Hicks from Dennis Leary or Bill Hicks from Joe Schmo up onstage? The biggest thing comes - and the biggest reason that joke-stealing is not more prevalent is because of the social pariah that you would become inside the comedy world, where no one would talk to you, no one would hang out with you, people would avoid you at all costs, they'd constantly be trashing you, and, you know, they would make sure that networks don't put you on TV. They would, you know, just the outrage at some of the stuff is horrific.

And then, there's other people that get involved and, you know, they tell people to be quiet, take your lump, here's some cash and go away. That's another thing that happens as well with reportedly famously Robin Williams as where - if you caught him stealing your joke, he'd cut you a check, but the joke was his. But if you didn't catch him, he wouldn't pay you anything for it, you know? And that's just a famous rumor.

But these just - moreover, you can't do this. I mean, that's what the biggest thing is, the social pariah. I mean, comics fear sue - you know, lawsuits and stuff like that, just because they don't like to do paperwork.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GETLEN: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. MAY: But this is, you know, they don't want to put forth the effort. They got into comedy not to work, you know? I mean that's what…

JOHNNY: Well, you know what…

CONAN: Disabused of that illusion, but anyway.

Mr. GETLEN: But I will say that when it comes to comics like Bill Hicks or Mitch Hedberg, who are sadly no longer with us, their fan bases are so devoted…

Mr. MAY: Ravenous.

Mr. GETLEN: …that I think in those cases, a lot of people in the audience would know their jokes and would rise to their defense if some other comic tried to use them.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Shawn(ph) and this refers back to the - you were talking earlier, Larry Getlen, about Milton Berle. Upon accused of being stealing jokes from Milton Berle, Jack Benny once quipped, when you take a joke away from Milton Berle, it's not stealing, it's repossessing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAY: Those guys were awesome. You talk to - I had a good fortune of getting to spend a lot of time with Uncle Miltie and guys like Buddy Hackett before they passed away. And yes, there would be some of that, but it was a different time then. It was a different motivation. Stand-up comedy was in its infancy and as an art form and it was just a collaboration because nobody really cared.

Everybody was doing it to a degree. Even Buddy Hackett said, oh, yeah, if I were someplace and I had to do a joke and I know that, you know, somebody else had one that fit, I would do it but I would call him and say, hi, I used your joke, you killed in Pittsburgh. You know, you got to, you know - and he would tell them, hey, you can do any of my jokes and stuff like that.

It was a more of a brotherhood. And now that it's - stand-up comedy has evolved into an art form, and there's so many people doing that art form that it has elevated the whole joke-stealing thing to such a heinous crime, whereas in its infancy, stand-up comedy, it was just part of business. It wasn't any big deal. They were all, you know, there was more of a brotherhood community. And now, there's so much, you know, pettiness and hate and jealousy involved and people trying to be the comedy police instead of working on their own acts. They're worried about what that person says.

You know, for me, here's how I avoid stealing and being accused of stealing and having people steal from me. I don't go to comedy clubs unless I'm working. And when I do work, I come in, I do my time and I leave. I don't hang out. I don't - all my comedy buddies are guys I've known for 15 years, and I don't make new ones and I just stay away from it all. Because in this day and age, there's -just the accusation of being a thief is a scarlet letter enough to damage you in the comedy industry.

CONAN: Well, Ralphie…

Mr. MAY: Nobody has to prove it. Nobody has to do anything. It can become from - fueled with rumor and conjecture. And because no one proves it but everybody says it, it's fact. And so if you just stay out of that, you stay away from it, it's so much easier.

CONAN: Ralphie May will be performing the rest of his tour without a scarlet letter.

Mr. MAY: Absolutely.

CONAN: Ralphie, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. MAY: I appreciate you all so much. Thank you, Larry. Thank you, everybody.

CONAN: Ralphie May, with us from WDUQ, a member station in Pittsburgh. His latest DVD is "Prime Cut." Our thanks also to Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and entertainment journalist who wrote a piece for Radar magazine about the culture of joke-stealing, and he joined us from our bureau in New York City. Thanks very much.

Mr. GETLEN: Thanks for having me.

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