Conan O’Brien Sued: Jokes On Twitter Fair Use Game?

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UPDATE:  Big news!  Comedian Elayne Boosler has taken Alex Kaseberg’s side against Conan O’Brien in this lawsuit.  See her exchanges with Alex Kaseberg here on Twitter and Facebook.

Conan O’Brien seems irritated by the monkey on his back in his Twitter photo above.  How fitting.

I love Conan.  I laugh at his humor.  I love his instant witty lines with guests.  But he’s got to protect his show as original content.

Conan O’Brien is being sued for violating the copyright on a few jokes from a comedy writer’s Twitter feed. The guy who filed the lawsuit is Alex Kaseberg.  Here is Kaseberg’s side of the story.

Honestly, I’ve heard rumblings from comedians both ways whether or not to burn material on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube and share it with the world.

Previously, my opinion for comedians was to burn the material, make it sharper, keep writing, improve tight jokes and show the world your talent.  Now, I’m not so sure.

Conan O’Brien is not a thief.  In fact, I don’t think Conan wrote the jokes in question.  But someone did write the jokes.  Who wrote those jokes is the biggest question.  And is that writer on Kaseberg’s Twitter feed?  Does it even matter?

Kaseberg’s Twitter feed has 1,360 followers.  But, if you know Twitter, the feeds are public.  I can read all of Kaseberg’s jokes and not follow him.  In fact, he has a very funny joke about Bugs Bunny… but I’m not about to repeat it here.  But it’s nice to know he would call me first, before suing me.

Years ago, I took a stand-up comedy class.  Someone told me to watch a Vimeo from Ralphie May.  He has some great advice about NOT listening to jokes from other comics, NOT reading the material from other comics, and NOT allowing other comedians’ jokes to seep into your material.  Base your jokes on your own stories so you can never be accused of stealing.  It’s a big f… deal to be accused of stealing jokes in the world of comedy.

In the words of Ralphie May, “Don’t rip off other comics.  It’s bad news, man.”

I got it instantly.

At the time, I was living in comedy clubs, dissecting jokes, studying the timing of lines and watching comedians.  Within days of watching Ralphie May’s Vimeo, I saw a stand-up comedian deliver a stolen joke on a stage.  I cringed.  I had heard the joke somewhere else.  And I knew it had been told before.  It was this comedian’s strongest joke.  It was hilarious.  But the material belonged to someone else.

There is a business of comedy as described by Ralphie May, a successful comedian with a net worth of $2.5 million.  His jokes are original and they’re all based on his own experiences and his life.  He says he doesn’t even mingle with other comedians beyond his wife.

There are many comedians on my Twitter feed.  Some are famous, some are not.  I added comedians to my Twitter feed for an obvious reason: they’re funny.  I like to laugh and hey, life is tough enough.  Add some laughter to every day, I think it’s healthy.  Most importantly, I’m not a professional comedian.  I just like to laugh.  If I had the time, I would live in the local comedy clubs in Los Angeles and Burbank. There’s some amazing talent on stage.

But what about all of those one-liners thrown away on Twitter or Facebook?  Is it plagiarism to repeat them?  Is it plagiarism to spin them?  Is it plagiarism for a comic to use them in his or her set?  Is it fair use?

Trust me, in the world of comedy, there are rules.

Rule #1:  You don’t steal material.

Some comedians actually think material that they heard is their original joke.  They think about the content, twist it, make it funnier and they actually believe they created it.  If you tell that comedian that you heard the joke before, they’ll fight to the death claiming they wrote it because they have convinced themselves they wrote the original joke.  Accusing any comedian of borrowing a joke from another comedian is serious.  Unless you have video proof like Joe Rogan produced against Carlos Mencia, be careful accusing any comedian of theft.

At every comedy club in the country, guess what the topic of conversation is amongst comics this week: the lawsuit against Conan.  Every comedian will have an opinion one way or the other.  And I would bet it’s a heated topic backstage.

I love comedians. They’re hilarious and funny.  But don’t be fooled.  Behind those laughing facades are some very intense opinions that won’t be silenced. They’re smart.  They speak their minds.  And they make the world a little wiser.  They’re going to choose a side on this issue.

Comedy is tough work.  If you don’t believe me, try writing an original funny joke.  It’s work.  It takes years of practice and it is truly an art in creating specific word usage, timing and delivery. Every single joke a comedian writes takes rewriting and fifteen minutes of material takes time to develop.

I don’t know what happened in this case.  But I would bet that Conan will find out who wrote the jokes in question and tell his writing staff to stay off of Twitter.   Don’t read the jokes from other comedians or comedy writers.

Comedians should also take responsibility and decide what jokes they want to make public for potential fair use or copyright issues.  Twitter will now take down jokes in question if someone claims the copyright.  Comedians can’t be in every comedy club in the country, chasing everyone they think might have borrowed a joke.  But if they see one of their jokes on Twitter or national television, they’re going to be miffed.

Let’s think back to the situation with Carlos Mencia.  Revisit the confrontation with Joe Rogan on stage. No one sued each other back then, but the point was made.

Comedy is serious business.

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