Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: Theft? or Inspiration!

Most working comedians and jugglers agree that stealing material is wrong but the range of beliefs as to what constitutes “material” is vast.

5 club back-crosses? That’s a trick. Anyone who can do it, should.

5 club backcrosses with a balance? Good luck, but sure, give it a try.

5 club back-crosses while balancing a non-licensed, copyrighted, stuffed coyote on a pole, hmmmm…

What is theft?

Try the following thought experiment and see where you draw your lines.

You break into Dan Menendez’s house, take his bounce piano prop, and then use it to perform the same routine, note for note, joke for joke, that he’s been using as his finale for over 25 years. I would expect no juggler to be okay with that.

But what if you built your own bounce piano and performed a different song with different jokes than Dan’s. Would you feel good about this? If so, you could be very successful doing cruise ships and might even be invited back for the wildcard round of America’s Got Talent, but I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t want to write for you. I don’t want to spend time with you. And, by the way, I was going to pay for dinner.

What is inspiration?

But what if instead you ask yourself, “What makes Dan’s routine so powerful?” You decide it’s: using juggling to do something else. Then you think, “What else could I use juggling to do?”

You create a routine where you cook a meal using juggling moves. You juggle a knife, a head of lettuce, and a serving bowl and end by chopping the lettuce into the bowl. Then a cup of oil on one end of a rope and a cup of vinegar on the other with meteor bowl moves to make the dressing. Rola Bola to flatten the dough. Club swinging with the salt and pepper. Fire juggling to fry the eggs.  Flair bartending moves to make drinks. And then you end with a plate spinning routine while setting the table and presenting the finished meal.

You create a whole new market for your act by performing it in the homes of nouveau riche who want to appear Bohemian to their friends. You recreate the 19th century tradition of a traveling parlor magic act, but with juggling.

You perform your act as an exclusive dinner-theater show where making the meal is the show and the encore is the audience being served the dinner you just prepared for them live on stage.

Now you are my hero.

When does stealing become inspiration?

Or let’s take another example. How do you feel about me performing Michael Moschen’s triangle routine? What if I changed it to a square and did different patterns with a different costume and a different character? Still to close for you? Good! How about a pentagon? Please don’t tell me that makes a difference to you.

How about a square with hinges connecting the sides and a rope wrapped around my waist with each end tied to one of the upper hinged corners so that as I moved within the square, it changed its shape to a parallelogram with shifting angles and each differing position created a differing the trajectory for the balls?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

What if I asked Michael Moschen how HE felt about what I was doing, with the honest intent to accept his decision, and he felt it was okay?

This is where I start feeling good about myself.

Or even better, what if I asked myself, “What do I think makes the MM Δ interesting?” Maybe my answer would be: “changing the path of juggling balls through the addition of restricting shape.” What if I used that seed to create a routine where I rolled juggling balls back and forth across the curves of Katrine’s naked body, lit behind a scrim so you only saw us in silhouette? What if the path of the balls changed as she undulated to the music to create a combination of dance, massage, contact juggling, and seduction?

This is where I start to feel like an artist and Katrine starts to look for a new partner.

What’s the difference between stealing and switching?

This exercise of asking yourself what makes an idea good and then using that answer to come up with a new and different idea is the exact same process we used to switch jokes in my earlier columns, only now we’re applying it to whole routines and ideas instead of just individual jokes and gags. (If you read several of my columns, you’ll see this process a lot. It’s one of the most important ways I think, learn, and create.)

How do you know if your new idea is different enough from its inspiration? My answer is the same as the one I gave when we were switching jokes: When it’s different enough that the originator doesn’t recognize it.

What’s your answer?

Why not steal?

If ethical considerations aren’t a sufficient deterrent, let me offer two selfish reasons not to steal:

  1. Stolen jokes are lost opportunities.
  2. If you do generic material you will look like a generic act.

Every stolen or generic joke you put in your show is one less chance to come up with a new and original joke. You learn to write jokes by practicing. Every time you steal a joke you’re preventing yourself from practicing.

Simply put, if you steal, you’ll won’t learn to write.

My career has been built on my ability to write custom jokes for specific situations and specific clients. If I had taken the shortcuts of stealing jokes and doing even more stock material than I already do, I would never have put in the practice to learn the craft that pays for my now lavish lifestyle. (I have 2 cats AND a TiVo!)

What about stock material?

There are a whole lot of jokes and bits out there that many performers consider public domain. But what makes a joke public domain?

The answer for many jugglers seems to be: When enough other jugglers have stolen it.

