If there’s one thing students know to be a cardinal sin, it’s plagiarism. In hushed tones, our TAs often warn us not to stray from the path of academic integrity. Mentions of tribunals and disciplinary trials conjure images of overworked students being dragged into some kind of basement prison, shaking and crying: ‘It was supposed to be common knowledge, I didn’t know I needed a footnote!’
Plagiarism is about as serious as it gets. So what happens when comedians plagiarize their quotes?
Inside Amy Schumer’s scandal
A few months ago, several comics accused Amy Schumer of stealing their jokes. Under the scrutiny of the Internet, instances where her jokes bore striking similarity to those of other comedians came to light. While Schumer denied these allegations and the issue faded away, it still reawakened an age-old debate: when does imitation become theft?
Whether it’s relationships or politics, certain areas of life are ripe for comedic interpretation. When we laugh at a good joke, it’s because we recognize a degree of truth in it. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld points out the absurdities of airplane travel, or John Mulaney tells the audience how much of a pushover he was before getting a girlfriend. “My vibe is more like, hey, you could pour soup in my lap and I’ll probably apologize to you!” Mulaney says, and we laugh because we understand.
We also laugh because comedians are able to voice things that we would never say out loud, on topics that aren’t exactly fit for the dinner table. Although there are some dubious cases, I would argue that, by and large, the jokes Schumer was accused of stealing fall into this category.
Standard Schumer fare is crude, what some might even dub lowbrow. There’s no shortage of this kind of comedy, which is why the repetition of topics in crass jokes like hers isn’t impossible.
Chappelle vs. Noah
By contrast, it is difficult to argue against plagiarism when it comes to exact wording, especially on a topic many comedians aren’t willing to take on.
For example, in 1998, Dave Chappelle cracked a joke about having become a “racism connoisseur” through travel. “You know, it’s different region to region. Anyone ever been down South… the racism down there is just… stewed to a perfection,” he said.
Seventeen years later, Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show, made a similar joke on tour about his experiences with racism since moving to the US from South Africa. Noah’s bit, with a similar anecdote, repeats the exact phrase “racism connoisseur.” How likely is that? Not very.
It’s notoriously difficult to take action against perceived intellectual property theft. Comedians aren’t exactly known for their wealth, so there’s an added deterrent in the form of hypothetical expenses for any legal action.
What’s the best possible outcome after an allegation of joke-theft has been made? Dane Cook and Louis C.K. may have the answer. In 2007, it was pointed out that three jokes on Retaliation, Cook’s comedy album from 2005, heavily resembled bits from Live in Houston, an album C.K. had released two years earlier.
The feud between the two simmered for a few years and was finally addressed on a 2011 episode of C.K.’s show Louie, in a scene between the two comedians playing themselves. While initially confrontational, the conversation eventually devolves into a debate over the semantics of “two thousand six” versus “two thousand and six.” So, stealing is wrong, but when it comes to the difference between potato and poh-tah-toe — it’s all funny, after all.