Why "Joke Theft" Is Such A Tricky Accusation

Amy Schumer isn't the first, and definitely won't be the last, comedian to be accused of stealing jokes. But, that doesn't mean Schumer's taking these allegations lightly. Instead, she's going to great lengths — or at least over to fellow comedian and friend Jim Norton's Sirius XM radio show — to set the record straight. "I'm being accused of stealing jokes," she said. "And I wanted to come and talk to you about it and clear my name." Earlier this week, three female comedians — Wendy Liebman, Kathleen Madigan and Tammy Pescatelli — took to Twitter to discuss alleged similarities between their jokes and ones Schumer used in her debut feature film, Trainwreck, her Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, and her HBO Live At The Apollo special. The tweets have since been deleted, but not before the people could start wondering if Schumer really did steal their jokes.

Joke theft is nothing new, it's been around since the dawn of, well, jokes. But claims of joke stealing have become more and more prevalent since comedians starting putting their bon mots on Twitter and their sets started ending up online shortly after delivering them. These clips and tweets put a timestamp on a joke, providing some tactile evidence in what used to be a he said, she said debate. The Instagram celeb-comedian Josh Ostrovsky, better known as "The Fat Jew," was called out last year for copying and pasting other people's jokes and passing them off on his own. He was forced to apologize in the end after it was clear these claims had real merit. So yeah, we've seen the joke theft accusation machine run its course a few times at this point.

Liebman started the Schumer plagiarism allegations by noting apparent similarities between a joke she told 25 years ago and one Schumer used in her HBO special about a liking a man to pay... for sex. Pescatelli then remarked that a joke from her 2006 Comedy Central special Dressing Up about how women dress men is similar to a joke in Trainwreck. Pescatelli then also mentioned the similarities between Schumer's "Slap Chef" and "Sleep Gym" sketches to a joke Madigan told about Oprah Winfrey being so rich that she could hire people to keep her in shape by slapping food out of her hands and training her while laying down. Again, Schumer has denied ever stealing any jokes.

This isn't the first time Schumer has been accused of taking from other comedians. In October, critics brought up alleged similarities between a joke the late comedian Patrice O'Neal told about the outrageous sex acts with even more outrageous names like "The Poltergeist" and one she told in her HBO special, which talks about sex acts like "The Houdini" and "The Abraham Lincoln."

In addition to Schumer denying the claims, other comedians spoke up with words of support, saying these jokes did not start with O'Neal. Comedian Jim Norton, wrote on Facebook, "Those terms have been in the Urban Dictionary for years, Patrice did not come up with them. People doing similar bits has been happening in comedy for as long as people have been telling jokes."

But this previous claim is probably what forced Schumer to make such a public plea, telling Norton, "I'm literally going to take a polygraph test and put it on my show this season, and I promise, whatever the results are — I won't let them cut — I will show that I had never, never seen Patrice do that bit. I had definitely never seen Tammy Pescatelli do that."

But beyond the allegations lobbed at Schumer, there's a fine line, in general, when it comes to what joke stealing even means. The definitions are all over the place. Some accusers will say the use of similar words or punchlines mean the joke could have been lifted from someone else; others will say if a joke has a similar premise it could be considered stealing. Schumer's jokes in question, do take on similar topics, but not necessarily brand new ones. Jokes about dieting, men's dressing habits, and women's workouts aren't exactly unheard of territory for female comedians.

The fact is that comedians can do very little legally if someone actually does steal their joke. As Slate pointed out in 2014, there is a "humor code," which is super simple. It goes like this: don't steal someone else's joke. Still, jokes inherently find themselves passed down and changed over a course of years, decades or, in one particular case, centuries. According to the book Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves, alleged joke stealer Milton Berle told a joke in which the origin was traced back to the world’s oldest-known joke book, the fourth century's Philogelos. It's not always intentional, either — and that's a rather important point. Even Patton Oswalt even admitted to unconsciously stealing a joke early on in his career.

Luckily, the great-minds-think-alike defense seemed to be enough for Liebman though, who later tweeted that she never said Schumer "stole" her joke. "I just said it was the same," Liebman tweeted. "It's possible we both wrote it. I just wanted you to know I wrote it 1st." Later responding once again to a fan who asked about the joke theft with the joke she wrote first: "I think both @amyschumer and I like it when a man pays...for sex. #greatminds #parallelthinking"

Liebman further explained her views on the Schumer controversy in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, writing that she believed Schumer did in fact write the joke without knowing how similar it was to hers. But that doesn't mean it should go unnoticed.

I’ve written jokes that I found out later were similar to jokes written by Phyllis Diller (“My Grandmother said the secret to a successful marriage is don’t go to sleep angry. She’s been awake since 1936″), Margaret Smith (“It’s that time of the month—rent”) and Steve Martin (“My boyfriend put me on a pedestal—so he could look up my skirt”). And I’m sure there are more. I get it—there are only so many ideas. But yesterday a friend claimed my joke as hers until I reminded her otherwise.

The message here is a clear one, no one should steal anyone else's joke, but sometimes "stealing" isn't truly stealing. Great minds may think alike, but sometimes one of these minds is a little greater, just a tad bit sooner. The only real solution is that credit needs to be given when the "humor code" is built on goodwill. The alleged thief needs to understand the similarities and take note. Everyone may be a comedian, but the good ones still want to be recognized for the work they do. Especially, when they do it first.

Image: Justin Stephens/Comedy Central