Not long ago, Saturday Night Live (SNL) stepped into yet another joke theft controversy. And, this time, to give the matter some serious color, the controversy had some big names in the mix: First, there is the brash comic Tig Notaro, the star of Amazon’s One Mississippi series. Then, caught in the crosshairs of the fuss is none other than comedy’s reigning golden boy Louis CK, who hosted SNL last April. In this latest episode of SNL’s joke theft headaches, Notaro alleged that Louis CK’s Birthday Clown sketch looked disturbingly similar to her own sketch Clown Service, produced in 2015. Notaro described the similarities between the two sketches as “extremely disappointing”. (To be clear, the term being used in the media coverage of this particular matter is “plagiarism,” which is pretty much the same as what comedians would describe as “joke theft.”)
Judging from the sentiments of many of the folks who have weighed in on this matter, the answer to the question whether a joke theft violation occurred here seems sort of like the answer in that old fable where a bunch of blind folks were asked to touch an elephant and describe what it was like; each person’s answer depended on what part of the large animal they had touched. Well, in the present case, we seem to have a scenario where people are deciding there is joke theft or not depending on whether they view the matter through the perspective of “stand-up” comedy or “sketch” comedy. And there is a good deal of confusion in the mix, with different perspectives leading people to either support Louis CK and SNL or Tig Notaro.
But which side is right? Well, for starters, the reality that bears explaining in this debate is that stand-up and sketch are two different genres in comedy and therefore that what may be a violation in one genre may not necessarily be so in the other. What is even more important in this matter, however, is to get everyone on the same page about the exact situation they’re dealing with because joke theft is a quite rancorous subject in comedy and so to tolerate the notion that what people see depends on where they stand would only be a disservice to comedy. So, let’s proceed by clarifying some basic things.
First, the Stand-up format. A “joke” in this genre is a two-sided deal: you have the “premises” which is the concept or idea around which one builds the story or narrative; and then you have the “punch line” which one can think of as the end game or the goal line of the shtick. Among folks in the comedy community, the call on joke theft can be quick and brutal: the first person who comes up with the premises is the owner of the joke; the person who repeats the said premises afterward is the thief. Of course, people can always fight over whether or not the premises are indeed similar to one another. (Under Copyright Law, though, the premises aren’t that big a deal, meaning that as long as the second person does not use the exact same words that the first person had used, he or she would be standing pretty under the law. Not surprisingly, comedians are often disappointed to learn of this state of affairs.)
Anyhow, applying the stand-up logic to our situation here, one could say that since the premises of both sketches are about depressed people hiring the services of a clown to lift their moods, therefore Louis CK and SNL’s Birthday Clown joke was stolen from Tig Notaro’s Clown Service. This is one perspective of the matter, namely, that both SNL and Louis CK did indeed engage in joke theft.
However, that perspective itself would be wrong because, in our case here, we are actually dealing not with stand-up shticks but rather with sketches which are a different animal altogether and so would require a different treatment.
Now, let’s examine the Sketch format. Here, if we consider that, compared to a stand-up shtick, a sketch is a vastly more extensive comedy production which often contains a cast of characters who can take the trajectory of the story or experience in any number of unpredictable directions, then it is logical to suppose that the “premises” portion in a sketch probably won’t (and shouldn’t) be as significant as it would have been in a stand-up shtick, given that the premises and the punch line in stand-up often have a closer relationship, in terms of both duration and narrative possibilities. Besides, it is important to keep in mind here that the [intellectual] “property” which the society seeks to protect with its anti-plagiarism laws, for instance, really is the stamp of creativity that someone has attached to the particular concept or idea in question. To appropriate that creativity without the owner’s authorization is the mischief that the law prohibits. Logically, therefore, merely using the same idea, without more, isn’t a problem.
Typically, in a sketch controversy, we’re dealing with the degree of similarity between the elements of both sketches. Generally, the more substantial the similarity between the two, the riskier it all gets for the person trying to fend off the accusation of joke theft.
In the present case, it is true that the premises for both sketches are similar, but that appears to be the full extent of it − the similarities just don’t go far enough to establish a case of theft between both sketches. Notice that the other parts of the equation are missing. For instance, both what happens during the time the clown was in the house as well as how the interaction between the host and the clown ends are different in the two sketches.
So, in the interest of putting matters in their proper perspective and steering clear of unnecessary confusion, this is really how the present joke theft dispute ought to have been judged in the first place because, as already noted, we’re dealing with sketch rather than stand-up.
Yet, while there are sufficient grounds to clear SNL of wrongdoing in the present controversy, it is worth noting that SNL hasn’t exactly been a model player in the sketch wars of the recent period. Indeed, for those wishing to tar the marquee show with the brush of joke theft, SNL’s actions in some of the earlier controversies couldn’t have given them better ammunition. In 2014, for instance, it was called out for the striking similarity between its own Tina Turner skit and that of the Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings. Then, just a year later [in 2015], SNL had yet another joke theft accusation thrown its way over a skit involving the drawing of Prophet Muhammad. This time, SNL was alleged to have lifted the skit from the Canadian TV show This Hour Has 22 Minutes (a.k.a. 22 Minutes).
In the end, as far as joke theft is concerned, it is obviously difficult to solve a problem that one cannot even define clearly. So, perhaps the real benefit of this particular case, given its high profile (think SNL, and boldface names Louis CK and Tig Notaro), is the ‘teachable moment’ it represents concerning the critical need for conceptual clarity in judging these situations. Going forward, if the proper lessons are learned from the confusion that has attended this case, it will mean that people in the industry will be able to put future joke theft disputes in their proper perspective. That way, as we continue to search for solutions to the divisive issue of joke theft in the comedy industry, much unnecessary confusion will be eliminated and everyone will be on the same page as we judge each new case. Needless to say, joke thieves in our midst deserve no protection at all; yet it is important that we as a community are able to at least pin the rap on them in a fairly unified voice.
**For more information on joke theft, read Chapter Three of the book “Comedy Under Attack: The Golden Age & the Headwinds,” (2013)