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.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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The Fur Trade: How the Care Bears Conquered the '80s

Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Care Bears were one of the great merchandising success stories of the 1980s.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

How do you patent a teddy bear? That was the question facing executives at American Greetings, the popular greeting card company, and toy kingpin Kenner in the early 1980s. American Greetings was coming off the success of Strawberry Shortcake, an apple-cheeked sensation that adorned cards and hundreds of licensed products. Kenner was the force behind the Star Wars action figure line, which rolled out in the late 1970s and went on to become one of the biggest success stories in the history of the toy industry.

Now the two companies wanted to collaborate on a line of teddy bears. For Kenner, it was an opportunity to break into the lucrative plush toy market. For American Greetings, having a stuffed, furry iteration of a greeting card—complete with a name, a unique color, and an emotional message—was the goal. The solution? Put greeting card-esque designs on the bears's stomachs and call them Care Bears. It was a simple idea that proceeded to rake in roughly $2 billion in sales in the Care Bears's first five years alone.

 

Strawberry Shortcake was the brainchild of Those Characters From Cleveland, a creative subsidiary of American Greetings headed up by co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer. (While on a business meeting on the West Coast, the two overheard a receptionist telling someone that “those guys from Cleveland” were there, inspiring the name.) Given a mission from Kenner to reinvent the teddy bear, a childhood staple since the turn of the 20th century, Those Characters recruited cartoonist Dave Polter and freelance artist Elena Kucharik.

Shaffer examined the rainbow, heart, and other greeting card designs submitted by Polter. He then examined the bear sketches turned in by Kucharik. They fit together like two puzzle pieces. Putting the colorful designs on the bear’s stomach gave it a quality similar to the sentimental cards American Greetings was known for.

Two Care Bears are pictured at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears symbolize friendship—and billions of dollars in revenue.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

Those Characters continued to refine the look of the bears, compressing their frame and giving them a little extra volume to make them more squeezable, and a heart-shaped button on their rear ends identified them as Care Bears. American Greetings was able to secure a patent based on the graphic design of their bellies. Their two-dimensional look was fleshed out by Sue Trentel, a plush designer who was able to craft a teddy that resembled the drawings.

The creative team eventually settled on a lineup of 10 bears, each one a different color and reflecting a different emotional dimension. There was Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, and Wish Bear, along with one anomaly. To balance out the potential overdose of saccharine feelings, Grumpy Bear was added. In the narrative devised by Those Characters, the Care Bears lived in a giant castle and went out on missions of caring.

While Kenner was leading the charge in terms of marketing, American Greetings knew they had a premise with broad appeal. Before any Care Bears made it to shelves, the company secured 26 licensees to manufacture everything from clothing to bedsheets to coloring books. Retailers who may have been reluctant to devote store space to a new line of teddy bears were impressed by the support, leading chains like Walmart, Kmart, and Target to quickly sign on.

 

To complement the launch of the Care Bears at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, Kenner president Bernie Loomis mounted a major Broadway-style stage production at a cost of roughly $1 million. During the show, Strawberry Shortcake made an appearance to introduce the next great merchandising craze.

The bears went on sale that March and quickly sold out. Desperate for more product, Kenner promised a factory owner in Taiwan a new Mercedes if he could make 1 million more Care Bears—and quickly. (Kenner got their bears, and the factory owner got his car.) American Greetings had a 16-foot stretch of Care Bears cards lining the greeting card aisles. An animated series was a hit. The Care Bears Movie followed in 1985. By 1988, more than 40 million Care Bears had been sold. By 2007, the number was 110 million. The teddy bear had successfully been reinvented.

Several Care Bears are pictured on a table at the Boy Meets Girl x Care Bears Collection at Colette in Paris, France in February 2017
Care Bears have endured for nearly 40 years.
Kristy Sparrow, Getty Images

The Care Bears have been reintroduced several times, including in 2002, 2007, and 2013. American Greetings is still marketing the Care Bears under their Cloudco Entertainment brand. A new animated series, Care Bears: Unlock the Magic, began airing on Boomerang in 2019, while apparel and other licensing—like Care Bears Funko Pops! and Care Bears clothing for Mattel’s Barbie—is still going strong.

Why the enduring appeal? In 2007, Polter credited the secularized version of values that are often instilled in churches. The Care Bears were on a mission of sharing, loving, and caring—a greeting card message that never had to leave your side.