Joke Theft? SNL’s Michael Che in the Cross Hairs

Well, there we go again with the joke stealing thing: another accusation, another comedy star, another lawsuit. This time Michael Che’s number is up in the plagiarism altercations of the internet age. In case you missed it, the Saturday Night Live funnyman has been accused of purloining (okay, stealing) jokes from a TikTok video performer and now both Che and his partner HBO Max have been dragged to court. And the TikToker is asking for more than just money.  

But first, here’s the story: Kelly Manno is a TikTok performer who posts videos on the said platform covering various everyday situations like taking a home tour, grabbing fast food with kids in the car, carpools by moms and more. Last year around August and September, she released two TikTok videos which she claimed garnered many hundreds of thousands of views. The videos titled the “Homegirl Hotline” involved a fictional service which allows people to request a so-called “homegirl” to help them take care of personal problems in their lives. (In one of the TikTok skits, after being called in to help an upset woman get even with a cheating boyfriend, the assisting “homegirl” threw out the bad guy’s clothing from the woman’s upstairs window, then drops a label that reads “free shit” over the clothes strewn on the lawn downstairs before proceeding to puncture the tires of the guy’s SUV truck that was packed downstairs.)  Typically, after the “homegirl” deal is struck, the customer would express their gratitude by saying “Thank You, Homegirl”.  

Now enter Michael Che and his HBO Max comedy series titled That Damn Michael Che. One of the episodes of the series contains a sketch entitled “Homegrrl.”  There, a father’s young son is attacked at a building lobby by an agitated woman who claims that the boy had stolen something from her and was hiding it in his diaper. During the attack, another woman intervenes and punches out the woman who had lunged at the kid and then apologizes to the kid’s flustered father who then replies, “Thanks, Homegrrl!”.  It is this very line uttered by this father character in Che’s sketch that Manno claims infringes her copyright in the phrase “Thank You, Homegirl Hotline” which was uttered by the characters in her own video.  So, in her lawsuit, Manno is alleging that Che has willfully infringed her copyright in the video and is seeking serious money damages plus a court order (or injunction) stopping Che and HBO from continuing to use their sketch.      

Now let’s consider what the copyright law says about all this. For starters, one cannot obtain copyright in a work unless the said work is an “original” work that has been affixed to a “tangible” medium. Obviously then, Manno’s work here, whatever one might say of its quality, is “original” in nature (assuming, of course, that she didn’t lift the stuff from somebody else). Plus, TikTok as a platform qualifies as a “tangible” medium where works being presented for copyright protection can be situated. Therefore, at first blush, Manno’s “Homegirl Hotline” skit passes the copyright test and will be recognized as a “work” in which her copyright exists.

So, now that she’s sitting pretty as a copyright holder, how about Che? Did he, in fact, infringe her copyright? Well, not if he came up with his own work entirely on his own, in which case we will be dealing with a mere coincidence (which is okay) rather than a willful appropriation, which is not allowed. And of course, if we’re talking about willful infringement, we must assume that Che indeed had “access” to Manno’s work. (For folks in Manno’s position, one of the blessings of the Internet age is that proving “access” of this kind is a cakewalk because, hey, we all suppose that anyone can access anything posted for public consumption on a platform like TikTok.)

  Setting aside the question of coincidence, could the two works each enjoy copyright protection despite their apparent similarity?  Well, yeah: one cannot copyright an idea but rather only the particular (think original) way that the person has expressed the said idea. When we’re dealing with words, as in this case, what is or can be protected, incidentally, is the very way the words have been used rather than the all-too-familiar idea of expressing gratitude to someone (whether Homegirl or anybody else) who has done the speaker a favor. Translation: Even if someone in Che’s position saw the thing on the Internet, he can still avoid the copyright problem by simply using different words to express the same good-manners idea of gratitude. (Again, remember, no one can copyright an idea.) So, in the complicated world of copyright law, just proving that the second person had “access” to the first person’s work isn’t even enough.  Between the issues of coincidence, access and similarity of the works in question, the jury in these sorts of cases is dealing with and weighing up a lot of factors, which all makes for potentially expensive litigation and an oftentimes hard-to- predict outcome. 

