Friday, May 10, 2019

Some Thoughts on Comedic "Originality"

Conan O'Brien just settled a lawsuit with a fellow who claims that O'Brien's writers "stole" several jokes from his Twitter feed. Here's his explanation of why he settled. I kind of wish he hadn't, because he was pretty clearly in the right.

I'm enjoying the process of writing stand-up bits. I've done two short public sets now, and both of them got laughs from the audience (the first one more so than the second one, possibly because I inadvertently over-did the booze just a little before the second one -- hey, it was Tankard Night at The Midnight! -- and may have slurred a bit, etc.).

Every time I think I have a bit starting to get into shape, I Google some of my text to see if I'm doing something that's been done before.

I've yet to find a word-for-word match of any substantial bit of content, but if I did I'd make changes or abandon the bit, even though I would know that I came up with the joke independently.


While I don't consider "intellectual property" to be a valid concept, I understand why comics (and audiences) disdain a copycat.

When I tell a joke, the first and most important goal is to get a laugh (or multiple laughs out of a longer bit). The second goal is to do so in a way that the audience finds unique or close to unique -- that makes them consider the joke mine, something I brought them.

As with other types of stories, there are really only so many possible joke plots. Joke plotting works a little differently than most story plotting, but there are still only so many interesting topics and so many takes the basic formulas for jokes lead to on those topics. But you still need to find a way to be "original." That's what I'm working on now.

Songs are stories, too, and the same plot constraints apply, but there's still a difference between "covers" and "originals," and between cover bands and bands doing their own things. One of those differences is audience expectation. If you pay a five dollar cover charge to see a local cover band doing a bunch of Lynyrd Skynrd songs at the local bar, you're probably going to be OK with the deal. If you pay 20 times as much to see an "original" arena act, and that act isn't Lynyrd Skynyrd, you're probably gonna be pissed if the whole show is Skynyrd covers.

So I'm doing my best to make sure that the great bit I came up with isn't something uncomfortably close to something Bill Hicks did in 1992, or Bill Burr did last week, or someone else named Bill did some other time. And if I don't think I get over that bar, you're not going to see or hear me performing it.

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