Joke theft is as old as comedy itself – and not easy to prove

The most notable thing about the plagiarism row raging between Kae Kurd and Darius Davies is that it’s heading for the courts.

Joke theft is as old as comedy, the rancorous underbelly to an industry that presents itself as all smiles. The worst crime a comic can commit, and practised at surprisingly high levels, it’s also notoriously hard to legislate – and policed more by the power of taboo than the power of the law.

Rather than seeking legal redress, Kurd may console himself that, with Davies’s accusation, he joins an illustrious list of alleged copycats. Robin Williams was notorious for recycling gags on primetime TV that he’d heard in fleapit comedy clubs the night before. Richard Pryor proudly admitted to lifting jokes from his forebears (“I made a lot of money as Bill Cosby”), and Trevor Noah was fingered for a routine about being a “racism connoisseur” that strongly resembled Dave Chappelle’s.

Video “evidence” of Amy Schumer’s joke theft is freely available on the internet. But Schumer denies it. “If you steal jokes,” she says, “you don’t get to be best friends with the comics you love and respect. I would be shunned by the community.” Her defence, like that of many an alleged joke thief before her, is that great comic minds think alike. Standups fish from the same pool of “what’s funny in our lives right now?” Small wonder they occasionally land the same catch.

It is, then, an occupational hazard for a comic, most of whom have at some point thought, on penning a new joke: “Has someone already written this?” In the social media and smartphone era, comics are more alert than ever to the danger of joke recycling: many acts now oblige audiences to surrender their mobile phones at the door. But it remains fiendishly hard to prove stealing, because so much that makes a joke a joke (premise; persona; body language; inflection; context) is impossible to copyright.

Props then to those comics who fess up and apologise when accused of the crime. “I just sacked my two writers, Copy and Paste,” quipped the joke thief Jordan Paris on Australia’s Got Talent in 2011. In due course, he was – of course – accused of stealing that joke, too.

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