In the world of stand-up comedy, there’s no worse crime than stealing another comedian’s material. Even the implied heist of another comic’s jokes has pretty much sunk Carlos Mencia (not that we’re complaining), and the notion of borrowed bits has been a black cloud looming above the careers of Dane Cook and Denis Leary for years.
Using the same forbidden practice that’s met with vitriol in the comedy community, a cast of brazen local humorists will be flies in the face of comedic convention during Tuesday’s Joke Thief Night at the Down & Over Pub. Milwaukee comedian Christopher Schmidt, who has hosted the mic since last summer, hatched the blasphemous one-time variation of the Bay View bar’s weekly open mic after he and some fellow comics “butchered” one another’s jokes backstage at a recent show.
“I think it’s kind of an interesting concept. It’s basically just a cover joke night,” Schmidt says. “When I first thought of it, I thought it would just be a fun thing for us in the scene. It’s almost like we’re roasting each other. But to make it more open, and to maybe appeal to people who have thought about doing comedy but don’t know how to write, why not just let [people] come up here and do another guy’s jokes for one night.”
In addition to jokes from some local comics he won’t divulge, Schmidt says he may sprinkle in better-known bits from Patton Oswalt and Hannibal Buress into his between-performer emcee duties.
Like Schmidt, area comic Tom Grimm has been performing for about 18 months. Grimm started the Down & Over open mic late last May as a response to the lack of open mics in Bay View. With the exception of holidays, it’s been going every Tuesday since. Grimm, who still performs almost weekly at the event he created, is looking forward to test-driving well-tread jokes from his counterparts in the Milwaukee stand-up scene. Additionally, he plans to tackle some popular parts of Anthony Jeselnik’s set.
“Sometimes I listen to comics that are killing on a CD and I think to myself, ‘How would that material go over in the rooms that I do? Would that material even land?’” Grimm says. “You’re dealing with more than just a joke. It’s the personality, your stage presence, and your voice on stage that have so much to do with whether or not you can deliver material.”
Though neither funnyman has ever heard of a stolen joke-themed night before this, both claimed to have unconsciously ventured in the vicinity of another comic’s material in the past.
“In music, you’re obviously influenced by other people. You look at bands today and you can sort of pick out which bands they listened to, and where there influences are,” Schmidt says. “In comedy we’re so much more guarded when in comes to that. No one wants to sound like anyone else.”
Schmidt immediately abandoned a bit after being pulled aside by a peer and told it was similar to a Norm Macdonald joke.
“Doing this, I watch and hear so much comedy that I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing original thoughts from something I’ve heard,” Grimm says. “I’ll have experiences where I’m running with something and thinking it’s great, and then step back and think, ‘It’s great because I’ve heard it work before. That’s actually somebody else’s material.’”
The bold beauty of this single night of amnesty is that anybody who’s brave enough to take the stage for five minutes can be themselves—or anybody else—with no fear of stepping on preexisting material in an art form Schmidt says has its fair share of “parallel thinking.”
“We’ve all heard a joke where we wished we were the guy who told it. Now we can get that shot,” Schmidt says. “You can do Mitch Hedberg jokes finally, and nobody’s going to get mad at you for stealing Mitch Hedberg jokes.”
Gary Zajackowski, a resident of Milwaukee’s East Side, frequents Down & Over’s open mic. He intends to perform Tuesday, too, citing the unique form as being a break from the normal open mic setting.
“I’m so for it,” Zajackowski says. “We do [open mics up to] five times a week, and this is a breath of somebody’s already-breathed fresh air.”
While Schmidt hopes Joke Thief Night breeds more comedy events with diverse themes, Down & Over’s open mic will revert to its usual, original comedy format next week. As always, anybody can perform, the event is free, and cans of Pabst are on special for a dollar.
“It’s the rawest form of stand-up that you can catch,” Schmidt says. “It has the same appeal as when a band puts out demo tracks. It’s a chance to see the formative process of doing comedy.”
Aside from giving comics a place to perform and patrons a place to see a diverse grab bag of comedy every Tuesday night, the open mic also offers people an up close and personal view of Down & Over before the bar inevitably winds up on an episode of Bar Rescue soon.
Feel free to use that one tonight.