Bodybuilder Drops Heavy Lawsuit on NBC's Conan O'Brien Over Clay Aiken Joke

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Bodybuilder Drops Heavy Lawsuit on NBC's Conan O'Brien Over Clay Aiken Joke

Fri Dec 14, 2007 @ 11:05AM PST

Posted by Eriq Gardner

Obrienconan Conan O'Brien shouldn't mess with bodybuilders. NBC Universal was sued yesterday after the "Late Night" host used a picture of champion bodybuilder Dennis "The Menace" James to tell a joke nearly two years ago.

According to the complaint, filed by attorney Steven Sokoloff in Los Angeles Superior Court, O'Brien "showed a Christmas Card which featured the face of 2003 American Idol runner-up, Clay Aiken, smiling on the right side of the card, and the phrase 'All I want this year is a White Christmas' on a fold out flap on the left side of the card. O'Brien then opened the left side of the card to reveal the punch line, '...And a Black Body Builder,' above which was a photograph of Plaintiff posing at the 2004 IFBB Mr. Olympia Competition."

James helpfully attaches several photos of himself to the complaint, as well as the offending prop from "Late Night." The photocopy job is pretty grainy, but they're worth checking out. He's seeking general, special, and punitive damages on claims of misappropriation of image and likeness, misappropriation of right of publicity, unjust enrichment, and quantum meruit.

The case reminds us of a great NY Times story detailing how NBC lawyers quickly jumped into action to register the domain name after O'Brien mentioned it as an ad lib on the show. The fear was that someone could register it surreptitiously, put inappropriate content there, and NBC could be liable. Now the network sells Horny Manatee t-shirts on the site.

Interestingly, one of the most famous misappropriation cases involved another late night talk show host. In the early 1980s, Johnny Carson successfully sued a toilet maker called Here's Johnny Portable Toilets Inc. for taking his show's signature catchphrase.


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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to

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