Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: Thou Shalt Not Steal

As I wrote in my first column, Comedy Darwinism, whenever I’ve asked any group of comedy jugglers or comedy magicians where their jokes come from, most answer: “It was something that happened while I was onstage.”

Almost no one says: “I stole it from someone else’s show.”

And yet, if you watch most shows, and I’m definitely including my own in this, you’ll see gags you’ve also seen in others.

You may not know who stole what from whom. You probably won’t know what was bought or traded for. If you’re new to the biz, you might not know which bits are public domain (which usually means “stolen by a lot of people”). But you will at least know that those jokes are not original to everyone doing them.

There is, however, a moral, ethical, and original way to steal a joke. It’s called “switching.” When you do it the way I recommend, it becomes “switching to the bone.”

That’s what we’re going to learn to do now.

West Side Story Joke Picture

Step 1: Write down a joke you want to steal.

I’m going to steal a joke The Passing Zone does where Jon hits Owen in the face with what appears to be a bowling ball but is actually a large, black, rubber ball.

The Passing Zone pointed out this gag is an updated, and in my opinion much improved, version of the old clacker ball gag which dates back to vaudeville at least. I tried to find out who the first juggler to do that gag was but any Google search that includes the words “ball” and “gag” will quickly fill up an afternoon.

So I called juggling archivist and ball gag expert Andrew Conway and he found an ad for 2 solid and 1 rubber cannonballs for The Great Comedy Cannonball Trick in a 1921 juggling catalog.

But enough about the history of the joke. Let’s steal it.

Step 2: Write down what makes that joke funny.

This could be the underlying structure of the joke, the essence of the joke, the kind of conflict the joke expresses, the type of ambiguity the joke exploits, the type of hypocrisy the joke exposes, the formula the jokes follows, or any other element that you believe makes the joke funny.

This step actually takes some originality, understanding and comic creativity. Different people, looking at the same joke, can come up with very different answers to this step.

For my example I’ll say the essence of this joke is:

An object that appears to be one thing turns out to be something else.

Step 3: Write a bunch of examples that express your answer from Step 2.

You’re going to forget about the original joke itself and now concentrate on what you said makes it funny in Step 2. Write a bunch of possible jokes and ideas for possible jokes that follow the structure, express the essence, or exploit the type of ambiguity you wrote down in Step 2.

You could use the method from my earlier article Comedy Creationism or any other method you know. I’ll write about some more methods in upcoming articles. The specific method you use will often be determined by your answer in Step 2.

For example, my answer was: “An object that appears to be one thing turns out to be something else.” So my method will be: Start by listing all the different things that might be used in an act and then write down other things that each could turn out to be. Each of these could be the germ of a new joke.

Some will be funny. Most won’t be. That’s fine. Comedy writing is a numbers game. The key is to fill the page with possible jokes. Don’t judge any of them while you’re writing them. Just write ‘em down. Later, you choose the few you think are funny and move forward with those.

Here are some examples that express my answer from Step 2:

Juggling club is actually a liquor flask or wine bottle.
Juggling ball is actually a change purse.
Mustache is fake.
Hair is a toupee.
Use chainsaw not to juggle but to carve a juggling club to juggle.
Legs of prop table are actually juggling clubs.
Rabbit pulls a magician out of a hat.
Microphone is a razor.
Microphone is a lighter.
Prop case hides a person.
Performers are actually someone else.
Apple has a worm in it.
Water bottle is gas container.
Arm is fake.
Trick is faked.
Katrine’s ponytail is made of extensions so I can cut it off in every show.
Balloon animal is real.

As you’re doing this exercise you’ll probably think of a bunch of jokes you’ve already seen that fit the mold you’re writing for. That’s to be expected. Many jokes follow the same formula. Don’t spend much time on those. We’re not trying to list jokes we’ve already seen. We’re trying to write new ones.

Step 4: Choose a few you think are funny and turn them into complete, performable jokes.

