Jim Gaffigan vs. Larry Reeb: Joke Stealing and the Nature of Glasses

Filed Under Jokes, Stand-Up Comedy

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.

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Comments

Posted by Gary Thison on 03/01  at  09:28 AM

I ran across your blog while surfing comedy. How cool to find a blog where someone is actually writing.

I’ve been doing comedy for well over 20 years and there comes a time where you simply stop worrying about it. I’ve witnessed near fisticuffs over who stole whose bit.

In the 70s I used to contribute to a weekly radio show called the Sunday Funnies. My writing partner and I wrote a bit on a Thursday afternoon about the baseball strike and the postal workers strike. The premise was pretty obvious: why not have the baseball players deliver the mail and the postal workers play ball. That night on the Tonight Show Johnny Carson preseneted the same premise and two of our jokes almost EXACTLY as we wrote them. I’m pretty sure Johnny didn’t have my house bugged.

Needless to say, we didn’t do the bit that Sunday.

It’s so hard to determine joke origination. During what you call the first boom of comedy, I worked with Larry Reeb a few times (Uncle Lar is very funny). While listening to one of the comedy channels on satellite recently I heard a somewhat recent recording of Larry Reeb and he was doing a joke that I wrote a long time ago and still use in my stand up show. Did he steal it? I dunno if he even heard it.

In the eighties, my good friend and new partner in “2 Funny - the one-man show so good it takes two guys to do it” was appearing on Star Search. And he did one of my jokes. He was actually with me when I wrote it and knew it was mine. I called him and he said he thought I said he could use it.

Hey, I don’t write truly funny stuff all that often. I’m not gonna just give it away. In any event, if I had held a grudge I wouldn’t have partnered with him many years later and wouldn’t be working as much as I am now.

Check out an article I wrote about Geechy if you’d like at: http://www.examiner.com/x-3080-Detroit-Celebrity-News-Examiner~y2009m2d27-Comedian-Geechy-Guy—from-Detroit-to-Hollywood-back-to-Detroit

Posted by uhcheese on 03/04  at  11:47 PM

Jim Gaffigan has been one of my favorite comedians for the longest time, but just like any stand-up artist,  he does carry some flaws in his act. I believe Jim’s flaw is that third dimension, for lack of a better term. Even though the eyeglasses joke has some subjectivity (as you have stated earlier), that is pretty much as deep as it gets for him as far as in-depth thinking. There is nothing wrong with this style of comedy, for he is a successful comedian that holds a large fan base. All I am saying, is when you keep a more vacuous form of comedy, as opposed to a Chappelle or Carlin, you are eventually going to run out of material. For this reason, I can believe comedians like Gaffigan might be drawned to stealing or imitate material from previous comics. No one knows for sure though, except Gaffigan.

Posted by Bill Holmes on 03/28  at  02:19 AM

I think that clip’s a bit of a reach, really - similar tactic but not as linear as the Hicks/Leary stuff or as blatant as some of the Cook or Mencia situations. Probably - as you state in the essay - more parallel thinking than actual osmosis. But then again, when you listen to so much stuff over so much time, is it possible that a fragment of someone else’s stuff pops in your head like it’s a fresh thought? Maybe. (I like Lar’s version better anyway.)

Nice site, by the way. Great to find another person writing about comedy and comedians.

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