Ever since Joe Rogan outed Carlos Mencia as a joke thief, the internet has been looking for their next victim. I am an outspoken critic of comedians (and civilians) who steal intellectual property and pass it off as their own. However, while joke thieves do exist and need to be dealt with accordingly (Like Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky and the guys behind “Fuck Jerry”), they are the exception, not the rule.
The vast majority of the time, when two people write similar jokes, it’s due to parallel development. With 7 billion people in the world, two having the same thought is to be expected.
Here are some ways to tell if a joke is likely stolen:
1) How long is the joke? One premise in common is very possible. But two or three, and that’s a pretty sure sign there’s something fishy.
2) Are the inconsequential details the same? i.e. is someone doing a joke where they’re talking about watching Netflix and they “coincidentally” list the same movies? Is the transition to the next subject the same? Details that are inorganic to the premise should be unique if it’s parallel development.
3) Is it out of the comedians’ style? Is a story-telling comedian suddenly telling a one-liner? Is a comedian that rambles suddenly doing a bit with tight set-ups? We all have the capability to write jokes outside our voice, but if a joke is familiar AND it doesn’t fit in someone’s set, that’s a red flag.
4) Was the original joke extremely popular? Not everyone knows what you know. Just because you saw an obscure cartoon write something similar doesn’t mean everyone saw that. But if the original joke was super popular, odds are the re-teller saw it there, too.
5) Do other people with a wealth of knowledge of comedy, smarter than you, also think it’s stolen? Get a second opinion from someone you look up to.
Here are some ways to tell if a joke is likely parallel development:
1) Was the joke about an incredibly common subject? Everything from tech jokes like Facebook and Tinder to political jokes like Obama and Trump could be thought of by more than one person, as many of us share those experiences.
2) Have a lot of people told a similar joke? That means it’s stock, not stolen. What are the odds that ten people stole it all at once?
3) Were people all trying to come up with the joke at once? Whether it’s a hashtag game or current events, there’s only so many ways to look at the same formula.
4) Does the person have absolutely no history of joke theft? Joke thieves don’t steal one joke and call it a day. It’s a repeated behavior. If everything in their act is original except one, that’s likely parallel development.
5) Does it just kind of sound like something you sort of remember a little bit? Be VERY sure that your memory is accurate when you see a joke you think is stolen. You may be misremembering the original based on what you just heard.
6) If you take emotion out of the equation, does it still look obviously stolen beyond any doubt? If there’s a significant gray area, it’s more likely parallel development.
When you see a car that kind of looks like yours on the road, you don’t assume someone stole your car. Because you know how to recognize your car. Do the same with your jokes.
The vast majority of the time, “stolen” jokes are not stolen at all. Before you accuse someone of the worst sin a comedian can commit, give them the benefit of the doubt and do your homework. Labeling someone a joke thief when they’re not is just as bad as theft.