A question from my inbox, along with my response:
I’ve noticed how fierce comedians are about joke stealing. Are there examples of comedians who use influences to produce original material?
Of course. Like any artist, a comedian takes what’s come before them and turns it into something new. They begin by trying out the voices of other comedians and eventually find a voice of their own.
There’s a whole paragraph about comedians in Steal Like An Artist:
Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
One of my favorite Richard Pryor skits is “Exorcist,” off That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor imagines the movie if there were black people in it. “The movie would’ve been about seven minutes long. [In The Devil’s voice] ‘Hello?’ [In Pryor’s voice] ‘Goodbye!’”
About a decade later, Eddie Murphy stole Pryor’s joke and updated it using Poltergeist: “Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house?” (See also: Jordan Peele’s Get Out.)
This is what makes comedy so rich: When you listen to any particular lineage of comedians, you can often hear the echoes and trace the influences in their work. (I love the beginning of Chris Rock’s Bring The Pain — he actually flashes images of some of his favorite comedy albums before the set, acknowledging the masters he’s trying to join.)
What these guys did, of course, is steal from the comedians who came before them and transform the jokes into something new. Most of the joke-stealing ire you see online now is the result of comedians stealing from their contemporaries, or worse, stealing from lesser-known comedians.
Hope that helps?