Conan O’Brien isn’t first comic accused of stealing jokes

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Robert “Alex” Kaseberg makes it his business to watch all of the late-night monologues on TV. A comedy writer, the 60-year-old has sold bits to David Letterman and Jay Leno, earning as much as $125 for a joke.

On the night of Jan. 14, 2015, Kaseberg sat in his home office, near San Diego, Calif., taking in the opener of “Conan” on TBS. Host Conan O’Brien told a joke about how there were just two passengers on a Delta flight — and “somehow they spent the whole flight fighting over the armrest.”


It was almost the exact joke Kaseberg had written and posted to his blog earlier that day. (His punchline: “And they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight.”) Over the next several weeks, the writer claims, two more jokes from his site and Twitter account turned up on the show.

On Thursday, it was announced that O’Brien had settled a lawsuit filed by Kaseberg asking for $450,000 in damages. The case had been scheduled to go before a San Diego court on May 28. At the heart of the claim: Kaseberg’s allegations the comic had stolen his jokes.

At first, Kaseberg claims, he called “Conan” head writer Mike Sweeney, offering to sell the show new jokes or at least get credit for the ones they’d used.

Sweeney, Kaseberg wrote on his blog, “was incensed that I would suggest his writers would have anything to do with my pathetic blog and … me.” Sweeney’s representative did not respond to a request for comment.

After a fourth allegedly matching joke appeared on “Conan” — about how a cul-de-sac named for Bruce Jenner should be called “cul-de-sack-less” in the wake of the Olympian’s sex change — in June 2015, Kaseberg sued O’Brien, Sweeney, TBS and others for copyright infringement.

Kaseberg told The Post that confidentiality constraints prevent him from commenting on the situation. O’Brien appears to have fewer compunctions.

‘If something appears on Twitter and is original, the person who posted it owns the copyright.’

 – Robert C. Cumbow, lawyer

Hours after the agreement was reached, the TV host wrote a piece for Variety titled “My Stupid Lawsuit.” He dismissed Kaseberg as one of 34 people on Twitter who had written a joke about Tom Brady giving his Super Bowl MVP truck to the person who helped him win it: Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.

Once the lawsuit was launched, O’Brien writes, “We asked our writers’ assistant to monitor our accuser’s tweets to avoid any other accidental overlap, and she discovered 15 examples where he tweeted similar jokes AFTER we had written them for my program. And this is the guy who is suing us??”

Kaseberg’s settled suit represented the first time a late-night TV host was litigated against for joke stealing. But it is not the first time a comedian has gone ballistic over it.

“I was at a comedy club called Below Zero with my roommate, Brooklyn Mike, and the guy on stage did one of Mike’s jokes,” comic Donnell Rawlings told The Post. “Mike punched this guy in the face as he came off stage.”

Even famous names have been accused of theft. Bob Hope once quipped that Milton Berle “never heard a joke he didn’t steal.” Robin Williams was reportedly so larcenous that stand-ups would cut their sets short when he walked into clubs. During a David Letterman appearance, Williams did a bit about cellphones being installed in people’s heads. Ray Romano had done that very joke one night earlier — on Letterman’s show.

Many comics, including Tig Notaro, have alleged that “Saturday Night Live” swipes material. Carlos Mencia — who had his own Comedy Central series, “The Mind of Mencia” — was accosted at Hollywood’s Comedy Store in 2017 by comedian Joe Rogan, who called him “Menstealia.” George Lopez took it a step further: Reportedly, he punched out Mencia.

Comedian Carlos Mencia performs at The Stress Factory Comedy Club on July 20, 2017 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Carlos Mencia on stage at The Stress Factory Comedy Club in New Brunswick, NJ.Getty Images

Comedians Tammy Pescatelli, Wendy Liebman and Kathleen Madigan accused Amy Schumer in 2016 of lifting their material.

“Between Amy Schumer doing 1 of my best jokes on her HBO special and this meme of my joke, I’m done with social media,” Liebman wrote in a since-deleted tweet. The Emmy-winning and Tony-nominated “Trainwreck” star was forced to defend herself for months afterward.

But actual lawsuits are rare because it’s difficult to prove copyright infringement on a one-liner — length matters in these cases.

“If something appears on Twitter and is original, the person who posted it owns the copyright,” said Robert C. Cumbow, an intellectual property lawyer in Seattle. “But it’s difficult to prove that you own a joke, especially when it is easy for two people to come up with it.”

O’Brien also addressed this in his Variety piece: “… with over 321 million monthly users on Twitter, and seemingly 60 percent of them budding comedy writers, the creation of the same jokes based on the day’s news is reaching staggering numbers.”

One former “Conan” writer told The Post he saw that happen first-hand in the show’s writers’ room.

“Monologue writing begins with somebody coming up with a premise list from the day’s news,” said Tommy Blacha. “Then writers go off on their own, come up with punchlines and present them to the group.

“Honestly, you can’t go into that room with a line that somebody else has not already come up with,” Blacha added. “There’s a lot of parallel thinking.”



By Michael Kaplan

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