Robin Williams Stopped Going to Comedy Clubs to Avoid Stealing Jokes

One comic threw Williams against a wall and demanded $300 for jokes rendered
Robin Williams Stopped Going to Comedy Clubs to Avoid Stealing Jokes

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In comedy circles back in the 1970s, it was an open secret — Robin Williams had a reputation for stealing jokes. A March 1979 issue of Los Angeles magazine published a gossip item about comedians who claimed Williams came to shows at the Comedy Store and swiped lines that he would use on Mork and Mindyaccording to the biography Robin. One comic claimed to have thrown Williams against a wall and demanded $300 for jokes rendered.

“In the old days, if you hung out in comedy clubs which I was doing almost 24/7, you hear things,” Williams told Marc Maron on a 2010 episode of the WTF podcast. “And then, if you’re improvising, you’re all of a sudden repeating (jokes) and going, ‘Oh, shit.’ My brain was working that way.” 

Williams didn’t trust his mouth to distinguish between his original thoughts and an observation he might have heard on a stage months ago. “I had to go through a period when I’m not going to hang out (at clubs) anymore,” he said. “I can’t because I don’t want to be getting into that thing.”

He certainly didn’t deny the Los Angeles anecdote about forking over cash to aggrieved comics. “I was also like the bank of comedy,” he told Maron. “‘Oh shit, here you go. Here’s money, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.’ I just paid shitloads of cash. And then after a while, I went, ‘I bought that line already!’ and I had to pay again. I went, ‘Oh fuck, I’m sorry.’” 

While Williams was apologetic when he knew he’d swiped a line, he also could be suspect of comics looking for a quick payday. Some would approach him and say, “Hey, I do that!” Williams’ reaction: “Yeah, but so does everybody else. There’s stuff that’s common material.”

Maron understood WiIliams’ dilemma. Comics can’t steal another comedian’s well-crafted joke, but doing material about the president? Or dogs or women? “Public domain just happens,” he argued. “There’s 10,000 comedians, and we’re all drawing from the same reality pool.”

Other comics weren’t as empathetic. A comic named John Witherspoon took Williams to task for using one of his jokes on Mork and Mindy. Williams defense: “Well, I ad-lib a lot. If I used your line, I’ll pay you.” But that wasn’t good enough for Witherspoon. “You can’t pay me because 40 million people saw that show. If you gave me a dollar for every one of those people, that would be great. But otherwise it’s not even worth it.”

Richard Lewis agreed that Williams’ solution didn’t work if the jokes weren’t for sale in the first place. “Robin could take a premise or a joke and then go off on it and make it better because he was a genius,” Lewis said. “But a premise is gold. If a young comic has four, five minutes and he’s going to go on The Tonight Show, and all of a sudden, Robin does three of his jokes, he’s fucked. So yeah, there’s real reason for some of these people to have tremendous hostility.”


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