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Thou Shalt Not Steal Jokes

In an interview with Salon that's running today, Christian minister and "Twitter comic" Sammy Rhodes tries to make the argument that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that he started out copying the basic "format" of the jokes his comedic heroes were tweeting -- adding a couple of minor changes -- as a sort of tribute to them. He figured, I guess, that since he didn't see what he was doing as wrong then it wasn't actually wrong.
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I'll try to make this quick since it's a Friday, I've been up working since 5:30am, and I'm eager to just get everything out of the way so I can pace the living room floor in a panic, contemplating how the hell I'm going to survive some sex yoga class my girlfriend has signed the two of us up for this weekend. This could be my last post for a while.

I know I've kind of become the comedy beat reporter around here but that's honestly alright with me because I have such an appreciation for comics and what they do, which is why I can completely understand the outrage comedians feel when they realize that somebody has stolen their material and is trying to pass it off as his or her own. There's an item getting a little bit of media attention right now that involves a Christian minister from South Carolina who moonlights as a Twitter comic. Sammy Rhodes, who tweets under the name @prodigalsam, has developed a surprising following thanks to the amusing material he regularly fires off -- the only problem being that he seems to be stealing a good portion of it from real comedians.

Over the past few days, Patton Oswalt's fans have called Rhodes out for what they claim are several examples of lines Rhodes used that it could be argued were blatantly swiped from Patton. And Patton's not the only one Rhodes seems to be plagiarizing from. What's interesting, though, is the defense Rhodes is offering for his possession and sale of goods that appear to be somewhat stolen. In an interview with Salon that's running today, he tries to make the argument that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that he started out copying the basic "format" of the jokes his comedic heroes were tweeting -- adding a couple of minor changes -- as a sort of tribute to them and things just picked up steam. He figured, I guess, that since he didn't see what he was doing as wrong then it wasn't actually wrong.

Except that it kind of is wrong.

Rhodes contends that these days it's entirely possible to accidentally make a joke that sounds quite a bit like a joke made by somebody else, and about this he's absolutely correct. I myself have said before, in fact, that with the sheer volume of media being disseminated at any given moment these days, it's almost impossible for somebody to express a truly original thought, or at least express a thought exclusively. Particularly when you have millions and millions of Twitter users firing off thoughts on a select series of trending topics, it's hard to imagine that anybody will say something somebody else hasn't said somewhere. But by his own admission that's not what Sammy Rhodes is doing; while he absolutely has tweeted out a good number of funny lines that seem to be his in the sense that if someone else said the same thing he's unaware of it, he also says flat-out that he takes the jokes of others and just adds his own twist to them.

There's a big debate in comedy over what exactly plagiarism is and whether this kind of thing constitutes it, whether it's acceptable for someone to knowingly "sample" the basic premise of a joke and turn it into his or her own work. It can be done, very carefully, in film, literature, and of course music -- provided it's clear that the artistic foundation came from somewhere else and it's simply being built upon -- but jokes tend to be so short and snappy, and the reaction to them so immediate, that it's hard to imagine it being okay to do in comedy. Also, comedians are a notoriously touchy bunch when it comes to a sense of ownership over their material. They don't like joke thieves and they'll viciously take down anybody who thinks he can be one. Seen a lot of Carlos Mencia lately?

Despite being a Christian minister, sincerely a job made up of the unfunniest fuckers on the planet, Sammy Rhodes seems to be a relatively amusing guy. I don't know how important it is to him that people give a rat's ass about what he's saying on Twitter, but if it does matter, swiping jokes -- even "adjusting" other people's jokes -- isn't the way to go about getting followers. It's a great way to get attention, just probably not the kind he's looking for; a lot of people now know who he is but they know him only as a guy who steals the material of real comedians. The point is, somebody who steals jokes is somebody desperate for people to like him and to notice him. Rhodes seems humorous enough to have been able to do that on his own, without ill-advisedly cranking out cracks that could easily be traced back to other people.

Besides, didn't God say something about stealing?

Before I split to begin my panicked pacing and stretching exercises, I wanted to share something that was posted this morning by The Onion's A.V. Club that I hope will give you an idea why exactly it is that I hold comics in such high regard. It's an animated story about starting out as a comedian, as told by Patton Oswalt, and it makes it clear the kind of hell so many comics go through night after night. Artists in general deserve immense credit for putting themselves out there, but really nobody does it to the extent that comics do. They stand on a stage, alone, and try to do something that seems so simple but in reality is anything but. They risk and often endure unimaginable humiliation and self-doubt, and when they don't get it right, any number of unsatisfied assholes in the audience feel like it's completely within their right to lash out at them right then and there. They can bomb, and then come back for more. All because they want to make us laugh. I couldn't do what a comic does; I don't think I could even try it. And that's why I respect the hell out of almost anybody who can.

A week-and-a-half ago, at a small show here in L.A., Patton thanked me for what I wrote about him here recently, when I defended him against accusations that he was contributing to rape culture by not speaking out against it. He gave me a hug and seemed genuinely grateful. For somebody like me, somebody who feels the way I do about the art of stand-up comedy, that was sincerely one of the coolest moments of my life.

Here's the animated clip.