The Wayans Brothers (or at least a handful of them -- Keenen, Shawn and Marlon – it’s important to remember there are many separate Wayanses, each often capable of independent thought and action) are being sued by a former assistant who has accused them of stealing material they used for their 2009 book, 101 Ways to Know You’re a Gold Digger. Joke theft is an unfortunately common occurrence in the comedy world and to many in the industry it’s a matter just as serious as the Wayans’ book is inessential.
(I mean, I haven’t read it, but... it's called 101 Ways to Know You're a Gold Digger.)
I have no idea how 101 Ways To Know You’re a Gold Diggergate is going to pan out, but in the meantime here are five notorious instances of joke thievery, or “hacking” (as in “hackneyed,” not computery stuff), from the annals of modern comedy.
Patton Oswalt vs. Some Guy in Denver Named Nick
Come on, we’re well into the 21st century. YouTube is a thing. My grandpa knows what it is, and possibly how to use it. How are you expecting to rip off entire bits, nearly word-for-word, from one of the most popular and established voices in modern stand-up and not expect people to call you on it? How does an unknown expect to get anywhere by blatantly plagiarizing industry icons? That’s just what Denver, Colorado’s Nick Madson did, repeatedly, with Patton Oswalt’s material. A fellow comic recognized the bits and filmed one of Madson’s sets from the audience; when confronted, Madson claimed he had written the jokes for Oswalt (the same went for the other familiar jokes in his routine, which he said were written for Louis CK and Dave Attell – two other big names who write their own material). Madson eventually apologized and, hopefully, can now move on to a career in anything other than stand-up comedy. Here’s Patton Oswalt’s bit on KFC’s Famous Bowls and Madson’s, uh, “tribute.”
Carlos Mencia vs. Joe Rogan (and the world)
Few comics are as hated by other comics as Carlos Mencia, and it doesn’t even have that much to do with his horrid, horrid television program. Mencia is regarded as a notorious joke thief, and fellow comic Joe Rogan (who, it should forever be pointed out, hosted NBC’s Fear Factor and is by no means free from sin) declared jihad against Mencia last decade in a feud that escalated from public taunting to scathing radio interviews to a semi-legendary onstage confrontation that left Rogan banned for a time from LA's The Comedy Store. The litany of comics Mencia has been accused of hacking includes George Lopez, Ari Shaffir and the Reverend Bob Levy, but the best example is probably this bit taken from a decades-old Bill Cosby routine. It’s a little tough, if you’ve been a working stand-up since the late 1980s, to convincingly argue you’re unfamiliar with Bill Cosby’s oeuvre, and it’s mere coincidence that you mirror-imaged one of his famous bits.
Dane Cook vs. Louis CK vs. Steve Martin
This one’s pretty interesting. A few years ago, bloggers began noticing some similarities between material on Dane Cook’s 2005 CD Retaliation and Louis CK’s Live in Houston,, recorded at the Laugh Stop (RIP) and released in 2001. Many were eager to pounce on Cook, a driven and energetic performer who nonetheless is not exactly held in high esteem by most in the comedy scene (pro tip to those who seek credibility, in any industry: do not work with Jessica Simpson). As many people as there were eager to see Cook publicly shamed, some pointed out that it was mainly a matter of similar premises, and that one of the jokes in question – a riff on naming your child something nonsensical – was ground covered 20 years earlier by Steve Martin. CK, for his part, shrugged off the controversy/”controversy,” saying on an episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast that as he is always working on new material he wasn’t planning on telling those jokes again anyway so people might as well find something else to worry about. Regardless, there are some out there still keeping the argument alive – sometimes with a less-than-firm grasp of chronology.
Robin Williams vs. Everybody:
I’ve not seen a lot of Robin Williams’ stand-up; my dim recollections from the late-70s stand-up special I saw as a child are of a loud and desperate man careening around the stage in rainbow suspenders, ejaculating jokes, accents and torrents of sweat at a furious pace. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but if many of Williams’ contemporaries are to be believed many of the jokes probably weren’t his to begin with. Comic veteran David Brenner leveled such accusations at Williams in his autobiography, recounting a story where he screamed at Williams’ agent to “tell Robin if he ever takes one more line from me, I’ll rip his leg off and shove it up his @#$.” Other comics from the time would reportedly cut their sets short if they saw Williams entering the club as a way to protect their intellectual property in the pre-YouTube era. Williams has never quite denied this practice so much as claimed it to be unconscious, saying on a recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron (a podcast truly worth checking out if you’re into the nitty-gritty of the comedy world) that his brain just soaks things up and when he’s onstage things will sometimes pop out without much thought of where they came from. Judging by that late 70s special I remember, I’m inclined to believe Williams – he looked so hopped-up on, um, disco that he barely knew where he is, let alone what he was doing.
Dennis Leary vs. Bill Hicks
Houston-born iconoclast Bill Hicks is a bit of a sacred cow among a certain breed of edgy, progressive comics, which is why so many of them hate Denis Leary. The Rescue Me star has long been accused of lifting everything from his onstage personae (chainsmoking, ranting prophet of doom) to specific jokes from Hicks, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1994. After hearing No Cure for Cancer, Leary’s 1992 breakout album, Hicks cut off ties with his former friend, once stating that he quit smoking because he “just wanted to see if Denis would, too.” A particularly morbid (and thus, one assumes, Hicks-approved) joke on the situation goes something like this: How did Denis Leary get to be so famous? Because there’s no cure for cancer.
I'd like to close with a bit of advice from punk legend Mike Watt, a line I once quoted in an email to a friendly, smart and well-intentioned kid who started a blog a couple years ago where he explained Marmaduke comics. Watt still ends his shows with the exhortation "Start your own band, paint your own picture, write your own book, poem." He means to do those things as an alternative to doing nothing, but it's also good reminder that when you do something creatively - be it recording an album like Double Nickels on the Dime or telling a handful of fart jokes on a stage - you need to resist the temptation to take shortcuts and make your own thing. Otherwise, somebody with an Internet connection is eventually going to notice, and nothing but nothing is harder to wash away than the stench of hack.