Plagiarism in comedy – homage or theft?
How a hugely popular American satirical show ripped off an online British comedian
Anyone who has spent any time on social media over the past few months will probably be familiar with Michael Spicer, aka “The Man Next Door”. Spicer’s act may be simple, but it is hugely effective.
Posing as a politician’s rather shady special adviser or facilitator, he situates himself in a utilitarian-looking office, in which he feeds his boss their lines through an earpiece for an interview. However, given that his employers are people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, his task is made vastly more difficult by their refusal to deliver the simple message that they are being told to say, and instead the contrast between their windy obfuscations and his increasing frustration forms the central joke. It helps that Spicer, a former copywriter for a shipping company, is blessed with excellent comic timing, a passing resemblance to Marcus Brigstocke and no shortage of material at the moment. As he reflected in a recent interview, “It would have been nice to have a career in comedy without this constant narrative of horror behind it, but here we are.”
The Daily Show‘s inclusion of the sketch seemed like content theft at its most opportunistic
His extraordinary success this year – his videos have had over 50 million views on YouTube – has translated into a full-time career in comedy, including an appearance on James Corden’s The Late Late Show, a book deal with Canongate for the humour title The Secret Political Adviser and a UK tour next year, the state of the world permitting. Unfortunately for Spicer, his high-profile success has, as is usual in these situations, inspired homages, or rip-offs if you’re being less generous. Most of these are just faltering and amateurish attempts that barely garner any attention, but Spicer, and half of the internet, was taken aback to see that the American satirical programme The Daily Show recently included a sketch revolving around the show’s regular comedians “prepping” Donald Trump and Joe Biden for their debate appearance on 29 September.
Traditionally, The Daily Show has been given something of a free pass by liberals on both sides of the Atlantic, due to its right-on content, even if its host Trevor Noah has taken pains to distinguish between his personally progressive views and any affiliation with the right or left. However, the social media outrage that followed after the sketch was broadcast from British writers and comedians was vitriolic and considerable. Robert Webb’s comment that “You’ve ripped off Mr Michael Spicer and done it much worse, you awful twats”, was typical, as was the Secret Barrister’s assertion that he or she was “Just adding my voice to those pointing out that you seem to have copied [Spicer]’s act without attribution. Pretty poor form.” As many pointed out, Spicer’s high-profile appearance on The Late Late Show meant that it was impossible that the producers of The Daily Show would not have known about his work, meaning that the inclusion of the sketch seemed like content theft at its most opportunistic.
The furore may even help introduce Spicer to an even wider audience in the US
Spicer himself remained relatively aloof from the outrage, other than tweeting a picture of Rihanna looking askance along with the offending material, but he did not need to dirty his hands; his admirers have done his work for him. A subsequent, tongue-in-cheek video that he posted, in which he said of Boris Johnson, “Honestly, you are as transparent as The Daily Show”, complete with an arch look directly to camera, more than made his point, as did a subsequent comment that the programme makers had indeed been in touch, though he was temporarily unable to say more than that. One imagines that the furore will do his long-term career no harm whatsoever and may even help introduce him to an even wider audience in the US. In which case, as the likes of Corden have discovered, there is no limit to the possibilities that await him.
This is therefore one of the rather better outcomes of a case of joke or act plagiarism that there has been over the past few decades, but every comedian fears their act being taken away from them by a pretender. In the close-knit world of comedy, to be decried as a “hack comedian”, or one who steals material from others, is tantamount to being thrown out of the Magic Circle, but, with jokes being delivered publicly on a daily basis, it is all too easy to pass them off as one’s own. The comedian Sarah Millican briefly made headlines a few years ago when she asked someone to stop filming her act, before getting into an argument with them on social media. Millican’s irritation was not occasioned by her having been filmed without her consent, but by the possibility that her material could now be freely disseminated across social media and ripped off by other aspirant comedians, hence her response that “what you did is basically theft”.
WC Fields reportedly paid fifty dollars to have one of his imitators’ legs broken
Comedians have “borrowed” or “improved” material from others for decades, since the days of vaudeville and music-hall, and there has always been a flourishing trade in “recycled” comedy. Sometimes, this has led to public spats, as it did between Bob Hope and Milton Berle, and WC Fields reportedly paid fifty dollars to have one of his imitators’ legs broken. More recently, one of the reasons for the comparatively low standing of the comedian and actor Denis Leary amongst his peers is a widespread belief that he ripped off the late Bill Hicks’s act and material after Hicks released his 1993 live album No Cure for Cancer. A blackly comic joke even went around comedians after Hicks’s death, asking “Why is Denis Leary a star while Bill Hicks is unknown? Because there’s no cure for cancer.”
Sometimes, plagiarism is a matter of straightforwardly stealing jokes, something that Stewart Lee keeps a running account of in the “Plagiarist’s Corner” of his website, where he records everyone from Ricky Gervais and Louis CK to the UK government apparently ripping off his riffs and ideas (as well, sportingly, as including occasions that he has, apparently inadvertently, done the same). And on other occasions, it is a case of watching the close parallels between a successful act or series and then an imitation appearing a couple of years later. It does not take the most penetrating of intellects to note the similarities between The League of Gentlemen’s work on TV and stage and then to observe the way in which Little Britain appeared to adapt and simplify the League’s approach, ensuring a far greater degree of mainstream success than the more macabre programme ever managed.
Would Spicer have had more vocal support if he hadn’t been a white, heterosexual middle-class man?
Although straightforwardly ripping off a comedian’s jokes or act might theoretically count as copyright infringement, it has seldom gone as far as court; a rare exception came last year, when the comedian and chat show host Conan O’Brien settled a claim out of court by the writer Robert Alex Kaseberg for apparently plagiarising his jokes. O’Brien claimed that the dispute was resolved “amicably”, even as he reflected that “I decided to forgo a potentially farcical and expensive jury trial in federal court over five jokes that don’t even make sense anymore. Four years and countless legal bills have been plenty.” Yet expensive litigation has seldom been an option for many comedians, especially those without a significant social media following. It would be uniquely galling to come up with an excellent and original joke, make it public, and then find that a more famous performer has used it without acknowledgement, but these things happen, as the example of Spicer and The Daily Show has proved.
At the time of writing, there has been comparatively little British media coverage of the incident. Perhaps, with many more news stories to occupy attention, it is simply seen as a “bubble story”, and one that will presumably have a happy ending. Spicer has been vindicated, the rip-off of his schtick widely condemned and his rapidly growing reputation bolstered, rather than damaged. He himself has admitted that his own act is helped by not needing extensive and original material; as he put it, of his great Priti Patel sketch involving her stumbling over “counter-terrorist offenders”: “Imagine being a comedy writer, and 70% of your material is already written, it’s all gold, and your co-writer doesn’t want any credit”.
One can only wonder, though, whether he might have had rather more vocal support from certain quarters if he hadn’t been a white, heterosexual middle-class man, but had instead represented some ostracised or belittled minority. The Daily Show, with its impeccable liberal authority, used female, Asian-American and black comedians in the debate sketch, even as they “homage” another comedian’s work. Perhaps if they had asked Spicer himself to do the sketch, they would have been criticised for a lack of diversity, which makes one wonder whether plagiarism – and all of the attendant fuss – is therefore now seen in certain quarters as somehow less damaging to a brand. If so, then we can look forward to yet another front opening up on the ongoing culture wars, it will be interesting to see which side those so offended by Spicer’s treatment choose to take.
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