Joke thievery is a very sensitive subject amongst comedians. Altercations break out over joke stealing, and a few comedians have even been killed. Yeah, I know! … No, just kidding, no deaths. At least I hope. Friendships amongst comics have definitely been killed. As well as careers. All in the name of trying to kill on stage.
Often we call someone a “hack” if they steal jokes, though it can also simply mean that they are unoriginal. It’s important that we realize that most cases of hackery are not deliberate, but rather a product of inexperience. It’s not like we get mad at fledgling surgeons for copying the moves from their textbooks. So let’s distinguish.
A Level 1 Hack is someone who’s just not that original. It’s not like they’re flat-out repeating someone’s jokes, but they re-use tired premises or apply common mechanisms that other comedians use, whether it’s content or style. In my opinion, all comics, myself included, are level 1 hacks to some degree. We use tricks we’ve seen… Misdirection, analogy, sarcasm, etc. We talk about sex, relationships, babies (in that same order as we progress through life). Even the concept of going on stage and making people laugh is hacky: it’s been done before. So no one is exempt. It’s almost impossible not to be a hack nowadays with all the comedy that’s out there. Back during the golden years, you only needed to hear the albums by the five greats and you knew what ground was tread. Now everyone has a special, or an album on i-tunes, or memes, or tweets…there’s an infinite number of jokes to worry about accidentally ripping off. How are we supposed to find the time to listen to all that when we’re too busy writing our own material or talking sh*t about other comedians? Sure, there are some comedians that are very good about being as original as they can, emulating no one, and speaking from an untainted mind. Props to them (no props for prop comics). But there’s no pure case of originality. Everyone sounds like someone else. And everyone starts off as a hack. Yes, everyone.
A Level 2 Hack is someone who unintentionally lifts their material or delivery from someone else. They hear the other comic doing it at some point, and then they forget they heard it later on when writing it down on paper or saying it on stage. Sounds complicated, but we must distinguish it from a coincidence. If you write a joke that someone else happens to have, and you had no idea they had it and never heard them do it, you’re only a level 1 hack. Level 2 hacks are often comedy fans, spending a lot of time watching and listening to other comedians. They end up ripping them off unconsciously because they hear the comedian’s voice in their head and think it’s their own voice. It’s surprisingly common, and most comics at some point in their career, myself included, commit an act of level 2 hackery.
The Level 3 Hack is the stereotypical, purest type of hack. Someone who hears another comedian’s joke and knowingly takes it for themselves. This is the true “joke thief.” Level 3′s come in two breeds. One hears the joke and tries to change it a little bit so that it doesn’t look like a blatant rip-off. I call these “sneak a-hacks.” Pretty despicable, but at least they try to cover their trails. Then there’s the more classic joke thief who shamelessly takes a joke from someone else, often verbatim, and does it in rooms where he doesn’t think he’ll get caught. Often we call these “road hacks” because they lift jokes done in comedy hub cities and take them on the road to bolster their set. I’ve never been a level 3 hack, but I try my best to understand why they do it. Maybe they are just trying to feed their families, and think of themselves like a cover band; bringing other comedians’ “greatest hits” to the masses who wouldn’t hear them otherwise. I mean, if a stolen joke kills on the road, and no one who knows it’s stolen is there to notice, does it really happen? That’s the scary part: some level 3 hacks never get caught.
Now that we’ve distinguished the levels of hackery, we must also note that there are different types of stealing. Traditional joke stealing is the repeating of someone’s words, but there’s a plethora of other ways to rip someone off. Let’s take a look!
Someone who takes on concepts that they’ve already heard other comedians use, like “they’re gonna build a wall between here and Mexico” (2006) or “what’s up with Facebook?” (2009 – present). This is surprisingly common and don’t feel too bad if you’ve done this. I have! Not because I couldn’t come up with my own premises, but because I really wanted to voice my own opinion on a topic that other comedians already covered. Still makes me a hack though.
