This is a sensitive issue for many comedians, and I find it exciting to talk openly about taboos. A lot of comedians get very uncomfortable with this subject. Admitting you have been concerned by anything in the line plagiarism is like being a parent of several children and having to answer which one is your favorite. There’s definitely one, but it’s just seems wrong to admit so. So let’s talk about all plagiarism in stand-up comedy. Set aside when you write something, then discover somebody you DIDN’T KNOW nor HEAR before has done the same thing. This happens all the time and this article it’s not even about that, and will instead focus on cases where a comedian’s “new” content is definitely influenced by other people’s material.
As a performer, it’s scary to realize how your subconscious absorbs everything you see and massively guides your conscious mind. Meanwhile you would be utterly convinced you’ve been constantly creating something from scratch, and been in control of the whole process. But, at times, you would look closely and find 1) what inspired you 2) striking similarities with your inspirations. It stems from a human bias called Cryptomnesia, a cognitive bias where the inspired mind has forgotten its source of inspiration and thinks it’s creating something new.
Example : One night, I wrote a rant and performed an hour later. It was largely inspired by George Carlin rant style, that was very conscious. But I used “I am a normal modern person” to begin every single paragraph, and today I read that Carlin started one of his rants with “I’m a modern man”. Almost exactly the same title. It’s a scary realization that kicks you in the nuts. No one wants to copy-paste other people, we all deeply know that going on stage to get approval from other people’s work is the lamest and most pointless thing a comedian could consciously do, and we’re wired to give very little respect to people we spot doing that.
This kind of subconscious influence is very vicious, and shouldn’t be OK just because “Oh, I had no idea I was so deeply influenced”. I think stand-up comedians that truly are here to learn something and not in a race to be the first to get the spotlights, should tell each other that this or that seemed like it was plagiarism and quote from which original work. It’s the comedian’s work then to try and understand how this happened. But this is probably utopian, most comedians are in serious competition for the spotlight and wouldn’t take the risk to make others feel uncomfortable, nor to give constructive feedback to their competing fellows.
Don’t get me wrong: Blatant plagiarism does exist and takes many forms. It can range from jokes from comedians, the smart plagiarists will use foreign plagiarism, the dumber ones will do it right in front of the comedian they stole the joke from. I’ve seen comedians do 9gag/facebook meme on stage…That was for blatant, planned, intentional plagiarism.
But also, many things may seem to some like blatant plagiarism, but the process that leads to that is not conscious. So now to something deeper: As part of human nature, even animal nature, we have a HUGE bias for more or less unconsciously borrowing a style here, a body language there, a voice here…until you shape that into your own style, with a distinct identity. That’s what matters and that’s where it should head. We’re not inventing anything, all our characters and stories are from things we see in our family, experience with our friends, notice about society. And sometimes, the awakening to observe here or there comes from other comedians. If you learn about how birds learn to sing, or how people build their body language, personality and language, you will find that the common ground is living things’ ability to get inspiration from influencing peers. Comedy is no exception to that.
At best, like anyone learning from others, as Newton said, great comedians like great scientists are just midgets standing up on the shoulders of our giant heroes.