“Short of murder, stealing material is the worst thing any comic can be accused of, and I have devoted 34 years in show business striving for originality,” O’Brien wrote. “Had I, for one second, thought that any of my writers took material from someone else I would have fired that writer immediately, personally apologized, and made financial reparations. But, I knew that we were in the right.”
Kaseberg acknowledged the settlement on Twitter, writing Thursday that if “Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton can settle their feud, we can too. Although, in this scenario, I am no [sic] sure who of us is which.”
Kaseberg, who had sought up to $450,000 in damages, named O’Brien and his production company, Conaco, as well as TBS, Time Warner, “Conan” executive producer Jeff Ross and head writer Mike Sweeney in the complaint. He accused those parties of copyright infringement, meaning that to win the case, according to Vulture, Kaseberg and his lawyers would have had to prove that “O’Brien and his team purposefully stole the jokes and refused to give [Kaseberg] credit for those jokes.” (Such cases are notoriously difficult to pursue and frequently end with settlements.)
According to the complaint, the first joke in question was published in January 2015 on Kaseberg’s blog: “A Delta flight this week took off from Cleveland to New York with just two passengers. And they fought over control of the armrest the entire flight.” Kaseberg posted the second in early February 2015: “Tom Brady said he wants to give his MVP truck to the man who won the game for the Patriots. So enjoy that truck, Pete Carroll.” The third came two weeks later: “The Washington Monument is ten inches shorter than previously thought. You know the winter has been cold when a monument suffers from shrinkage.” The fourth, posted that June, was a crude joke related to Caitlyn Jenner coming out as a trans woman. (There had been a fifth accusation, according to O’Brien, but his team successfully proved their joke had been written before Kaseberg posted his.)
The complaint alleged that Kaseberg posted all four jokes online before similar ones popped up in monologue segments on “Conan.” O’Brien justified the similarities in his op-ed by stating that “different people around the world come up with the same joke all the time, especially when the joke is topical.” As an example, he recalled the time in 1995 when he, David Letterman and Jay Leno all told similar jokes at former vice president Dan Quayle’s expense.
“Back then, no one sued anyone because each of us knew that topical comedy often follows a pattern — it’s an occupational hazard,” O’Brien continued. “You try hard to avoid it, but sometimes, comedians inadvertently step on each other’s feet.”
Such similarities have gained visibility with social media, and O’Brien wrote that he and his staff were unaware of the fact that their Pete Carroll joke, and others, had also been written by “literally 34 other people on Twitter.” He pointed out that journalists Caroline Moss and Melissa Radzimski have even given the widespread creation of similar jokes a name: “tweet-saming.”
“So why am I telling you all of this? Because I believe that the vast majority of people writing comedy are honorable, and they don’t want to steal anyone’s material because there is no joy, and ultimately no profit, in doing so,” O’Brien wrote. “However, when you add the internet and an easily triggered legal system, the potential for endless time-wasting lawsuits over who was the first to tweet that William Barr looks like a toad with a gluten allergy becomes very real.”