Do stand up comics write all their own jokes?

I know they cannot use another guy’s jokes but can they pay people to write jokes? or is that considered bad form? Bands cover other music in addition to their own songs.

Talk show hosts like Conan, Fallon, Colbert, etc. have writers that write jokes for them along with their own jokes. I’m asking about guys in clubs who are not on TV.

Apparently not. Here is an interesting article about writing jokes for stand-up comics.
It talks about which comics are likely to buy gags, tailoring the gag to the comic, when and how to approach comics etc.

Good comedians write their own material, and it shows. You can pick out George Carlin, Dave Chapelle, or Patton Oswalt by reading just a few lines because of how distinctive their comedic voice is. But there are a lot of not-very-good people in comedy.


And apparently good comedians write gags for other comedians without even knowing they are doing it.

Patton Oswalt: “Joke Theft Is No Laughing Matter”


The expected thing in standup is that your jokes must be original. In practice, this means you write your own jokes. Joke theft happens but can be career death.

There are four scenarios under which a standup might tell jokes written by others:

  1. Legitimately paid for them. This is standard fare in cases where it’s simply impossible for the comedian to write enough material - late nnight talk show hosts being the obvious example. No comedian who ever lived could write that much stuff themselves, so in such circumstances your Stephen Colberts and Seth Meyerses must rely on staff writers. It is worth noting that in such cases, those men personally choose who they hire, because the writers’ senses of humor need to work for the comic. Seth Meyers personally manages his writers; he doesn’t personally manage the camera operators.

It is also common for comics to give one another jokes or sell them for small amounts. I was given a joke by another comic because it was funny, but he just couldn’t find a way that it made sense for him to tell; I reciprocated with a few good ones I thought worked well for him. Later on another guy wanted to give up comedy and offfered to sell me his best material for a small sum; we never got around to formally doing it, and he sold them to someone else.

  1. Stole them. The great majority of comics do not steal jokes but there are a lot of comics, so it’s not uncommon. There are some famous examples, of course, like Carlos Mencia.

Some comics will inadvertently steal jokes; comics love to watch comedy, and between watching a huge amount of comedy and and then brainstorming and writing loads of your own material, you can do this accidentally. Robin Williams was famous for this (a problem exacerbated by his improvisational style.) To his credit, when it was proven he’d swiped a joke, he would customarily pay the aggrieved comic very good money for it.

  1. Accidental repetition. It is quite possible for one comic to tell exactly the same joke as another quite by chance. I mean, how many different jokes about big dicks are there? I had a joke about getting old and my testicles hanging really low, and one night when I was the middle act, watched in horror as the opening act - a guy I’d never met before in my life, who could not possibly have seen me perform - told the same joke. I had to change my act on the fly. I am totally certain it was just coincidence. Flying around out there are many of the same jokes about dicks, airline food, Donald Trump, why your kids drive you crazy, traffic, sex, so on and so forth,

If you’re wondering how one tells the difference betwene accidental repetition and joke stealing… I mean, 99.99% of the time it’s really obvious. It’s gonna be either the same basic joke on a common theme with variations in wording, or it’ll be a joke that clearly was ripped off. If I do a simple, generic joke about the size of my wang, no one will think that was ripped off from some other guy. If I do a routine where I specifically say that houses are just a place to put your stuff and “your stuff is shit, but my shit is stuff,” I clearly ripped off George Carlin. The wording is too specific. If I tell a joke about how buffets made me fat, whatever. If I go into a spiel where I suggest ordering from a real restaurant what you’'d eat in a buffet and carefully descbive three overloaded plates of food, say “yes” to the dessert menu, and a ridiculous number of beverages, well, I ripped this off, right?

  1. Telling street jokes. You will from time to time see a comic in a club telling “Street jokes” - jokes so common, that have been around for so long, that you can’t really say they were stolen from a particular person. They’re just old jokes.

Talk show hosts who are also comedians often have a writing staff who submit material to the boss for his review (Colbert, Leno, Stewart). Writing new stuff every night of the week would be nearly impossible for one person.

At least 101.

This has no relevance to the thread. He clearly addressed joke theft in the opening post. He was asking if people buy jokes, which they do sometimes.

I agree that the best do their own material.

Yes but the people selling comic material are often joke thieves themselves, which the comedian using the material may not be aware of (e.g. Conan). And it is remarkably easy to come up with a joke that is actually someone else’s material that you’ve simply forgotten about, particularly in the era of gag humor and “brick wall” comics. That is what makes comics like George Carlin or Dave Chappelle stand out; they aren’t so much telling jokes as highlighting essential truths they’ve discovered that we often overlook. And if you are just buying someone else’s words, you aren’t getting to any personal truth; you are just an actor playing the role of a comedian.


