Though there’s been a rush of iPhone apps in the past year, the limitations of developers’ imagination for apps that are funny has pretty much ended at fart noises. A new release this week is trying to break beyond novelty and become something reliably funny, that you’ll open more than just two or three times to annoy your friends.
The iPhone app is called This Just In and features anywhere from 10 to 15 new jokes a day about current events—politics, pop culture, sports… anything in the news. It’s a joke style that you see right at the beginning of every late night talk show - the monologue. But it’s getting to you before Letterman or O’Brien or even Leno, at his 10 PM time spot, have a crack at it. The faster, the funnier - jokes from This Just In have the first shot at surprising you.
And better, comedy writers who have written for many of those shows, along with writers from The Onion and College Humor, are writing jokes for the app. There’s actual talented comedy writers behind each joke and it’s all being curated by someone who has fantastic comedy chops, who I’ll talk about a little later.
Monologue jokes are, by nature, a little hit or miss. You may not be up on the target or just heard the take on that target before — I think we could all manage a serviceable “Bill Clinton is Horny” gag. But the idea should always be, you don’t like the last one, maybe you’ll like the next.
This Just In does only an OK job with “Can’t eat just one” navigation. It’s always a two step operation after you read a joke to get to another. You’re either hitting “Back” to return to today’s jokes or your diving deeper by topic or the joke writer. Either way you’re on a category page rather than a page with something else funny. Your mileage may vary, but I’d rather go through the app “joke, joke, joke” rather than “joke, options, joke, options, joke…” That said, it’s great to dive deeper into either a comedy writer you find particularly funny - and particularly good for the writer who can grow an audience for their other efforts. Anything you find particularly funny can be sent to your Twitter or your Facebook page.
The company behind This Just In is iLarous, which was born from last year’s writer strike as comedy writers began to look directly to cut out the network middle man and reach audiences directly through the web. iLarious comes from the mind of Fred Graver, creator of “Best Week Ever” and one of the first writers for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Graver has been producing good stuff for over 25 years starting with the National Lampoon. He knows the funny.
This Just In is one of many ideas forth coming from iLarious, including another app that will semi-adapt another segment of the talk show - the celebrity interview. It’s called WITTR, and will feature talk between pro comics like some familiar BWE faves like Paul F. Tompkins, Paul Scheer, Christian Finnegan and Doug Benson.
Full disclosure: I talked with Fred Graver as this was being developed and very well may write a joke or two myself for it. Fred offered me a review copy of “This Just In”, but I paid for mine in the app store. If you’re interested where funny could go next, you should too.
It’s only $1.99 with subsequent month-long subscriptions to current jokes are 99 cents (a 3 month-long sub is available for $2.99 - which is a couple cents more than month to month. I’m sure that’s a bump that’ll get evened out somehow.)
I’m sure I’m beating a dead horse here about joke stealing, but I just thought this was a pretty amazing parallel with a current respected comic. And I haven’t written anything this comedy wonky in a while.
So here’s a video (but really only audio) putting together Jim Gaffigan and Larry Reeb, a Chicago comic who came out of the first comedy boom. Here it is:
I totally agree. Jim still rules. And this is not anything like joke stealing. Obviously, someone can say Jim saw the bit and then did it and claimed as his own. But I think it’s important to share how two people can come to what seems like the same end, without knowledge of one another. Particularly with something short like a joke.
As I’ve pointed out on previous bits, this jokes takes a very common experience that probably anyone who wears glasses can relate to. The more unique the setup, the more it’s protected from other comics taking as their own. I think it’s telling that almost every case here, non of these disputed bits are necessarily, the signature jokes of a comic. They’re not “Hot Pockets”, they’re just the experience that lie in the ether that all comics can draw upon.
But the question revolves, in all these cases, the punchline. Now let’s talk about riffing, and how a joke gets built. The exaggeration is found by reframing what glasses are - making a parallel between other objects and showing how we treat glasses applied to them. This is where comedians are a little bit like Platonic philosophers - asking, “What is the nature of glasses? What are they?”
