Comedians are not typically known to be fashionable, but the essay “The Piracy Paradox” about the fashion industry in a recent issue of The New Yorker struck me for having some parallels between knockoffs and joke stealing. The essay talks about how fashion designers don’t have much legal protection from their styles getting co-opted by department stores and knock offs. But, the essay puts forward that this has been beneficial to the industry as a whole because fashion is always about the latest style, creating a constant demand once something has filtered to the mass market. Innovation becomes a prime motivating factor in fashion.
Now the economic parts of it I don’t necessarily see as parallel to stand-up, but I found myself thinking that while joke stealing stinks for the original joke teller, what it does is force that same level of innovation. As we’ve seen, a lot of stolen jokes, save for the most egregious examples, are fairly generic. They can cut and paste into people’s acts because they don’t rely of the teller’s performing style or persona. Anybody who has material stolen is forced to push harder, to create material that’s not only uniquely their own but also, as soon as you hear it, could not possibly come from somebody else. They put a personal trademark on a joke rather than a legal one.
The legal aspects of applying copyright to fashion are also applicable. In the essay, the writer speculates that innovation would be restricted if something like pinstripes were the sole property of one designed. I can easily see this applied to comedy. To a lot of people, even broaching the same topic as another comedian means you’re stealing from them. If copyright laws would applied to jokes, only one comedian’s perspective on a joke target would be the only one we’d ever hear. Whole realms of experience could be out because one comic owns them. Sure, that would probably have stop the spread of hacky targets like Viagra, but it’s not the subject matter that’s the funny part, it’s the comics’ viewpoint. And I don’t think you could copyright format either… the crippling effects on humor by giving ownership to one person of “the rule of three” are unimaginable.
Copyrighting the viewpoint of a joke seems impossible as well. While all people are unique, the shadings that make them so are sometimes at first, microthin. So jokes naturally have to be from the common place at first before they go to a unique take. So to get to a comic’s unique take on a target, you may have to put up with some observations that are awfully similar to other comics at the beginning of the bit. Because you have to bring an audience along from the common to the specific. Overlap is inevitable because you can’t just launch people into the way you see things. You have to persuade them… have them follow your comic logic from what they already know.
Am I out on a limb here looking for similarities in the industries of haute couture and fart jokes? Or do you see more parallels between joke stealing in stand-up and knockoffs in the fashion world?