This piece originally appeared on Patton Oswalt’s website.
“Develop a little self-righteousness. A lot of that is an ugly thing, God knows, but a little spread over all your scruples is an absolute necessity!”
—Glen Bateman, in Stephen King’s The Stand
It’s not the thievery. It’s the goddamned theorizing.
When I started doing comedy—back in 1988—I did a joke one night, at an unpaid open mic, that killed. It killed. I wasn’t used to having anything in my set, in those first few months of shows, get any response from an audience other than a hard blink and an impatient sigh.
There’s a dopamine rush, for a comedian, when you cobble a thought out of thin air, when you arrange words not as a sentence but suddenly, as a joke. A for-real, plucked-from-your-skull joke. Something you created which, when you reach the part you want the audience to laugh at? And then … holy shit! They actually laugh? That’s the spike in the vein that sets the compass for your life.
Well, I’d gotten a taste. I wanted more.
The only problem was, it wasn’t my joke.
In those early days, not only did I perform as many sets as I could get, I watched as much comedy as I could find. The same way a writer has to both write, but also read. Huge bites of both, if they want to hone their voice. I’m sure this is the same in any creative field.
There was a lot of comedy to watch in the late ’80s. Too much, really. Endless cable shows, microphones in front of brick walls, geometric backgrounds, bland curtains. But for me, a suburban kid who had limited access to the city and thus limited access to other comedians to watch and learn from? The Basic Cable Jester Parade was boot camp, college, and conservatory, all at the same time.
And, in watching the endless procession of amazing comedians on TV at that time, as well as working a day job and going out at night to do sets, I lived on three hours sleep a day—about 18 hours, total, per week. And you combine that sleep deprivation with my consuming ambition, plus the fact that the few waking hours I had at home were spent chomping down all of the televised stand-up I could hunt down?
Well, I stole a joke. Not consciously. I heard something I found hilarious, misremembered it as an inspiration of my own, and then said it onstage. And got big laughs.
Here it is: “Whenever I’m sitting on a bus, and someone asks me if the seat next to me is free, I have an answer that guarantees no one will want that seat. I look up and smile and say, ‘No one but … The Lord.”
Huge laugh on that one. Pow! Bigger than anything else in my set at the time, that’s for sure.
I came off-stage and Blaine Capatch, a comedian friend of mine who’s a never-miss machine gun in terms of quantity and quality when it comes to jokes, took me aside and said, “That’s a Carol Leifer joke, man.”
It hit me just as soon as he’d said it. He was right. It was a Carol Leifer joke. Pretty much word for word. I’d seen her do it on A&E’s Evening at the Improv one night and then, during a Diet Coke and Cup o’ Noodles lunch at the law firm I was clerking at, I jotted it down in my notebook as if I’d written it. And then went up onstage and killed with it. At 2 in the morning, for probably 17 people and no money. But what the fuck did I care at that point? All I was chasing, as an open miker, was the rush—and, I was hoping, paid work. Regularly killing during my sets would lead to that work, wouldn’t it?
In the exact moment after I’d realized that what Blaine said was true, that I’d cribbed a laugh from someone else’s creativity and inspiration, my ego kicked in. And, I mean, my real ego. Not ego’s sociopathic cousin, hubris, which would have made me defensive, aggressive, and ultimately rationalize the theft. No, the good kind of ego, the kind that wanted success and fame and praise on my own merits, no matter how long it took.
I said, “Oh shit, you’re right. I didn’t even realize I was doing that. Godammit …”
“Eh. You do it all the time when you’re starting out. Everyone does. You can’t avoid it. Just don’t make it a habit,” said Blaine, and headed back into the showroom to watch someone destroy, probably, with a rap song about farting. It was the ’80s.
Now, let’s zoom ahead 15 years later. I was recording my first album at The 40 Watt in Athens, Ga. It was a boozy, swooping, 2½-hour show that I edited down to 89 minutes for the album release. I had a lot of fun doing it. I performed it in front of the kind of dream crowd that’s not only excited for your polished, crafted routines, but also the unexpected blind alleys of thought, the in-the-moment stage notions that die gorgeously from their own heat, and the jokes that are funnier for being audacious and suggestive rather than structured, logical, and clear.
Within that 140 minutes were a couple of jokes I had just started working on, but had no real ending (and, to be honest, no middle, either). One of them was about microwaveable Hot Pockets. All I really had was the idea that the word “Hot Pockets” was phonetically perfect to be said by a fat person. It got a solid laugh and, as I leapt from that premise’s unfinished scaffolding onto the supremely appointed edifice of an actual joke I’d bothered to finish, I made a note in my head to not put the Hot Pockets on the finished album, but to save the concept to develop for the next one.
After the show, at a house party with some friends and the recording crew, someone pointed out to me that Jim Gaffigan had a bit about Hot Pockets, and that it was amazing.
I said, “Yeah, but, uh, I mean, it’s parallel thought on my part. I haven’t heard his take …”
My friend said, “Oh, I know. I’m just saying, it’s something he’s kind of famous for. You should give it a listen. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t know how comedy works who’ll think you maybe lifted it. You know how people are.”
I went online later that night and listened to Jim’s Hot Pockets bit. It’s amazing. One of those perfectly realized, no-meat-left-on-the-bone-of-the-idea jokes that also so perfectly captures the personality and intelligence of the teller that it becomes a part of how you think of them. Martin Scorsese and Rolling Stones songs in films. Salvador Dali and melting watches, desert landscapes. Carson McCullers and that specific kind of insanity that festers in the Southern heat and haze. You can tread into these territories, play with these symbols if you want to. But you’ll just end up being compared to someone else—someone who blazed the trail you’re clumsily walking.
My ego, again. This was my first album. I didn’t want to be compared. To anyone or anything. Not even a comedian as amazing as Jim Gaffigan. Just like the 19-year-old version of me, who’d wielded a joke that wasn’t his at an open mic and crushed with it, I wanted any success or fame I had coming to be my own. To be built on a bedrock of my own creativity and risk.
You can still hear the unfinished Hot Pockets joke, by the way, on the uncut version of that album. It’s probably on YouTube. No need to spend your money on it. It’s a pallid, boneless reminder that not all parallel thought is equal. In fact, it rarely is.
Know what else is rare? Especially in my profession? People outside of my profession who know the difference.
OK, now I have to tell you one more quick story before I bring this back around to my original gripe. About how it’s not the thievery, it’s the theorizing. Ready?