This case brings to mind another copyright situation from across the pond in Britain, a case that just like the Che’s case, involves a lesser-known person going after someone with a higher public profile, as well as the same issues of coincidence; access, and the use of similar ideas and expressions. Only this time the dispute is between two actual working standup comedians, and funny enough, the dispute has led not to a copyright violation suit by the complaining comedian but rather a defamation lawsuit by the comedian who allegedly stole the other guy’s joke. (Feel free to call it the “smart fridge case”, if you like.)

In the British case, both comedians are making a joke about not wanting to buy a smart fridge, out of fear that said fridge would actually bother them with messages when then they’re away from home hanging out with their friends. One comedian (Darius Davies) claimed he first made the joke on the comedy club circuit prior to the second comedian (Kae Kurd) making the same joke on national TV.  Kurd, whose time on TV with the joke seemed to have garnered him newfound celebrity status (a prestigious talent agency rep plus a national tour) did sue Davies for defamation for essentially calling him a joke thief in a viral post that aired the accusation.

Although Davies has not filed a countersuit for copyright infringement against Kurd, the circumstances that existed between them before Kurd went to court present the same old copyright issues of coincidence, access and similarity of ideas/expression that we see in Che’s case. Indeed, they’d already argued over these issues (without any resolution) prior to the matter landing in court. At the moment, the parties are reportedly taking the traditional path of trying to resolve matters out of court. Makes sense in the circumstances.

 Returning to Michael Che’s case, it seems that the British situation offers clues as to the likely path out of the dispute: an out of court settlement. For a comedy star like Che, it may not be the best use of time and money to be wrangling about possible joke theft with a lesser-known quantity like Manno. There’s probably no path to a happy win for Che nor for HBO Max. If one were to take a bet, the odds are better than even that they’ll choose to just settle this pesky matter out of court and be done with it. But we’ll see how it all ends.  

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Promoting Comedy in the Public Forum: Learning the Tricky Ropes

As democracies go, America is a haven for the practice of comedy thanks to the First Amendment which protects the right of free speech. And, in this area, public forums are very important, especially those venues provided by the government, which are often the venues with the largest audiences for many a speaker. Yet, access to those venues is neither as free nor as guaranteed by law as the right to free speech itself. Indeed, often times people erroneously assume that easy access to a public forum is something of a matter of course. Wrong

On closer examination, a lot of folks, comedians included, have been surprised to find that there are quite a bit of rules or regulations (principles, if you will) that govern someone’s right of access to speak at a public forum.

By the way, comedians might be interested to note here that “speech” in this context includes not just things that are said at an actual show but also things that are written or said in the process of advertising a show or event, say, on billboards or posters.

As a general rule, what one can say on a particular public forum depends on what sort of forum the place is, namely, whether it is a traditional public forum or a “designated” or limited public forum. With traditional public forums, such as public parks and street corners, life is easy and you can think of those places as free speech highways where all manner of speech is allowed, both political and ideological and non-political speech, which includes commercial speech like advertising and the like. In these forums, the government cannot restrict or deny or speech based on the “content” of that speech, meaning, for instance, that it cannot decide to allow commercial speech but ban religious speech. Nope!

In order for the government to do so, it must show not only that it had a “compelling” interest or reason restricting or denying speech but also that it had no other means available to it to achieve the same result in a manner that would have had less impact on the speech in question. Lawyers call this the “strict scrutiny” rule, the whole point of which is to make it very difficult for the government to mess around with any of the “protected” rights under the constitution.

(Note that although the government isn’t allowed to ban or restrict any constitutionally “protected” speech it is nevertheless allowed to regulate the time, place and manner of exercising the right.)

Then there are the “designated” or limited public forums, such as subways and buses, which are places where the government can choose what sort of speech to allow and which ones to prohibit. Government can choose, for instance, to ban political speech while allowing commercial speech. But as long as it has opted to allow commercial speech, it cannot then start to discriminate between commercial speeches on the basis of “viewpoint.”  In other words, the government’s actions in restricting or denying speech in such situations must be “viewpoint- neutral and reasonable,” meaning that it cannot, for example, treat similar speeches differently.

