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Art / Plagiarism

A Joke By Any Other Name

In 2006, comedian Tammy Pescatelli told the following joke on Comedy Central’s Half Hour. “Women dress for other women. That’s why, men, if we love you, we dress you for other women, too. That’s why we dress you stupid. Because we want a woman to look at you and think, ‘He’s cute, but I can’t fix all of this!’” In 2015, Amy Schumer’s movie Trainwreck contained a joke with a similar premise. “You dress him like that so no one else wants to have sex with him? That’s cool.”

In January, comedians Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli, and Kathleen Madigan turned to Twitter to vent their frustrations with Schumer’s joke theft. In response to the tweets, a Youtube user compiled clips from source material to compare with Schumer’s stand-up, movie, and TV show. Though the popular original video has since been removed, the “trainwreck,” so to speak, had already left the station. In the eyes of many, Amy Schumer was a plagiarist.

It’s been a few months since Schumer’s brush with controversy, and the comedienne’s career hasn’t suffered any lasting setbacks. But the accusations of joke theft leveled against her are worth reconsidering: beyond just deciding whether or not to indict Schumer, we should look to her as litmus test for where we, as an audience, stand on plagiarism in comedy.

It seems like almost any comedian worth their salt today has been accused of similar thievery. Instagram’s “The Fat Jew,” the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, late night staple Conan O’Brien, stand-up comic Dane Cook, Gabbie of YouTube’s The Gabbie Show, and the infamously blackballed Carlos Mencia have all been caught in plagiarism scandals. Some comedians survive the witch hunt better than others: Though Trevor Noah’s transgressions flew under the radar as he rose to The Daily Show fame, Carlos Mencia’s very name is now practically synonymous with joke-stealing (“Carlos Menstealia”). If joke theft is so widespread, then why do we even bother condemning it? Doesn’t everyone steal everything in art?

The short answer is no. Sure, it’s convenient to argue that everything is in some way derivative and true originality is nonexistent, but this doesn’t make for a very practical definition of plagiarism. While there isn’t a universal cross-disciplinary definition of plagiarism, comedy has some pretty harsh standards. In the past, experienced comedians like Patton Oswalt and Joe Rogan have acted as moral arbiters of what does and does not constitute plagiarism; according to a 2013 blog post written by Oswalt, if you know you’re thieving, you’re immediately in the wrong. If you don’t realize you’re treading on someone else’s turf, you’re probably still in the wrong.

Oswalt argues that most people just aren’t funny, and joke theft arises from people who lack the talent to be original and envy the prestige that comedy creators enjoy. His argument stems from an intense respect for joke writers—a respect which Oswalt theorizes is not shared by those who would steal the credit. While Oswalt can’t prevent joke theft from happening, he sure can insult joke thieves:

What I can hopefully stop – or, at least, change for the better – is the public (and media’s) response to joke thieves, by hammering away at this same, exhausting refrain every time I see some thumb-sucking ‘think-piece’ by a writer who should fucking know better, cyber-quacking away about ‘cover songs’ and ‘vaudeville’ and a million other euphemisms and deflections away from the simple fact that an uncreative person took a creative person’s work, signed their name to it, and passed it off as their own for their personal glorification, monetary benefit and career advancement. There’s no wiggle room there.

In one respect, Oswalt is right: comedians who blatantly rip off entire jokes word-for-word deserve to lose face. But it seems unfair to portray Amy Schumer as some nefarious plagiarist poaching stand-up jokes from the back of a comedy club.

For all his absolutism, Oswald implicitly acknowledges that plagiarism is not by any means a universal concept, even within the comedy world. Our concept of plagiarism changes according to the mechanics of how jokes are spread. For example, vaudeville jokes recycled from town to town used to thrill early-twentieth-century audiences, but these routines died with the advent of television and movies. This specific form of plagiarism must have seemed socially acceptable in its time because it would have been difficult to catch, and originality wouldn’t have mattered as much to a turn-of-the-century audience. Today, audiences are saturated with funny content, so we place a higher premium on originality.

