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Caught In The Act: Joke-Stealing In The Age Of Twitter

Conan O'Brien's been sued by a comedy writer who alleges he's been stealing jokes. But journalist Larry Getlen warns not to assume the worst: In the world of topical comedy, similar jokes are bound to arise.
Kevin Winter
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Conan O'Brien's been sued by a comedy writer who alleges he's been stealing jokes. But journalist Larry Getlen warns not to assume the worst: In the world of topical comedy, similar jokes are bound to arise.

Conan O'Brien got some bad news this past week: The late-night host is getting sued for allegedly stealing jokes. A freelance comedy writer claims that O'Brien lifted four jokes from the writer's personal blog and Twitter.

The dust-up arose after an odd story surfaced about a flight that had just two passengers on board. Naturally, the two men found some humor in it.

The plaintiff in the case, Robert Alexander Kaseberg, says he posted this joke online on Jan. 14: "A Delta flight from Cleveland to New York took off with only two passengers. And they wrestled for control of the armrest the entire flight." He alleges that the same joke appeared in O'Brien's monologue that night.

O'Brien's production company says there's no merit to the suit.

But the whole skirmish raises an interesting question: What are the intellectual property rights of a good joke? To get some answers, NPR's Rachel Martin turned to Larry Getlen, a comedy writer and journalist based in New York.

Interview Highlights

On whether the case sounds like comedy theft

To me, it does not. First of all, let's talk about the joke world in late-night. You've got, let's say, nine shows that are dealing with topical jokes on an either daily or weekly basis and writing every day. So on any given day, you may have the best joke writers in television writing a thousand jokes about the same small pool of news stories.

So I think that one of the bottom lines to realize right out of the gate is that if you are a topical comedian and you write a joke about a news story that had gotten some attention in the past 24 to 36 hours, there is a very good chance that some staffer at one of these shows wrote a similar joke.

Second of all, all these comedy writers come from very similar comedic origins. You know, the younger ones probably grew up with Jon Stewart, the older ones idolized George Carlin. So you've got joke writers who probably write jokes in a similar way coming from a similar mindset. ...

Joke theft totally happens. The point that I would like to make is that when people see two people tweet out or say the same joke, there should not be an automatic assumption that it's theft, because odds are it's usually not.

On a few examples of joke theft

Robin Williams stole many jokes. But that was pre-Twitter. I remember a couple of years ago, there was some unknown comic out in the Midwest [who] took Patton Oswalt's routine and just did it verbatim on stage — like at a gig he was being paid for. And then video of it wound up on YouTube and, you know, I forget the exact details of it, but there was an outcry.

On how people can think they'd get away with theft in the age of social media

I would guess that it probably happens less now because of that. Because it's easy to see that the risks you're taking are bigger now. You could get away with this 20 years ago. Joke writing was not what people cared about; it was the performance. So you had a series of hacky jokes that comics on the circuit would all tell and would tell those jokes for 15 years and make a career of them.

On whether it's more difficult to be a comedian in 2015 than it once was

I don't know if that's really the case, because it's easier in a lot of ways, too. Because you have a lot more different avenues to get your talent out there. You've got people doing YouTube videos, people on Twitter, and they never really have to deal with entertaining the masses.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: August 1, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio version of this piece, we say that the Delta joke allegedly appeared in Conan O'Brien's monologue the night after it was posted online. In fact, the lawsuit alleges it appeared in the monologue that same night.
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