Memory is a tricky thing for humans to grasp. It is such a natural element of our consciousness, yet is such an incredible phenomena. It both helps us develop our skills through trial and error, and helps us connect with others through shared experiences and events. Memories can be vivid, or hazy. They can be misremembered, or developed over time with additional information. Studies have shown that witnesses can very easily have their memories altered by false information if certain false-memories are planted in their minds or presented in group settings. If a group of witnesses hear another witness mention a read coat that the victim was wearing, then all of the sudden most of the other witnesses brains may start to construct a red coat on to the victim, whether that is how they saw it or not. Memory can be funny like this. But also, misremembering can get you in trouble.
I have been doing Stand Up Comedy for two and a half years now. It is one of my absolute favorite things to do and has been an obsession of mine since probably my junior or senior year of high school. Right off the bat when I arrived and Fordham and went to the club fair, I discovered that there was actually a stand up team. Instantly I knew I had to join so I visited their table to get all the information about auditions that I could. Since my obsession began I had always been keeping small notes of possible stand up sets that I would think of and keep them in a notebook dedicated solely to the topic. I wrote some new material for my first audition, was excited about it, nervously auditioned, and was turned down by the team. What I didn’t realize was how competitive the team would be. Not only did I not get on with my below average set, but even more measured acts did not get on as the team’s standard was one that demanded intense amounts of creativity, personality, and originality in every sense.
I became increasingly obsessed with making this team, writing down new ideas all the time. I auditioned again the following year with a much more polished set, but was still turned away. I wasn’t until January of my sophomore year that I made the team. Being on the team means we had to be performing 5-10 minutes of original material at each of our monthly shows, all with audiences with high expectations. I was super excited, but also nervous about the idea of underperforming. At this point I must have been watching stand up all the time and writing new material from my own experiences or observations just as much. I would take pleasure in completing a notebook and then archiving it, filling out the dates of the starting and finishing page, and always going back to reference old material when I needed to write a new set. In the spring of 2018, a little bit over a year into the whole gig, I went on stage and told a joke that lasted only a few sentences that I had believed to be mine. It was only afterwards that the team captain pulled me aside and told me that I had just told a joke that belonged to a famous comedian. I was shocked and doubted it, but he was able to find a video of the comedian using the joke as a promotion on a late night show. Not only was it the same joke, but I had said it essentially word-for-word with similar pauses and emphasis. If I didn’t steal it, then it was a complete glitch in the mainframe. I don’t doubt that I saw this video in the past, but what was so troubling to me was that I could have that joke living in my mind as a memory long after I was even capable of remembering I had seen the video even as it played before my eyes.
I talked about this occurrence with some other team members, and we came to the conclusion that this sort of incident must happen all the time. Stand up is such a high pressure environment that stand up performers are always itching for new and successful material. A lot of work goes into a joke, so naturally one would become rather mad to see another comedian just take the joke from their hands and perform it as their own. Feuds like this are sparked in the comedy community all the time, and most of the problems lie in that the comedian who “stole” the joke will never own up to it. The explanation, which I read in a “Variety” article one time, is that, most likely, these jokes are not being intentionally stolen, but rather misremembered as original. A successful joke is such a unique and lasting work that it is very believable that the memory of joke itself could outlast the memory of someone else performing it. And for someone who is constantly in the mind frame of trying to come up with jokes, it would be very believable to them that a joke in their head that is a lasting memory without a source would be a joke of their own.
Memory can be an odd thing. The amount of weight we put on something can greatly impact the priority our mind places on whether or not to renew a certain memory. In a class discussion we had on memory this year, the theory that memories are constantly and unsparingly fleeting was brought up. This would mean that any lasting memories are not copies of the original events, but rather a memory of the most recent memory you had of those events. To conceptualize this I picture a fist picking up the same patch of sand over and over again. Sand is seeping out around all the fingers, and each grab is a renewing of memories— trying to grasp on to the same grains each time. Of course, it’s impossible to grab on to the same grains time after time, but with enough concentration, you could get pretty close. The mind will inevitably misremember or drop off some key portions of a memory, but if one exercises the act of remembering enough, most of what happened can be retained for a long time.
So, when I was remembering the stand up set, I was more willing to remember the joke itself than I was to remember the performance. Not knowing the root of the joke hurt my originality, but also made me become more cautious with my own memory and with examining my ideas. While I was worried that my reputation might get hurt, it seemed as though I didn’t have to worry— most of the audience either didn’t know or didn’t remember the joke either. For this I have poor memory to thank.