For comedians and other entertainers who frequently need to publicize their shows in the public forum, the limited public forums are the ones that appear to raise the trickiest questions.

In the ordinary case, an ad by, say, a computer store on a city bus is a straightforward business promotion and often goes off without a hitch. However, problems might arise where what is said in an ad, for instance, can be perceived as “political” in nature and/ or controversial and thus banned. And this is where comedians can sometimes run into unexpected difficulties with exercising their free speech in such public forums.

Perhaps one of the more interesting cases here is the one involving some Muslim comedians who in September 2014 wanted to advertise their documentary film The Muslims Are Coming through the use of posters in the New York City subway system operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The said movie, produced one year earlier, follows some Muslim-American comedians on their tour of American towns and cities and their interactions with the audiences.

 The various poster ads contained the link to the movie’s website as well as various comic statements, including things like “Muslims Hate Terrorists”; “They also hate”: ‘People who tell you they went to an Ivy League School within 10 seconds of meeting them;’ ‘When the deli guy doesn’t put enough schmear on the bagel;’ ‘Getting out that last bit of toothpaste from the tube.’ The ads also contained statements like “Those Terrorists are all Muslim [the word “Muslim” is crossed out] Nutjobs,” “Grown up Muslims can do more pushups than baby Muslims” and so on.  The six ads were scheduled to run over a one -month period in 144 ads across the city’s subways. But the MTA rejected the proposed ads on the grounds that the ads violated its newly adopted policy which allowed commercial speech while barring the use of its facilities for “political” speech.

However, the comedians Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad plus the ad’s producer Vaguely Qualified Productions sued the MTA and won big in federal court. In siding with the comedians, the court ruled instead that the ads were essentially “commercial” speech by a for-profit entity and that it was remained so even if the advertiser might have been trying to capitalize on the political controversy around Islamophobia to promote its business interest. (At the time in question, the right-wing activist Pamela Geller’s group the American Freedom Defense Initiative [AFDI] was reportedly running an anti-Muslim ad in the said subways, depicting a man in a headscarf plus the incendiary words “Killing Jews is Worship that Draws Us Close to Allah.” The Muslim comedians claimed they were simply trying to counter the possible cultural impact of that campaign.)

Furthermore, the court said that even if the ads could be considered as “political” speech, the MTA had engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” given that it had already allowed other ads on its platform that were arguably even more political in nature than the comedians’ ads in this case, such as cable TV station CNN’s ad about the GOP presidential debate which contained photos and quotes by the candidates.  In other words, the court found that the MTA, which offered its subways and buses as a limited public forum for speech, was treating similar things differently in violation of the principle of “viewpoint-neutrality.”

So, what are some of the lessons here? Well, for starters, the less political speech that are contained in ads for a show, the easier life will be for the comedian. Obviously, things can get tricky when the ads straddle the political and the commercial lanes of traffic: in such situations, the authorities might be tempted to use the excuse of stopping political speech to perhaps ban the ads of a rather controversial comedian they might not like. (This is arguably what the MTA was trying to do in the Muslim comedians’ case, as the court implied.)  The other thing is that when it comes to ads and free speech, life is easiest in classic public forums like public parks and streets where the test is “strict scrutiny”; things get a little hard in limited public forums like subways and buses; and even harder in nonpublic forums like public schools, public hospitals or even jail houses. With all that in mind, the good news, though, is that even in the forums that are less friendly to free speech, such as the limited or nonpublic forums, there is still the protection of the First Amendment in requiring that there be no viewpoint discrimination. In any event, ads containing statements or images that might be considered as “obscene” or statements that amount to “fighting words” or which could be viewed as “incitement to violence” are not protected under the First Amendment regardless of the forum involved.     

John Merrifield and Public Safety: Putting Satire on Trial?

