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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"Stolen Goods"

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 very... different.

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? Apparently the 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.

It's also 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. HOME Back to the Top