April 1, 2014

Justice without law: standup comedy division

Awhile ago I noted that stand-up comedy is in pretty good shape right now, even though it lacks dominant superstars. In fact, that's probably related to its health: the current culture of comedy enforces norms that allow a surprisingly large number of funny guys to eke out a living without one top banana getting too big a piece of the pie.

An article in Slate by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner references a paper by legal scholars on how comedians enforce their ban on joke-stealing:
While the law doesn’t provide much in the way of protection for comedians, Oliar and Sprigman found that today’s comics do maintain an informal set of rules. If two comics come up with a similar joke, for example, it’s understood that whoever tells it first on television can claim ownership. Similarly, if two comedians are working on material together, batting ideas back and forth, it’s generally agreed upon that if one comedian comes up with a setup and the other the punch line, the former owns the joke. 
Those who don’t follow the rules can face escalating repercussions. First they’re subjected to badmouthing; then they get blacklisted from clubs. Finally, if the unacceptable behavior continues, it’s understood that things might get physical. While none of the comics Oliar and Sprigman interviewed admitted to participating in or witnessing fights over stolen jokes, many had heard stories, and they accepted such violence as a possible, if remote, outcome. As one comedian told the researchers, “ … the only copyright protection you have is a quick uppercut.” 
Far from being dismayed by this extralegal system, Oliar and Sprigman came away impressed by the comedians’ informal arrangement. “They have managed to put together a community project that requires a pretty high-level amount of group coordination,” says Sprigman. It’s a lot better than the joke-stealing free-for-all of [Milton] Berle’s era. And it’s hard to imagine a more formal joke protection system, involving copyright filings and other legal procedures, working well in a world where comics are constantly generating and tweaking new material. In fact, Sprigman thinks this joke-stealing code could work for other industries struggling with how to balance creativity and copyright issues, including the music and tech industries. They should borrow it.

Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms.


Dave Pinsen said...

I thought for a moment you were going to weigh in on the Colbert kerfuffle.

Anonymous said...

"""Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms.""""

This is somewhat akin to President Andrew Jackson's mother's final words to him when he was a mere youth during the US Revolutionary War.

"Never resort to lawyers to settle arguments, you settle those things yourself."

And of course this became his informal creed of which he lived by, since Jackson fought many a duel to the death.

Power Child said...

Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms.

It's good to have this progression, but very bad when earlier steps are routinely skipped and we go straight to later ones.

It's like cracking a walnut: you don't want to just bash it with a hammer, because the pieces will fly everywhere and you'll be picking them up off the carpet instead of eating them. Instead, you want to apply gradual pressure and release the pressure once the walnut has cracked.

Reg C├Žsar said...

OK, how are jokes different from coders? Kinda looks like the Apple-Google-etc case, doesn't it?

I know an aspiring standup at my workplace who'll test his routine on me. One day about a decade ago he complained that our city's top comedy impresario told him to stop using one of his favorite jokes. Why? Because George Carlin was now using it.

Now, neither man stole it from the other. It was coincidence. (Though if it was a comic less original than Carlin, I might suspect someone in my friend's audience sold it to the big guy.)

My friend bemoaned the unfairness of it. I told him it didn't matter. Everyone would assume he stole the joke from Carlin, not the other way around

John said...

A few years back Joe Rogan enforced these norms on Mencia:


David said...

>the only copyright protection you have is a quick uppercut<

Everyone wants to be a gangsta.

countenance said...

Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms.

Or sometimes, cartels.

Anonymous said...

"Justice without law"

Steve, you becoming an anarcho-capitalist?


Anonymous said...

...then they get blacklisted from clubs

What's the motivation for club owners to follow this code? I understand why a comedian who writes all of his jokes would despise joke thieves, even ones who didn't steal from him personally. But would club owners really forgo revenue to uphold the code of a trade to which they don't belong?

For any honor code to hold, the group's weakest links have to be pretty strong. I'm sure lots of singers would love to ostracize auto-tune out of existence, but apparently their weakest links are weaker than those of the comedians.

Anonymous said...

What if a comedian invents the joke, but fails repeatedly to get a laugh from it and gives it up. Face it lots of comedians can write material but simply lack the courage and drive to try out material over and over again risking bombing to make it finally work.
Next guy polishes it into a hit. Was he a thief?

