LOS ANGELES -- So, these comedians walk into a comedy club, and a nasty dispute breaks out over who is stealing jokes. The audience laughs, but the comedians don't seem to find it funny at all.
The scene was the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip earlier this year, and on stage were Carlos Mencia, the host of Comedy Central's Mind of Mencia, and stand-up comic and Fear Factor host Joe Rogan. Mencia let it be known he was upset that Rogan had been mercilessly bashing him as a "joke thief" and derisively referring to him as Carlos "Menstealia."
As the crowd whooped and hollered, Mencia fired back at Rogan: "Here's what I think. I think that every time you open your mouth and talk about me, I think you're secretly in love with me."
A video of the raucous encounter soon appeared on Web sites, igniting a debate over joke thievery that is roiling the world of stand-up comedy. Some even see the outbreak of finger-pointing as starting to smack of McCarthyism.
Still, for a comic convinced that his material has been ripped off, it's no laughing matter.
"You're watching a guy do your material and people are laughing, but they're laughing because they think this performer has a brilliant mind and he's a funny person," said Bill Cosby. "The person doing the stealing is accepting this under false pretenses."
Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles attorney who is writing a book on humor, said it's difficult for comedians to legally claim copyright protection of a joke.
"Let's be honest: How many times have you heard over the course of time the same joke from different people?" O'Donnell said. "Humor is kind of universal, and copyright laws want to promote creativity."
Web sites such as YouTube have posted videos comparing the routines of various comedians, inviting the public to judge the similarities for themselves.
Todd Jackson, a former managing editor at the humor magazine Cracked, has watched the debate from his comedy blog at dead-frog.com. He points to a March 2006 routine by Mencia on No Strings Attached, which is similar to one Cosby performed in 1983 on Bill Cosby, Himself. The routine involves a dad who does everything to make his son into a great football player, but at the moment of his son's greatest gridiron victory, the son looks into the TV camera and goes: "Hi, mom!" In Mencia's routine, the son says: "I love you, mom!"
In an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, Mencia said it made him "uncomfortable" when he viewed the Cosby video. "I had never seen Bill Cosby tell that joke until after my special," he wrote in an e-mail. "I wish I had seen Cosby tell it, because if I had, I would have found another way of making my point since that joke was part of a much larger premise that I've been doing for years about women raising children."
Just as Mencia has been placed on the defensive, so has one of his accusers. After his Comedy Store confrontation with Mencia, Rogan said, he was banned from performing at the club and was dropped by his agents at the Gersh Agency. Mencia, a Gersh client, denied pressuring the agency.
Rogan said comedians come up to him and "grab my hand and shake it and say, 'Thank you for what you did.'" But Rogan also has his fierce critics, who view him as a publicity seeker.
"My routines are my own; they come out of my own imagination," Rogan said in an e-mail to the Times. "I certainly have been influenced by comedians I admire, but there's a huge difference between being influenced by someone and stealing their material."
Robert W. Welkos writes for the Los Angeles Times.