For the method I’m using for this exercise, this step becomes: How do I put the object onstage, lead the audience to believe it is one thing, and then surprise them that it’s actually something else? How do I expose the surprise? In general I’m going to want to show them the surprise, rather than tell them the surprise.

Some Examples

1) In a standard looking IJA Juniors routine: Jr. does his 3 club routine. Turns to the side. Fourth club is thrown onto stage from the wings. Jr. catches it and does his 4 club routine. Turns to the side. Fifth club is thrown on. Jr. unscrews the knob, takes a big drink of liquid courage from what we now realize is actually a bottle of liquor shaped like a juggling club, screws the knob back on, and juggles all 5.

2) Balance a club on your chin. Prepare to juggle 3 clubs. One slips out of your hand before your first throw. Bend down to pick it up. The balanced club stays in place (hanging from an invisible thread).

3) Juggler with a mustache does the first half of his 3 ball act. Halfway through, he does armpits juggling to show how “How cavemen first juggled.” He pulls off his (fake) mustache and puts it between his eyebrows to create a unibrow and become a Neanderthal who’s armpit juggling the 3 balls.

4) Stage hand rolls on a prop case. MC Intros the act. No one comes on stage. Performer emerges from the prop case. (The smaller the case/table the better.)

5) Gothic theater. Marble statues adorn the proscenium. Music starts. Statues come to life.

6) Juggling while eating an apple. After bite #3 a worm is dangling from juggler’s teeth. (Pre-load a gummy worm into your mouth.)

7) Make a balloon poodle for a kid. “Hold on. Let me draw the eyes. It’ll make it look much more real.” Reach down behind table to get your pen. Switch the balloon poodle for a real poodle. Offer the kid the real dog.

8) At an IJA convention Katrine & I attempt to pass 11 clubs. We fail. (Duh.) A few of our clubs go so far that they end up offstage all the way in the wings. We each step into the wings to retrieve them and quickly come back onstage. You see and hear me say “This time for sure.” We then proceed to nail a qualifying run of 11 clubs. It’s not until we turn forward to acknowledge the applause that you see that we’re now actually Olga and Vova, dressed up to look like us.

9) Showing 3 juggling knives are sharp: Take knife number one. Cut through a piece of newspaper in half. Knife number two. Cut the half into a quarter. Knife number three. Go to cut the quarter into an eighth but it just falls in two before even being touched.

10) To show a knife is sharp. Katrine swishes it over my head. She then pulls my toupee off exposing that I’m bald.

It took Katrine & me about an hour yesterday to write those ten jokes. We think the #1 and #2 are funny enough to try but we’ll never find out because we don’t do an act like that (and even if we did we’d never get around to making the props). If you think either of them are funny, feel free to do them. We’ll try #6 and #10 later this month. And we’ll definitely do #8 if we ever get the chance.

Two new jokes worth trying out of ten from an hour’s work? I’m thrilled with that result.

Step 5: Verify that you’ve switched the joke all the way to the bone.

There is a simple test to see if your new joke is too close to the original joke you wanted to steal: Would the act you stole the joke from recognize it? If the answer is yes, then you didn’t write a switch. You wrote another version of the same joke. If the answer is no, that’s switching to the bone!

Do you think The Passing Zone would object to any of those ten jokes above? Would they say any were too close to their bowling ball gag? Do you think they’d even recognize any of them as coming from that bowling ball gag?

I called John Wee to find out and he said, “You’ve reached Jon Wee with The Passing Zone. I can’t come to the phone right now but throw me a message and I’ll try to catch it.” So I’m going to assume the answer is “no.”

Step 6: Off the page and onto the stage.

It’s time to try your new joke in front of an audience. If it’s good enough and it stays in your show, maybe someday someone will steal it from you. If they’ve read this article, I hope they’ll steal it ethically.


Steal some jokes. But do it in a way that no one will ever know that’s what you did!

