How some of the biggest names in comedy built their careers on pilfered punchlines

Anyone who has ever performed stand-up is familiar with the red light, the universal signal that warns dawdlers it’s time to wrap things up. In the ’80s, comics at the Hollywood Improv came up with a novel use for the light. When shining steadily, it had the conventional meaning. But if the bulb began sputtering, it was the comedic equivalent of an air-raid siren, warning performers to lock up their original material immediately unless they wanted to lose it to a master thief.

Robin Williams, comedy’s most notorious joke rustler, was in the house.

Though the rap has followed Williams for years, he’s not alone. In the world of stand-up, joke-jackers are as common as exposed brick walls and liquored-up hecklers—an occupational hazard that eventually robs every working comic of time-tested material. It’s the dirty little secret of the comedy world, a crime committed at every level—from amateurs at open mikes to big-name pros on late-night TV. Though rarely discussed outside the clubby, if sharp-elbowed, comic community, the subject is the surest way to wipe the grin off a funnyman’s face. Daily Show correspondent Demetri Martin learned the lesson during his first year on the circuit, when he watched in horror as a comic brazenly recycled a joke he had told the previous evening. “I thought, Jeez, this is how it works?” he recalls.

Unfortunately, it is. While most comics take pride in performing their own material, many have built lucrative careers on borrowed bits. Williams, for example, has long been lauded for his ability to instantaneously improvise scenes and gags. But while few question his gifts as a live performer, there’s no way to know how much of his sharp-minded inspiration over the years has been provided by an unwitting writing staff. “I’ve been in clubs in L.A. where Robin’ll walk in the room and whoever’s on stage will just get off,” says Boston comedian Kevin Knox. Ritch Shydner, a former Improv regular and coauthor of the book I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics, agrees. “Robin is a ferocious performer,” he says, “but he isn’t the kind who can generate material, material, material. His style is to watch people and regurgitate what he sees.”

Steven Pearl, a veteran comic who, like Williams, worked on the San Francisco circuit in the ’80s, claims the star was renowned for stealing jokes—a comedic Winona Ryder. When he was caught, says Pearl, Williams sheepishly copped to the charge by opening up his wallet. “I’d call him and say, ‘Hey, what happened there?'” recalls Pearl. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, sorry.’ Then there’d be compensation.” Though Pearl is now reluctant to discuss details, he told Canada’s National Post that Williams wrote him a check for $1,000, and noted that “there were a few more checks for substantial amounts of money that kept my rent paid for a while.” Even Robert Klein, an old pal of Williams, commented in a 2001 interview that “things would float into [Robin’s] head that he heard onstage—sometimes with unhappy results.”

Some of Williams’s longtime friends defend him, saying that a key component to his brilliance is his lack of a filter—his inability to block ideas from entering or leaving his head. Which means that if Williams hears a joke, he feels compelled to repeat it, even at the risk of infuriating his colleagues. Scott LaRose, a veteran stand-up and director of the upcoming Comedy Hell, a horror movie set in the stand-up world, says Williams knows he has a problem but is virtually helpless to stop it. “Everybody knows he’s a genius, but he’s like SpongeRobin SquarePants,” says LaRose. “He’s just a big sponge.”

Still, while ripping off one-liners may seem more benign than lifting lingerie from Saks, many comics beg to differ. When a comedian is the first to tell a stolen joke at a major gig or on national television, the public associates the material with that comic, forcing the actual author of the joke to drop the bit from his or her act. A comedian can write the best joke of his career only to lose it to a sort of “finders keepers” rule.