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Take my honor, please!

Comedians follow an honor code, believe it or not. And one of the unwritten commandments is, "Thou shalt not steal ... other people's jokes." Especially, another no-no warns, the duds.

Milton Berle became infamous for breaking both of these rules. In fact, the radio and newspaper gos sip Walter Winchell dubbed him the Thief of Bad Gags. Berle borrowed, to be diplomatic, material in- discriminately. He preferred to go by the friendlier nickname Uncle Miltie but wasn't really a nice guy off stage. So I doubt Berle ever returned japes in the same condition he got them.

I've done other comics' jests onstage but I always give credit, particularly to the bits that don't get a laugh. And other people similarly appropriate my one-liners. No big deal, so long as attribution is included, the imitation as flattery is foisted on me or my counter parts only once in a blue moon, and an act isn't based on the tactic. Because besides simple entertainment, the topic of cribbing cracks also involves intellectual property. I learned this les son the hard way in 1992 when I complained to my attorney that one of my zingers ended up in a book without my permission, let alone any compensation. "Did he quote you, fully and properly?" my lawyer asked. "Yes, but--" I replied. "Case dismissed," the counselor interrupted.

The book, True Confessions, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, amasses revealing observations from notables like Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and authors like H. G. Wells, William F. Buckley, and John Updike. I admit I enjoy the company I keep. My quote? "I had a cholesterol test. They found bacon." Friends remind me when my ego starts to balloon that the collection also features more notorious types like G. Gordon Liddy, Madonna--and me. I guess Groucho Marx had a point when he quipped something to the effect of, "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members."

Thankfully, only a handful of comedians steal rimshots outright, and word about these plagiarists spreads faster than the Ellen DeGeneres celebrity A-list selfie she tweeted when hosting the Academy Awards in March. Comedians understand the old saying, "There is no honor among thieves." But no one seems to know where the expression came from, though the ancient Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero references a version. Who knows where he swiped it from.

Since this edition's theme is honor, I must confess that I stole a joke. Just one in my 38-year career. I lifted it a long time ago from a comic who heard it from another peer but I can't remember their names. I do recall the not so grand larceny I committed. I used to do a routine about goofing around on a job application. For the question, "Are you hard of hearing?" I answered, "WHAT?" And under "Date," I put "small edible fruit." The foolery I filched: "List three references not living with you." I'd fill in: "My wife and two kids." This anecdote dishonors me. But it was a weak moment when I heisted the ha-ha, not that my youth excuses anything. At least I had pretty good taste, though.

Comedians keep dibs on each other about such matters. George Miller called me up one Saturday afternoon not too long before his death in 2003 to discuss a joke we both did without, up until that conversation, realizing it. Mine went like this: "I met a man who claimed he had a near-death experience. I said, 'Maybe next time you can finish the job." George's operated on the same premise. Neither of us accused the other of mentally pickpocketing the amusement, and we believed each other--that this was a diverting, if disconcerting, coincidence. But we had a problem. Out of a sense of honor to my elder, whom I knew was very ill, and out of a sense of respect to his close friend, David Letterman, one of my idols, I dropped mine.

I started out as a prop comic. Everyone knew each other in that small subset of pranksters. One day I got a tip that a newbie, Carrot Top, was doing some of our whimsies. My sidesplitter that he performed a rendition of: holding up a phone cord without a receiver and calling the device "the phoneless cord." A few years later, I competed against him on Star Search, a TV talent show, and won. He now includes this clip in his popular gig at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. There were and are no hard feelings between us on either account. In fact, Carrot Top and I became, and remain, good friends. We talk on the phoneless cord all the time.

If Milton Berle were alive today, he would pilfer that one, I bet. And I'd be honored.

Comedian Bob Zany's "Zany Report" has aired on the nationally syndicated "Bob & Tom" radio show for 16 years. A three-time American Comedy Awards nominee for best male stand-up comic, he also can be heard on the weekly podcast, The Bob Zany Show with Erin O'Connor, at iTunes, and be seen on Film credits include 23 Minutes to Sunrise, The Informant! and Close but No Cigar, a documentary about his career. Zany has made more than 1,000 national television appearances. Go online to or or follow him on Twitter@bobzany.
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Author:Szatmary, Peter
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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