Thieves in the Temple of Stand-Up Comedy: Rogan versus Mencia

One of the great videos circulating on Youtube is a confrontation between comics Joe Rogan and Carlos Mencia at the Comedy Store. If you were unaware, Mencia is one of an infamous few in the biz who are known for stealing other comics material. Unlike music, where covering other people’s originals is cool, in stand-up comedy you are considered a pariah if you lift from someone in the profession. Where in the music world you make money off a song if someone performs something of yours, there is no such set-up in stand-up. Nothing is worse than when a celebrity comedian like Mencia steals your material, because when they perform it on TV, all of a sudden people think you are no longer the original writer.

(NOTE: The video has been pulled off a Youtube, but you can go to this site on myspace, where the it will load very slowly. Bonus is you get some insight on the event from Joe Rogan.)

Similar to Bob Saget, Rogan is known for hosting a bad TV show, but his stand-up act couldn’t be farther away from his TV persona. Don’t judge him from his Fear Factor days, as if you catch Rogan at a theatre or club, you will see some great social commentary delivered with a hypnotic presence. Since Rogan has become rich off of doing Fear Factor (and News Radio), he doesn’t have to worry like most comedians about pissing off the wrong person. He has been a one-man wrecking crew taking on big-name comics like Mencia, Dane Cook, and Dennis Leary, who have all done large chunks of material written by other acts.

Mencia, Cook, and Leary are 3 of the most charismatic performers I have ever seen on-stage. I’ve referred to Leary as being the Creed of comedy, as he could take other people’s stuff (see Bill Hicks) and make it more theatrical. Pearl Jam and Hicks are the ones who deserve the acclaim, but the posers knew how to take their brilliance and package it to a larger audience.

Dane Cook has coopted a few of Louis CK’s bits into his standup. Until this most recent Mencia/Rogan duel, the side-by-side CK/Cook performances had been the biggest stand-up comedy expose’ making the internet rounds. Cook has a rock and roll look and style that Louis CK doesn’t, which means a lot to opening films for 16 year-old myspace kids. Guess who has a higher profile?

Even though Carlos Mencia’s real first name is Ned and he is part German/part Honduran, it hasn’t stopped him from cultivating an image as Mexican-American’s most “authentic” comedic voice. Interestingly, the other comedian who could be classified as the current holder of this title, George Lopez, has confronted Mencia as well

I think Mencia, Cook, and Leary could have been successful comics without relying on others material, but the incredible drug of killing with an audience made them take a short-cut. Many comics that I have a ton of respect for have held on to the coattails of these comics, refusing to turn their backs on these material lifters. They have done this because they know most of the Hollywood decision-makers could care less about originality, only who can sell a product. Rogan has F-YOU money and also the truth on his side. In the world of Youtube and Myspace, video is instantly available to expose the evils of the false prophets. Just ask Michael Richards.

I should note that there are topics that lend themselves for parallel thought. I’ve been doing a smart-ass job interview bit for 15 years now. It is based on actual job interviews I did when I was in the corporate world and it’s something I’m known for in the biz. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a couple other comics do similar themed material in their show, though not done interactive like myself. I’ve not seen or heard what they do specifically, but from what I know about these comics, they are both quality acts that are known as being original thinkers. As I said, parallel construction of material can happen, which I believe has happened in this case. Fortunately, none of the other 2 comics who have a similar concept in their act have reached the levels of the 3 I listed above. If that did happen, I would have to reconsider doing the bit, despite it being a key element of my show.

It is really hard to create 15 minutes of material which will work with most audiences, let alone an hour that headlining acts need. This is why there are so few comics who can perform successfully in all regions of the US. To perform large chunks of someone else’s material is pathetic, but with the successes that performers like the ones I have listed above have had, it only increases the chances that others will try to follow this short-cut to success.

In my career, I’ve demonstrated that I can succeed in all sections of the country. As good of a performer as I think I am, Leary, Cook, and Mencia are all better than me on-stage. I will say though, that if I would have been willing to lift great material from others, I might have been able to be a bigger name in the biz. I’m not so self-absorbed to think that there aren’t many other comics who couldn’t say the same. Kind of like a baseball player who refused to use steroids, we can question if we couldn’t have raised our performance, if we had been willing to cut corners. No matter what profession you choose, you have to make decisions on ethical standards that will guide you. I admire Rogan for his dogged pursuit of the truth.

