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In music halls and vaudeville, it was common for performers to "borrow" material. According to Milton Berle, etiquette only required that "the borrower add to the joke and make it his own." At the time there were few chances that a performer from one area would meet one from another and a single twenty-minute set could sustain a comic for a decade. Most jokes at the time were one-liners and there was little in the way of proof of a joke's origin, but the value of each joke was immeasurable to a comedian. Berle and Bob Hope had a long-standing feud due to Hope's accusation that Milton Berle had stolen some of his jokes. Berle never refuted the claim, but instead embraced the title "The Thief of Bad Gag".
Even the most famous of comics have found themselves, knowingly or unknowingly, stealing material. Bill Cosby admitted to stealing a joke by George Carlin involving an uneducated football player doing a television commercial. Cosby said that what makes the routine his own is the surreal phrase "little tiny hairs." Many years later, Carlos Mencia performed a bit about athletes and their parents that hearkened back to a Cosby bit from his album, Bill Cosby: Himself.
In the 1970s, joke theft became more prominent with the boom in popularity of comedy. The 1980s and 1990s saw the popularity of stand-up comedy continue to increase. The advent of pay-cable networks afforded comics the opportunity to perform their routines unfettered. With this came a new type of joke theft in which the first comic to tell a stolen joke on some sort of media became the one associated with the joke.
Robin Williams was accused of stealing material from another comic. David Brenner claims that he confronted Williams personally and threatened him with bodily harm if he heard Williams utter another one of his jokes.
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