The late stand up Bill Hicks developed lots of great material but never truly reached the big time. Hicks being the paranoid far lefty elitist alienated white audiences. Hicks was notorious for off nights when he completely freaked out. Hicks was an acquired taste, most popular with hipsters and the college crowd over in England who would tolerate his ranting meltdowns. Yet Denis Leary among others shamelessly reworked Hicks material over the years and had great success with it.

Kinda like all the elitist rock music critics who claimed they despised Jimmy Page for taking obscure and often unpublished blues riffs and making rock classics out of them. They hated Page with a passion, but loved all the rappers that blatantly "sampled" polished Led Zeppelin material.

What about the great composers who took folk tunes and expanded them into classic operas and symphonies?

Not saying the originators do not deserve their due compensation, but thief in this context is a bit strong.

Do Leary, Page and Strauss deserve to have their legs broken?

Anonymous said...

"Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence are among the main tools for enforcing a set of social norms".

I agree. But I think the balance of the four tools varies significantly and perhaps predictably as the value of the norms increases. As does the competition for the exclusive right to use the tools. Kto kogo?

Neil Templeton

Sequester Grundleplith said...

You've got to love the spectacle of liberal academics and journalists sticking their instruments in these strange birds called "custom" and "group cohesion".

Anonymous said...

Lots of jokes are not actually stolen.

Somebody writes a joke for a particular comedian. They do not get a major laugh from it. The original writer after a while resales the joke to a different comedian. Of course the writer does not always tell the comedians he is doing this. Fact is few comedians can write new material on the road. Too much weed to be smoked and pussy to be had.

Dangerfield is the classic case of a prolific writer who for years was a modest success. Other writers and comedians tried to rework his material. Until Rodney perfected his comic persona he never really "owned" his material. After that however, nobody could touch his stuff except as an homage.

Ichabod Crane said...

The comedians with the best delivery should tell the best jokes. That would make me laugh.

Katy said...

Off topic, but worthy of a Steve post:
OK Cupid is campaigning against Firefox use over the CEO's donation to the Proposition 8 Anti-gay marriage campaign in 2008...


Anonymous said...

Apparently George Lopez two-handed choked (like Homer Simpson choking Bart) Carlos Mencia for stealing material from him.

Hunsdon said...

All the best jokes are running US foreign policy.

Anonymous said...

Off-topic, Steve, but are you planning to review Darren Aronofsky's NOAH? I'm quite eager to hear your thoughts on it.

Harry Baldwin said...

Indoctrination, criticism, ostracism, and violence

These were the tools with which we used to assimilate immigrants. All have been put away.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

It's a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There's no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as a county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preserving nonexistent laws and you tell me if that's peculiar or not. Because I say that it is. Does it work? Yes. Ninety percent of the time. It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can't be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.

-- Sheriff Bell, No Country For Old Men (Cormac McCarthy).

Anonymous said...

copying is a form of cultural diffusion.

without it, we would still be living in trees.

without fire.

Steve Sailer said...

In writing, reusing some great writer's joke (e.g., "Up to a point, Lord Copper") is considered mildly droll. E.g., Tina Brown's website is the Daily Beast, which is Lord Copper's newspaper in Waugh's "Scoop." Ideally, you'd work some variation on a classic line, but it's okay to quote it verbatim without explaining it's a quote.

This can cause some confusion. For example, in the 1980s my father-in-law was very impressed by my having invented the witticism "In African elections, it's one man, one vote, once." I never got around to telling him that this was an old joke in National Review circles, so old that it was considered fine to quote it without explaining that you hadn't invented it.

Mr. Anon said...

Most comics seem to solve this problem by not actually telling jokes and by not being funny.

BurplesonAFB said...

Came here to post the Joe Rogan Mencia video.

Steve, if you got an invite to Joe Rogan's podcast, would you do the show? He gets over a million listeners on popular ones, it's a long form (2-3hr) informal discussion which I think fits you better than 2 minute news segments, and he's got the alternative-thinking young male demographic's attention.

Actually Carolla's would be a good fit too. Both guys do their show around LA.

Anonymous said...

In other words, there's a massive opportunity here for a lady comic to plagiarize and remix her heart out. (Because who's going to punch a girl?)