EDITORS NOTE: This column first appeared in December of 2002.
"Hey, why don't you write an column about
stealing?" Huh? Wha? Stealing? An entire
column about theft of material? About stealing jokes?
Hmmm... okay... How's this: Don't steal. There. Easiest
column I ever wrote. Not long enough? Okay... How about:
Death to the comic who steals. Hmmm...still not
long enough. It was a nice idea, anyway.
Write a column about the subject of stealing material?
You wouldn't think there'd be enough to say about
stealing material. And you wouldn't think it would be
necessary to say any of it. But you would be wrong.
There are still people unclear
on the concept of the modern standup comic with regard
to theft of material.
When I say "modern standup comic," I mean any
comic who got into it after Lenny Bruce and Shelley Berman--
from the late '50s onward. These folks started writing and
performing their own material. This represented
a revolution of sorts. (A similar change
happened in popular music, at roughly the same time,
when artists like Buddy Holly and
Bob Dylan insisted on recording mostly their own compositions.
Until then, it was more common that producers or production
houses would employ writers or purchase music from publishers
and marry the material to the performer.) Prior to the arrival
of Berman and the others, the methods by which many (most!)
comedians acquired material (jokes, gags, bits, etc.) was
An excerpt from "The Borscht Belt," a book
written by Joey Adams and Henry Tobias in 1966, is particularly
enlightening. In chapter 5, "The Corn Exchange,"
the authors reveal, in horrifying detail, exactly how
incestuous the situation was in "the Sour Cream Sierras,"
and show how far we've all come since:
"A serious occupational hazard for Toomlers was that their
Toomling ate up material at a rapid rate.[...]
"...Like all Toomlers (Henny Youngman's) need for new,
fresh material was complicated by the fact that he worked to
repeater guests season after season. The usual method of
obtaining material (by most Social Directors) was to lift
from the best. Any opening day at Loew's State or the Palace
found a dozen comics in the audience, pencils akimbo."
Yipe! Of course, we're talking ancient history here. The
days of an army of comics or "gag writers" brazenly
lifting material and doing it (or selling it to unsuspecting
comics) at mountain resorts is long gone. Is theft gone
for good? Certainly not.
But it's far more stigmatized than it was in the days of
the Catskills or Vaudeville. Ever since the vast majority
of comics was recognized as artists who write and perform
their own, original material, the practice of stealing
(or buying "lifted" material)
has nearly disappeared. Any comic who mounts the stage at an open
mike in Anytown, USA, and tries to elicit laughs by doing
side 1 of an old Carlin album or by doing
Rita Rudner's first Carson shot, word-for-word, will be dealt
with harshly. And the stink of a theft accusation does not
wash off easily, if at all. And word travels so swiftly
in the standup world that a tainted comic who tries to
outrun an accusation by moving to a new market will find
that his reputation is never far behind him, usually arriving
via the next comic who visits from the thief's old market.
This is all stuff that a comic finds out very quickly-- I'm
not really sure how. But info like this floats around comedy
communities big and small. It also pops up in the occasional
book or magazine article here and there. And a lot of it is
based on common sense. So ignorance is never an excuse.
Which makes a recent (Nov. 21) article in the Boston Herald so
fascinating. Headlined "'Thief' can't laugh off lifting
Hub comics' material" and written by Gayle Fee and Laura
Raposa, the article details how a gang of Boston comics staged
an "intervention" in the back room of the Comedy
Connection one recent evening and let "21-year-old
Russian-born funnyman Dan Kinno" know that they wouldn't
tolerate his antics any more.
" 'He's a massive thief,' said Boston stand-up
stalwart Kevin Knox, who led the charge at the Comedy
Connection confrontation that sent Knox's former protege
packing with tears in his eyes. 'You cannot steal Boston
comedians' material and think we're not going to hear
about it or do anything about it.' "
This is truly inspirational. The article continues:
"Apparently, Dan, who appeared at the high-profile Just
for Laughs comedy showcase in Montreal in July, has been warned
many times to write his own material. But the jokenapper went
over the line at a Johnson & Wales gig last weekend, said
Boston comic P.J. Thibodeau."
The article goes on to
explain how Thibodeau heard Kinno do "25 minutes of lifted lines
from Knox, Frank Santorelli, Harrison Stebbins, Tony V"
and others. Enraged, Thibodeau then lit up the phone lines and
alerted the victims of the theft and arranged for the
pow wow at the Connection.
Kinno, when contacted by the Herald, had a weak excuse, telling
them he used the stolen material, "because he was losing
the audience." He also told them that he told the audience
that the jokes weren't his-- as if that makes any
difference! He then says that he has "never
used other people's material and passed it off as my own."
Do we even have to parse that sentence? This guy makes Bill
Clinton look like Dr. Seuss. Busted!
It's reprehensible to steal material. It doesn't matter if
you're bombing or if you credit the writer. There's no excuse.
None. None! If you're tanking, get off (or stay up
there and suffer with your own material). What
would you rather have dog you for the next year or two (or
ten!)? 1. You ditched early one night because you were
pitching a shutout, 2. You bombed one night (for an extended
period, with your own material), or 3. You bombed one night
then switched into material that wasn't yours?
21-year-old brain of Daniel Kinno, in the heat of battle,
chose #3. He'll spend the next few years being
scrupulously original-- lest he be branded forever as a
joke thief. Is that fair? It's fair enough.
Every market's got a comic or two who can't help himself. He's
usually got a reptutation, And he's barely tolerated. And he
usually hits a wall after a while and makes no further progress,
business-wise or aesthetically. For these reasons and others,
the thief usually isn't subjected to such a direct and brutal
confrontation as our young Boston bit burglar was. He's usually
just allowed to move away and possibly kick the habit in another
town (it is hoped!) or everyone hopes that he gets out of the
comedy biz and goes into another line of work where thievery
is tolerated (like screenwriting!).
That's why It's refreshing to see the boys
in Boston stand up for their intellectual property. Anyone
who has spent any time in that town knows that the Boston comic
is one who is fiercely original and who has
sweated many honest buckets crafting a set that is uniquely
his. They are all justifiably proud of their acts. Each
is a distinct, finely honed work in progress. It's admirable
that they look out for each other and it's entirely appropriate
that they brought the hammer down on someone who so blatantly
ignored the unwritten laws.
our pleasure to bring the story to a wider audience. Perhaps
the tale might serve as a warning to anyone contemplating using
the labor of others to further his own thing.