When stand-up comedian Joe Rogan confronted notorious joke thief Carlos Mencia in the middle of "his" routine last February it spawned an internet phenomenon. Rogan suddenly had legions of fans and Mencia was quickly discredited. Video footage of Mencia performing material that belonged to other comedians flooded video-sharing sites. The incident spawned several blog entries, print magazine articles and news channel stories about famous joke thieves through history. There were the standard references to Milton Berle and Robin Williams and the occasional mention of Dane Cook. One story from comedy history fell by the sidelines. Don Adams was a joke thief.
Most people don't even realize that Adams was a stand-up comic. Everyone knows him as the star of Get Smart, but the character of Maxwell Smart was in fact based on Don Adams' nightclub persona. Adams was never really one to produce his own material, but then again, neither were most nightclub comedians of his era. Almost everyone solicited material from writers and Adams was no different. Bill Dana became an accomplished comedy writer having been hired by Steve Allen to work on the original Tonight Show. With Dana's help Adams was able to enjoy a successful stand-up career - but not a particularly honest one.
Adams' penchant for stealing may have been derived from apathy. Don didn't like performing in front of a live audience and would have abandoned it sooner had it not offered such large rewards once he was a famous television star. Ron Zimmerman recalled Don's attitude in the book I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics by Ritch Shyder and Mark Schiff (2006, Crown Publishers). "My second job in show business was rewriting the movie Back to the Beach. Don Adams showed up one night to do a scene that I had to write for him on the spot ... We sat in Don's trailer. He was really nice, full of stories, and he told me that he'd started as a club comic working with Lenny Bruce, Buddy Hackett, and those guys. But he fucking hated it. Even the thing that every standup loves, the laughter, was a pain to him. After he became a huge star as Maxwell Smart... he was getting paid $50,000 a night to do ten minutes in Las Vegas. He'd go on, and no matter what he said, the audience just cracked up laughing, and still he hated every second of it. He called it the most awful humiliating way for a human being to collect money." With an audience laughing at anything, it was a recipe for creative disaster, or at the very least, a clear route to lazy writing. Under these conditions joke stealing wasn't a particularly difficult choice.
Comedy writer Bill Dana, best known for his character Jose Jimenez, developed material for Adams when he was breaking in, working as an opener for lounge singers in Miami Beach. Don was initially an impressionist and he soon followed his pal Bill to New York. In 1954, Adams made his broadcast debut on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The unbelievably popular radio show pit amateur performers against each other and had the sarcastic Godfrey, along with his audience, determine a winner each week. In the late forties, it became one of the first radio shows to make the jump to television (and one of the few to succeed). An early 1949 episode featured Lenny Bruce and Sally Marr. When Adams made his appearance on the program he won. His stand-up career was off the ground. From there he began to appear regularly on Tonight! and The Steve Allen Show with the constant help of Bill Dana. Adams' stage persona remained the same for his entire career. The Maxwell Smart voice was evident early on. Dana explained that the character's voice was based on William Powell's depiction of Nick Charles in The Thin Man movies. By 1960, Adams was a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show and an established monologist.
A young amateur comic named Bob Newhart had seen Adams perform on The Steve Allen Show several times. Newhart wrote some material that he thought might suit Don. As Newhart explained in his memoir, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! (2006, Hyperion Books): "It was very early in my career, and the line of work I was in - comedy - wasn't making me any money ... I decided to become a comedy writer and sell my material to established comedians. I felt 'The Submarine Commander' could very easily be adapted to Don Adams because of his deadpan delivery ... I reached Don when he was in Chicago for a show and he agreed to take a look ... I later learned that Don did the routine for his wife ... When she told him she thought it was funny, Don replied, 'It's not! And I'm not paying for it!' He didn't pay for it, but he used it. He [said] it wasn't the type of material he was looking for ... Two years later, I'm watching The Steve Allen Show, and Don walked out onstage and performed a chunk of 'The Submarine Commander.' Word for word. I couldn't believe it. I was yelling at the TV, 'That's mine! You're stealing my routine!' I was furious. To put it mildly, I felt that Don was not a very stand-up stand-up. However, I reasoned that if other comedians were going to steal my routines, I had better perform them myself ... In 2005, Don passed away, and his wife ... asked me to tell the story at his memorial service, so I did. Everyone there nodded in acknowledgement. They all knew Don."
The Bill Dana Show started broadcasting in 1963, primarily to cash-in on the popularity of Dana's best selling comedy records featuring Jose Jiminez. Adams had a regular role on the program playing detective Byron Glick, a direct predecessor to Maxwell Smart. Like every other nightclub comedian going, Don's act was pressed onto vinyl. His first LP appeared on the Signature label (a subsidiary of Roulette Records) and was simply titled Don Adams. It sold modestly. His act would not spawn another LP until the success of Get Smart. When the 1965-66 season proved the show to be major success, record labels were quick to cash in. United Artists released Don Adams - Get Smart, an LP of audio straight from the show (including laugh track and several visual gags that made no sense to the listener). Some very brief new pieces were featured, Maxwell Smart reminiscing about career highlights, to bridge the clips into cohesion. Don Adams Meets The Roving Reporter was pressed by GNP Crescendo the same year and Roulette Records quickly pressed a reissue of his first LP to cash in on his growing popularity. The 1966 reissue featured the back of a model's head, his hair groomed to give the illusion it was Adams himself. 1967 marked the release of Don's final comedy LP... and most controversial. Don Adams Live? was recorded at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas at the height of his popularity, the period Adams was referring to when he spoke to Zimmerman on the set of Back to the Beach. The United Artists album was probably the strongest of Don Adams' comedy records. The reason was fairly simple. Most of the material on it had been stolen from a young punk named Jackie Mason.
