Which comics are accused of joke theft?

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Why might observers label one social actor’s questionable act a norm violation even as they seem to excuse similar behavior by others? To answer this question, I use participant-observer data on Los Angeles stand-up comics to explore the phenomenon of joke theft. Informal, community-based systems govern the property rights pertaining to jokes. Most instances of possible joke theft are ambiguous owing to the potential for simultaneous and coincidental discovery. I find that accusations are not strongly coupled to jokes’ similarity, and enforcement depends mainly on the extent to which insiders view the comic in question as being authentic to the community. Comics who are oriented toward external rewards, have a track record of anti-social behavior, and exhibit lackluster on-stage craft are vulnerable to joke theft accusations even in borderline cases because those inauthentic characteristics are typical of transgressors. Vulnerability is greatest for comics who enjoy commercial success despite low peer esteem. Authenticity protects comics because it reflects community-based status, which yields halo effects while encouraging relationships predicated on respect. In exploring accusations of joke theft and their outcomes, this study illustrates how norms function more as framing devices than as hard-and-fast rules, and how authenticity shapes their enforcement.

That is from “No Laughter among Thieves: Authenticity and the Enforcement of Community Norms in Stand-Up Comedy,” by Patrick Reilly, from the American Sociological Review.

For the pointer I thank Siddharth Muthukrishnan.

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