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