Sad news that Phyllis Diller, one of the first female stand-up comics and an icon of the craft, has died at 95. Diller’s passing brings back a particularly sweet (and funny) memory. Back a few years ago I co-authored a paper with Dotan Oliar about how the community of stand-up comedians stops joke-stealing without resorting to copyright law. Stand-ups have their own system of “IP norms” — i.e., informal rules of conduct about who owns jokes, and the punishments for stealing one — that they enforce on one another. The norms are informal, but powerful, and they deter most joke stealing.
That’s how comedians conduct themselves now, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, prior to the 1960s, there were no norms against joke stealing at all. Instead, comedians lived in what they referred to as the “corn exchange” — they stole jokes from one another shamelessly. Some even celebrated their thievery — Milton Berle was celebrated as the “Thief of Bad Gags,”, and he used to joke that “the guy on stage before me was so funny that I dropped my pencil.”
As part of the research I did with Dotan on comedians’ norms, I spent a couple of days browsing through Phyllis Diller’s joke file, which is in the Smithsonian. It contains about 50,000 jokes, written or typed out on index cards and organized mostly by topic. There’s a lot of evidence there that Diller was an active member of the corn exchange. There are other comedians’ jokes in the file. There are also hundreds of panels from a comic strip, “The Lockhorns”, that chronicled a warring married couple. Diller refashioned some of these into jokes about her fictional husband, “Fang”.
But perhaps the best joke in the Diller file is one about the Supreme Court. “What has 18 legs, 9 heads, and 4 boobs?” she wrote. Punch line: “The Supreme Court.” She then crossedout the original joke and rewrote it in pen below, reflecting changes on the Court. “What has 18 legs, 3 boobs, and one black asshole?”