Patton Oswalt writes on rape jokes, heckling and joke stealing

By | June 17, 2013 at 12:31 pm | 7 comments | News, Opinion | Tags:

Patton Oswalt on Friday posted a lengthy missive that had comedy fans chattering all weekend. The three-part “Closed Letter To Myself About Thievery, Hecking and Rape Jokes” found the always-introspective Oswalt amidst a heightened degree of self-revelation and theory.

In the first part of his essay, he admitted the time he once, during the infancy of his comedy career when he was just 19 years old, unwittingly stole a joke from comedian Carol Leifer. And he addressed a more recent matter, wherein he called out a pastor who was lifting jokes from comedians and pasting them into his Twitter feed. Those anecdotes, however, were just a few cogs of the vehicle he used to illustrate the fundamental problem between stand-up comedy and civilians who lack understanding of the art and who, ultimately, whether they’re aware or not, have no respect for the artform. “What I care about, most of all, is the maddening false perceptions that other people in the creative arts have about stand-up,” he writes, and then follows up, taking on the voice of the ill-informed comedy consumer:

Comedians don’t write their own jokes. They all steal. All great artists steal. You can’t copyright jokes. It doesn’t matter who writes a joke, just who tells it the best. Don’t musicians play other musicians’ songs? There are only so many subjects to make jokes about, anyway. I’ve seen, like, five different comedians do jokes about airplanes – isn’t that stealing, too?

His thoughts on heckling during a live comedy show serve as a reminder to all would-be comedy goers: Comedians don’t want to be heckled; you don’t make the show better and you are a rude, disrespectful jerk. Or as Oswalt states, ”Hecklers prevent a show from being a fucking show.”

Oswalt saved the most topical subject – rape jokes – for last. It’s here he admitted that his past reactions to automatically defend a comedian under fire for telling rape jokes, wasn’t in line with his usual approach to comedy:

Why, after all of my years of striving to write original material (and, at times, becoming annoyingly self-righteous about it) and struggling find new viewpoints or untried approaches to any subject, did I suddenly balk and protest when an articulate, intelligent and, at times, angry contingent of people were asking my to apply the same principles to the subject of rape? Any edgy or taboo subject can become just as hackneyed as an acceptable or non-controversial one if the exact same approach is made every time. But I wasn’t willing to hear that.

If you haven’t already read Oswalt’s complete piece, you really should. Check it out here.

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Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor in chief of Laughspin. He launched Punchline Magazine in 2005 (which became Laughspin in the summer of 2011) with childhood friend Bill Bergmann. Dylan lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons. He hopes the Shire is real.

  • laila55

    Jokes cannot be copyrighted because of the Merger Doctrine (a joke is a merger of an idea and an expression, and Copyright Law can’t give you a monopoly on ideas). That’s why comedians use Social Norms to protect their jokes: collective shaming on the culprit. Now the fun part: according to comedians, you can NEVER steal a joke. Really? Well, this is AGAINST Copyright Law, which allows for fair use. So, let the judge be the judge. The comedians’ ancient social norms are WRONG and stifle fair creativity.

  • kdoc13

    This pretty much confirms why I respect Patton Oswalt so much. Especially the line “No One Writes Their Own Jokes.” Every comedian steals, even if it something that is funny that is said by a non-comedian friend. Yes, you as a Comedian put your own take on things that you observe and think about, but a lot of it comes from others too.

    When I was doing standup in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the so-called “Golden Age” of standup, joke theft was commonplace. You would go to somplace like the Laugh Factory in LA, and the rule was was not if you performed the joke first, it was yours. It was whoever got it on TV, or a record, got the joke first. I like Joe Rogan, I think he’s really funny. But I think he makes too big of a deal about joke theft, to the point where it makes him less funny and less relateable, and more of an angry douche. He wouldn’t have lasted very long if he was complaining about it back then. The moment he complained about a big name, Budd or Mitzi would have heard back from the big names, and he’d be lucky to get a 4 am slot in front of the passed out drunks and homeless guys. He’s lucky he came along at a later period. The stories about Joan Rivers, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and all the other big names of that period stealing jokes are legendary, and was almost a rite of passage. If you started in the late 80’s, you have two stories that almost all comics from that period have. 1) The first hell-hole strip club you had to play, and 2) the first time a big name stole your joke. Hell, I remember the time I heard Richard Jeni tell one of my jokes in an HBO Special. Would have been nice to have gotten credit, would have been nicer to have gotten paid for it. But neither happened. And as Oswalt states so well, Jeni did my joke better than I did. And he got it on TV first. So, it was his. That said, it never stopped me from still using it either. Once I said “Yeah, he borrowed it from me.” Everyone knew what happened.

    The only way you could avoid Joke Theft back then was to be too original for others to steal from. No one else could do Dice, no one else could do Carrot Top (come on, he’s funny, show some respect), Tim Allen’s “More Power” or Foxworthy’s “You Might Be A Redneck if” and no one else could do… or still can do anything Brian Regan does. They are way too unique to steal from.
    Where is the line though? One joke, fine. Two jokes in your act, fair enough. Five jokes? At some point the audience is paying for you, not a remix of greatest hits from others. And is it line for line and word for word, or are you adding to it, or changing it enough to improve on it or make it your own? If someone has a much better punch line to my jokes, have at it. People pay for funny, and to the funniest go the spoils.

    • baconarray

      That was him taking on the voice of the ill informed comedy consumer. I suggest you read the whole article.

    • Kid Icarus

      kdoc13, did you ever ‘borrow’ material from Blaine Capatch?

    • brijazz012

      “I remember the time I heard Richard Jeni tell one of my jokes”

      That’s why he killed himself.

      • kdoc13

        I get it, it truly do. Most of your coments are anonymos cheap shots at people. It’s easy to be anonymous, rather than get up on stage and do this. Big man behind a little screen in your parents basement. I could let you feel smart right now…

        Or I could just point out that the joke you made, was one you stole from Jeff Ross. Thanks for making my point.

        • brijazz012

          Oh, here we go: the good ol’ “if it’s so easy, why don’t YOU do it” defense. Next time you complain about crappy food in a restaurant, I’m sure you’re going to become a chef and open up your own spot, right?

          As for being anonymous: you’re not using your real name here either… but you’re acting as if you’re a professional comedian! Where can we see some of your jokes? You should be PROUD of your material, so I don’t see why you’re not sharing it with us all. This forum is filled with comedy lovers, maybe you’ll gain some new fans.

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