coase’s theorem and stand up comedy

A few weeks ago, South Park ran an episode about Kanye West’s inability to get a lame joke about fish sticks. The premise was that West took himself way too seriously, but there was a recurring theme about people who steal creative work. Specifically, South Park just came right out and accused comedian Carlos Mencia of being a hack who steals other comedians’ jokes. A google search quickly revealed that Mencia isn’t the only one accused of plagiarism. A number of prominent of stand up comics have been accused of repeatedly lifting work without credit – Milton Berle,* Denis Leary, Robin Williams, Dane Cook, and there are many more.

Turns out the comedy world is one without enforceable property rights. It really is possible to build a career just repeating other people’s jokes. Just read the Dead Frog blog, which focuses on stand up. Over and over, comics use similar jokes. Sometimes it’s just convergence on obvious topics (e.g., “no comic owns Clinton —- jokes, it’s a public resource”). Other times it’s obvious, some comics copy lengthy jokes nearly verbatim from other comics. And ususally, there’s not much to be done.

However, once in a while, even in this anomic environment, property rights do work well enough to satisfy the prediction of Coase’s Theorem. Case in point: a story (possibly an urban legend) about Robin Williams from Gelf Magazine:

According to comic Steve Hofstetter, Williams’s thievery has gotten to the point that when comics call his manager and say that the two of them had performed at the same club recently, his manager will simply say something along the lines of, “What did he take, and how much do you want for it?” (Gelf was unable to reach Williams or his manager for comment.) Con’s Skyler Stone says that Williams “used to stand in the back of the club with a checkbook”…

Link to Coase’s Theorem? The theorem, roughly speaking, says it doesn’t matter how you initially assign property rights, but in a zero transaction cost environment, you will reach the same efficient outcome. In this case, Robin Williams is willing to respect other comics rights, long as they complain, which is a low cost action (at least compared with lawsuits and other enforcement actions). So you get the same assignment of resources: Williams, the better performer, has more market value and just buys out jokes belonging to others as if he had just hired them, or owned the jokes in the first place. Classic Coase? You be the judge!

*From Gelf Magazine: In the 1950s, one-line legend Milton Berle poked fun at his own thievery, once saying that a comedian made him laugh so hard, “I nearly dropped my pencil.” Take my blog, please!

Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2009 at 1:29 am

12 Responses

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  1. Isn’t Coase predicated on the existence of property rights? Coase doesn’t say that property rights will spring into existence when transactions costs are low. Just that they’ll be reallocated.


    Michael F. Martin

    April 26, 2009 at 4:32 am

  2. True, Michael, but the point of the post is that in the micro-world of Robin Williams, there seems to be a de-facto set of rights, as signaled by Williams’ desire to buy out people he doesn’t have to.



    April 26, 2009 at 4:44 am

  3. Not sure how common it is for mainstream comics to buy other comics joke. The problem is great enough for one of the UK’s best comics to actually do an entire show about one mainstream comedian, where the theft is compared to walking into a pub and stealing the beer and then claiming no one owns a pint, do they?


    Naadir Jeewa

    April 26, 2009 at 10:44 am

  4. A singer can introduce a song by saying, “Now I’d like to do my version of a Gershwin classic.” But a comedian can’t say, “Here’s my version of a joke I heard so-and-so tell.”

    One of my first blog posts was about a similar problem in magic. Magicians, like comedians, can’t give credit where due, but when they talk among themselves, they often provide extensive footnotes on the sources of their version of a trick.


    Jay Livingston

    April 26, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  5. i think jay has a very interesting point that mere awkwardness can inhibit disclosure and that what counts as awkward varies by context.
    one of the great puzzles about payola is that it’s actually totally legal for a record label to pay a radio station to play its music as long as they say on the area something along the lines of “this song is a paid advertisement” or “this song was brought to you by Sony.” however radio stations almost never do this kind of disclosure even though doing so would let them avoid a lot of legal problems (conceivably including heavy fines, jail time, and losing their broadcasting license). whenever i give talks on payola people often ask me why they don’t just disclose it and i really don’t have a good answer. my speculation is that announcing on the air that you got paid to play a song makes you look a tool and spoils the (mediated) interaction between broadcaster and listener which is premised on the myth of artistic romanticism. the same thing apparently applies to stand-up comedy but not a lounge singer (although i think it would apply to rock bands where “covers” are symbolically dangerous).
    furthermore, i think it’s not just about impression management with the listener but self-deception in that most payola nowadays involves gift exchange rather than arms-length quid quo pro and it’s easy for the radio station staff to minimize the extent to which they feel they are influenced by these gifts.



    April 26, 2009 at 3:51 pm

  6. With standup, I wonder what happens if you are a relatively new comic who steals people’s material. You can’t just pull out the checkbook if you’re starting off and have no money (especially in LA, which is a hard market to break into due to over-saturation). I hear that it can lead to a loss of reputation, and possibly other comics using their network connections to make it harder for the stand-up “thief” to get bookings. Someone like Robin Williams could use their checkbook and reputation to overcome these sanctions, but not newer comics.

    On the payola front, our students certainly buy into the romantic myths about DJs picking songs because they have good taste. Even if they’re not convinced about the DJs, they tend to feel that announcing the advertising on the air would produce a strongly negative “corporate tool” reaction. Undergrads don’t seem to wonder “why don’t they just disclose it?” as much as people at your talks. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why undergrads may not feel like asking questions. But they do buy into a lot of romantic myths.



    April 26, 2009 at 6:37 pm

  7. Noah: I think it’s easy to come up with different hypotheses. The null is that low prestige comics are punished. The alternative is that the entertainment industry is big enough and has so few formal property rights, that’s it’s easy to slip through the cracks.

    Or think about it this way: a thief comic could create a huge collective actions problem – their act is a string of little stolen jokes. Each is clearly stolen, but you have to gather a whole community of people to punish him, which is nearly impossible.



    April 26, 2009 at 6:54 pm

  8. For a seminar on Law and Economics of Intellectual Property, I read and commented on an article once about informal rules and norms in stand-up comedy. It proposed that in the field of stand-up comedy, since formal copyright laws are missing, a system of social norms has developed, which essentially serves the same purpose.
    Here is a short report about the research project:



    April 27, 2009 at 9:21 am

  9. […] computer of one-liners and funny stories for possible future use, and none is original. Then again, as Fabio notes, many stand-up comedians are known as prodigious copiers. Milton Berle once said that another […]


  10. […] Good thing I’m not a professional comedian. According to this paper by Dotan Oliar and Christopher Jon Sprigman, the community of stand-up comedians is characterized by strong social norms that take the place of formal rules in enforcing “ownership” of jokes. A complex system of norms has emerged over the last half-century that “regulates issues such as authorship, ownership, transfer of rights, exceptions to informal ownership claims and the imposition of sanctions on norms violators. Under the norms system, the level of investment in original material has increased substantially.” Presumably the community of professional comedians satisfies the Ellickson requirements of being a small, well-defined, close-knit group. Lucky for me I’m not in it. (HT: orgtheory commentator Johann.) […]


  11. ” The theorem, roughly speaking, says it doesn’t matter how you initially assign property rights, but in a zero transaction cost environment, you will reach the same efficient outcome. ”

    IIRC, it doesn’t say that; it says that the *level efficiency* will be maintained. Who gets what will depend very, very heavily on the initial allocation of resources and rights.



    April 30, 2009 at 2:51 pm

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    December 4, 2011 at 9:50 pm

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