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

Comments 0

  1. I think that the examples were a bit of a stretch. Compare how close the Passing Zone’s version is to the classic version (which Anthony Gatto used to perform: You said that “one thing turns out to be something else.” That’s pretty much the basis of all jokes, isn’t it? How about getting more specific like that something that looks dangerous or harmful actually isn’t? I think an example of switching is stronger, the more similar it is (though different enough to be ethical, of course).
    On a similar note, I’d like to request an article on taking classic public domain tricks and personalizing them. There is a great list of tricks in the back of “The Complete Juggler” that you could start from.

  2. Hooray! My first comment! Hooray!
    Scott, You’re right. The bowling ball gag The Passing Zone do is closer to the clacker ball gag than my examples were to that bowling ball gag. That’s on purpose. I’m suggesting an exercise that helps you create new jokes that end up quite far from their source.
    Yes(ish). “One thing turns out to be something else” may not be the basis of all jokes but it’s certainly a basis of many. Greg Dean has a theory of a universal grammar for all jokes that I’ll write about in future articles.
    The reason I don’t recommend getting more specific is that using a more specific answer like “something that looks dangerous or harmful actually isn’t” in step 2 limits us rather than helps us in the rest of the steps.
    For example, Katrine and I would have never gotten my jokes #1,2,3,4,5,7, or 8 from that answer but we easily get them from the more general answer. The more basic your step 2 answer is, the wider world of jokes you’ll be able to write from it, and the further your final jokes will be from the original. That is a good thing.
    If you just go below the skin of the original joke in your answer in step 2, you will most likely write new versions of that joke. If you go down to the muscle, you’ll get some interesting switches that resemble the original. If you go all the way to the bone, you’ll get new jokes that are so far from their progenitors they become unrecognizable as switches. Your answer, “something that looks dangerous or harmful actually isn’t” is probably right around the level of ligament or cartilage. It’s deep. But I find it more valuable to go deeper. That’s the goal I’m suggesting, the aesthetic I’m trying instill, and the ethic I’m trying to promote with this exercise.
    That could be a fine article. But then I’d have to read Dave Finnigan and I get enough of that from Facebook.
    But most of all, thank you so much for the comments. They made my day. If anyone else wants to comment I promise to give equally long and overly detailed answers. Hooray for comments!

  3. I actually do a trick that is much more similar to the bowling ball gag: I perform with beanbags and have a lot of intentional drops in one of the early routines. After I finish juggling 7 balls, I throw them off to the side near my propstand. Then I go over and pick up 5 of the beanbags for my 5 ball routine and do a trick where I throw one high, let it fall and I do a scissors kick over it before it bounces back up. It’s a real surprise to the audience because beanbags shouldn’t bounce! I often hear all sorts of funny reactions from people like “what did he do?” or “did he kick it?” As you can guess, I pick up a beanbag that has a bouncer sown into it when I start the 5 ball routine. It’s especially effective because of all of the intentional drops I do earlier that prove that the beanbags normally just plop on the ground.
    Thinking about it, I have another routine with a similar prop switch. I do a routine wherein I juggle eggs, lots of eggs. I break them left and right (with intentional collisions, kicks, head butts, and more) and go through around 2 dozen eggs each show. Just as the music ends, I end the routine by throwing the last few eggs into the audience. Of course, they aren’t real raw eggs, but after people see so many splats, the audience inevitably screams when I throw them. I psychologically set up the audience to know I am using real eggs before I finish them off with the blown (hollowed out) eggs. Very effective!
    BTW, I don’t remember thinking about the classic trick when I came up with those.
    I see both of my routines as siblings of the original trick whereas some of your examples were more like distant cousins (though as I reread the list now there were some close ones). Where we differ is that I think that the point of the article would have been more clear to readers if the examples were closer to the original (while maintaining ethicalness). Especially since your original example of the Passing Zone variation on the clacker ball was much more similar than your switches. I also find it easier to do the exercise with more structure rather than the open-ended joke essence that you used.
    Anyway, here are my ideas doing step 3:
    * Juggling rings and getting them tangled up (one of the rings has a gap like the classic magic linking rings)
    * Juggling 3 apples (and eating one, of course) and having one drop and bounce. * Juggling balls and have one fly away (remote control airplane? Magically switch it into a dove?)
    * Juggle clubs and have one thrown really high so a parachute unfolds out of it.
    * Juggling three heavy frying pans (clank them together before starting) and when finished, hit partner over the head with it (it has a false bottom).
    * Show juggling knives to be razor sharp by slicing paper but then do something to retract the razor before you juggle it (reminds me of juggling chainsaws that make noise because they’re on even though the chain isn’t spinning).
    A nuance of my examples (and also the original two) compared to yours is that mine all have a setup. They’re more than just something looking like something else, but they are more proven to be the original thing first. I think that that psychological setup is critical to the effectiveness of the gags. Perhaps my main disappointment with some of your examples is that they didn’t have the setup (other than they look like legitimate objects).
    The last thing I want to mention is the classic test when switching a joke/gag: If there were a show with both the original version and the switched version, would the second one lose its impact or be recognized as a copy? I think for the most part, all of our versions do pass the test except my frying pan gag.

