Making Dreams Come True for Comics and Speakers since 1984
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Protecting Yourself from Joke Thieves Forever

The question I get asked most frequently from comics is, "How can I stop people from stealing my material?"

Last time I was asked, it was from someone who didn't even have an act yet.  No joke!

This wanna-be comic was wondering -- if he did write jokes, and did get up onstage, how would his soon to be written material be protected?

I understand his concern.  We comedians work hard to get material.  We write joke ideas on little scraps of paper all day long, we agonize over whether "carrot" or "zucchini" is a funnier vegetable, and we become enraged at the thought of someone stealing our precious material.

What he's not paying enough attention to is something a lot more important.  Jerry SeinfeldComedians don't become famous because they have a few good lines.

Your real ticket to fame is your persona.

Your persona is a lot more than just your material.  It's the sum of your topics, your energy, your point of view, your delivery and your look.  Your persona is your brand.  If your brand is strong, people will respond to it no matter how much your act changes over time.  Best of all, unlike words, you are own your brand -- so nobody can ever steal it.

People go to Vegas to see Jerry Seinfeld -- not his act.

Jerry became famous to the world for his hit TV show.  But to comedians, he was already a legend for his joke writing.  For starters, he was known for actually doing what other comics know they should do but don't: Jerry wrote every day for at least an hour.  He set a timer every morning and kept writing until it buzzed.  What's more, his jokes were universally considered near perfect.  They had strong premises, detailed observations, and brilliant punch lines.  By the time he had been in comedy 22 years, he had put together one of the strongest acts in the business.  Then he did something most comedians would consider unthinkable: he threw his act away and started over, as documented in the 2002 movie Comedian.   

Did throwing his act away stop people from packing rooms to watch him perform?  Not a bit.  Jerry still sells out venues with his brand-new act.  That's because people want to see Jerry Seinfeld.  They want to hear him relate his unique point of view in his distinctive way.

Same thing with Jeff Foxworthy, Chris Rock, Kathy Griffin, or Larry the Cable Guy -- they have become a brand.  So, Jerry Seinfeld doesn't have to worry about someone copying his jokes.  What he gives an audience in a performance is much more than just a collection of random punch lines.  And no one else can deliver Jerry's routine in quite the same way.  That's what people are willing to pay for.

Make a list of successful comics and you might find that they all have a very distinct persona that can be described in a few words.  Now do the same for yourself. What is your unique persona? Can you reduce it to a tag Line like the phrase "Domestic Goddess" that Rosanne Barr used to describe herself?

Give it a shot.  It's a lot easier to know what to write ... when you figure out who you really are!  And let me know if you need assistance with a consultation


Tony Brent said...

Judy, you are a comedic genius and I want to sing your praises throughout the universe! I've recently been contemplating this very subject after hearing last week that a fellow has stolen one of my comedy bits. Thanks for putting it in perspective.

Peace, Love & Laughs,
Tony Brent

Anonymous said...

Great article. I've always said that the real thing to worry about is if nobody WANTS to steal my jokes.

Dan Nainan, Comedian said...

There's another great way to protect your material. Post it on YouTube!

So many comedians tell me they're afraid to put the material on YouTube because they're afraid other comedians will steal it. Well, if you post it online, then you have incontrovertible evidence that you thought of it first!

And if it's funny, it will spread virally, and you will get bookings from your clip. It works for me. This year alone, my clip has gotten me booked in Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, Trinidad and Tobago.

Mat Bergin said...

Branding is what I want to do with my comedy from a paramedic perspective, much like Tim Allen did with power tools. It is difficult to find your voice unless you ask others to look at you, tell you what they think and have the guts to take it all in. When I have the funds to consult with the Queen I shall approach the throne!

Karen Robertson said...

Great article, Judy. If a comic's material is unique to him/her, it won't fit anyone else. I'll go with Dan's YouTube idea and pray that I'll get 1,000,000 hits some day.

Transitions Edge Productions, Inc. said...

Judy you have confirmed what I have believed for twenty years. I have actually seen someone try to do my material and it fell flat. When I started out I knew I needed to have my own voice. About three months in I found it. That voice writes my stuff. I can hear it and see it in my mind as I write. Thanks for writing this article.

MaryMaileOnline said...

Great article but I'm surprised you tagged it with Roseanne Barr and her "domestic goddess" since Judy Tenuta famously swears it was stolen from her Judyism bit. Is there an article on actual joke theft, too, I wonder? We've been debating the topic brought up by a guy who swears Whoopie Goldberg and The View ripped off his ten year premise of Viagra and men not putting toilet seats down......

dr-russ said...

So good! I have been doing stand up for almost ten years now and I can tell right away if someone has potential if I can describe who they are and what they are trying to say. It really comes down to not being afraid to be authentic. I see lots of comics who tell "jokes" like they are lobbing them over a barrier between themselves and the audience in a "if you dont like these jokes it's ok, I present them like I don't either". It's a way from protecting yourself from judgment but In so doing you never allow yourself to get close to your authentic self, your real "persona". Comedy is based on judgement, so if your gonna give it your all you can't be afraid to be judged. Ironically you are much more likely to be judged If you AREN'T authentic. Even people who have off color material can often get away with it because they are being real and the audience can sense that. Conversely, I have seen people do good, technically funny bits and never rise to the next level because they try to control their persona to be something not consistent with who they really are. At least 50 percent of human communication is non verbal, and picked up subconsciously by your audience, so if you are saying something that doesnt fit
with who you are there is a disconnect that the people watching you will feel.
Over time I have found that accepting myself and being confident in projecting my vulnerabilities has helped find my voice and enjoy performing far more than writing material
that creates laughter.

uniqueness and you will notice people will respond.

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