This Week’s ‘SNL,’ Groundlings, And What It Means To Steal A Joke

CREDIT: SCREENSHOT VIA TELLY/NBC
CREDIT: SCREENSHOT VIA TELLY/NBC

Did Saturday Night Live steal a sketch from Groundlings?

The bit in question features three Tina Turner impersonators singing “Proud Mary.” They work on a riverboat. They do not like working on the riverboat. They break from singing, periodically, to tell the audience their tales of woe. They wear sparkly red dresses and Turner wigs.

Groundlings performers Kimberly Condict and Vanessa Ragland also do a sketch that looks a lot like that. They’re Judy and the Jackpot, Tina Turner tribute band for the Pechanga Casino. They do, well, basically the exact same thing, right down to wearing sparkly red dresses and Turner wigs.

The allegations of theft started when Condict responded to the SNL sketch on Facebook. On Sunday afternoon, she posted:

Post by Kimberly Condict.

Groundlings teacher Ian Gray followed up shortly after that, accusing SNL of repeated counts of joke theft:

Post by Ian Gary.

As for Saturday Night Live’s response, according to Vulture, “A source close to SNL refutes the accusations, calling the similarities ‘parallel thinking.’ Adding, ‘It’s a common idea since Tina Turner is such an iconic figure.’” This is an annoying non-response, and also kind of an odd use of an anonymous source, no? Can’t whoever wrote the sketch just go on the record about having an original idea, or not?

A more important question, though, for now: what constitutes joke theft? Is there legal recourse for comedians who think they’ve been robbed of their humorous intellectual property?

A Radar magazine piece referred to Robin Williams as “comedy’s most notorious joke rustler” and went on to say “In the world of stand-up, joke-jackers are as common as exposed brick walls and liquored-up hecklers — an occupational hazard that eventually robs every working comic of time-tested material. It’s the dirty little secret of the comedy world, a crime committed at every level.” Milton Berle reportedly was an infamous joke-taker, so much so that Carl Reiner once told The L.A. Times that Berle “was called ‘The Thief of Bad Gags.’ “

Dane Cook swiped material from Louis C.K., though he denied it over and over again, even directly to Louis C.K.’s face. Their conversation is heated and fascinating, both for what they’re willing to say to each other and what they aren’t: Cook starts by saying in 2006, “everything I read about me was about how I stole jokes from you, which I didn’t.” And Louis’s reply is, “I kinda think you did.” They go back and forth for a bit, and Cook eventually gets to, “So you admit that this is all bullshit,” and Louis C.K. semi-absolves them both like so:

“I don’t think that you saw me do those jokes and said I’m going to tell those jokes, too. I don’t think there’s a world where you’re that stupid. Or that bad a guy. I, I do think, though, that you’re like — you’re like a machine of success. You’re like a rocket. You’re rocketing to the stars, and your engines are sucking stuff up. Stuff is getting sucked up in your engines, like birds and bugs and some of my jokes. I think you saw me do them. I know you saw me do them, and I think they just went in your brain, and I don’t think you meant to do it, but I don’t think you stopped yourself, either. And that’s why I never felt the need to help you not be hated by a lot of people.”

So say it’s true, say someone steals a joke from someone else. Say you can prove it, even. Not just in a bugs-and-birds-and-jokes-and-all sucked up in the engine way. In a real, concrete way. What can professionally funny folk do in the event someone else sticky fingers the best bits from their act?

Not much, it turns out. Earlier this year, Slate spoke with legal scholars Dotan Oliar and Christopher Sprigman about comedians and joke ownership.

“…there’s not a lot comics can do about a stolen joke, at least officially. Copyright law defends the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. So even if somebody stole your joke about bad airline food, there’s little you can do if that person tells the same joke with slightly differently wording — no one owns the idea of mocking bad airline food. And even when a comedian does have a legal basis to accuse somebody of copyright infringement, it can be expensive to do anything about it. (According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the average cost for both the plaintiff and defendant in a copyright case that goes to trial can range from $373,000 to $2.1 million.) Maybe that’s why Oliar and Sprigman couldn’t find a single instance of one comic suing another for copyright infringement.”

The joke thieves live to steal another day, and the victims of their theft can’t really do anything about it. Not even when someone pretends to have the same dad as you.