While I was search in some different stuff related to stand-up comedy, I came across this particular article from Patton Oswalt talking about stealing jokes. It brought to mind one really painful difference between magic and stand-up comedy.
In the beginning of the 20th century, it seemed like the roles were reversed, with magic capturing the public’s imagination and standup comedy languishing as a fringe art. Zipping ahead to the latter half of the century, we see the opposite — where successful standup comedians are considered legitimate artists, and magicians are the butt of jokes. I kind of believe that this is in no small part due to magic’s being unable to escape the Vaudeville mindset of material being communal, an issue that seems to continue to this day. If you have a bunch of magicians in the same marketplace doing the Ambitious Card at their gigs, nobody would blink an eye. But if you have two standup comics anywhere in the world doing the same material, suddenly you’ll have a bunch of people showing up with pitchforks asking questions about who they should be poking.
Joe Rogan’s epic takedown of Carlos Mencia did a lot to educate the public on the fact that joke thievery was a real problem, and while I’m on board with taking Mencia down, I don’t think we should single him out.
Hence the image of Tommy Cooper and Nipsey Russell above. In this particular performance from Tommy Cooper, there’s a quick joke about betting on the horses, and if you do a google search on the terms involved in the joke, you’ll see that it’s Cooper who gets credit for it. In this footage here, though, we can see Nipsey Russell doing that same joke in a 1950s performance.
As performers, these two were approximate contemporaries, so it’s possible that either one of them could have originated the joke, but considering that Russell’s got a full bit on horse-racing and Cooper uses the joke as a one-off, it’s hard not to think it started with Russell. Now, is this sort of thing theft? I mean it may be, but it’s certainly not on the level of what Mencia’s accused of. It’s just got this Vaudevillian feel to it, and Cooper was one of those guys who straddled multiple genres of performance. It’d be like making a big deal about a rapper using an Elton John lyric.
I think the real issue is broader. That effort to craft material, tell unique stories, and present an original point of view, is something that standup comedy started to embrace in the years following the war before it really hit the stratosphere with Richard Pryor, and it’s that particular effort that I think is really difficult to ignore, and gives standup comedy real legitimacy in the eyes of the public. We magicians, however, tend to be doing the same stuff with minor presentational variations, which as much originality as there’d be in some guy doing a Bill Burr routine word-for-word in a Scottish accent.
Personally, I’m no better than the average thaumaturge. Most of my go-to routines are classics: 3 Card Monte, Multiple Selection/Revelation, a coin flurry here, a George Sandsish rope routine there… For us, it’s enough to simply come across as sincere in what we do. Standup comedians have a much higher standard, though, and I feel like their effort in recent decades to meet that standard has led to them being able to lay claim to the more credible art form.