“‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take - Wayne Gretzky’ - Michael Scott” - James Corden

What’s the last joke you told? Where did you hear it? Did you preface it with ‘I heard this joke’ or ‘X told me this joke’?

These aren’t questions that the vast majority of people concern themselves with. We hear a joke in one conversation, pass it on in another and go about our day. 

For comedy writers, however, someone else passing off your work as their own is no laughing matter. 

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In a break from using his power and status to upset service staff, James Corden has become embroiled in a joke theft controversy. 

During a monologue on Monday night’s edition of his Late Late Show, the restaurant scene-maker delivered a joke about Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover which was an almost word-for-word replica of a well-known Ricky Gervais routine about a town square advert for guitar lessons. 

Gervais tweeted the clip and said: “The bit about the town square advert for guitar lessons is brilliant”. The Office and Extras writer later deleted the tweet, explaining that he felt sorry for Corden and “I reckon one of the writers ‘came up with it’ for him”, adding: “I doubt he would knowingly just copy such a famous stand-up routine word-for-word like that”. 

The Herald:

Asked on Twitter if Corden had approached him to ask permission, he replied: “No. I reckon one of the writers ‘came up with it’ for him. I doubt he would knowingly just copy such a famous stand-up routine word-for-word like that”. 

In response, shift-ruiner Corden tweeted: “I supposed I’ve created an atmosphere where I’m a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third”.

He didn’t really, presumably because coming up with a witty response would have eaten into the time he has allotted for screaming in the faces of minimum wage workers. 

Instead, he tweeted: “Inadvertently told a brilliant Ricky Gervais joke on the show last night, obviously not knowing it came from him. It’s brilliant, because it’s a Ricky Gervais joke. You can watch all Ricky’s excellent specials on Netflix”. 

With a reported net worth of $140 million compared to Corden’s $70 million, Gervais is sufficiently powerful for the scourge of apron-wearers to feel sheepish. The Office and Extras co-creator’s position at the top of the comedy ladder means he’s insulated from the impact of joke theft, but that’s not always the case for those further down.

In the social media age, less premium is placed on having the right connections in the comedy industry. Rob Delaney is a successful stand-up, writer, TV star and author, but was a complete unknown when he began using Twitter in 2009. 

Tweets such as “Which Mumford is the dad?” and “Wifi at my uncle’s funeral is a f***ing joke”, helped him build a large online following, which eventually led to him breaking into the TV industry. Comedy writers who have grown their audience on the platform can demonstrate to those at the top that they know how to craft a joke, and that those jokes have mass appeal. 

There is now a clear path from hobby to career, and so it’s no surprise that many who aren’t themselves capable of writing jokes will attempt to replicate that success. 

Patton Oswalt is an acclaimed stand-up comedian who has also enjoyed a successful film and TV career. In a 2013 post on his website about joke theft, he said: “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.”

There are numerous ‘bantz’ accounts which have accumulated massive followings based on sharing memes or videos without attribution and saying ‘WHO DID THIS!!!!!!!’. 

Large accounts, often with betting money behind them or ‘banter’ in their title, have built six and seven-figure followings on shamelessly passing off the material of smaller accounts as their own. Then there are the Instagram or Facebook accounts that take a screenshot of a tweet before posting it with the original Twitter handle cropped out. 

There’s a cynicism to deliberate joke theft. It’s putting your name or your face to a joke with the intention of having an audience believe these are your original thoughts. 

If someone says ‘brilliant joke mate’, do you say ‘cheers’? You’re receiving the compliment, but it’s not your own work that’s being complimented. Given that it’s not your work being praised, your endorphins can’t be stimulated by the applause. 

That means the motivation has to be clout or job opportunities. 

Every time an emerging writer’s joke is used uncredited by someone with a bigger platform, that writer is being denied the audience that their work deserves and the opportunities that may come with it. 

Oswalt said: “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 know better, cyber-quacking away about ‘cover songs’ and ‘vaudeville’ and a million other euphemisms and deflections away from the 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 rationalising and defending them”. 

The problem is, most people are simply not bothered about a joke’s origins. And who can blame them? For anyone who doesn’t spend their time writing jokes, there is no shortage of more important issues to be concerned with. 

The majority of people have the luxury of not bothering about where a joke comes from, but for anyone involved in comedy it can have a profound impact on their career and self-worth. As Oswalt put it, “I’m a comedian. I get to care about this stuff”. 

Comedians have been caring about this stuff for decades. While joke theft has become easier to prove online, the practice is nothing new. 

As Oswalt alludes to, it was common in the vaudeville scene, which spanned several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Over the years, big names such as Amy Schumer, Denis Leary, Robin Williams have been accused of passing off other people’s material as their own. 

The Herald:

In an appearance on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast in 2010, Williams admitted to “joke sampling”, but argued that it was unintentional. Schumer was accused of stealing a 2006 joke from comedian Tammy Pescatelli in her 2015 romantic comedy Trainwreck, but Pescatelli eventually apologised on the Opie with Jim Norton Show and said: “It is probably parallel thinking, that does happen”. 

There is a significant difference between intentional joke theft and great minds thinking alike. When it comes to Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, the chances of two comedians unknowingly arriving at a similar punchline about the former’s orange face or latter’s legion of progeny are pretty high. 

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As Gervais pointed out, the likelihood is the theft will have occurred in the writer’s room, and Corden will have been oblivious as he read them from his autocue. 

Not that Corden is entirely innocent of plagiarism, of course. Fawlty Towers had a famous bit about abusing waiters over 40 years ago.