Oswalt wrote under the assumption that we’ve reached the teleological ending-place of plagiarism. But his manifesto is full of references to the 1980s comedy scene, an era when stand-up started to become popular in comedy clubs and cross-country circuits. Today, up-and-coming comedians make their way through Twitter and Youtube, and their work can be shared worldwide. After any big news story, social media instantly fills with a plethora of similar short, snappy jokes. Unaccredited memes float from Reddit to Instagram to Facebook. In an age of infinite content, these one-liners are a dime a dozen. Comedians must adapt their work to reflect this change in technology, lest their sets be ruined by an audience who’s already read their best material on Twitter. The increased proliferation of social media jokes has informed our cultural understanding of which jokes are original, and therefore, which jokes are funny.

In Amy Schumer’s case, Twitter and Youtube were both instrumental in bringing the controversy to light. As a response to the perceived slight, Pescatelli tweeted: “What has always been amazing to me is that she purports to be a feminist and yet only steals from other female comedians. If we call her on it we are “jealous” or career shamed. Be successful. WE want you to do well, just do it will [sic] your own material.”

In return, Schumer implied on a SiriusXM Comedy show that Pescatelli targeted Schumer because of her success: “People are afraid and angry at women, and they want to bring them down.”

Pescatelli and Schumer’s understandings of women’s complex relationship with comedy has tilted the conversation away from specific comedic transgressions, and toward gender dynamics in comedy. Although it seems petty, their spat highlights an uncomfortable truth: the fact that Schumer and Pescatelli are women is relevant to questions of plagiarism, because comedians’ genders affect the way people understand their jokes. Consider Schumer’s “stolen” Patrice O’Neal bit. (Be warned, it’s pretty graphic.)

When O’Neal tells the joke, the punch line is at the tricked woman’s expense. O’Neal never explicitly purports to have committed the sex acts he describes, but the obvious fact that O’Neal is male is essential to the experience. “Do you ever ‘Darth Vader’ her?” he asks. O’Neal refers to the man in the joke as “you” because he’s speaking to an assumed male audience. Schumer, on the other hand, tells the joke from in the third person. The punchline falls on society; she ends the joke by emphatically calling “The Houdini,” O’Neal’s “Poltergeist,” “just rape! No girl is going to think that’s hilarious!”

So even though some of the words and ideas are the same as O’Neal’s, and the joke could have benefitted from a brief “I know Patrice O’Neal used to do a bit about this,” her audience, her female-ness, and the changing atmosphere in comedy alters the chemical makeup of the joke. She’s moved the punchline’s target away from the unsuspecting woman and onto society as a whole. The joke changes from how funny it is that women are exploitable to how funny it is that we don’t notice when sexual assault is hidden in our seemingly innocent jokes. This isn’t plagiarism, this is a cultural critique.

On the other hand, some of the jokes Schumer has been accused of stealing seem impossible to defend, which is probably why she has yet to address them. A segment of her show blatantly mimics a MADtv segment. When white shoppers try to dance around the word “black” to point out who helped them, MADtv’s “If she had a favorite president, it would probably be Lincoln” sounds an awful lot like Schumer’s “I would guess he probably voted for Obama.” As the face of her television show, Schumer is responsible for her writers. It’s not credible that no one in a group of about seventeen professional sketch writers realized the similarity to the MADtv sketch. Blame gets distributed across a group of people, but ultimately someone intentionally or unintentionally lifted this material.
Originality may feel like an absolute moral imperative, but plagiarism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Detecting joke theft in comedy is more than just checking to see if the punchlines match up word-for-word; to accuse someone of plagiarism is to examine their joke under a microscope for meaning and intent. It requires an understanding of both the mechanics of the joke, and the cultural context in which it exists. The evolving social media landscape, gender dynamics in humor, and writers’ room ambiguity all factor into the final decision. In Schumer’s case, some of her jokes are legitimately original, some seem like a bad case of parallel thinking, and some seem outright plagiarized. But digging through her material forces us to examine what it is about her jokes that made them funny in the first place.