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A Not-So-Funny Look at 6 Comedians Accused of Plagiarism

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It's an immutable law of comedy—under no circumstances may a comic use another performer's material. Naturally, with so many comics making observations about the world around them, similarities are bound to exist between one guy's airplane food joke and another's. Allegations of joke lifting are common, with top-tier talent like Conan O'Brien and Amy Schumer often having accusations thrown their way (Schumer, for her part, vehemently denies any thievery). But throughout standup's history, some similarities have been too close to ignore.

1. MILTON BERLE

The late, great star of stage, screen, radio and TV was once the nation's most popular comedian, earning him a 30-year television contract with NBC and the endearing nickname Uncle Miltie.

But to many of his fellow performers, Berle became known by the much less affectionate nickname "The Thief of Bad Gag" for his legendary penchant for joke lifting. Fellow legend and occasional enemy Bob Hope once remarked that Berle "never heard a joke he didn't steal." In another instance, Jack Benny defended his own practice of using Berle's material by saying: "When you take a joke away from Milton Berle, it's not stealing, it's repossessing."

Unlike many other accused bit-thieves, Berle never went out of his way to dispel the reputation, once joking to Larry King: "I don't steal people's jokes. I just find them before they're lost."

2. CARLOS MENCIA

The former star of Comedy Central's Mind of Mencia has been accused of plagiarism by everyone from George Lopez—who once claimed he roughed-up Mencia over a supposedly stolen set—to South Park. However, the most famous example was shared with the world thanks to a viral video posted by comedian Joe Rogan. In the footage, Rogan is shown running onstage to confront Mencia during a 2007 performance at the Comedy Store in L.A. Among other, more colorful names, Rogan refers to Mencia as "Men-Steal-ia."

3. DANE COOK

Dane Cook reached the pinnacle of stand-up comedy success in 2005 when his album Retaliation went all the way to #4 on the Billboard chart. Sold-out large-arena gigs, movie flops, and tabloid coverage quickly followed—and all served to fuel a rabid anti-Dane movement within the comedy world. With that came an intense microscope on Cook's material and, predictably, a rash of joke swiping charges. The most well-known example includes a Cook bit that bears a suspicious resemblance to an earlier one by Louis C.K.—one of the most revered comics working today. Although compilations seem to confirm that Cook has used at least three of his bits, Louis C.K. has mostly downplayed it—"I'm not going to do anything about this. I'm not going to court over a bit called 'Itchy A**hole,'" he once joked. Just for good measure and consistency, Joe Rogan has also accused Cook of lifting jokes.

4. ROBIN WILLIAMS

Long before he was an Oscar winner, Robin Williams was known to comics as a major material thief. He was even alleged to have used other comedians' material on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. One well-traveled anecdote claims that when fellow comics spotted Williams in the audience of a comedy club, they would immediately stop their act to prevent him from writing down their best jokes. According to Richard Zoglin's book Comedy at the Edge, David Brenner once asked Williams' agent to "Tell Robin if he ever takes one more line from me, I'll rip his leg off and shove it up his [bleep]!" Williams discussed his younger days in comedy and of not understanding the consequences of borrowing material with Marc Maron in 2010; he once playfully referred to the practice as "joke sampling."

5. JAY MOHR

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The former host of Last Comic Standing is an admitted comedy plagiarist. In his 2004 book Gasping For Airtime, which recounts his tumultuous two-season stint on Saturday Night Live, Mohr details an infamous incident in which he took a New York comedian's joke and turned it into a sketch. NBC was forced to settle with the joke's originator, but Mohr himself escaped any serious repercussions.

6. DENIS LEARY

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The former star of Rescue Me has been accused of stealing not only some material but his entire stage persona from the late cult comic Bill Hicks. He's also been accused of lifting material from former stand-up and Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow and Louis C.K. But Hicks himself, who was close friends with Leary, severed his friendship with him over the number of lifted jokes used on Leary's No Cure for Cancer album. "I have a scoop for you. I stole his act," Hicks joked with Austin Comedy News in 1993. "I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did." Hicks passed away from cancer the following year.

This piece originally ran in 2010.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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