Patton Oswalt on Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 16 2013 3:29 PM

Thievery, Heckling, and Rape Jokes

Reconsidering three arguments about stand-up comedy.

(Continued from Page 1)

OK, so now it’s a few years after Blaine pointed out to me that the “empty seat on the bus joke” I’d done at the open mic belonged to Carol Leifer. Early ’90s. Blaine and I are working professionals now, emceeing shows around the D.C. and Baltimore area. Whereas I, at this point, had barely enough original material to actually do 15 minutes, Blaine had that amount many times over. In fact, he had enough material to do more than an hour at that point. He just didn’t have the name or draw, yet, to headline.

And another young comedian we both knew—who had started featuring, which meant doing 30-minute sets after the emcee but before the headliner—started stealing Blaine’s material. Not a joke here or a line there. Huge, sprawling chunks of Blaine’s act, which ballooned the material he had from about 10 minutes to more than half an hour. And he used it to feature—to make more money, to have an easier time in front of an audience that had been warmed up by an emcee like me or Blaine, to get even more gigs. He made no attempt to hide what he was doing and, if I remember correctly, even did some of it right in front of Blaine at a show in Baltimore. 

Blaine, ever more Zen than me, even at that young age, politely confronted the comedian and asked him to stop. “That’s my stuff, man. Could you not do it, please?”

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The other comedian wasn’t angry or defensive. He was, incredibly, confused.

“But I’m starting to get feature sets. I don’t have 30 minutes of material. You’ve got more than 30 minutes. And you’re not getting feature sets.” The young comedian explained this to Blaine like he was explaining the concept of the Tooth Fairy to a 3-year-old.

Blaine said, “But you’re only getting those feature sets because of my material. You wouldn’t have enough to fill a half-hour unless you stole from me.”

“Yeah, I know,” explained the comedian, patiently. “You ain’t out there working to get feature sets. You’re just writing all this material and then just doing emcee sets. You ain’t featuring full-time like me, so I need that material. You’re not using it featuring.”

So there you go. Blaine got to watch his work benefit someone else—someone dumber, and less creative but, fatally, more ambitious and shameless than him. I’d love to tell you that the other club owners stopped hiring the thief but … nope. He made people laugh while the audience bought drinks and mozzarella sticks. Most comedy club owners back then—and a few, still, now—are in the Food and Beverage Industry, not the Creativity and Honor Industry. Most audiences cleave to the former as well. What could Blaine and I do, still at the dawn of our careers? Two emcees struggling to find an audience and get work? We had zero power to stop anyone stealing anything. We just had to write more, work harder, out-create the little fucker.

Don’t worry—this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Blaine and me to watch. By that point we’d built solid careers for ourselves and when Kid Thief’s career hit the killing floor? It drained away through the sluice gate. I’ve never heard from him since. Kelly Oxford wrote something, during this latest joke-thief debacle, about how the stealers and joke thieves can often get themselves through the highest doors only to find, when they’re at the top and people want to hear their ideas … they’ve got nothing. Kill floor. Sluice gate. Oblivion. I don’t need to name names here. We’ve seen it happen. It’ll happen again. It’s always fun when it does.

So why the wordy preamble, all of these seemingly random examples from my past? I didn’t even mention the ones I’ve gone up against recently—the Bland Midwestern Actor who performed huge chunks of my act—plus Dave Attell’s, Louie C.K.’s and Todd Barry’s (and, when confronted, claimed to have written all of those jokes for us) or the Columbia valedictorian who, in his graduation speech, passed off a joke of mine—a verbatim personal anecdote—as if it happened to him. Or, of course, the latest in my Rogue’s Gallery of Lameness, the Sticky-Fingered Youth Pastor of Twitter? The God-loving, Commandment-slinging sky pilot who “just wanted to make people laugh”—and wanted to so badly that he flat-out slapped his name on other people’s tweets and sent them out as his own? He didn’t even steal a joke from me—just from all of my friends, most of them up-and-coming talents writing jokes on Twitter, trying to make a name for themselves and build a career—only without the followers and thus without the juice to initially bring him down. And then, well … the endorphin rush. That feeling, the same one I had when I unwittingly used Carol Leifer’s joke. His rush came from the execution, not the creation. And like the truly talentless, he had to keep it going. Bigger and bigger highs. Deeper, dangerous doses. And so he lifted from Rob Delaney, April Richardson, and, most idiotically of all, Kelly Oxford

Boom. Busted.

Oh well. He got a book deal out of it. And paid speaking engagements at, ironically, religious conferences that I’m certain hold the 7th or 8th Commandment (depending on which book of the Bible you’re reading) in high regard. The people whose work he lifted, which brought him the followers which led to the book deal and speaking engagements? Too bad, shitbirds. Maybe if you’d accepted Christ.