Both Jim and Larry go looking for parallels to the situation. Jim actually latches on to one before he moves on to the one that’s in dispute. That is, glasses as a cosmetic enhancement, and then others of the same ilk. It’s not super fertile necessarily and doesn’t have the tensions that are involved in the later parallel, but he does use it.
Both Jim and Larry come to a second parallel: Wearing glasses to other items that help with more extreme physical handicaps. I think it’s telling how audiences sophisticated has grown enough that just 10 years later, Gaffigan doesn’t have to explicity make the parallel that Larry does. We get it from the beginning. it doesn’t even necessarily hurt that he’s reframing what glasses are - jumping from being something cosmetic to something necessary. We’re all faster now and these connections are made quicker than they were just a decade ago.
Jokes really are a little bit like magic. People don’t necessarily know that just like magic uses the logic of the mechanical world - physics - that jokes uses the logic of the mental world. But they both still work on logic - and that logic can’t be broken. There’s only so many parallels one can make to glasses that will logically make sense in a ways that will elicit laughter from an audience. You can’t make a parallel that isn’t true. (That’s some of the thrill in the great comedians, they make the parallel that you haven’t seen but has always been there - it’s like writing a new equation to describe the physical universe. It was always there but you didn’t realize that’s how it worked until someone wrote it down.)
An illusion made by one magician could actually be performed in multiple ways (and thus discovered multiple ways). But it looks the same to the audience. They don’t know a different technique is at play and it doesn’t really matter because they’re just experiencing the end results - either awe ( magic) or laughter (jokes).
It’s going to be interesting to see how audience’s growing awareness of the similarities in performers will change how comedians perform. In some ways, it makes sense that more alternative comedy will get popular. It’s a little but like Penn & Teller - showing the wires behind the act but still pulling off the illusion.
In an attempt to keep this site from becoming Snopes for joke stealing, I recently ignored a little allegation that Dane Cook was performing an abortion joke from Doug Stanhope’s act. Stanhope himself shared the claim in a MySpace blog post. A fan by the name of Jenny told Doug:
“I went to a show at the Melrose Improv last night, and this surprise guest comic gets onstage and starts doing this long bit about how he had to take this girl to get an abortion and how ridiculous the experience was, and then started talking about going to Heaven, and how he’d be so happy to see his grandma in Heaven, but when he got to Heaven, there was this little pissed off guy giving him shit and it was his abortion, furious at him.
And the comic was fucking Dane Cook.”
Anybody can type up an email and say they saw this comic performing some other comic’s bit. No credibility here. And Stanhope doesn’t really give it much credit either, judging for his response:
Good work, Dane.
I’m glad someone remembers how my bits go.
There’s nothing indignant about it. He uses it as a setup for a joke about his own performing style. He’s completely flippant.
But folks who really hate Dane love any more evidence they can find that he is the thief. Even the most tenuous of accusations get treated as gospel. Nevermind that joking about taking a girl to get an abortion is completely outside the wheelhouse of Dane Cook’s comedy. The same comedy that a lot of these detractors would define as frat-friendly or toothless. You can’t have it both ways.
I didn’t want to bother with this until I saw a comment on one of my previous joke stealing posts that stated this as a fact. It’s not a fact. It’s just words someone put on the Internet.
Need more proof that these arguments are getting to be bullshit?
Listen to Doug Stanhope from his “Just For Spite” show from earlier this year in Montreal. My good friend Julie Seabaugh happened to tape the show. Doug went off on an extended riff about why these arguments have gotten dumb (at one point mentioning that just because someone else does a joke about abortion, doesn’t mean they’re stealing). Then in a more self-damming way, replies to an audience member query about why Dane Cook sucks.
(Note: God damn, that’s a good Dave Attell impression)
Update: A reliable source at that Melrose Improv show tells me that Dane Cook did perform a joke around abortion. A recent “Danecast” does mention that he’s got a new approach - working out material coming from “dark times” and “personal, family issues.” And there’s a little gossip out there (I don’t link to that stuff, but it’s easy to find if you type the right words into Google) to suggest that Cook’s personal experiences would make this joke fair game. If you lived it, it’s yours.