27 thoughts on “Thieves in the Temple of Stand-Up Comedy: Rogan versus Mencia

  1. 1.  Plus Rogan also makes money for doing UFC announcing around once a month. And he actually can back up his tough act as he has trained with MMA fighters in the past (I’m not sure if he still does).

  2. 2.  That’s the most interesting piece you’ve written in a long time. I guess stand up should be no different from any other profession or any other 8th grade class. The Chris Rock line of “You turn it into some dynasty shit like ‘She’s trying to destroy me…'” comes to mind.

    Stand-up, unlike music, unlike literature, has to have massive overlap amongst its performers. Most performers are trying to relate the generality of the crowd, and we all, to a large extent, have similar experiences. There are only so many ways to tell a joke about a job interview, a break-up, getting caught with a Playboy, etc etc. Of course, each subset of society (rich, poor, black, white, hispanic, south, east, west) has a comedian relating to that group. But it must be ridiculously difficult to come up with something groundbreaking that isn’t related to current events.

    By the way, one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen is Rogan going off on a girl heckler in the crowd. I don’t have the link (I might have even seen it on here) but that’s a tremedous piece.

    Finally, I have a Please Explain. Please explain why I can turn on Def Comedy Jam or Chris Rock or George Lopez and hear time and time again insults against whites (I prefer European-American) but if you, Scott, did that same bit abouts blacks or hispanics you would be on the lead story on every news program around. By far the worst is Mike Epps – his HBO show is not only horrendous, but it’s the most outlandish racist (there is no “reverse racism”) routine I have ever seen.

  3. 5.  That MySpace video is definitely worth checking out. I like when Mencia is kind of pleading for sympathy saying ‘Do you know how hard it is to write material?’ and Rogan yells back ‘I DO. YOU DON’T’. In a lot of ways Rogan was very generous to Mencia – crediting him with being a good performer. You could tell Mencia had no defense because all he did was call Rogan a little b&tch a thousand times in a row. And every other working comedian on the scene backed up Rogan.

    Can you fill us in on about how much joke writers get paid? Can you pay for the rights to bits of other people’s stand up?

  4. 7.  Mencia should steal better material. How can this man have a career? He has no talent, and less shame….

  5. 8.  Well-written piece, Scott. I’ve been following this since the last video Rogan put out (responding to a Mencia radio interview where he said that Rogan bombed and Mencia killed…but Rogan had video footage to the contrary), and thought it was great that so many people were able to see this yesterday. Unfortunately, it’s now been pulled from youtube and myspace, and Rogan’s been banned from the Comedy Store, but people can still see it on google.

    It’s amazing how Mencia’s been able to build such a successful career on stealing and talking about how controversial he is w/o actually saying anything of substance.

  6. 9.  thanks for the info…i’m not on the inner circle for comedy, who’s got what, etc. but this is interesting and disappointing.

    QUESTION FOR SCOTT: i was never a big leary fan – what skits from hicks did he take?

    you know why – in comedy – taking other people’s stuff is looked down upon? in music, if you cover someone else’s song and have a huge hit with it, the original writer gets a chunk of your success. in comedy, if you ‘cover’ someone else’s material, the original writer gets nothing (unless they were given the typical one-time payment; from what you said above, the comedians were thieves rather than purchasers).

    and dane cook – i consider his personality / marketing / working with fans to be amazingly awesome, but i’ve never been a fan of his material (only seen stuff on comedy central). yet i love louis ck, and must not have heard whatever cook ripped from louis. go figure.

    (i did like mencia’s standup, though, which makes this a bit disappointing).

    for comparison points – i’ve loved lewis black for years (though as he’s gotten more popular, his material has gone the other way), and certain huge people like robin williams and carlin. dan naturman, mitch hedberg (before he died), dmitri martin were good.

    i don’t like sarah silverman (who now got her own show??? although i’ve heard she’s supposed to be counter-trendy popular), bob saget tv (comedy club is fine), most tv sitcoms.

    and i virtually never watch letterman / leno (boring, and late) but i saw frank caliendo’s madden interview last week. kinda funny, and he’s got so many of the mannerisms down pat now.

  7. 11.  thanks for the link clive – i’ll take a look at it later…i haven’t seen enough of cook’s material to know more than his one line about “the burger king”, to coin the comedy central special that’s on seemingly every 10 minutes.

    google is your friend for mencia’s stuff. i spent the last 20 minutes searching through for verification, links, etc.

    it’s funny – when mencia’s show came out (i had known his comedy material by then), i said “hey, comedy central replaced black with mexican and got this show”. big deal, tv shows rip concepts off each other all the time. but i never knew the actual material theft was this bad…

    btw, when you search news.google for mencia and rogan, this page comes up. i guess google uses news and blogs for their search engine.

