Plagiarism and Parallel Thinking

31 Aug

One of my worst fears as a stand-up comedian is somebody thinking I’m a plagiarist.

At some point long ago, it was acceptable, perhaps even expected, that comedians would, along with their own material, share and retell popular jokes, old favorites that existed as part of a common humor folklore, like a musician playing something everybody knows just to please the audience.

It’s even still that way in other parts of the world.  For example, in China, practitioners of the art of comic dialogues, or xiangsheng,  memorize old routines from the classical canon, and their ability to perform them is  a measure of their worth as comedians. It would be like if, say, the Sklar brothers re-enacted Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine as a demonstration of their understanding and mastery of  the craft of comedy performance, beyond the simple writing of jokes.

(Tangential side note: in Chinese culture in general, the line between “homage” and “plagiarism” is a lot blurrier. Reference: http://chinageeks.org/2010/04/wang-hui-plagiarism-chinese-academia/)

Be that as it may, the idea of the stand-up comedian in the Euro-american world (Ick, can you tell I went to a liberal arts college?) has become understood as an ultimately individual mode of expression. A stand-up comic is somebody who is expected to articulate his/her own specific world view and sense of humor through material that he/she writes based on his/her own unique thoughts and experiences. A comedian, if talented, brandishes the sword of his wit and slays his audience, or, if not talented, falls upon it. The duller the wit, understandably, the more painful the fall.

This is why plagiarism is so fiercely looked down upon among contemporary stand-up comedians. A quick Google search will show you the amount of  criticism surrounding comics like Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia  that comes from allegations of stolen material from other comics. To comedians, to take someone else’s material with no credit, instead of being seen as an homage or gesture of appreciation, is seen as the offending comic’s admission of his/her own lack of talent. Why duel a man face-to-face when you can steal his gun and shoot him in his sleep? It’s a sneaky and cowardly means to an end.

What can make plagiarism especially offensive is when it’s committed with what is either unrivaled brazenness or unfathomable stupidity. Several such events happened in the last year involving material from one of my favorites, Patton Oswalt, which he much more skillfully deals with on his own blog.

If you don’t feel like reading yet more than one fat geek’s blog posts in a single sitting, here’s a quick summary: Within a couple of months of each other, Patton was plagiarized by both the valedictorian of Columbia’s School of General Studies during his graduation speech and by some schlub journeyman comic. I guess the valedictorian thing isn’t as grave to me since he’s not trying to make a living as a comic, he’s just some college douche who wanted to tell a funny story so he could make some sorority chick think he’s cute and quirky and get a sloppy beej from her in the basement of Lambda Frambda Sambda.

But the guy who’s actually masquerading as a legitimate comic, revelling in the audience’s laughter by fraudulently parading another’s jokes as his own? Come on, man. Patton Oswalt isn’t as much of a household name as, say, Jerry Seinfeld or even, yes, god-damned Dane Cook, but he’s been on TV. A lot. Several Comedy Central specials, VH1’s Best Week ever, The King of Queens, come on, even if the Ed Hardy frat douches who come to see you at Hee-Hee’s Laugh Shack in Scranton, PA, don’t know who Patton is, if you steal his material and post it on god damned YOUTUBE, like YOU DID, somebody will see it who does know Patton, and will tell him.

If you’re going to be such a desperate talentless hack, be smart about it. Steal from someone who nobody knows. Someone who’s incredibly talented but just starting out, so he won’t have a very long fall when you crush his dreams by stealing his shit and killing audiences with it for money. Then again, if you lack a spine, chances are you also lack the brain that it’s normally connected to.

My point is I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve never had, nor do I see myself ever having an inclination to steal, because I’m confident that even if the material I have right now is mediocre at best, I am trying hard enough that I can keep producing until I come up with something good on my own.

That still leaves me vulnerable to another hazard, though, which is parallel thinking.

I am always afraid that when I come up with an idea about something that’s not inextricably tied to my own life experiences that it will come off sounding like another comedian’s joke. This is why I typically avoid doing topical humor or anything political, because usually every other comic watches TV, too, and chances are his first instinct will be to write jokes about those same current events. It’s already happened to me. I recently wrote a little bit of material about Tila Tequila’s performance at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and the first open mic I went to after it happened, another comedian (Andy Meredith, who I think is really funny) went on before me and did a joke about it that pretty much hit on everything my joke was planning on hitting.

Just today I went to an open mic and heard another comedian tell a joke about New York’s Governor Patterson, who is blind, illegally accepting a gift of season tickets to the Yankees. “Why does he need those when he can just listen to the games on the radio at home?” he asked. Then he actually asked the audience, “Have other comedians been doing that joke around town?” I replied yes, and he said he didn’t steal it. I believe him; that’s just the hazard of doing topical jokes.

The biggest peril about being in my position, as far as parallel thinking is concerned,  is that I am not famous or “established” in any sense. If people saw me for the first time and heard a joke I did that ends up sounding similar to another, more established comedian’s joke, they’d have no reason not to think I stole it. Jackass open-mic-ers do it all the time; why should I be any different?

There are then instances where, even when I can prove I did a joke first, I’m still fucked because the guy who did it after me was more famous. Here are two examples:

1) I had a joke that I told once or twice while at Dartmouth (it used to be on Youtube, but I deleted a lot of my old college shit) that talked about international co-productions of Sesame Street, and mentioned one episode that ended, “Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter *click click* and the number ‘many.'”  This was almost a year ago. Then, recently, there was an issue of the web comic XKCD (which, if you’re in college, you’re probably a fan), that contained this joke:

If you're a true XKCD fan, you checked=

2) I had another joke that was about my girlfriend being a vegan sexual abuse counselor, meaning she was against both battered women and battered shrimp.

Here is a tweet from Alex Sulkin, writer of Family Guy:

http://twitter.com/thesulk/status/21611254842

In both of these cases, I can never do those jokes on stage again, because even though I could prove I came up with them independently, it doesn’t matter, because those jokes are now the property of the more famous people, by virtue of more people having seen them doing it first and not me.

There are times, though, when there can be a consensual and amicable exchange of material between comics. At the same open mic that the guy told the Patterson joke, I did a joke about how, since I have a degree in Chinese and Japanese, people always ask me to “say something in Japanese.” After my set, the next comic went up on stage and, riffing on that, said to me, “Since you’re a comic now, you’ll be getting people saying, ‘Say something funny…in Japanese!'”

I thought that was a pretty good line, so after he got off stage, I went up to him and asked him if I could use that line myself. He said sure, since the line was about me and he couldn’t use it out of that context. Later, as I was leaving the club, he told me it was “very classy” of me to ask him. Since I am so paranoid about being seen as an unoriginal hack, it was very reassuring to know that, in this instance at least, I had followed the unwritten rules of comedy ethics.

Bottom line is, I am faced with the task of developing a strong enough and unique enough comic voice that whatever I tell on stage, no matter if it breaches on familiar topics, people will know it’s mine and can’t be anything but mine. If I don’t, I will be caught up in a series of losing races with more established comedians to claim the clever punchlines. Faced with such futility, I will have no choice but to look at my sword and wonder if it’s at least sharp enough to fall on.

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