Over the weekend, a previous contributor to our print issue wrote a post on their blog about the current feature story. In it, the contributor said they wrote and published a story a year ago that they felt T.L. Crum had lifted heavily from while writing “Head.” The contributor has removed the post and they have since rescinded their statements. I’m not writing this in the interest of fanning the flames so I’m not going to mention who it was. But the whole thing did make me think about the conclusions we reach in terms of what to write about.
In Marc Maron’s interviews with Robin Williams, Dane Cook and (you’ve got to listen to this) Carlos Mencia, the subject of joke theft is brought up a lot. All of these comedians had been accused of stealing jokes in the past. In the case of Cook and Williams, they admitted every comedian was drawing from the same reality pool, their jokes were similar to other comedians because they were all writing observational humor and when a subject strikes you as interesting you’re going to dig into it to find whatever is funny. Sometimes comedians pick the same subject and sometimes they reach the same conclusions. When that happens, it’s not stealing, but merely coincidence.
In this case, they agreed that the proper thing to do is take the comedian aside and say, “We’re telling the same joke, what do we do about this?” rather than start throwing out the accusation of theft.
However, in Mencia’s case (really, you have to listen to this, one of the most interesting radio interviews you’ll ever hear), it became clear that he’d listened to bits from other comedians, lolled them around his head a while, blending them with his day-to-day thoughts, and when he sat down to write, the bits he’d heard had lost their owners and he assumed they were his own. It would be hard to call this anything other than stealing, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Anyone beyond the 8th grade level of writing would be an idiot to think they could get very far writing a story about a white whale called Doby Mick, or a lovable scamp named Fuckleberry Hinn. Most creative folks don’t consciously steal ideas. They either reach the same conclusions or they don’t know what they’re doing. Only sociopaths think they can steal ideas and get away with it.
The contributor jumped the gun in assuming T.L. Crum had read and been heavily influenced by their story. It was a case of coincidence, two writers interested in similar ideas and reaching similar conclusions. Funny thing is, when I first read T.L.’s piece it reminded me of a Joe Meno short story in which people who experience human emotions turn into clouds. The human-emotion-leads-to-magical-effect idea is a great seed for a story and tons of writers have taken it to interesting places. That doesn’t mean anyone owns it. It’s a form, that’s all.
The important thing to take away is this: Dane Cook was accused of stealing jokes from Louis C.K. Instead of throwing out the allegation of theft, he chose to acknowledge that yes, the jokes were similar, maybe Cook stole them, maybe he didn’t, but those jokes were done now. They were out in the world and they had been spent. Now it was time to move on and write more jokes and let the talent of the each respective comedian be the final word.