Jackie Mason was just over thirty years old when his Verve album, I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet, was released in 1962. The record was a tour-de-force of perfectly sculpted and highly original material. It was, essentially, Mason at the height of his funniness. With another record released the following year and several successful television appearances to his name, Mason's career was on the up and up. Mason appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twelve times between November 1961 and October 18th, 1964. It's well documented what happened next - his famous October performance has been recounted several times. When Ed Sullivan gestured to Mason, off-camera, to wrap it up, Mason made reference to it within his act, asking what Sullivan's finger waving was supposed to mean and proceeded to do an impression of Ed's gestures. Ed Sullivan thought he saw Mason gave him the middle finge. James Maguire interviewed Jackie Mason for his book Impresario - The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (2006, Billboard Books). "For Mason's October 1964 appearance, with the presidential race ... nearing election day, the comic was told to drop his political material ... That evening's broadcast was partially preempted by President Johnson, who began an address to the nation at 8:30 P.M. The show continued while the president spoke, resuming its broadcast around 8:52, with Mason in the middle of his routine. The preemption threw the schedule off-kilter, and Ed was anxious about running out of time. He began urgently gesturing to Mason to cut his act short, holding up two fingers for two minutes, then one finger as time elapsed. Mason's jokes were met with silence as Ed's frantic gesturing distracted the studio audience. Mason, afraid that home viewers would interpret the studio audience's silence as a sign that he was bombing, began ad-libbing based on Ed's hand gestures. 'I thought I'd generate some laughs by making fun of him,' Mason said. 'What are you, showing me fingers? You got fingers for me, I've got fingers for you,' he said, as he comically mirrored Ed's finger signs. The comedian's gesticulations grew more exaggerated as the studio audience's laughter fueled his improvising. 'Who talks with fingers in the middle of a performance, you think they came here to watch your fingers? ... If your fingers are such a hit, why do you need me, why don't you come here and show your fingers?' '[Backstage after the show] Ed came over to me and blew his top,' Mason recalled. 'He said who the fuck are you to use these filthy gestures, you son of a bitch - on national TV!' The showman called him 'a variety of four ... letter words of ... having to do with the subject of sex and perversion.' ... At first Mason didn't know what Ed was mad about."
John Byner, one of the earliest Ed Sullivan impressionists and the other stand-up on the show that evening, used to do an impression in his act of Ed Sullivan and Jackie Mason arguing with each other backstage. Sullivan went on to terminate the forty-five thousand dollar contract Mason had with the show for six more appearances. Mason always denied any finger malice, insisting he had flashed numerous fingers and that the whole thing had been misread. He eventually filed a libel suit against Ed for three million dollars, charging that his reputation had been injured. After being blacklisted for a year and a half, Mason returned to the show in September 1966, Sullivan publicly apologized, and Mason dropped his lawsuit. Jackie Mason's own biography states that the incident cast a shadow over him for a decade and that the power of Ed Sullivan prevented him from being booked anywhere in show business. It is true that Mason did not do any television in 1965, but it is not true as is often stated, that it ended his career or that he did not appear on TV for twenty years.
Anti-Mason hysteria was a reality for a while however, and perhaps Don Adams didn't see much problem pilfering from the comedian who crossed the host who Adams felt had done a lot to advance his own career. You can now compare Jackie Mason's 1962 LP with Don Adams' thieving 1967 performance. Listen and compare. I've also included a third, and far less significant, example of the same material being stolen yet again. In 1972, Laff Records released a mediocre album by a stand-up nobody named Howard Thomashefsky titled It's Tough to be Gifted, Jewish & Black, described as "The Funny, Sexy Side of Being Black and Jewish Today." It might be that Thomashefsky had already heard both Jackie Mason and Don Adams cover the material, and assumed the bits were stock jokes in the comedy public domain. Ronald L. Smith's Comedy on Record (1988, Garland Reference Library) mentions Mason being appalled by the blatant theft of his material on Don Adams Live?. Mason said he might have understood it coming from a struggling unknown, but why a well-established comic with everything going for him needed to steal, he just didn't get.
Since his heyday Mason has grown increasingly angry, coming across as less a comedian and more the obnoxious old crank belonging to the "these kids and their rock n' roll music" school. Mason has spent the past several months recording a weekly YouTube diary/rant from his house, which often consist of lectures on how anybody who spends their time on YouTube is a degenerate with nothing better to do with their time. He overlooks the fact that he is perhaps the most prolific of the self-indulgent YouTube personalities.
Don Adams never had to deal with a Joe Rogan-Carlos Mencia style confrontation during his stand-up career. Once Get Smart completed its television run, Adams did not bother returning to the stand-up world. Had he been confronted as a joke thief, had his nightclub career been brought to an end because of his thieving ways, it's unlikely he would have been particularly upset about it. To the contrary, he probably would have been pleased to be able to get on with collecting money doing something he considered less-humiliating.