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Conan O’Brien: Why I Decided to Settle a Lawsuit Over Alleged Joke Stealing

“Conan” host Conan O’Brien was sued in July 2015 by Robert Alexander Kaseberg, who accused O’Brien and others on the TBS show of stealing five jokes from Kaseberg’s Twitter account and blog. Here, O’Brien explains why he reached a settlement in the case, which had been expected to go to trial in federal court in San Diego this month.

My Stupid Lawsuit

I begin by warning you that the following is not as important as the Mueller Report, Global Warming or the death toll this week on “Game of Thrones.” But I do need to get this off my chest.

Four years ago, my writers and I were sued by a man in San Diego who claimed that we stole five jokes from his blog and Twitter account. 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.

The wheels of justice grind slowly — really slowly — and years started to pass. During this time, 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?? Did we counter-sue? No, we did not, because I knew he had not “stolen” from us, just as we had never stolen from him.

The fact of the matter is that with over 321 million monthly users on Twitter, and seemingly 60% of them budding comedy writers, the creation of the same jokes based on the day’s news is reaching staggering numbers. Two years ago one of our writers came up with a joke referencing Kendall Jenner’s ill-fated Pepsi commercial, and so did 111 Twitter users. This “parallel creation” of jokes is now so commonplace that Caroline Moss of CNBC and Melissa Radzimiski of the Huffington Post have given it a name: “tweet-saming.” And, by the way, the person who sued me also tweeted the same Pepsi joke, but only after our show and 24 other tweeters beat him to it.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because I believe that the vast majority of people writing comedy are honorable, and they don’t want to steal anyone’s material because there is no joy, and ultimately no profit, in doing so.  However, when you add the internet and an easily triggered legal system, the potential for endless time-wasting lawsuits over who was the first to tweet that William Barr looks like a toad with a gluten allergy becomes very real.

This saga ended with the gentleman in San Diego and I deciding to resolve our dispute amicably. I stand by every word I have written here, but 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.

What’s important to me, today, is defending the integrity and honesty of my writers. They are remarkably hard working and decent people, and this episode has been upsetting for them, and for myself. As I wrote several years ago, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” Of course, William Shakespeare is now claiming he tweeted that in 1603, but that dick can talk to my lawyers.

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