Satire is a well-recognized institution in our society and culture and public safety is, well, a necessity. And they each travel in their lanes. But when these two lanes happen to cross paths how do we manage the encounter so we can allow them to continue to co-exist in our world?  This is the tricky question at the heart of the legal battle between the New York-based comedian John Merrifield and Josh Guillory, the mayor of the City of Lafayette Consolidated Government in Louisiana.  

But first here’s the story:

In summer 2020 the comedian created two fake events on his Facebook page announcing planned protests by ANTIFA (militant left-wing activists who oppose far right groups) in two Lafayette, Louisiana locations, one in the high-end community of River Ranch in July and the other at the Acadiana Mall in August. In response the city government deployed a large number of police officers, vehicles and other resources to both locations to tackle the situation. However, since the whole thing was a hoax, no protests in fact occurred at either location.

Later that summer, the city sued the comedian to recoup its purported expenses, claiming that the “hoaxes have cost the city considerable sums of money both in investigating and responding to the hoaxes.”  The city’s said expenses were tallied at less than $75, 000.

In a defiant response, the comedian refused to apologize and vowed to fight the lawsuit, claiming that his actions were merely those of a satirist and comedian who created satire events on a comedy meme page on two occasions. “Fool you once shame on me. Fool you twice shame on you,” he noted.  Merrifield, who is a Lafayette native, explained that he meant to highlight how police treat some groups differently and “fail to offer the same protections to the working poor and mentally ill people of color such as in the case of Trayford Pellerin’s execution.” (The week before the date of the second event in August, protests had taken place at the Acadiana Mall, over the police killing of Pellerin, a Black man.)        

So, what is the deal here, with what the comedian did? Is this allowable “satire” , under the First Amendment, as he claims or is it some sort of mischief intended by the comedian to cost the city some money, as the city’s lawsuit suggests?

As we commonly understand it in our society, a work of “satire” uses humor as a vehicle to critique, ridicule or scorn the actions of someone or some institution in the society; as a result, most acts of satire tend to have the purpose and effect of correcting the behavior of the person or institution that is the target of the satire.

Merrifield said that he intentionally worded the announcement in such a way that “anyone with discernment” would know it is a joke and that no reasonable person would think otherwise. The said event post invited only “card-carrying” ANTIFA members and also said things like “arms optional, legs encouraged.”

For its part, the city admitted that it knew ahead of time that the whole ANTIFA affair was a hoax but deployed the law enforcement resources anyway even though no actual protests were occurring on any of the two event days in question. The city also said that the officers who were deployed to the scenes were on their regular duties rather than any special duty connected to the planned protests. If this is all there is to all this, then it’s game over since the two sides can be said to be on the same page: the comedian intended his post to be understood as a joke and apparently the city did in fact understand it as a hoax by a comedian.

Except that the city offers some explanations for its actions; it said it was acting in response to phone calls from allegedly “concerned citizens” who believed the planned protests were real rather than fake (the city also referenced the comedian’s own mother as one of those who actually believed the planned event was real). Additionally, the city said that it chose to deploy police to the scene in order to pre-empt the actions of any counter-protesters at the planned event (here the city references the posts put out by right wing group Right Side Millennials who were threatening to oppose the planned event.)  

Given all this, the big question in this case is whether the actions of the city were “reasonable” under the circumstances, considering everything it know at the time.  If the answer to that question is yes, then the city’s odds of winning the lawsuit increases. Here’s another way to look at it: if the city had not taken the steps that it took, would the city have been considered “negligent” in not doing so. (In common parlance, “negligence” here means the city not taking proper or necessary precautions to safeguard public safety in the circumstances then existing.)  If the steps taken by the city are perceived as justified in the eyes of a “reasonable person” looking at the circumstances faced by the city at the time, then the city might have a remedy against the comedian, including, for instance, recouping its expenses from the situation.

