Brian Volk-Weiss is the President of Comedy Dynamics, the largest independent producer and distributor of recorded comedy in North America. In our monthly series with Volk-Weiss, published the first Tuesday of every month, we discuss issues that impact the comedy industry. This month, Brian talks about joke stealing. You can read our past columns with Brian Volk-Weiss, “The State of Comedy in 2016: Is Comedy in a Diamond Age”, “Comedy Insiders: Recording a Comedy Special, When Is It Time?” , “Is Barney Ruining Comedy?” and “Cutting Through the Bullshit of the Representation Question.“
Brian Volk-Weiss is now one of the most successful and influential independent producers of comedy in North America. But before he became the President of Comedy Dynamics, he had a front row seat for one of the most famous joke theft accusations in the history of comedy. He was Dane Cook’s manager at the height of Dane’s career, when allegations of plagiarism and joke theft hit Cook hard, making him somewhat of an expert in what happens when a comic is accused of stealing. This summer, the topic of comedy theft became a big news story when accusations were leveled against Amy Schumer. So when Brian and I sat down for our monthly conversation about the state of comedy, Volk-Weiss shared his thoughts and experience in the area.
Joke stealing is the worst thing you can accuse a comedian of doing- at least on a professional level. “It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. It’s the comedian version of being accused of domestic abuse,” Volk-Weiss said. “Not to put down the severity of domestic abuse, but the point I’m trying to make, as a comic, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing worse than being accused of being a joke thief.” But most of the time, Brian said, it’s a false accusation.
“On Amy Schumer: I would be extremely surprised if she had come anywhere near stealing a joke.”
Dane Cook is Not a Joke Thief
It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible. It’s the comedian version of being accused of domestic abuse. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing worse than being accused of being a joke thief.
Volk-Weiss insists that not only did Dane Cook never steal jokes, but he would go out of his way to avoid doing jokes that were even slightly similar to jokes others were doing. “If he was doing a joke that took place in a pet store and saw another comedian doing a joke that took place in a pet store,” Brian said, “even if the jokes were completely different, but both took place in a pet store, he would usually stop telling the joke. That’s how concerned he was about being viewed as original. When Dane would stop telling a joke because he had heard something similar, it wasn’t because he was worried about being accused of being a joke thief, he was just extremely concerned with always being perceived as being original. So that’s why he would stop. So the irony was, here was a guy who was obsessed with being original and obsessed with never even being perceived as doing anything similar to anyone else basically being at the ground zero of the first major joke stealing explosion.”
The most recently, and publicly accused of course, is Amy Schumer. While Brian says he doesn’t have personal knowledge of what happened with Amy– he’s confident that she’s no thief. “I have no personal connection to Amy Schumer. I’ve met her a few times, but I don’t know her at all, she doesn’t know me, I have no stock in her career going up or down. So that disclaimer being made, I would be extremely surprised if she had come anywhere near stealing a joke.”
So why are comics- particularly comics reaching a certain level of success- accused? Brian explains the phenomenon as jealousy based. “I’m not saying all cases, but in many cases it’s a weapon and it’s a weapon that’s used as a tool which is deployed because as you know most comedians are unknown for a large percentage of their careers, or at least their early careers. Jealousies come up, frustrations come up, people get bumped. A lot of stuff builds up over a five to fifteen year period of struggling to become well known. Someone who may have bumped you a few times or dated your girlfriend after you, all these things add up over 5 to 15 year period and with social media now all you gotta do is say oh he’s a joke thief. And it spreads like wildfire. It seems that people do enjoy tearing down other people. Not just in comedy, but in all walks of life. So when you take that, combine it with the joke stealing and then the anger you might have for your own career not going faster, yeah it’s an easy button to hit. Ahhh you’re a joke thief. Oh this person isn’t successful. Oh the audience isn’t stupid. He’s just or she’s just a joke thief. It’s an easy way to tap out.”
Usually accusations of stolen material are accompanied by some type of proof– two jokes with the same premises or sometimes even identical phrasing, or two sketches that are very similar. But similarity doesn’t always mean someone stole from someone else.
