Taking Stock: Tolerated Joke Theft

By | April 30, 2007 at 7:45 am | One comment | Features | Tags: , , , , , ,

Lord Carrett

Joke stealing has been getting a lot of attention lately, due to the battle between Joe Rogan and Carlos Mencia. Joke theft is always going to exist, for the simple reason that stealing jokes is a lot easier than writing them.

But there’s a brand of purloined punch line that no one seems to mind so much: the “stock line.”

The existence of “stock” is a generally accepted and erroneous notion that there exists a collection of sure-fire jokes that are kept “in stock” in an imaginary pantry for the use of the comedy community.

Some of them would be nearly impossible to trace back to the person who wrote them. Jokes like: “What is this an audience, or an oil painting?” seem to have simply appeared from the mist fully formed around the time the first comedian crawled out of the primordial ooze.

They’re usually two kinds of jokes: “saves” (like the line above) that help a comic recover from a failed joke, and “slams” on the audience as a whole or, in the case of a heckler, on an individual.

In truth, these jokes are victims of their own success. They’re so certain to get a laugh that thousands of comics have turned to them in a pinch. As a result, these amazingly effective jokes are reviled rather than revered. It seems familiarity really does breed contempt.

Let’s face facts. Stock lines are theft. Someone wrote them. Moses didn’t come down from the mountain with Ten Commandments, and “a few good lines in case you get in a jam!” Simply put, there are two kinds of jokes: jokes you wrote (before anyone else did) and jokes you didn’t. If you steal a stolen bicycle, you’re still a thief.

Just as Shakespeare wrote many expressions that are still as common as muck, many jokes that are considered stock are attributed to David Letterman or Richard Belzer. Belzer is generally credited with the classic heckler line: “This is why some animals eat their young,” but it could, and some of them do date back to vaudeville.

Some deal with specific situations, like people arriving after a show has started: “Can I get you anything… like a WATCH?” or people making themselves a little too at home: “Are you in show business? Then get your feet off the stage!” That joke was ancient when Mel Brooks used it in Blazing Saddles, and comedians still use it!

Comedians are thought of as mavericks and individualists, but for some reason, otherwise groundbreaking comedians will fall back on stock lines when challenged by a tough crowd or heckler– as if being heckled doesn’t come with the job! It’s going to happen, so why not write jokes for the occasion? If a comedian doesn’t have at least two or three original jokes to deal with hecklers, then they’re two or three jokes shy of truly being a comedian.

I’d like to attempt to reunite some of the best-known stock jokes with their originators, to illustrate my point. I’ve come up with four that I’m reasonably certain of the source of, owing largely to the unquestionable reputation and unfailing originality of the earliest person I can trace them to.

If you’re a comedian doing one of these jokes, or a variation of one of them, please stop. And by “please stop” I mean, please stop doing comedy. Today.

A good starting point is Steve Martin, whose ability and inventiveness are beyond reproach. On one of his early comedy albums, upon being heckled, Steve replied: “I remember MY first beer.”

That joke is simply a work of art. Steve passive-aggressively identifies with his adversary, sheds light on the heckler’s impropriety, and yet makes no real judgment. Steve deftly sidesteps the attack like a bullfighter.

You’d be hard pressed to listen to an hour of morning radio without hearing some variation of (the underrated) Margaret Smith: “When you went to school, did you go in a long bus, or a short bus?”

The unfailingly original Bill Hicks was known to follow a particularly offensive tirade with the now common: “By the way, I’m available for children’s parties…”

And many years ago, the wildly creative Roger Rittenhouse came up with: “I’m sweating like Mike Tyson in a spelling bee,” itself a wondrous reinvention of: “I’m sweating like a whore in church,” and then watched the joke spread like wildfire.

It’s an industry-wide blind spot that stock lines do, of course, come from somewhere, but many/most performers and producers adopt an “Everybody cheats on their taxes” attitude toward the practice. No, everybody doesn’t cheat. Please don’t attribute your lack of integrity to an imagined epidemic.

The average audience member believes comedians come up with everything they say on the spot. So, if a comic tells a joke they didn’t write, even without claiming that they did, they’re in effect taking credit for the joke–  and they know it.

And that’s where it gets dangerous for comedians, who tend to have a strong streak of self-hatred. Letterman can’t stand to watch tapes of his show, and if he isn’t happy with himself after all he’s contributed, chances are the featured performer at Koo-Koo’s Komedy Korner isn’t going to be if he’s looking outside of his own notebook for material.

Every comic I know is a damaged individual. Every comedian seems to have a hole in them that at first can be filled with laughter, applause, free alcohol and the attentions of the opposite sex. But it’s a temporary fix.

Diligently writing and performing their own material exclusively, staying true to themselves, and becoming accomplished at comedy not only fills, but repairs the hole. And, in the words of Wilson Pickett: “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do).”

The expression’s been traced to 1440 A.D. and it pops up all over the place, from Lord Buckley to Buckaroo Bonsai, but: “Where ever you go, there you are.”

So you’d better learn to like yourself.

Lord Carrett is a stand-up comedian and writer based in New York City. For more information, check out www.lordoflaughs.com.

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