I’ve been ignoring much of Last Comic Standing - but I couldn’t pass this up. If you’re sick of hearing about joke stealing, just skip this post.
As part of Last Comic Standing’s web extras, LCS 2 contestant Ant commented recently about the similarity of one hopeful’s joke to that of another comic. Here’s his vlog entry:
It’s a little disappointing in a way because, as Ant mentions, he himself has been accused of lifting material by Joe Rogan. He knows how damaging it is, so it seems like to me, that he’d be loathe to do it himself. If you don’t like what Rogan did to you, if you thought it was unfair, why do it to someone else? He even has a great little forum to educate people on the idea of parallel thinking.
The material in question is, as some have stated, an obvious joke, but I’m going to outline a little bit how obvious it is.
Both Pete and Ali are talking about an actual chart - the Body Mass Index chart. They didn’t make it up (or steal it from the other).
When you have a certain BMI number, you can be clinically described as anywhere from “underweight” to “morbid obesity.” The chart is tilted more to the “overweight” side - hence there’s a lot of different words to describe how fat someone is (it’s the American version of the many Eskimo words for snow). It’s a measure that many a doctor uses. Several people a day are told that they are clinically obese by the BMI chart in hopes of scaring them a little into losing weight. (Read more about the chart on wikipedia’s entry for obesity.)
In other words, neither Ali nor Pete have had a little snowflake experience - it wasn’t unique to either. It’s entirely possible that they were both amused at how weighted the BMI scale is for describing obesity. I.E.: parallel thinking.
Now, if Pete’s been on the same bill as Ali or toured with Ali or performed regularly with Ali, perhaps there’s a case here. There has to be a chance that you might have seen the other’s bit. But Ant doesn’t really outline that here. I’m a little dubious that there was much as the two comics are based in different ciites (Pete in Toronto, Ali in San Francisco.)
This has made me think I show write up a flow chart for determining whether a joke might have been stolen or not. If you have some input on some of the diamonds (conditional steps) that would make up that chart, feel free to suggest them in the comments.
During last week’s episode of “Real Time”, one of Bill Maher‘s guests Esai Morales made reference to a documentary called “American Drug War”, which asserts a government interest in the distribution of drugs. Maher quickly called it a conspiracy theory. (And it does sound like one, when its so briefly described.)
A regular viewer of Maher show is Kevin Booth, the director of “American Drug War,” who’s a little bothered by having his work being just dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Booth was also close with the late Bill Hicks, producing much of his early albums and recording many of his live shows. He’s continued his involvement with comedy through his production company Sacred Cow, working with such Hicks-worthy successors as Doug Stanhope and Joe Rogan.
The drug war is a little outside the scope of my site here, but Booth made the point that I’m going to focus on here. The director said this in an email to his Sacred Cow members about Maher’s dismissal of the documentary:
I wonder how many people remember Bill Maher’s famous routine that got him fired from ABC -
“Who is the real coward ? when the United States is launching missiles from floating Iron Islands 200 miles away”
as first being performed by non other then Bill Hicks back in 1992
But maybe thats just “Conspiracy Theory”
I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of Hicks’ work, so I can’t verify exactly what album/performance Bill said this at. But what’s interesting in that it’s probably not necessarily a punchline, but an applause line. A piece of clapter in Tina Fey‘s vernacular. It kind of opens up another target as well as a defense of joke stealing.
Can making a simple observation of the truth as one sees it really be called stealing? Good comics are supposed to see things as they are, can you fault two for sizing things up exactly the same way? When I think about it, I don’t necessarily think of the punchline of the infamous Carlos Mencia‘s “Who going to build the wall?” joke stealing controversy as necessarily funny inherently. People would say the same thing without it being a joke. It’s an insight, a truth. Jokes are exaggeration - stealing an exaggeration seems far more egregious to me ( as evidenced by the subsequent reveal of the Cosby vs. Mencia son playing football routine).
In a sense when a comic is pointing out a repressed fact like these, they’re getting a laugh because of the tension of how we can’t acknowledge that truth in polite society. But everyone who’s hears it and laughs it, has thought the same thing - even subconsciously. Can you slam a comic for saying the unsaid thing second?
