Like the people who wear military uniforms and medals of valor they never earned, many Twitter users steal jokes so that they can pretend to be funnier than they actually are. Instead of stolen valor, they have stolen humor. Conan O’Brien was recently accused of stealing jokes tweeted by Robert Alex Kaseberg and using those jokes in his monologues. Kaseberg is suing for the unattributed use of several of his masterpieces in 140 characters.
I empathize with Mr. Kaseberg because I know how upsetting it can be to hear one’s own joke in someone else’s act. In the 90s, I was getting jokes on a few popular syndicated radio shows. Shortly after It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton was published, I made a joke that the sequel would be titled It Takes a Village Idiot. The joke got on the air in dozens of cities. A few days later, Don Imus was the speaker at the Press Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington D.C. I watched the event live on C-SPAN, and I nearly choked on my corn chips when he uttered the line.
When people write topical jokes they’re dealing with the biggest news stories of the day or week. Because of that, many hit the same topics and write jokes based on the same premises. With topical jokes, it’s possible, and even probable, that several writers will come up with jokes that are similar. Even though my joke was incredibly clever, Imus or someone who wrote for him certainly could have come up with the same line.
Speaking of idiots, I once had a job an idiot could do. And I was very good at it. But I digress.
Familiar themes also serve as premises for jokes. Here’s a joke I used to tell. “If money is the root of all evil, I must be on my way to sainthood.” (I know the Bible verse says “the love of money.” However, that didn’t fit well for the joke.) Over a year after using that joke in my standup act, I saw it in a newspaper comic strip. I didn’t do much comedy outside of Florida and I doubted that the artist had somehow stumbled across my joke. She simply came up with the same joke.
After I published my book, Humor 101: How to Tell Jokes for Power, Prestige, Profit, and Personal Fulfillment, I was accused by someone from New York of stealing one of his jokes. The joke was different, but the premise was the same: A sense of humor is one of the most desired attributes when seeking a relationship. It wasn’t exactly a unique idea. The guy was doing local gigs in New York and he hadn’t had his joke published anywhere. Although he could not figure out how I had gotten access to his joke, he was certain that I had. There was no way to reason with him. He threatened to sue, but nothing ever came of that.
Twitter is a sharing platform. It’s also a stealing platform where many users cut, paste, and take credit for other people’s tweets. That genie is out of the bottle and it’s never going back in. Tweet plagiarism is sometimes referred to as twagiarism. Some twagiarists develop impressive followings. Sammy Rhodes accumulated 130,000 followers and became a Twitter rockstar with his funny tweets. In 2013, he got called out for plagiarism by comedian Patton Oswalt. Rhodes left Twitter for a while, but he’s back tweeting like a canary. Although he occasionally recycles his own lines, there don’t seem to be any accusations of fresh twagiarism.
As I read about Rhodes, I thought up the words tweetaholic and tweetaholism. I believed I had coined two brand new words. Then I Googled those words and found that they’ve been in use for some time, proving my point that more than one person can come up with the same brilliant idea. But again, I digress.
Tweetaholism can be a terrible thing. One tweet is too many and a thousand tweets aren’t enough. (That sentence is based on a line that’s frequently repeated in reference to alcoholism.)
A similar joke here or there doesn’t constitute comedic plagiarism. There have to be several jokes, as there were in the Kaseberg case, or a comedic bit, which is a series of jokes about one topic. For example, I once wrote a bit which was published in the January 2000 issue of The Door Magazine. In 2007, a mega-pastor adapted it for a parody video that got over 100,000 views. There was no attribution and I didn’t even discover the video till 2013.
When I contacted the mega-church about it, the church’s mega-lawyer asserted that my old piece and their video were “very different.” People who steal have no problem lying and denying when confronted. I discovered that Rev. Humongous had also plagiarized my piece in one of his books. The evidence was very obvious in black and white. After I contacted the publisher, they wasted no time inserting my name in a footnote.
Writers need attribution in order to build their livelihoods. Twitter is, and will continue to be, one of the worst places for writers to post anything that they want credit for. Nevertheless, people who write tweets that are good enough to share or steal actually deserve credit for their work.
With topical jokes, more than one writer can come up with the same joke. However, when one writer’s jokes keep showing up in someone else’s act, something is probably wrong. Conan has people who write for him. If the four jokes in question all came from one writer, that person almost certainly plagiarized Kaseberg’s tweets.
Have you heard the one about Conan firing one of his writers?
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