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Television ‘SNL’ and ‘22 Minutes’ sketches reignite joke theft debate in the comedy world

Bill Hader, left, and Seth Meyers during a Weekend Update skit from ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The issue of joke theft made headlines this week after viewers compared a recent sketch that aired on ‘SNL’ to a strikingly similar bit on the Canadian series ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes’ from January.

Dana Edelson/AP

Have you heard the one about the standup comic who ripped off another comedian's material?

Many have, and it's no laughing matter.

The issue of joke theft made headlines this week after viewers compared a recent sketch that aired on Saturday Night Live to a strikingly similar bit on the Canadian series This Hour Has 22 Minutes from January.

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While accusations of stealing material are rare in the world of TV comedy, they've been happening in the standup community since the vaudeville days.

Bob Hope, for example, once accused Milton Berle of stealing his material. In the 2008 book Comedy at the Edge, the late David Brenner claimed Robin Williams did the same. And in a 2008 appearance on The Opie and Anthony Show, Louis C.K. accused Denis Leary of ripping off one of his routines.

"I've seen comics do other comics' material … where they changed one word and made it their own," says Mr. D star and creator Gerry Dee. "There are comics that don't care if you accuse them of stealing and they don't care that they steal."

In the case of SNL and 22 Minutes, both sketches feature a game show in which a reluctant contestant is asked to draw the prophet Muhammad.

Also in both sketches the prize is $1-million, and while the contestants refuse to do the drawing, someone ends up guessing what the challenge was anyway.

SNL told the Canadian Press that it is not commenting on the parallels. 22 Minutes hasn't taken any action or issued a statement, but it did post a winking comment on its Facebook page: "In regards to the SNL sketch debate, we're waiting for SNL to say something and then we'll say the same thing later – just shorter."

22 Minutes star Shaun Majumder also tweeted: "Wow if only we could steal some of their budget" and "You've got to admit it's [a] little too close for comfort."

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"It's certainly considered within the Toronto comedy community [to be] plagiarism and people are pretty upset about it," says Chris MacLean, a Toronto standup comedian and author.

"I'm seeing lots of stuff on Facebook where people are tagging the [22 Minutes] writer, Jeremy Woodcock, and saying, 'Hey, that's your sketch. I didn't realize you were writing for SNL now.'" But writer Andrew Clark, director of Humber College's Comedy Writing and Performance Program, believes it could also be a case of parallel thinking.

"It happens, not just in comedy," he says. "You'll have journalists, freelancers, pitching the same story. It just gets in the zeitgeist," Clark says.

"When you're talking about the Charlie Hebdo drawings and not being able to draw Muhammad, well, a game show, Pictionary, these things would come to mind."

SNL is also known for doing game show parodies, he adds.

"It's not uncommon for two comedians or three to have a similar take on a joke or on, particularly, a news item."

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Parallel thinking is common in the standup world because many comics mine material from their own lives, which leads to similar themes being explored onstage.

"Everyone is going to do jokes about their mothers, everyone is going to do jokes about their children, and sometimes there is going to be some overlap," Clark says.

The same thing can happen in the TV comedy world.

"There are only so many subjects you can think of," Dee says.

"When we're in the writers' room for Mr. D, it seems like every time we think of something it's like, Seinfeld did that, Seinfeld did that, Seinfeld did that, Seinfeld did that." The unwritten rule seems to be that the path to a joke can be the same but the specifics, the angle and the punchline of it have to be different.

In the standup world, some performers act as "comic police" and will let others know if their act seems too similar to someone else's, says MacLean.

"If you're a performer and you perform onstage and you say a joke that is too much like someone else's or particularly too much like a famous person's, you're probably going to hear about it right away," she says.

"It can happen very unintentionally and usually the thing to do is just not perform that joke; it's not original enough to be performed."

Dee takes the same stance.

"I used to do a bit that was like a finger puppet, those finger puppet bits years ago, and Dane Cook does it and I'm like, 'Well then, how creative is it if we both thought of it? How good is it?'" he says.

"So I kind of have that approach, that if someone does it, then what's the point of doing it? I just cut it out."

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