The lawsuit by a San Diego man claiming Conan O’Brien’s TBS late-night show stole jokes from his Twitter for Conan’s monologue has settled out of court, shortly before going to trial.
O’Brien wrote about the decision to settle in an essay today in Variety, saying in part: “I decided to forgo a potentially farcical and expensive jury trial in federal court over five jokes that don’t even make sense anymore. Four years and countless legal bills have been plenty.”
I will tell you what we told him, and what we subsequently swore under oath in a deposition: we had never heard of him or his blog or Twitter account, and we did not steal any of his jokes. Short of murder, stealing material is the worst thing any comic can be accused of, and I have devoted 34 years in show business striving for originality. Had I, for one second, thought that any of my writers took material from someone else I would have fired that writer immediately, personally apologized, and made financial reparations. But, I knew that we were in the right.
How did I know? I knew because different people around the world come up with the same joke all the time, especially when the joke is topical. I was made aware of this 24 years ago, when, on the same night, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and I all told an identical “Dan Quayle is dumb” joke: “Dan Quayle announced today that he will not be running for President in ’96. However, he did not rule out running in ’97.” Back then, no one sued anyone because each of us knew that topical comedy often follows a pattern — it’s an occupational hazard. You try hard to avoid it, but sometimes, comedians inadvertently step on each other’s feet.
Now fast forward 20 years and add something called The Internet. On a chilly winter night, I delivered a joke about Tom Brady re-gifting his Super Bowl MVP truck to opposing coach Pete Carroll (trust me, Pete Carroll gags were hilarious back in 2015). What my writers and I didn’t know is that, at the same time, that joke was being written by literally 34 other people on Twitter, and one of those people decided he had been robbed. He then claimed we had stolen four other jokes, though we had proof that one of them was written prior to his posts. But none of that mattered, we were hit with a lawsuit. And not to brag, but a Federal Lawsuit. I had finally made it to the big-time. Part of me was bemused, but a larger part of me was genuinely pissed.