Anyone who has ever performed stand-up is familiar with the red light, the universal signal that warns dawdlers it's time to wrap things up. In the '80s, comics at the Hollywood Improv came up with a novel use for the light. When shining steadily, it had the conventional meaning. But if the bulb began sputtering, it was the comedic equivalent of an air-raid siren, warning performers to lock up their original material immediately unless they wanted to lose it to a master thief.
Robin Williams, comedy's most notorious joke rustler, was in the house.
Accusations of comedic skulduggery have also dogged Denis Leary, who has spent much of his career denying that he borrowed his act wholesale from Bill Hicks, the edgy, anti-establishment legend who died of cancer in 1994. Critics have long cited a laundry list of alleged similarities between Leary's 1993 album No Cure for Cancer and Hicks's earlier work, from Leary's angry, chain-smoking persona to specific jokes about tobacco, health nuts, and lame bands. The charges grew so widespread that they inspired a scathing joke among some of Hicks's friends that Leary had become famous only because, well, there's no cure for cancer.