It seems to work like this: Someone comes up with a new line. A few unethical performers see it, like it, and just steal it. Soon, a bunch of perfectly ethical young jugglers all over the country see 5 or 6 other jugglers doing the line and each thinks, “I guess that bit must be public domain so I can do it too.” And each time that happens the bit becomes even more generic.

My suggestion to you is that instead of being the person who thinks, “That bit is public domain so I can do it too,” you should be the one who thinks, “That bit is public domain so I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to be generic.”

Sadly, if you watch my show (and that’s the way most jugglers watch it), you’ll see many generic tricks (passing around a volunteer, juggling while eating an apple, knife juggling, jumping rope on a unicycle, passing torches on tall unicycles, 10 box slap stack with herringbone balance). I hope you won’t see too many generic jokes (although there is video of us saying: “Thank you. Thank you both of you.” “And now, we will exchange all 6 torches in mid-air.” and “There will be clubs going in front of you. There will also be clubs going in back of you. So don’t do this!”). I don’t think you’ll see anything stolen. But you will see a lot of hack tricks.

I believe I would have been more successful if I had started thinking, “since that bit is generic I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to look like everyone else” much earlier in my career.

I believe John and I could have gotten more television exposure back in the 80s and 90s if we had asked ourselves, “what makes an idea good?” and then used that answer to come up with new and different ideas instead of just coming up with new jokes for old tricks.

I believe I would be more famous now if, back when I was starting out, I hadn’t been just another juggler doing the same tricks as all the other jugglers.

So while I don’t feel John and I stole the idea of eating an apple or knocking a cigarette out of someone’s mouth from anyone else, we did steal several opportunities from ourselves.

What gets stolen most?

The lines that seem to get stolen most are the lines that address common situations we all face in our shows:

  • Crowd gathering lines (“People in the back? Squeeze in. Just move your feet your body will follow.”);
  • Hat pass lines (“We’re not out here to try to scam you for a buck. We want 10s!”);
  • Heckler lines (“I don’t come to McDonald’s and bug you while you’re working.”);
  • Lines to do while getting volunteers (“Where you from? Sorry? No I heard you. I’m just sorry.”);
  • Drop lines (“Looks like this is becoming a floor show.”);
  • Lines to build the tension for a trick (“There are just three things you need to remember if this trick goes wrong: 9 … 1 … 1!”);
  • Functional lines (“Got a lighter? Got a watch?”).

Every juggler needs jokes for at least some of these situations. That’s why those kinds of jokes get stolen so often. It’s also what makes those situations perfect opportunities for you to practice writing new jokes. You need to say something there. It might as well be a new, original line.

(My apologies to any of you who feel proprietary about any of the lines above. I don’t know who the originators of many of those lines were. I just know that most of the people currently doing those lines aren’t them.)

What about the scientific method?

One argument I’ve heard in favor of all of us sharing all our jokes and routines is: Just like science advances faster when everyone publishes their results instead of keeping them secret, we’d all get better faster if we all started with all the best jokes, tricks, and routines ever created and then built and customized from there.

But performing is not science. It’s art. We would all be hurt if we were to become even more similar than we already are.

I will grant that if Michael Moschen had won the arguments years ago about contact juggling (a quick caricature of his position is that he invented contact juggling so no one else should do it) then much of the progress within that skill set and art form would have never happened.

But I also claim that contact jugging is in a different class than Menendez’s bounce piano or Moschen’s triangle. The first is more correctly viewed as a skill set and the others as proprietary, idea-based routines.

What’s the difference? For me, some good guidelines are:

How much have you added to the original idea? Is what you’re doing with it so much better than the original idea that it justifies another act doing it or is it just different enough to not get busted for it?

What would an informed audience think if they saw two people do two different routines using that same idea or skill set in the same show?

I believe that an informed audience would perceive two different acts doing contact juggling in the same show in the same way they’d perceive two different acts doing torches or hoop rolling or passing ultimates. They’d look at what unique skills or jokes or choreography each act brought to that prop. But if they saw two different acts doing something as unique and creative as Dan’s bounce piano or Michael’s triangle they would simply wonder: “Who stole what from whom?”

What’s This Month’s Homework?

Take one line in your show that other performers also do and replace it with something you’ve never heard anyone else ever say before.

Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

Comments 0

  1. I work occasionally on cruise ships and on one of my first cruises I was told where I could grab the curtain while riding my giraffe unicycle and where I could drop a bowling ball on the stage. I was also asked how many apples and eggs I would need and when should the stage hand give me the glow props. It happened on a few more cruises after that and I was super grateful that I had met Scotty early in my career and that he had taught me about stealing, stock material, and how to switch it on your own. This article is a must read for anyone wanting to avoid the embarrassment of looking like a hack.

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