  4. Scott, Your bean bag and egg gags sound great. Here’s a possible tag to try after you throw the blown eggs into the audience:
    While celebrating putting one over on the audience, laughing about how they thought the eggs were real, you say to someone who reacted with particular fear “You should have seen your face!” You make extreme, scared, surprised faces ridiculing them. This ridiculing could go on as long as the audience is still laughing at it. Then, while you’re still laughing at them, you finally say: “They’re not real, see?” You then hit yourself in the face with what you believe to be a blown egg but turns out to be the last real one.

    It might be clearer but it’s not the point of the article. The point is to write distant cousins, not close siblings.

    But if that’s what you want to do, here is a simple method to write close siblings:
    Take an existing gag.
    Keep the words, change the props, or
    Keep the props, change the words, or
    Keep the setup, change the punch, or
    Keep the punch, change the setup.
    I have a problem with all of these because I think they all encourage people to change the joke JUST ENOUGH to not get busted for it. They teach legalese as opposed to originality. I think this is a bad mindset for comedy writers.
    Now to contradict myself with an important exception:
    I think the older or more removed the original joke, the closer a sibling can be and still be ethically performed. The closer the originator of the joke is to your genre, market, venue, or pitch, the more distant the cousin should be.
    So you can steal from Shakespeare, repurpose from Giligan’s Island, and switch from Seinfeld, but if you saw the original joke in a juggling or variety act you better be switching it all the way to the bone.

    Are you referring to the 10 jokes in step 4 or the list of examples in step 3?
    If the former, I disagree. All of them, other than maybe #4 & #5, have explicit setups where the objects are proven to be the original thing first. (In #10 the setup would be to first cut two other things with that same swish cut motion and do my toupee gag on the third beat. I didn’t type that out in the article but it’s how I’m going to try the gag as soon as I get around to buying a toupee.)
    If the latter, then you’re certainly right. But that’s only a middle step in the process. At step 3 we’re just brainstorming about all the different things that could be something else. Many of the examples in my list in step 3 are also not funny. At this step they don’t have to be and we don’t expect most of them to be. It’s only when we move to step 4 do we try to pull out the funny examples and write formal situations, setups, and punches for them.
    Also, thanks for your examples. Nice work!

    1. Yeah, in my comment I was concentrating on step 3 and forgot that you did give the necessary detail in step 4. Lots of good stuff there – I’d really love to see #8, too!


  6. To be clear Scotty isn’t advocating stealing and if you are a material theif you shouldn’t use this article as justification. If you try, people will laugh at you. And if you are wondering, no this didn’t just happen ( yes it did ).

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