A Not-So-Funny Look at 6 Comedians Accused of Plagiarism

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Getty Images

It's an immutable law of comedy—under no circumstances may a comic use another performer's material. Naturally, with so many comics making observations about the world around them, similarities are bound to exist between one guy's airplane food joke and another's. Allegations of joke lifting are common, with top-tier talent like Conan O'Brien and Amy Schumer often having accusations thrown their way (Schumer, for her part, vehemently denies any thievery). But throughout standup's history, some similarities have been too close to ignore.

1. MILTON BERLE

The late, great star of stage, screen, radio and TV was once the nation's most popular comedian, earning him a 30-year television contract with NBC and the endearing nickname Uncle Miltie.

But to many of his fellow performers, Berle became known by the much less affectionate nickname "The Thief of Bad Gag" for his legendary penchant for joke lifting. Fellow legend and occasional enemy Bob Hope once remarked that Berle "never heard a joke he didn't steal." In another instance, Jack Benny defended his own practice of using Berle's material by saying: "When you take a joke away from Milton Berle, it's not stealing, it's repossessing."

Unlike many other accused bit-thieves, Berle never went out of his way to dispel the reputation, once joking to Larry King: "I don't steal people's jokes. I just find them before they're lost."

2. CARLOS MENCIA

The former star of Comedy Central's Mind of Mencia has been accused of plagiarism by everyone from George Lopez—who once claimed he roughed-up Mencia over a supposedly stolen set—to South Park. However, the most famous example was shared with the world thanks to a viral video posted by comedian Joe Rogan. In the footage, Rogan is shown running onstage to confront Mencia during a 2007 performance at the Comedy Store in L.A. Among other, more colorful names, Rogan refers to Mencia as "Men-Steal-ia."

3. DANE COOK

Dane Cook reached the pinnacle of stand-up comedy success in 2005 when his album Retaliation went all the way to #4 on the Billboard chart. Sold-out large-arena gigs, movie flops, and tabloid coverage quickly followed—and all served to fuel a rabid anti-Dane movement within the comedy world. With that came an intense microscope on Cook's material and, predictably, a rash of joke swiping charges. The most well-known example includes a Cook bit that bears a suspicious resemblance to an earlier one by Louis C.K.—one of the most revered comics working today. Although compilations seem to confirm that Cook has used at least three of his bits, Louis C.K. has mostly downplayed it—"I'm not going to do anything about this. I'm not going to court over a bit called 'Itchy A**hole,'" he once joked. Just for good measure and consistency, Joe Rogan has also accused Cook of lifting jokes.

4. ROBIN WILLIAMS

Long before he was an Oscar winner, Robin Williams was known to comics as a major material thief. He was even alleged to have used other comedians' material on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. One well-traveled anecdote claims that when fellow comics spotted Williams in the audience of a comedy club, they would immediately stop their act to prevent him from writing down their best jokes. According to Richard Zoglin's book Comedy at the Edge, David Brenner once asked Williams' agent to "Tell Robin if he ever takes one more line from me, I'll rip his leg off and shove it up his [bleep]!" Williams discussed his younger days in comedy and of not understanding the consequences of borrowing material with Marc Maron in 2010; he once playfully referred to the practice as "joke sampling."

5. JAY MOHR

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The former host of Last Comic Standing is an admitted comedy plagiarist. In his 2004 book Gasping For Airtime, which recounts his tumultuous two-season stint on Saturday Night Live, Mohr details an infamous incident in which he took a New York comedian's joke and turned it into a sketch. NBC was forced to settle with the joke's originator, but Mohr himself escaped any serious repercussions.

6. DENIS LEARY

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The former star of Rescue Me has been accused of stealing not only some material but his entire stage persona from the late cult comic Bill Hicks. He's also been accused of lifting material from former stand-up and Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow and Louis C.K. But Hicks himself, who was close friends with Leary, severed his friendship with him over the number of lifted jokes used on Leary's No Cure for Cancer album. "I have a scoop for you. I stole his act," Hicks joked with Austin Comedy News in 1993. "I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did." Hicks passed away from cancer the following year.

This piece originally ran in 2010.

Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

This New The Office-Themed Clue Board Game Lets You Solve the Murder of Toby Flenderson

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Michael Scott never kept his deep-seated hatred of Toby Flenderson a secret. In fact, he publicly declared it on many occasions and even gave him a Dundie Award for his “extreme repulsiveness.” But when Michael calls a mandatory “team-building event” to solve Toby’s murder in the new The Office edition of Clue, you’ll have no choice but to investigate. The game is exclusive to Hot Topic stores and sells for $49. Though it's currently backordered, it's expected to start shipping again by December 28. You can get your own copy here.

In this game, three to six other players will assume the roles of Angela Martin, Stanley Hudson, Dwight Schrute, Jim Halpert, Pam Beesly, and Andy Bernard. You’ll be tasked with finding Toby's killer, the murder weapon, and where the grisly act took place. The winner gets a week's paid vacation, but if the murder goes unsolved, Michael will give up on his team and go home.

The Office Clue
Hot Topic

The game will take you through key locations featured The Office, like the annex, warehouse, and the conference room. Along with nine custom weapons, which include Michael's "world’s best boss" mug and his George Foreman grill, the set also comes with six suspect movers, a deck of personality cards, a deck of rumor cards, a score pad, a clue scandal envelope, and two dice.

Can’t get enough of the gang from Dunder Mifflin? Check out our The Office gift guide, which has everything from Funko figures to coloring pages that will make perfect presents for any fan of this hit mockumentary series.

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