Someone who expresses the character of an established comedian (usually someone they idolize). Like if I watched a lot of Daniel Tosh and tried to do his cocky likeable thing. Tosh employs it very effectively because it’s him, while most comics attempting to be Tosh really only cover the cockiness. That’s the problem with persona hacking: we get a watered-down version of another comedian. This is also very common, and, in fact, most of us comedians start off by borrowing a persona (or two… or three) from a few comedians we like. Like when I started I was Chris Rock + Dave Chappelle. You can imagine how confused the audience was seeing this from a curly-haired Lebanese kid. But at some point you become comfortable expressing your own persona. Or steal someone else’s and do it better than them.
Someone who borrows the rhythm of another comedian. Sure, there are only so many cadences out there that work, and most comedians share similar cadences in some way. But sometimes a comic can listen to another particular comic so much that they hear the beats in their own head when working out the timing of their own joke. Like a Mitch Hedberg: soft, casual build-up, and emphasizing the last syllable of the punchline, and pausing. This type of hacking is also common so don’t worry too much about it!
Someone whose voice sounds identical to another comedian’s. Start talking in a higher pitch. Or smoking! Anything to change the tone or timbre of your voice.
Someone who copies the same physical quirks of other comedians; even their bad habits. For example, the tendency to lean on the mic stand with one hand gripping the top, the other holding the mic (Bill Burr).
Someone who has another comedian’s “look.” Get a haircut. Lose some weight. “But I’m already skinny!” Lose more! This is showbiz.
Someone who adopts another comedian’s original business move. Yes, I’m counting this. It’s rarely even flagged as wrong, but it happens a lot. Like Dane Cook influencing comedians in the mid-2000′s to pimp out their Myspaces.
Someone who associates themselves with a certain genre of comedy so they lock themselves into the traditions of the genre. Like someone doing “racial comedy” and just going through the laundry list of races to make fun of, or someone who considers themselves “alternative” so they intentionally make references that only 14% of the room gets. Personally, I like elements of both racial and alternative comedy, but I don’t like when people force themselves into one of those boxes. Make your own box, silly! And live in it on the street.
Significant Other Hack
Dating another comedian’s ex. You’re doing someone that another comedian already did.
There are infinite ways to hack another artist. Come up with your own and add it to the list! Or just copy and re-paste one of mine for irony.
Now that we know the types of hacks, we need to talk about what you should do if you witness a comedian falling into any of the above categories. Let’s start with the wrong way.
DO NOT: Tell everyone but the thief. Or call them a hack on Facebook, from an obvious call-out to dropping passive-aggressive hints. Or get a group of your friends to approach that comic in an intimidating way after the show. You are not the joke police. Get a life.
DO: Refrain from telling anyone EXCEPT the comedian who stole the joke and the comedian who originally came up with it. Confront the accused first. See if it was just an accident or what was going on. And, if you think necessary, tell the comic whose joke was stolen so they know what’s going on out there. I know, it takes a lot of balls to do this. Do you have them?
It’s very simple, and too often we let our egos get in the way. Most of the time, hackery is not intentional nor malicious. Yes, level 3 joke thieves need to be told that it’s a no-no, and level 2′s should be given a slap on the wrist. But most of the time, hackery is just a natural part of becoming an artist and learning to stand on your own two creative feet. So next time you feel the urge to call another comedian a hack, take a moment to look at your own comedy. Is it 100% original, with no trace of any other comedians? If not, I’d kindly ask you to shut your jokehole.
If an alien came from another universe and watched different stand-up comics here on earth, it would see us as all the same: desperate idiots holding microphones and seeking attention. Ever since the era of Pryor and Carlin, the remaining window of originality left for stand up has shrunk. The content of stand-up may keep evolving but the form is pretty much static. It’s still telling jokes into a mic. So the least hacky way to do comedy is, ironically, just not to do comedy. And even that is hackier than doing comedy. So it’s a paradox. But what I’m saying is that until we accept that we’re all just hacks trying to breathe a tiny bit of originality into an already hack art form, we’ll be wasting our time hating on other comedians for no good reason. Instead, let’s spend the time finding a way to bring stand-up comedy’s authenticity back.
And on that note, what’s the deal with spaceship food???