If that is the case, it likely won’t help the comedian too much to say that his actions were intended as satire. The simple reason here is a practical one: under the law, public safety, just like public health, trumps humor. (Recall, for instance, all the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed on so-called non-essential businesses, including comedy clubs, during the Covid-19 pandemic on grounds of public health and safety.) The other possible problem for the comedian here is that his attempted satire is not your grandfather’s good old satire that stays within our traditional understanding of satire. In other words, it’s not like a cartoon or some similar critique of a person or a thing, but instead his actions were rather more aggressive with potentially practical consequences. In a manner of speaking, maybe he was somewhat more activist than critic.  

Yet the saving grace for Merrifield is that, by its own admission, the city did in fact understand his posts as a “hoax” that was not real. Plus, there were indeed no actual protests at any of the two locations of concern to the city which, by the way has admitted that the presence of its police officers and sheriffs at those locations was done as part of their regular duties rather than as a special effort to safeguard public safety in response to the situation created by the protests. Since a case like this one turns upon a balancing of the facts and circumstances of the case, it therefore seems likely that the actions of the city will not be considered as “reasonable” or “justified” under the circumstances.   The city is only allowed to do what is reasonable rather than what is overly cautious under the circumstances it faced at the time. If the city overshoots the mark in its assessment of the situation beyond what a reasonable person would do, then the comedian cannot be liable for the city’s error of judgment.

All things considered, the odds of winning in this case seem to tip clearly on the comedian’s side.  And so, one may wonder whether pursuing a lawsuit against a struggling comic who probably isn’t a deep pocket is the best use of the city’s time and resources at a time that the pandemic is still around. However, one plausible way to explain this situation is that by forcing Merrifield to spend money defending the lawsuit, Josh Guillory’s city (as the richer party) might be looking to teach the comedian a lesson not to “mess with” the city.  Such a game plan will be aiming to set up a “teachable moment” on the acceptable boundaries of satire in contemporary society. Needless to say, these are pretty interesting times in satire.  

Editor’s NoteAt the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. There are two “categories” of articles: “Comedy Legal” and “Other Controversies.” You can find all of them at the “Categories” box on the sidebar. Please keep reading!

Share this:

One-Time
Monthly
Yearly

Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount

$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00
$5.00
$15.00
$100.00

Or enter a custom amount

$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Roy Moore vs. Sacha Baron Cohen: The Maverick Politico and the Gadfly Funnyman

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

This is a case about a failed collaboration between two odd ducks on a project that is alleged to have damaged the reputation of one of them. The one that is suing, as one might imagine. Enter Roy Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen. One, the plaintiff, is a Republican maverick who fell short in his senate bid in Alabama a few years earlier and the other, the defendant, is a gadfly funnyman famous for pranking the unwary into embarrassing behaviors. Now they walk into a courtroom for their hour of reckoning on their failed collaboration.

First, here’s what happened: sometime in 2018, both parties took part in an episode of the defendant’s Showtime TV political satire series Who is America?  In a segment of the said episode, presented in an interview format, the plaintiff Moore, who had been dogged by sexual misconduct allegations, including child molestation accusations, willingly appeared as himself whereas the defendant Cohen posed as an Israeli Mossad agent. During the interview, the defendant produced an instrument he described as a pedophile detector which is programmed to beep around pedophiles. The instrument beeped when the defendant waved it in front of the plaintiff but did not beep when the defendant then waved the same instrument in front of both himself and another person who was present at the interview.  In response, the plaintiff walked out in protest, denying any and all involvement in child molestation.

In the present lawsuit, pending in federal court in New York, the plaintiffs, Roy Moore and his wife, allege defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and fraud, owing to Cohen’s portrayal of Moore as a pedophile, and therefore seek damages totaling $95 million against the defendant as well as the media entities Showtime and CBS.

For starters, this isn’t your typical case where somebody who is at arms-length is suing a comedian for defamation and other harms related to it. (Defamation here, simply put, means that the defendant has damaged or injured the plaintiff’s reputation in the community through a false statement of fact.) In such cases, as experience shows, it is pretty difficult to win in America because of the way the First Amendment guarantees free speech to everyone. For comedians who talk for a living, and sometimes, perhaps often times, talk in a way that offends other people, the free speech protection is a pretty big deal. And because they are comedians, most people listening to them often think they are making a “joke” rather than stating a “fact” (whether true or false) about someone else.  And, of course, when the person suing is also a “public figure”, like Roy Moore, a former chief justice of Alabama and a candidate in a high-profile national campaign for the US. Senate, then the obstacles to winning are even higher because the plaintiff will have to show essentially that the defendant either knew that the statement was actually false or that the defendant (recklessly) did not care that the statement was probably false. This is the so-called “actual malice” rule.

