Thursday, February 19, 2015

This is Mike Sweeney, the head writer at "Conan" and the guy who yelled at me. 

My Three Jokes on “Conan.”

I’m a comedy writer and I’ve contributed jokes as a freelance writer to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” for over 20 years. Cut my teeth on O.J. Simpson jokes.

This week, the most disappointing thing in my comedy writing career happened to me.

Somewhere around January 12th, Conan O’Brien (I am a huge fan) told a joke on “Conan” I loved;

“A Delta flight from Cleveland to New York took off with only two passengers. And they still managed to lose their luggage.”

That is a great joke and I wanted to use that story/premise to write one like it. On January 14th, 2015, I posted this joke on this blog,;

“A Delta flight from Cleveland to New York took off with only two passengers. And they wrestled for control of the armrest the entire flight.”

That joke, word-for-word, was on Conan’s monologue the next day on January 15th.

My immediate reaction was they stole my joke. But then I remembered that, although the odds are slight of somebody also picking an armrest struggle for a joke, I decided maybe it was a coincidence. Conan and his staff did not seem to me to be the type to steal jokes.

Until Feb. 3rd when I wrote and posted this joke on my blog at 9:02 am and on Twitter;

“Tom Brady has decided to give his Super Bowl MVP truck to the man who won the game for the Patriots. So enjoy that truck Pete Carroll.”

Again, like my armrest joke, the very same joke appeared the next day, Feb. 4th, on Conan’s monologue almost exactly word for word. Conan said; “So they gave the truck to Pete Carroll.”

Now I am certain my jokes are being used. So I leave a message with Conan’s head writer, Mike Sweeney. He did not call me back, but they were filming in Cuba for four days.

Then on Tuesday 11:20 am Feb. 17th, I posted this joke on my blog;

“It turns out the Washington Monument is ten inches shorter than previously thought. You know it has been a cold winter when even a monument has shrinkage.”

This time the joke on my blog appeared on Conan’s monologue that night, six hours later. Again almost word-for-word.

(Yes, it is a penis joke, which is exactly what Conan said afterwards)

This time, the next day on the 18th, Wednesday morning, I am calling Mike Sweeney back with a vengeance. Two times there is an impossibly slight possibility of a joke-writing coincidence, three times there is no possibility of a coincidence. And always used on the monologue one day or, in the case of the third time, six hours after it appeared on my blog and or Twitter.

The purpose of my call was not to cause trouble, but to suggest that if I was writing jokes so similar (in fact the exact same) to theirs, I should be contributing jokes to the show. 

I swear that was all I wanted.

To my delight, they put my Wednesday 9:30 am call right through to Mike Sweeney, the head writer for “Conan.”

That was the end of the good news.

For what seemed like 15 agonizing minutes, Mike Sweeney, the head writer of “Conan,” angrily and loudly denied those were my jokes. He was furious that I was accusing them of stealing jokes, but most of all he was incensed that I would suggest his writers would have anything to do with my pathetic blog and it’s author, me, a no-name failure.

At one point Mike Sweeney said, after he got my message, he went on my blog and he saw the jokes, but they were not the jokes used for "Conan."

(It was almost impossible to get a word in sideways, that is how agitated Mike Sweeney was) 

In my defense, I told Sweeney I had contributed to Jay Leno for over 20 years, and many other TV and radio shows. Over and over I tried to explain I did not want trouble, I just wanted to contribute jokes to their show. These three amazingly similar jokes, I thought, were a great example of our shared sensibilities.

“We don’t have any openings,” said Sweeney, “and why would I want to hire someone who accuses us of stealing jokes?”

Mike Sweeney implied I had heard jokes on TV and wrongly assumed they were mine. Like I was some crazy man whose thoughts were being stolen by a TV show.

To be told by anyone you’re a failure as a comedy writer hurts. To be told you’re a crazy failure by the head writer of one of your comedy idols is much worse. It is devastating.

When I called back and asked for Mike Sweeney’s e-mail address, I was told they could not give it out, but if I gave them my e-mail, they assured me he would write me.

He never did.

Yes, I am embarrassed to admit, I was so angry, devastated and had so little to lose, I thought of litigating. But to what end? How much of a settlement would I get for three jokes? Why alienate the writers of what used to be one of my favorite shows?

In the back of my mind I hoped a Brian Williams-like in-house investigation would be launched inside “Conan” and I would be vindicated. 

But that never happened.

My question is: who are the writers - or more likely, the writer - who took credit for my jokes? 

The only consolation I can take from this horrifying violation is I wrote three jokes that were good enough to be on the monologue on “Conan.” And they all got good laughs. 

Since I cannot watch the show again – it is too painful – and I have lost respect for one of my comedy idols, that consolation will have to be enough.

In the end, getting three jokes nicked by "Conan" was sort of how I imagine having sex with Madonna would be: 

Yes, I got screwed. But it was a lot more fun to tell people about than to experience. 

(Follow me on Twitter @AlexKaseberg