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It’s a chilly evening in October, and a band of stand-up comics, clowns, improvisers, and freelance writers has crowded into 14th Street NW eatery Restaurant Judy for a meeting of the D.C. Comedy Writers group. They’ve come here to write, riff, and workshop ideas for material. But mostly, they’re here to suck.
The group offers something pretty special for local comedy writers: a safe place to refine ideas that aren’t yet ready for the public. They gather once a week, opening up the floor to creative types in need of feedback on their newest, rawest material.
But then something surprising happens. During the sharing process, several attendees offer punchlines or tags—a kind of kicker—that are funnier than what a comedian has presented to the group. Maybe they get bigger laughs, or make the joke edgier. In one case, a comedian asks why hurricanes have such “unintimidating” names, like Sandy. Another comic riffs on the observation, ranting about why hurricanes never have “black names.” If comics like the new punchline, they simply ask if they can use it. On this night, permission is granted every time.
D.C. Comedy Writers co-founder Wayne Manigo says the group has two basic rules: 1) If you want to use someone else’s idea, you have to ask; and 2) before you take back an idea you shared, let the writer know. The rules offer a transparent way of sharing material—a means of developing jokes that skirts around the ugly act of joke-stealing. Because in the comedy world, lifting a joke from another comic is one of the art form’s gravest sins.
“If you’re taking my material, that’s the worst thing you can do,” D.C. comic Courtney Fearrington says. “You’re basically trying to take my job away from me.”
In the industry, joke stealers bear a scarlet letter, sometimes for the duration of their career. Plenty of successful comedians have led entire careers dogged by allegations of ripping off other artists’ material. Even now, nearly 20 years after Bill Hicks’ death in 1994, fans debate whether Denis Leary pinched his schtick from the influential stand-up. In the documentary I Am Comic, Carlos Mencia, long accused of stealing his stuff from famous comics, confesses to as much. For several years, Louis C.K. fans accused Dane Cook of lifting the comic’s joke about an itchy asshole, and their feud simmered until they brought the beef to C.K.’s TV show, Louie, in 2011. (Cook: “Dude, why would I steal jokes from you when I have hours of material? Why? Why would I do that? Risk my reputation?” C.K.: “’Cause they were funny jokes.”)
But the problem with branding comedians as joke stealers is that a joke’s origins aren’t always obvious. Who’s to say you’re the first comedian in D.C. to try to wring laughs out of topics like Marion Barry, gentrification, or tourists? Yet, even in the District’s small comedy community, local stand-ups still find themselves dodging allegations of swiping other people’s material. Groups like D.C. Comedy Writers, meanwhile, can both ameliorate and complicate the issue.
Most D.C. comics are content to do stand-up in their off hours, but Reggie Melbrough (shown) is aiming for the big time. Melbrough started on the local comedy scene three years ago and became a regular at many of the city’s open mics and showcases, including nights at RFD and the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. He also runs his own showcase, “Don’t Block the Box,” at Wonderland Ballroom every month.
“If you do a lot of open mics, you’ll see a lot of the same people,” says Melbrough. “So if you say a joke that’s similar to someone else’s, people will say, ‘Hey be careful, you’re going into someone’s territory, you might want to take a different angle on it so you can keep doing it.’”
Some topics—race, gender, politics, and current events—seem like endless founts of material, but coming up with clever, original observations on say, the Tea Party? On topics like that, you’re competing with just about every comedian in the United States. “There’s a lot of stuff out there; subjects that are inherently funny and any rational person will come to a joke about it separately,” says Brad Ryan, who along with Ralph Cooper runs and founded the production company District Comedy, which books much of the city’s talent. “I’ve seen people get accused of stealing jokes and I know personally they haven’t stolen a joke.”
Most comedians would agree there’s a thin line between sharing a comic’s style and blatantly copping their material. To Melbrough, it comes down to whether you heard someone say something and then repeated it in public verbatim as your own. While he’s never attended a D.C. Comedy Writers’ meeting, Melbrough’s credo sounds similar to the group’s. “If I’m sitting around and bullshitting with comics, there’s almost an unspoken rule that if I started an idea and we were bouncing it back and forth, any of us can take it,” he says. “You can get a little angry over it, but if you had a chance to go onstage before that person and you didn’t tell it? Well, you had your opportunity.”
Even if a comedian has no intention of using someone else’s joke, the waters can get awfully murky. Elahe Izadi, who covers Congress for National Journal, has been doing standup on the side for the last six years. When she comes up with a “nugget of funny to work from,” she’s already second-guessing herself, wondering, “Could I have already heard this somewhere?”
“I have this joke I tell often about balls, how it doesn’t make sense when people say ‘That takes balls’ to mean ‘That’s courageous,’ because testicles are quite possibly the most cowardly part of a man’s body,” she writes in an email. “I was telling that for a couple years until someone pointed out to me that Betty White has a variation on the same idea. For a moment I thought, ‘Should I stop telling this joke?’ Eventually I decided that I would still tell it, because I was saying something slightly different than her, even though it was centered around the same absurdity.”
When in doubt, some comics just make their material as personal as possible to reduce the chances that someone else has gone there. Izadi latches on to popular themes like racism and sexism, but she gleans her jokes from her experiences growing up with Iranian parents. (In one joke, she talks about being called the “wrong” racial epithets by other kids in the pool when she was little. “Do I correct them?” she asks.)
Sometimes, though, the stuff that feels unique can unexpectedly become mainstream—and backfire. Melbrough saw a news story about a group that wanted to create a professional league just for white basketball players, and went to town with it. “Do you want to just see layups all day long?” he’d say. “And the scores will be like 32-36. And… in an ironic twist, they’re only going to charge black people three-fifths the price for season tickets.”
Melbrough performed the routine for a few months, until one night the Daily Show came across the same idea and satirized it in a sketch with Jason Jones. “I was like, motherfucker. Now if I do this they’re going to think I stole it from the fucking Daily Show. But then I thought, ‘No, who would ever think that?’” Melbrough says. “So I go to a mic the next night, I do the joke, it gets laughs, and then two comics came up afterwards like, ‘Really? You just stole a Daily Show routine?’”
Melbrough records all of his shows, mostly so he can go over which parts made the audience laugh hardest. That night, he’d brought his recorder, and fortunately, it contained much of his recent, pre-Daily Show act. He played the skeptics the recording and, in the process, redeemed himself.
But it’s no secret that to some extent, comics pays homage to the personalities that influenced them. “Whoever influenced you when you first started is probably who you’ll sound like,” Fearrington says. “There are certain throwaway things that you’ll say that they said. Martin Lawrence has said things that Richard Pryor said. And that same stuff Pryor got from Redd Foxx. No one thought of it as stealing.”
After three years of gigging, Melbrough thinks he’s gotten to the point where he’s distanced himself from his most obvious influences. But he acknowledges that it’s a long process. “I think that’s why I don’t write with a lot of comics,” he says. “It’s already hard to get your own thoughts down and figure out your own voice, especially early on.”
For comedians like Izadi, though, the group dynamic can help more than it hurts. “There have been instances in which fellow comics have helped me sharpen a joke, or encouraged me to run with something I’ve said in conversation,” she says.
Comedians, as it turns out, can be their peers’ best friends as well as their worst foes. “For the most part comics in this area are pretty supportive of one another,” says Ryan. “There’s some competitiveness but not to the point where they could be stealing jokes from one another.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery