In comedy, parallel thought is just an unfortunate occupational hazard. More than once, we’ve seen comedians come up with the same joke, word-for-word, without either of them having the slightest inclination of doing anything coming close to joke theft.
In the more niche world of late night monologue joke writing, the likelihood of parallel thought increases times several over for reasons that were brought up in the hearing that preceded them moving to trial. Basically, there is “limited variation” in how a joke can be made from a day’s news headline, especially for the fact it has to be written as a one-liner joke rather than a longer bit, story, etc.
Therein lies the rub of having to prove intellectual theft or copyright infringement as it relates to joke thievery and why this trial is an important one.
Essentially, one Alex Kaseberg is claiming Conan writers saw his tweets and lifted them to use as monologue jokes on an episode of Conan. There is no “smoking gun” of access to Kaseberg’s feed (as opposed to what happened to Tig Notaro and her short film) where he posted the jokes that were allegedly lifted and yet, this case will be going to trial.
In the hearing, they actually had an “expert” calculate a percentage of how likely it would be that one of Conan’s writers and Kaseberg would come up with the same joke, which is just plain silly. While there is a limit on the angles one can have in a monologue joke based on the same premise, trying to calculate a percentage of a punchline being the same from two different people is a fool’s errand. Someone’s creativity can’t really be quantified to a specific number value and then be compared to someone else’s “creativity number value”.
So, this case has the potential to set a very dangerous precedent if it goes Kaseberg’s way.
If you watch a lot of late night monologues, you’ll notice that dozens and dozens of staff writers do come up with virtually the same punchline quite often. Much larger numbers of folks come up with similar punchlines on Twitter as well. None of those staff writers really hold a grudge to the point of filing a suit because they are well aware of how pervasive parallel thought is in their line of work and they also know that they’ll have to write a bunch of jokes the very next day and the day after that.
Joke thievery does happen, but, from where we’re standing, we see most people in comedy, especially with such a visible position as writing on a TV show, going to great lengths these days to avoid the horrendous scarlet label of “joke thief”.