Twitter is actually allowing that comedians who post jokes on their service hold a degree of creative ownership, and are deleting theft posts from joke-aggregation accounts. This is fine; we’ve reached a point where some people make a very good living reposting jokes.
All this comes with social media users reexamining the free-and-easy spirit of Web 2.0, and “creative ownership.” I promise this blog entry stops being deadly dull in another couple sentences. For a long time, the idea has been, “once content is out there, it’s anybody’s.” This is the spirit behind the comfort in which not only jokes, but copyrighted “content” like music, standup, TV shows, and movies, get so freely shared for free.
I have a Twitter account. I post a lot of jokes, observations, pictures. Some get ignored. Some do well. Some do very very well. But I mostly post topical stuff, or jokes with a serious expiration date, or observations that are only maybe interesting in the context of my personal life as I choose to share it online. And I never post jokes or ideas that I would actually use in my own act or projects, because I’ve learned a long time ago that once you put it out there, it takes just one unscrupulous hack to use it, own it, and burn it for you for good.
12 years ago, I had a blog that i updated with some stories, but mostly bits, half-baked ideas, and fully-formed jokes from my notebook. In hindsight, that seems like a terrible idea, but it really helped; I got quite a few paying gigs out of the blog, including a private party performing in front of Tim Robbins, I mean literally, and I’ll tell that story some other time. When I was on Best Week Ever, I used my blog to showcase what i thought were my best jokes that the show cut out, and that helped the writers and producers of the show see that i was constantly generating way more material than they could use, which I believe extended my life as part of the cast.
That was also when Gawker, a big media site with hundreds of thousands of hits, had a daily blog roundup, and usually about once a week or so, they would highlight something I’d written. The point being, that for a while, my blog was a happening thing, and in hindsight I really should have pushed for some kind of book deal, because I had the readership numbers that blog-to-book deals were based on in the early 2000s. But I don’t regret that too much. But…
With that broad readership, though, came a problem I never thought would pop up. See, I thought that having my material out there, in written form, dated and stamped, would mean that I had an ownership of this material. But the other side of that was that I started seeing my jokes popping up in other comedians’ acts on late night. At first, I assumed it had to be parallel thinking, but after a few months, and I’d seen the fourth or fifth comedian on a TV show–a TV show which wouldn’t even consider me, mind–killing with a joke worded almost exactly the way I’d written it, I realized I had a problem. I was supplying material to people who had better representation than writing ability.
I never accused anybody, publicly or even privately. Because what can you say? I’ve been accused of joke-thieving a few times, and all those times I had proof that it was a case of parallel thinking, two comedians thinking of the same joke about the same premise. Here’s an example: I have a joke about sex and the Olympics. It leads off the trailer for Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!, a movie filmed in 2010. The story of how I wrote that joke is one of my favorites, and maybe I’ll post it some day. But needless to say, I have an old notebook with pages and pages of jokes about the Winter Olympics that became that one-liner.
I like the joke very much, but it’s not my favorite. In fact, that film was taken during the second taping of the TYF! movie, when I would toss off one-liners while the crew set up the next shot to keep the crowd going. It’s part of a chunk of one-liners that leads off an album I recorded in 2013. And apparently, a comedian in Canada has been using it as his big closer the last few years. Which wouldn’t bother me; after all, there’s no disputing whose joke it is, or at the very least, there’s a ton of proof that i came up with it separately and independently. Except that a couple of years ago, different accounts on the internet started popping up in places where my act, or the TYF! movie, were posted, accusing me of joke theft. I can’t say if all these fans of an obscure Canadian comedian got this idea in their head at once, or what happened, but I e-mailed the guy privately through his site and never heard back from him. The comments stopped soon after.
So I know, it’s entirely possible that these comedians on late night TV shows were coming up with my premises and punchlines independently. Until it happened with a NYC comedian who, the year before, had told me he was a fan of my blog. To see him on TV doing a joke lifted from my blog was the final straw. I should have stopped much sooner, in hindsight, but until that moment the risks of running a popular comedy blog were far outweighed by the rewards.
I took down many of my old posts. I took to updating once or twice a week, and mostly to promote gigs. I started losing my following. I got a writing job not long after that, so it was an easy transition to former blogger.
There’s an aspiring comedy writer who is suing Conan, because four of Conan’s recent monologue jokes were very similar to jokes this guy posted to Twitter. He’s suing for $750,000, which is ridiculous, and tells me that he wants to grab $100,000 and stay a happy amateur. Part of me roots for the guy; that’s more than most people make in their entire careers before they quit.
Of course, it’s ridiculous. Not just because with so many people writing jokes about the same subjects, you’re bound to get the same take on it. But I also know almost everyone on that monologue staff, and they’re all really decent people who just wouldn’t steal from the Internet like that constantly. Not that it doesn’t happen; combine the pressure of grinding out new jokes on a daily basis with the pressure of making a six-figure salary to do so, and some people on some writing staffs have been known to engage in shady behavior. But like I said, the people I know on Conan really aren’t like that. In fact, they’re some of the best original joke writers I’ve ever met, and that’s the truth.
Once upon a time, a friend was writing for a TV show. He sent around an e-mail to a few friends, saying in essence, “Famous Celebrity X Who Is Not Known For Being Funny is going to be on the show in a couple of months and what the hell do I do with this guy?” I was at dinner with a friend who was in the bathroom when I got this e-mail, so I dashed off a ridiculous premise based on some trivia about this person and sent it in an e-mail. And then forgot about it.
Sure enough a few months later, this idea appeared on TV and then started getting shared around the Internet. My friend then had to embarrassedly say that he had forgotten about my email, and the idea was pitched by another writer on staff whom I know and trust to be an original comedy thinker as well. I had one of those what they call “moments of truth,” where I realized that I had an electronic email trail, and that even though I trusted my friend hadn’t ripped me off, if i really wanted to, without even creating a public stink, I could screw him over and shake this TV show down for some money.
I decided not to do it, because I’m not a scumbag, and because I really did believe that it was just coincidence, and because this guy was my friend, and because you never want to be known as That Guy anyway. And because it was a good reminder to me that, even if at that time I didn’t have the big writing gig, I still had the right instincts and ability. And that helped when I’ve had to continue pursuing a living in this business.
So I don’t ever put my stuff “out there,” which can be vexing for people who seem to think it’s okay to record a comedy show without asking first. But until you can put it out there in official form first, there’s no controlling your material once it’s out there.
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