And so I went after him, right? Just like the Actor and the Valedictorian. I mean, if you’ve read this far, you’ve obviously surmised that the memory of when I chose, against all sensations to the contrary, to not steal material to further my career, has made me hyper-sensitive and mega-revolted and super-judgmental of those who do. Add to that the memory of when I was so powerless, back there in Baltimore, watching that little goblin bum-rush his way to success on my friend’s inspiration and labor, and unable to do anything about it, has metastasized into an abiding resentment, a core-of-the-sun rage that I now indulge to overkill extremes. I mean, it’s so obvious, isn’t it?

Nice analysis.

And dead wrong. 

The Actor, the Valedictorian, and now the Pastor were never my targets. They were never my focus, never my concern, and didn’t merit a single calorie of heat. I agree with Kelly—if any of these grubworms had temporarily crawled out of the darkness of their own uselessness, even on the backs of other people’s work? They’d have been blinded by the expectations that sustained creation puts on the truly talented. Indifference and failure was—and still is—waiting for them. They’re not the problem.

All I care about is the profession I work in. Stand-up comedy. I also care about the continued, false perception the bulk of the general public has about stand-up comedy. And what I care about, most of all, is the maddening false perceptions that other people in the creative arts have about stand-up:

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?

Most people are not funny. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or dumb, or unperceptive or even uncreative. Just like most people can’t play violin, or play professional-level basketball, or perform brain surgery, or a million other vocational, technical, aesthetic, or creative pursuits. Everyone is created unequal. 

But for some reason, everyone wants to be funny. And feels like they have a right to be funny. 

But being funny is like any other talent—some people are born with it, and then, through diligence and hard work and a lot of mistakes, they strengthen that talent. 

But some people aren’t born with it. Just like some people (me, for example) aren’t born with the capacity to make music, or the height and reflexes for basketball, or the smarts to map the human mind and repair it. I’m cool knowing all of those limitations about myself.

I’m even cool knowing my limitations within comedy. I think, after nearly 25 years pursuing my craft, that I’ve become very very good at this. But I’ll never be as good as Jim Gaffigan, or Louis C.K. or Paul F. Tompkins or Maria Bamford or Brian Regan. Never reach the plangent brilliance of a Richard Pryor or the surreal mastery of a Steve Martin. I’m OK with that. I still get to be creative—on my own terms, and purely on my own work.

But why is it—and this only seems to apply to comedy—that some people so deeply resent those that can write jokes, can invent new perceptions of the world that actually make people laugh? Resent them so much that they have to denigrate the entire profession, just so they can feel better about themselves? Do they really think they’re less of a person if they can’t make up a joke, or be funny in the moment? Why is it so crucial to them? Is it because all of us, at some point of darkness or confusion or existential despair, were amazed at how absurd a thing as a simple joke suddenly lit the way, or warmed the cold, or made the sheer, horrific insanity that sometimes comes with being alive suddenly, completely, miraculously manageable? 

Those people—the public and, sadly, a lot of journalists—those people were my target, in all of my seemingly “unmeasured responses” to thievery. Because I can’t stop joke thieves. They’re always going to be there.

But what I can hopefully stop—or, at least, change for the better—is the public (and media’s) response to joke thieves, by hammering away at this same, exhausting refrain every time I see some thumb-sucking “think piece” by a writer who should fucking know better, cyber-quacking away about “cover songs” and “vaudeville” and a million other euphemisms and deflections away from the simple fact that an uncreative person took a creative person’s work, signed their name to it, and passed it off as their own for their personal glorification, monetary benefit, and career advancement. There’s no wiggle room there. Even the thieves know that, better than the dullards who are rationalizing and defending them. 

The Actor knew what he was doing. He wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the NYmag.com piece about me calling him out, keeping alive the meme of, “I thought all comedians steal their stuff.” 

The Valedictorian knew what he was doing. He also wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the New York Times article about his thievery of my work, asserting that he wasn’t deserving of this harsh scrutiny, because he was a Columbia grad and that some silly “joke teller” should be honored to have his work used in a valedictorian speech. 

The Pastor, especially, knew what he was doing, because he’d done it for years, and people politely confronted him on Twitter, privately, and he mewled and shrugged his shoulders and deleted the tweets he’d stolen and continued stealing more. Even he wasn’t the problem. It was the endless shit-slog of bloggers, Twitter commenters, Facebook essayists, and probably a thousand other people who smugly shrugged their shoulders and didn’t even bother to add a pixel of ignorance to the whole affair. Those people were my target. Because those are the same kind of assholes who make it possible for thieves and hacks to thrive, sometimes all the way into stadium gigs, sitcom deals, and movie careers, in my profession.

So I want to change as many minds as I can. Educate as many people about where I’m coming from when I flip the berserker switch on hyenas like the Actor, the Valedictorian and the Pastor. I’ll probably have to do it again. And again. And again. I’m OK with it.

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