  8. 12.  Radar Magazine has an article about the exact same thing, they include the three mentioned above and include Robin Williams as well, saying the a club in LA had a system where they would flash a red light to let the comic on stage know that Williams was in the audience so that they wouldn’t give away any of their best stuff. Apparently, Mencia isn’t even allowed in a lot of comedy clubs anymore either. Leary seems to come in for the softest treatment in the article.

  9. 13.  This might be impractical and I’m sure I’m not thinking of a hundred legal obstacles to this, but what is to stop a comic from copyrighting his material?? The only obstacle I could see is expense, but aside from that why wouldn’t that work?

    Copyrighting is the only reason songwriters get money if someone does a version of their song. If somehow Mencia could compensate the original writer in this way, would it matter that the material wasn’t his?? As Scott said, some of these guys have a great stage presence and maybe they just need writers—like the set-up Letterman and Leno have.

    Maybe I’m naive, but if I were a comedian I’d look into copyrighting my stuff—almost any other sort of performance art has the actual material protected in this way, why not comedy??

  10. 14.  13 If I’m correct, comedians riff on ideas, which you cannot copyright. However, a comedian can copyright written or recorded material as much as a writer can copyright written material and a producer or music-writer can copyright original musical material he or she composed, and a comedian could copyright the expression of that material.

    For example, if Mencia was repeating Rogan’s material verbatim, (plagiarism) he could be sued. If Mencia was performing an act, phrase or mannerism that was easily identifiable with Rogan (expression), then Rogan could sue him. But if Mencia was speaking on a similar subject and saying basically the same thing, but in his own words or mannerisms, then as gray as that is, it’s not copyrightable because of the varying expression of ideas.

    It would be up to a judge or jury to decide whether the content of Mencia act was exactly the same in comparison with the content of Rogan’s act to constitute plagiarism, or if Mencia’s act was similar enough to Rogan’s copyright-protected expression of material.

    That said, I’m on Rogan’s side sentimentally. I cherish originality and value honor, even if that makes me less wealthy than I could be. Rogan has proven that you can be wealthy and original, so it’s not hard unless you have neither the intelligence to create original ideas, nor the talent to express ideas in an original manner. Having heard neither of their acts, however, I can’t fairly comment on whether Mencia’s act is similar or not to Rogan’s, but I’ll take Scott’s word for it. Phooey!

  11. 15.  I recently watched an older Robin Williams special and at least half of the material in the hour was taken from various Eddie Izzard routines. I guess that he felt he was safer taking from a British comic.

  12. 16.  Having seen both acts, I can honestly say that the best material Mencia has is his original stuff. Part of what separates Carlos Mencia from other comics is his ability to insert social commentary into his jokes (much like Chris Rock), so that when you remember them, you remember the message as well.

    I had the opportunity to watch his show in Champaign, Illinois, where he opened the show to audience questions. It was the most memorable part of the performance, and also the most humorous. The stuff that came off the top of his head was actually funnier than his scripted material.

    As a filmmaker, I do sympathize with people ripping off ideas (it is your livelyhood after all), but there’s something to be said for doing what somebody else does better. Look at the historical success of people like Elvis Presley, who steal lesser known acts and perfect them for the market. How about people like Quentin Tarantino, who remake foreign films and then steal all the credit?

    Scott, as a comic, should realize that sometimes it’s hard to fill a 50 minute set with A+ material. So why not borrow filler material (which you already know is good) and use that instead of your B jokes? It’s just good sense.

    And to tell you the truth, if Joe Rogan and Carlos Mencia had identical acts, start to finish, I’d rather watch the Mencia performance.

  13. 17.  16. The problem is, according tot he Radar article referenced above, Mencia doesn’t just steal from Rogan, he is supposedly notorious for stealing from a lot of lesser known latino comics as well.

  14. 19.  18 You believe in the addage, “Possession is 9/10th of the law.” But you’re also implying that there’s nobility in their actions, as though Elvis and Tarantino are paying homage (Tarantino’s favorite word) to the material they use. Sure, they can claim that the material they use is scenes a faire, but how does does incorporating lesser-known artists’ material benefit that artist whose work has been appropriated by a well-known artist? The well-known one gets paid, the lesser-known gets accused of being a hack. I can make an educated guess that those artists do not see a penny for material they originated that was “incorporated” by well-known artists. This is more than just a few thousand here or there, this is about livelihood for most artists. You bite their material, you bite the food right out of their mouths.

