Monday, 17 August 2015

On Comedy: Stop Thief!-- Joke Stealing Is No Laughing Matter!

Hardly a week goes by without Twitter exploding in righteous indignation about one offence or another. Be it a dead lion, or an insensitive quip, livelihoods and lives can be ruined by a wave of righteous torch-bearing mob-indignation. Normally I steer clear of such outrage, but this time I just had to comment.
It all started when someone on my timeline retweeted this:

Before this post, I had never heard of Josh Ostrovsky who tweets and instagrams under the nom-de-douche "The Fat Jew," but I felt compelled to investigate.
Because while jokes are inherently silly, joke theft is not. 
My research, thin as it was, revealed that Ostrovsky fancies himself a "performance artist" and the "curator or aggregator of the internet." Those titles require a little translation. "Performance Artist" really means unimaginative hack who seeks to get paid for acting like a pretentious hipster dickhead, and "Curator or Aggregator" is pretentious hipster douchebag-speak for "guy who steals other people's jokes and passes them off as his own." Not only has he been stealing jokes from hundreds, maybe thousands of people, he's been, according to professional Canuck shit-disturber Gavin McInnes, doing it for years.
Now if he just stuck to just tweeting stolen jokes, he'd be nothing more than a nuisance. However, Ostrovsky landed TV and radio gigs with E!, Comedy Central, Apple's Beats Radio, and representation with CAA, one of Hollywood's most elite agencies on the basis of his douchebag image, and his alleged wit on social media. 
Now he's making serious money off of the work and sweat of others, which makes his thievery more of a crime against comedy than a nuisance. He's literally taking money out of the pockets of real joke-makers.
Sadly, crimes against comedy aren't punishable under the law, but we can name, shame, not only the thief, but the media companies and agencies who are literally rewarding him for being a thief.
Joke theft is not a new phenomenon borne from the internet. It goes back to the stone age when Ag stole Ug's one about the hunter and the gatherer's daughter.
Ug responded by clocking Ag on the head with a rock.
And thus the concept of intellectual property was born.
A more civilized response was one done by Bob Hope against fellow vaudeville star Milton Berle back in the 1920s. Showbiz insiders considered Berle most famous for two things; he had the biggest schlong on the circuit, and he was terrible for stealing jokes.
Hope and a young writer, who both just made successful leap to Broadway, wanted to teach Berle a lesson. So Hope and the young writer made a careful and exact plan of attack, and waited for the right moment to strike.
That moment came on a fateful Monday night.

On Monday's the musicals traditionally go "dark" or don't perform, because they're doing an extra matinee on Sunday and the cast needs a break. Back in the 1920s they used to use the theatres on Mondays for charity variety shows called Benefits.
Benefit Night, as it was known then, was a big deal. All the top show-biz people and New York power players were in the audience, and it was the perfect spot for an aspiring vaudeville comic like Berle to get off the circuit and into a major Broadway show.
Now every theatre would be having a benefit show, and it was common practice for comics to perform in one theatre, run up the street, perform there, and so on, literally until the wee hours of the morning.
Hope and his partner arranged to perform right before Berle, which was literally the time Berle was closing his act in the last theatre and he was literally running to the next one. Berle would arrive just as Hope was leaving the stage and heading for the next theatre.
Berle would then go on stage, start his act and....cue the cricket sound.
You see, Hope would go out and do Berle's mostly stolen act, verbatim, which meant that it looked like Berle was just repeating Hope's act.
Berle learned his lesson and didn't steal another joke...for a while.
Now there isn't one kind of joke theft, and some is not really theft at all, and I'll attempt to explain most of this probably incomplete list.

  • COINCIDENTAL: Now this doesn't really count as joke theft, but is often mistaken for it. The world is big, there are literally billions of people and if it's something topical, then more than one person is going to make the same joke. I know, it happens to me all the time, probably because my sense of humour is so obvious and banal, and I'm probably even a victim of it as well. When that guy threw a shoe at President Bush I sold a joke to a comedian for $50 about how the Shoe Thrower was hired as MSNBC's new pundit. The comedian used it in a web video, and two days later it was in Jay Leno's opening monologue. I'm sure that was purely coincidental, he said while rearranging the pins in his Jay Leno voodoo doll.
  • SUBCONSCIOUS: Now this does count as joke theft, but it lacks one key ingredient that separates it from what I consider criminal joke theft: INTENT. It happens when you hear a joke, forget where you heard it, and then blurt it out fully convinced that you just came up with it out of the blue. Robin Williams used to be bad for this, but I don't recall anyone resenting him for it, because it was mostly because his memory and rapid fire style was better at remembering the joke itself rather than the source. 
  • AMBITIOUS, YET INSECURE: Now we're delving into the realm of deliberate joke theft. Theft, and intent are arm in arm in this one, but motive can be a contributing factor. You see intent means that you mean to deliberately commit a crime, but MOTIVE is your reasoning behind your intent. Many comedians, Berle being a classic example, can often let their ambition outrun not their talent, but their faith in their own talent. They want to reach the top, but aren't sure if all their material is "A Grade" so they poach material that they're sure works because they've seen it work with someone else. Often these kinds of joke thieves present a cocky and brash exterior to hide the mouldering bucket of anxiety worms that makes up their psyche.
  • MALICIOUS: These kinds of joke thieves are the lowest and worst kind. They know they are deliberately stealing material from people who burnt the calories needed to create original material, they just don't care. They also aren't acting out of insecurity, but entitlement. They assume that they are entitled to fame and success but don't want to actually work for it beyond making sales pitches to surprisingly gullible media insiders who all yearn to be one of the "cool kids." If getting that fame and success requires stealing, then that's just fine, because this joke thief's victims aren't viewed as cool enough to be worthy of consideration. When caught, they usually try to brush it off with lame excuses/double-talk, and/or jump straight into attacking their accusers.

That Josh "The Fat Jew" Ostrovsky committed joke theft is pretty much beyond doubt. What's being discussed here is what kind of joke theft did he commit, and that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury of public opinion, I leave to you to decide.

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