“Theft is, very simply, when you take something that doesn’t belong to you.” He explained. “I think as it relates to this conversation, the word to focus on is take. If you have a comedian in Phoenix, and a comedian in Bangor, Maine and they come up with the same premise, it’s very hard to say that one took it from the other,” he said, adding, “unlike when you take a car from somebody. This is much more about premises. It might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I don’t think I am. It’s more about premises being used more so than a joke.”
In most of these cases, Brian said, both comics came up with the same idea, independently. He explained. “I think that similar premises arose separately and were perceived as stealing but I don’t think there was any pulling pens out and tape recorders and stealing jokes. Maybe I’m naive.” And then there’s also accidental theft. “The other thing which often happens, human nature, you might hear something or see something, it goes deep into your brain and you don’t think about it for five, six, seven, eight years and then it comes out and you think it’s original where it might not be.”
So if the accused comedians aren’t stealing jokes, why do some of their jokes look so much like other comics’ material? Brian has a theory based on a personal experience. He shared a story about a book he wrote when he was in junior high school. “This was in the mid to late 80’s I wrote a book. I wrote this book and to say that this was in the pre-internet age would be quite the understatement. Nobody broke into my computer and stole it, I did’t email it to anyone.” He only printed three copies of his book which he shared with his mom, a friend’s mom, and one he kept for himself. Four or five years later, he said a movie came out that he says was, with very few differences, was same as his book including a scene that was shot for shot, including dialogue, exactly what he had written. The movie was Demolition Man. “I’m positive nobody read my book. I mean nobody,” he said. “It happens. It just happens. People like to think that for some reason no two people could have the same idea. I think that’s a ridiculous theory. I think that’s an absolutely insane theory. So yes, sometimes people, more often than we like to admit, 100s if not 1000s of times a year, comedians all over the country come up with the same premise.”
There are of course other types of theft- persona theft, genre theft, even style theft. Some famous examples include those who accused Jerry Seinfeld of taking credit for a style they attribute to David Brenner, or those who accuse radio personalities of ripping off Howard Stern. And even more famous were the accusations that Denis Leary “stole” from Bill Hicks. Again, Brian insisted that these situations do not amount to “theft” and called such allegations ridiculous. He says if he were a comic, and someone was building their work on his work, he would be flattered. “The whole Seinfeld thing? That I don’t view as stealing. That would be like saying no one can do rock and roll after Elvis. Obviously there were a couple people doing rock and roll before Elvis. The interesting thing with that- there’s a fine line between stealing and homage, but you can’t patent a whole genre. That’s ridiculous.”
Going back to Dane Cook, Brian said that as an expert in Dane Cook’s comedy, he said he could point to many well known comedians in their 20’s and 30’s who clearly took inspiration from Cook. “There are literally comedians now, one is a woman, I’m telling you, you watch their act, they are doing Dane Cook impressions. It’s not even subtle. These are very successful comedians and the more specials they do, the less they do it but, if you watch their first specials, they clearly were inspired by Dane Cook ten years ago and became comedians probably because they were inspired by him,” he said. “Is that stealing from Dane? No absolutely not. Not at all.”
It drives me crazy this whole thing that [Denis Leary] stole from Bill Hicks. Like a persona. That’s crazy, but many people think that.
There is one comic accused of theft that Brian isn’t ready to dismiss as nonsense, Carlos Mencia who has been often accused of plagiarism, and even given the unaffectionate nickname of Men-steal-ya. “That’s a real interesting one,” Volk-Weiss said, stressing interesting in a way implying that he’s not ready to let Mencia off the hook. “That’s a gray area.” With Amy Schumer, three or four people were saying she stole jokes. Volk-Weiss says if three or four people are saying someone stole, there’s a good chance that three or four people are lying, either on purpose, or by repeating rumors. “The Carlos Mencia thing is interesting to me. And again, this is not someone I know personally. This is not someone I’ve worked with, but the thing that’s interesting about Carlos is the sheer volume of people who accuse him of this, and who have pretty well documented evidence of joke stealing. I don’t know the guy, I don’t want to say anything that is wrong, but that one always feels interesting to me just due to the sheer volume of commentators. It’s a lot of people. I mean, like a lot of people. It’s possible, but we’re talking about hundreds of people. Even with the whole Amy thing, it was three people. Let’s say it was six, let’s say it was nine, let’s say it was twenty- that’s not 100s.”