    I believe that’s the argument that Scott and Rogan are making. It’s harder for comics to prove this since most live material is probably not recorded for distribution and therefore it devolves into a matter of “who do you believe more?”, but reputation alone stands for a lot in the comedy circuit, whether the general public understands that or not.

  15. 20.  19 – I think you’re hinting at the real problem with stand-up, which is namely that of credit. When Prince was performing “All Along the Watchtower” at the Super Bowl, anyone who knows anything about rock KNEW that he didn’t write it, and he certainly wasn’t trying to pretend like he did. As you’ve pointed out, unlike movies, music, books etc. where the core features of the material are the individual words themselves, it’s not that hard to take a stand-up routine, change a bunch of the words around but still be telling the same jokes. Also, stand-up is designed to be a live medium, and even in music, there’s always been an accepted difference between playing a cover in a live set of otherwise original material, and putting the same cover (with or without proper crediting) on an album.

    I do think, however, that stand-up comedy could ironically be helped if comics that used non-original material made it more clear that they were doing so. When Baz Luhrmann (to pick a random example) put out his version of “Romeo and Juliet” no one called him a plagarist because everyone knew that he was doing a Shakespeare play with his own take on it. (Someone I know did complain that it was a rip off of ‘West Side Story,’ though). I’d certainly be much more accepting of a comic who got up, did some original jokes and then said “And now, for my version of a classic Richard Pryor routine…” Sure, I might PREFER to watch someone doing all original material, but I don’t see anything wrong with the stand-up version of a cover band either, as long as the person is honest about it.

  16. 22.  Great topic and another 20 minutes of prep time shot to hell…

    15 I saw the same special and thought the same thing. I have also heard from stand-up comics that Williams is notorious for stealing material and that once he damn near got his ass kicked in San Francisco because of it.

    I sometimes use other comics material in the classroom but I always credit the comic… and I just now realize I don’t know if I’m cheating or what. For example, I’m teaching the Bible as literature and some of the kids aren’t taking to it, hard as that may be to believe. So I riffed on Izzard’s “Dressed to Kill” routine comparing black and white churches. Here’s the thing–I credited Izzard. And I still feel a little guilty for the laughs I got.

    Perhaps I should stop doing that…

  17. 23.  I think Izzard is brilliant. Took a minute to get over the women’s clothes the first time I saw him but he’s absolutely brilliant. One of my favorite bits of all time is the Death Star Cafeteria bit.

  18. 24.  A few things to get to here, in no particular order.

    Izzard is great, but he would only work for sophisticated types in the US. Not knocking it, but I’m more inspired by comics who can work with a all types of audiences.

    TFD- Mencia is the star of one of the most popular shows ever on Comedy Central. The times I’ve watched it, I’ve thought a lot of the sketches are funny. Not as good as Chapelle show, but more consistently funny to me than any of the other TV sketch shows.

    Sandus- Really hard to tell what is Mencia’s original material. This is the problem when you do other people’s stuff.

    Now to the thread here that really disturbed me….go to my new post.

  19. 26.  If you use another comic’s material, you need to credit him. I was taking comedy defensive driving and the comic would say who’s joke/story he just used as the laughter died down and then went on to the next. It didn’t detract from the jokes at all, if anything it let’s people know who they might want to catch in the future or at least gives people some name recognition.

    At the very least, if you’re using other peoples’ material in an HBO special, you can thank the person in the credits. There’s a way to go about using other peoples’ things, not giving them credit and acting like it’s your own, is being dishonest.

    Also, Ned/Menstealia shows a green card… I don’t know what name is on it, but if it’s not his real name, he could be busted and deported to whatever country he came from, Germany or Honduras I guess. I kinda hope he did lie to get the green card, would be poetic justice to see him gone for telling a lie.

  20. 27.  Let me state very clearly to those of you not in the comedy biz.
    It is not kosher to do someone else’s material and then credit someone else, unless you have paid someone already for the material. No just giving them credit after it and it being cool. I can’t pay my bills with thanks from someone else.

    Big F-ing deal that someone gave you credit. If you are being paid for a job and someone is getting laughs off of your hard work, someone giving you a shout-out is still really bogus.

    I’ve got no problem with a teacher in a class or just someone at work reciting a joke of mine, but when you are in the entertainment field, you better be doing your own stuff or paying someone for the stuff you are doing.

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