During my not-at-all successful time in stand-up, I probably sold a couple dozen jokes. I didn’t like to sell material out of my act, because it always involved selling “up,” to a more successful comedian and once s/he started using it, especially on TV, there was a real risk that I would be suspected of having stolen the jokes from him/her. But sometimes I would anyway, figuring that eventually the joke or a very similar one would end up in their routines anyway, so I may as well take the fifty bucks.

More often, I would listen to their acts and think of extensions or additions that would fit, and just in conversation “I really like the telephone pollster routine. Do you ever do this with it?” I made it clear that it was a gift and sometimes they’d ask me to do some writing for them.

Sure they can use another guy’s jokes, provided they can get away with it. RickJay already mentioned Carlos Mencia, though many other famous comedians are similarly guilty. Before his television breakthrough as Get Smart’s Agent 86, Don Adams was a stand-up comedian who wasn’t averse to reusing others’ material without credit or permission. This is detailed in a fascinating article by comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff, Would You Believe Don Adams was a Joke Thief?.

The same article also mentions that it was actually the norm in Adams’s day for stand-up comedians to outsource their writing:

I had always heard the unwritten rule was “whoever uses the joke on TV first owns the joke”, but if you get a reputation for stealing jokes from lesser known comedians, you will lose all your friends.

As far as comedians buying material, I wouldn’t think the ones travelling around the country doing the comedy club circuit make enough money to afford it.

Most do but not all. Those starting out always do their own material but many big names have people that writ for them or they pay for jokes they heard and want to use (sometimes retroactively in a few cases).

It isn’t common because the reason most people get into stand up is they feel like they have something to say so performing your own material is the entire point.

Buying jokes was more of a thing for old-school comedians, whose sets were mostly a series of one-liners. That’s why you see Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield as names who regularly bought jokes. That’s also why comics like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce were so revolutionary. They told stories and commented about society, often improvising on the spot from the day’s news.

Most of the vaudevillian comedians bought their jokes and routines from others. The Marx Brothers never wrote their own material. All their vaudeville routines, Broadway shows, and movies were written by others. Groucho would ad lib a lot and Harpo invented his own bits, but they built off situations devised by others.

Bob Hope never went anywhere without a writer to create gags for the individual place or event of the day. Jack Benny called his writers the kids in the hall, appropriated by the Canadian sketch comedy group. Fred Allen was noted as the one wit who wrote his own programs but even he broke down from the strain and started hiring staff. Woody Allen started his career by writing 50 jokes a day as a teenager to send in to columnists and press agents who would put the jokes in the mouths of their clients. The big names built up joke files in the millions, all categorized by subject. They sure didn’t write a million jokes. David Freedman was the first to make a career of this: he was Eddie Cantor’s writer (and ghostwriter) but contributed routines to dozens of radio shows in the 1930s. Arnold Auerbach’s classic Funny Men Don’t Laugh is the best memoir of these times. (His “Lou Jacobs” is David Freedman.)

Voice is so important in today’s comedy that few club comics can buy jokes. But jokes get bought for special occasion monologs all the time. It’s no big deal. And has no relation to joke stealing.

I think it’s probably still more common than you think just not as common as in the past. Some big name comics still do it the hard way. Seinfeld and Rock still do drop ins at the Cellar and other clubs to try out material. Someone like Kevin Hart is filling stadiums but also filming movies. It’s doubtful he has the time to build a routine.

They do typically write their own jokes, unless of course the pen is too far away and the comedian has to convince themselves that what they thought of wasn’t really all that funny.


Meyers has a recurring segment with staff writers Amber and Jenny based on exactly that, “Jokes Seth can’t tell”.

An example from just this side of the “modern era” of standup. Jimmy Walker once had David Letterman and Jay Leno writing jokes for him.

Back when Dave and Jay were friends, Jay once brought out on Dave’s old show their old notebook of jokes they were writing for Jimmy. Dave and Jimmy often talked about that era. No one seemed the least bit ashamed about the matter.

The recent Apatow documentary about Garry Shandling recalled some tales of Garry offering jokes to George Carlin and then later young comics offering jokes to Shandling.

It’s just something some people do.

And it wouldn’t take much for someone to be able to write a whole set for Jim Gaffigan in “his” voice.

OTOH, I have a relative who does standup. National tours and the occasional European tour. No way does she buy or sell material. The material is way too specific for her “lifestyle”.