It’s difficult to know the best way to handle being accused. Robin Williams dealt with the problem with his checkbook. Brian doesn’t think payback absolved him of all guilt, but called William’s response impressive. “I think it takes a lot of nerve to go up to someone, look them in the eye and say I stole your joke and I’m sorry. That’s tough. Pulling out your checkbook, and for someone making 30k a year and giving them a 10,000 dollar check? That’s pretty impressive. Did he take it to a step that I think almost nobody ever would or will again? Yeah, he did and that’s very impressive and I have a lot of respect for him for doing it. I really think what he did was as close to being absolved of a crime as you can get,” he said, adding, “At some point you just have to move on. He did the best he could short of having a time machine.”
Dane Cook, who Brian calls the first person to deal with a major theft accusation in a social media environment, got some closure when he appeared on Louie. Louis CK had been one of the comics who had accused Cook. “I think that Louie episode absolutely gave Dane in his own heart what he needed to feel absolved and I think for the comedy community, it went a long way as well. I think there is always going to be haters in particular with him. There’s just always haters for him. I think those psychopath Dane Cook haters will never– I think if Louis had an airplane fly over the city saying I lied, Dane never stole jokes, I think those psychopaths still wouldn’t believe it. So they’ll just never be happy, but I do think that Louie episode went a long way.”
Brian called Amy Schumer’s recent reaction to joke stealing accusations as textbook perfect. She dealt with the allegations head on, almost the next day after they appeared through social media, podcasts and radio appearances. “Especially in the social age. You must confront lies aggressively and quickly,” he said. In older, less internet-y times you could get away with not commenting on accusations, and in fact, it was considered better not to respond to bullshit accusers. The idea was to respond just lends credibility. “I think that may have been true in simpler age. I do not think it’s true now at all and I think what she did was absolutely the right thing to do, the smart thing to do and I think it was the harder thing to do. It’s easier to go into your nice house and get into your nice hot tub put on some music and pretend it’s not happening. It’s a lot harder and stressful and shitty to have to fight like this all the time. It’s hard enough getting to where she’s got and what she’s doing. Like her, hate her, whatever, no one can argue that she didn’t work hard to get there, and continues to work hard to stay there. Now she has to deal with this bullshit?”
You gonna sit there and just be angry that Amy Schumer stole your jokes? Or you gonna write more jokes?
Of course if you’re feeling like someone has been stealing from you repeatedly, that’s a different story, but the likelihood of that scenario is slim. “If you’re sitting there writing a joke, and every weekend you go out and you tell a new joke and three weeks later Amy Schumer is telling the same joke, then you got a problem and you gotta address it and you really need to stop it because Amy has apparently hired spies to follow you around and steal your jokes. But if she’s not doing that, and you do take into account that two people can come up with the same premise, maybe just let it go.”
The reality is, accusations don’t have much effect on the careers of those caught up in these “scandals”. Amy-gate had little if any affect on her career, and Brian said other than having an impact on Dane Cook’s psyche, there was very little impact on his ticket sales when he was accused of stealing jokes. “I think it bothered him a lot, I think if it hurt him at all it hurt him more in his own head than it did with the fans. I don’t think there were people in Peoria not buying tickets because they had heard he was a joke thief. That’s my opinion.” Brian said even Mencia probably didn’t suffer when it came to selling shows. “I would say the same thing is true for Mencia. I don’t think people in Peoria wouldn’t buy tickets to see him because they heard he was a joke thief, but I do think his ability to book other jobs and do other things was affected, that would have helped him sell tickets in Peoria.”
“Interestingly enough with Mencia, there was such a- for lack of a better term, radioactive response to what he supposedly did, that I truly- again not having worked with him, not having been connected to him, just looking at him from afar, I think that negatively affected his career. But, some of the other people- this isn’t going to affect Amy.”
Check back in on the first Tuesday of every month, as we talk with Comedy Dynamics President Brian Volk-Weiss about the state of Comedy.