By the by, Booth says he really does like Maher’s show, describing himself as a “huge fan” of Bill Maher. He even mentions he just bitching a little to get his attention, obviously to get the documentary seen by more eyes. (It currently plays on Showtime.)
I haven’t seen American Drug War, but I did what Esai suggested and searched YouTube for it. From what I’ve seen, it’s an interesting treatment of the subject, more focusing on the “Prison Industrial Complex” and the corporate interest in the drug war in the clips I’ve viewed. Plus, it’s got comics - besides the afforementioned Rogan - there’s also a lengthy interview with Tommy Chong and a conversation with Tom Rhodes about Amsterdam and its drug laws. They’re in there, doing what good comedians do - telling truths that go unsaid.
“Laughing with Hitler” is a fascinating documentary on what happened to comedy and humor in Nazi Germany prior to and during the war. It looks at both at the jokes from comedians and the jokes told by the general public, which are a strange barometer for the truth when public expression is extremely circumspect.
Comedians deny their jokes have any power, but the fear oppressive regimes have of them shows that dictators certainly don’t believe that. But the diminished power of a joke is partially, thankfully, because of the society we live in today. One phrase in the documentary that rings especially true to me:
“In those days, you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went whhoong. And today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes ting.”
(Video found via Smashing Telly)
Last week was fueled with speculation about who would play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live’s first post strike show. After some speculation about some rising African American comics joining the show specifically to play Obama, when Saturday rolled around, Fred Armisen was in the role.
From my eye, Armisen didn’t really seem to have Obama down, but I don’t think that’s his fault. The problem is there’s no good (or lame) joke about Obama yet - where Obama is the target.
During the 2000 campaign, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about how late night jokes contribute to the perception of a candidate. The title: “The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy.” Essentially a candidate gets at least one word - often exactly one word - which becomes their comedic persona. They become a kind of a shorthand for jokes that time-presseed monologue writers can be sure will land.
Because comedy writers don’t have that shorthand yet for Obama, there’s no comedic trait to attribute to a Barack Obama impression. Once a trait is found, that influences everything from the mannerisms. Hillary Clinton has a comedic trait - that’s she’s false. It makes a building block for Amy Poehler‘s spot-on replication of Hillary’s laughter. (It’s arguably the chicken and the egg here - Hillary’s laugh helped create the “false” trait.)
It can be argued that the writers strike helped Obama. For a whole month he was in the public eye without comedy writers searching for a joke to make about the candidate (the few writers who were working for Letterman and Fuergeson didn’t find one during that time either).
If you scour a month of the Late Night Joke Archive, you won’t find a single joke in there where Obama is the target. He’s mentioned in the jokes, but they’re mostly to make a joke about other candidates… often Hillary Clinton. Hillary has lots of comedic hooks and you can find many of them in the archive. Besides the notions that she’s false, there’s regular jabs at her femininity with increasingly stale pantsuit jokes. She’s also the butt of Bill Clinton as Lothario jokes. On rare occasions a joke will be so thinly veiled that the writers might as well used the word “bitch.” John McCain also already has at least one of his comedic traits defined - his advanced age and the senility that comes with it.
Not that Obama will be hurt by whatever comedic trait he’s labeled with. Sometimes this shorthand joke label can help. I believe that joking about Bush being stupid helped him, minimizing expectations of his debate performances and playing into his black or white worldview. It decreased public awareness that the man was a shrewd politician and made him more of a regular guy. A caricature of arrogance and ego would have done far more on target description, although it’s obviously a harder position to tell jokes from. But it was fertile territory against at least of his opponents. Gore contented with jokes about arrogance in 2000, thanks to missteps that got turned into the fertile comic territory “I invented the Internet.”
Obama has demonstrated some political jiu-jitsu with attacks, but eventually in public life he will be pined down and given a comedic trait. What will it be and how will that perception affect his candidacy? Perhaps the argument shouldn’t be that he hasn’t been vetted, but that he hasn’t been satirized.