Predictably, as any comedian would in these situations, Cohen did file a motion asking for the early dismissal of the case but the court rejected his request and waved the case on to its subsequent stages. This despite the fact that Moore had signed a “release” in favor of Cohen and his co-defendants at the start of the parties’ collaboration on the project.  So why does this case seem something of a different animal and why has it already lasted longer than your typical defamation case against a comedian?  

First, one should note that the parties in this case actually collaborated on the project in question, unlike the ordinary case where a comedian did something on his own that is alleged to have “harmed” the person suing him. And the release in question was signed prior to the collaboration, as one might expect. And this is where it gets complicated because the defense that a comedian is just making a joke has been tainted in this case by an allegation of fraud against the comedian: Moore claims that his signature on the release “was obtained through fraud”, thus making the release “void and inoperative”.   To explain this, Moore said he was conned into doing the interview by Cohen putting on a disguise and posing as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert and also that he had been falsely told by the defendants that he was being presented with an award for his support of Israel.

Thus far, Moore’s argument is doing quite well in court, judging by the dismissal of Cohen’s motion, and this means that deciding whether there was in fact defamation or not will have to wait until the court first decides whether the agreement (the release) between the parties can be enforced and if so in whose favor. If Cohen is right, then that’s likely the end of the road for Moore because by signing the release he’d already exonerated Cohen for whatever loss or damage arises from his participation in the TV program.  Of course, if, however, Moore is right, then the agreement will not protect Cohen and his co-defendants Showtime and CBS, who will then have to defend themselves against Moore’s big money claims for defamation and emotional distress in the normal manner in which such cases are litigated in court.   

Now, if the case goes forward to a likely jury trial, how will the jury look at it? Well, this being a defamation case, Moore’s biggest hurdle, as suggested above, will be getting the jury to look past the fact that Cohen is a comedian and thus to think that he is doing anything other than just making a joke. That, plus the fact that Moore is a “public figure” would seem to cut in Cohen’s favor. Yet the determination of that matter by the jury will be affected by a few factors on the minus side for Cohen: for starters, an allegation of fraud consisting in disguising one’s actual identity to a collaborating partner isn’t a good look. Plus, when it comes to the question of “malice”, it won’t help Cohen’s side that Moore had previously warned them not to air the allegedly “defamatory” segment but they did so anyway, meaning that they intended to actually air it and if it turns out that it included false statements of fact, then just because Moore happens to be a public figure won’t help Cohen’s side.   Besides, Moore’s claim of fraud, for instance, will be decided on different principles which are more neutral than the defamation claim, where the law is much more comedian-friendly.

In the end, though, Cohen, as a comedian, still seems to have better-than-even odds of victory in this case, at least on the defamation claim; yet he will come to find that the more a comedian gets away from the traditional boundaries of comedy and wanders into dicey areas like punking folks via questionable tactics, the more that comedian loses the generous protections afforded him by America’s First Amendment. Especially when the comedian is dealing with people of means, who can afford to make their vengeful point, winning the lawsuit itself be damned. (Already, the lawsuit has been on since 2018; has been re-located from Washington DC to New York, where presently a nasty war of words is raging between the parties’ lawyers over alleged “discovery” misconduct, with threats of sanctions on both sides.)  Describing Cohen’s actions against his clients as “malicious” and “despicable”, Moore’s lawyer, the scrappy veteran litigator Larry Klayman vowed: “great harm has been done to my clients, which must be addressed and remedied.” Well, so far, as an adversary, Roy Moore is proving not to be an ordinary plaintiff, the lesson being that Cohen can still get hurt even if he wins the lawsuit.