Borrowing Humor

Patricia Fripp had a fall earlier this year, landing on her face. Ouch. She split her lip and went to the emergency room for stitches. In typical Fripp The-Show-Must-Go-On style, she preseted a webinar a few days later. When there is a program on the calendar, the Pro shows up ready to perform.

If I had a mishap and it was still obvious that I had an accident (crutches, a sling, stitches) here’s an opening line that I might be tempted to use:

“To paraphrase Phyllis Diller…I have a public service announcement. In the book, 50 Shades of Gray, there is a typo on page 137…but it was worth it.”

Here are some thoughts on using an opening line from another source:
– The joke is borrowed from Phyllis Diller, via Gene Perret, multiple Emmy-Award-winning comedy writer.
– My edited joke gives Diller credit.
– The punch line is implied.
– It is adapted, Diller had a broken arm.
– It’s updated, forty-some years ago the joke referred to the book, The Joy of Sex.
– And it includes a topper.

– When would “borrowing” a joke be acceptable, and when might it get you in trouble? Sometimes we might be tempted to substitute “steal” for the word “borrow.” But for now we will just use the word BORROW.

– If someone were to borrow humor that you had written, how would you like for them to handle it? Then drop yourself into the process of borrowing someone else’s creative work.

– Using someone else’s creativity as inspiration for your presentation is a short-cut to humor. But the pro is more likely to write his or her own jokes.

– Updating or adapting a joke may seem to make the joke yours and to give you permission, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes that green light is an illusion.

– Repeating a joke to friends in a social situation is not likely to be a problem.

– Where you may get into trouble is when you put a borrowed joke into a platform presentation. Giving credit for a joke might be sufficient, especially for one-time use, relating the joke to something fresh that just happened. But it becomes questionable if it becomes a regular part of a professional talk. Making money from someone else’s intellectual property may be crossing the line.

– If you’ve adapted a joke, changed it to bring it up to date, it is still a good idea to give credit to the original source. The act of rewriting a joke doesn’t automatically make it YOUR joke.

– When using humor for gain, as a professional who is paid to speak, is when you start dancing on thin ice. Whether a joke is adapted, adopted, or source-cited, giving credit is likely the right thing to do. The safe thing to do. Maybe even the legal thing to do.

– If you stray into the gray areas, err on the side of caution.

– As with “fair use” considerations in the copyright world, the amount of humor you borrow affects the acceptability of your use of someone else’s material. Using a two-page humorous story comes close to borrowing a signature story, and credited or not most likely falls in the unacceptable category of use. On the other hand, a two or three line joke, with proper credit given, is likely to fall in the range of acceptable behavior.

– What if other people are borrowing YOUR humor? Allowing your
humor to be used by others, unchallenged by you, may place your
material into a free-for-all category. Humor which is freely and
frequently used by many people can become part of the common domain and available for all to use.

– If someone is using YOUR humor, resolve it first with the offending party. In most cases, the offending party will do what is right. A couple of examples from my experience. About twenty years ago, a professional humorist borrowed a humorous story from my newsletter and published it in his newsletter with no credit. It was about a half-page, word-for-word lifting of my writing. I decided to write him a letter commenting on another part of his newsletter, just to let him know that I was reading his material. The problem never appeared again. Another example, an entire article, word-for-word, was published on someone’s web site, specifically naming someone else as the author. I contacted the editor of the website. It turned out to be an honest mistake and he changed the credit line immediately. People usually want to and will do the right thing.

– If you need to or want to use someone else’s material, sometimes it’s as simple as asking permission. Permission may come free, just ask. Sometimes it comes with a small fee.

– It’s not likely you’ll run into a lawsuit for misuse of material. But if
you are on the offending side of the behavior, the issue could land on the desk of an ethics committee. It could give you bad word-of-mouth. It could affect your reputation. And if you’re on the receiving end of a lawsuit, it’s probably from someone who has deeper pockets than you. Not good.

– If you are the offended party, when you raised the issue with the
offending party, what did they say? That’s the first step. Don’t start
with a letter from your attorney, file a law suit, or make a complaint with an ethics committee. When you talk with the offending party, most of the time they will make it right.

– All things considered, if I had a recent mishap which was obvious to the audience, I would be comfortable using the adapted joke giving Phyllis Diller credit. But my first choice is not to have an accident.

– When appropriate, see an attorney. The opinions expressed in this article are based on my experience and are not a substitute for qualified legal advice.