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In the world of comedy, stealing jokes has been an inside problem for decades, with accusations of such things going back to the classic comedians of TV and movie yore.

However, in more modern times, the thought of stealing a joke is more of a forbidden practice. Originality has been of central importance thanks to numerous innovative comedians setting a higher bar.

One comedian of the last 30 years who’s apparently stolen more material than any other is Denis Leary. Back in the 1990s, he was one of the top standup comedians around who eventually evolved into a celebrated dramatic actor.

However, comedians have gone after Leary for years about stealing from one particular late (and original) comedian. Was this really a sin, or can one take the crux of a joke and expand on it?

Going back to the early days of Denis Leary

Denis Leary performs onstage
Denis Leary | Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Michael J. Fox Foundation

Anyone not alive in the 1990s probably wouldn’t even know about Leary’s early standup days. This was long before he managed to land his popular drama series Rescue Me, the show that made him a superstar by 2004. Back in 1993, though, he hit the big time as a standup comedian when he released a bestselling comedy album called No Cure for Cancer.

Prior to this time, Leary was seen on various TV shows, commercials, plus a loyal following on the standup comedy circuit with somewhat of an Andrew Dice Clay look. His No Cure for Cancer album wouldn’t have happened, though, without a book under the same title a year before.

The album was turned into a multimedia event, including a TV special. Material (including some songs) dealt with everything from diet to drugs and was thought to be one of the most original comedy sets done in many a year.

Yet, those not familiar with the late comedian Bill Hicks wouldn’t have picked up on the accusations that Leary supposedly stole directly from Hicks’ act.

The Leary-Hicks feud is still talked about today

Bill Hicks was a similar comedian to Leary, including both being known for smoking cigarettes during their act. According to most comedians, Leary lifted the entirety of Hicks’ material and repurposed it into No Cure for Cancer.

Fans of Leary didn’t seem to care since he dressed up the material enough to make it seem original. Plus, with Leary’s more aggressive delivery, it really hit it off with the ’90s-era college crowd.

Hicks and Leary were close friends prior, but Leary’s lifting of his friend’s material severed their relationship. Then Hicks died suddenly of cancer in 1994, just as Leary’s star was rising further as an actor in movies/TV.

Many comedians have gone after Leary in ensuing years about him stealing Hicks’ material, something Leary himself doesn’t seem to have any guilt about. The public also still goes after Leary about this on places like Reddit. To counteract, Leary has said those accusations are exaggerated, giving rise to debates about whether joke lifting is an inevitable practice.

Some surprising comedians stole jokes as well

No doubt few remember even the likes of Robin Williams stole jokes back when he was doing standup in clubs. This might seem incomprehensible to those who remember Williams as the most original and brilliant improv comedian of all time.

Stealing (or repurposing) jokes has been in practice back to the days of Vaudeville. All the iconic comedians who came from those days (Milton Berle, Jack Benny, et. al) just took it in stride jokes would be borrowed and elaborated upon.

It went on into the modern era, with some comedians taking more drastic means to get it to stop. Joe Rogan, for example, is known for forcefully going after Leary and any comedian who steals material.

Nowadays, it’s not seen as much in a time when originality is the key to real success. Not that comedians probably aren’t listening intently to one another today in a time when millions of comedians means inevitable similarities in basic joke structure or personas.