On Joke Theft and Amy Shumer: Thoughts From a 14-Time Emmy Nominee

Amy Schumer arrives at the 21st annual Critics' Choice Awards at the Barker Hangar on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Santa Monica,
Amy Schumer arrives at the 21st annual Critics' Choice Awards at the Barker Hangar on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Thanks to a judicial order, I can't tell you why I know a little something about idea theft in Hollywood. If I do tell, I'll have to give back all the money I've saved for my kid's college. And I don't want to do that. So, you'll have to trust me.

Moving on.

I was a writer on Politically Incorrect for five years. I wrote for the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn for two years (a sin I continue to apologize for). I was a writer on the first season of The Rosie O'Donnel Show (daytime). And, I ran the show Penn & Teller: Bullshit for two years.

It's quite common for two comedians to have the same jokes about something topical, say building a wall along the Mexican border. When I wrote jokes for late night T.V., on a big news story, the various late night hosts often did jokes similar to one another.

"Who do they think they're going to get to build that wall?"

You see, there's a stereotype (albeit 100% wrong) that whites are no longer willing to do back-breaking labor... and that poor Mexicans will do any work for a few bucks an hour.

Anyway, the hosts in late night have similar sensibilities, the writers for the shows are similar, the writers might even live near one another, and is often the case, are friends with one another, plus people who wrote for one show, went on to write for the competition. I have friends who wrote for Letterman and Bill Maher, Dennis Miller and Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno, for example. So, similarities in jokes now and again are to be expected.

Stand-up comics who do topical material also might have some "parallel thinking" going on when it comes to creating their material. If you're writing jokes for your act about sex, marriage, flying on an airplane, it wouldn't be unlikely to think up similar jokes as other comics who have mined similar premises.

All of the above gets chalked up to coincidence and "parallel thinking" because it happens infrequently.

Then, there are cases where a person is accused a bunch of times of idea or joke theft (think Carlos Mencia)... and the answer is either a) they stole the material or b) perhaps the person being accused may not have consciously "stolen" someone else's work, but that by osmosis - hearing the bit in a comedy club, seeing it on TV, or the like, the idea stuck in their brain, and that at some point later, the person being accused "had the idea," and thought it was their own -- thus forgetting they had heard it previously. This happens. Does it happen a lot? Who knows. But, it does happen. And usually, the person who didn't have the idea apologizes for accidentally stealing -- and people move on.

Or, they leave their show on Comedy Central, never to be heard from again.

In any case, it doesn't happen that often.

And that brings me to Amy Schumer.

I have now both read and seen nearly a dozen examples where Amy Schumer's comedy material is nearly identical to someone else's material. And that someone else's material was created previously to Amy's. You can see the video here.

Forget comedy for a second. Think about all the books that have been written, all the movies, all the term papers, TV shows, all the blogs, all the jokes, plays, text-books, novels, all the news stories, diaries, etc. That's a lot of written words, right? You'd think there would be lots of examples over the thousands of years of parallel thinking, or ideas or sentences that are nearly identical -- remember, there's been a lot of stuff written, right -- and yet, there are nearly no examples where people write the same words in the same order -- other than those that involve accusations of plagiarism. And in those instances, an investigation ensues, and the party being accused fesses up to sloppy note taking or just admits that what they did was steal someone else's words.

Back to Amy Schumer. Now, some of the examples of joke theft might really be someone else's doing -- after all, Amy doesn't write all of the material on her sketch show.

However, she does presumably write the jokes in her stand-up act.

And yes, some of the examples of joke theft might be examples of parallel thinking. Some might also be coincidence. And maybe some of it happened by osmosis.

HOWEVER -- that's a lot of coincidences. A lot of parallel thinking. A lot of osmosis for just one person.

On the other hand, Amy was pretty convincing during her interview on the Jim Norton podcast. Only, here's the thing: I want to believe Amy Schumer. I really do. It's just that lying and telling the truth look and sound the same. So, it makes it hard.

Jon Hotchkiss is really a 14 time Emmy nominee and the host of the new series, Be Less Stupid, which is being called "The Daily Show meets Popular Science". For premiere details, like his Facebook page.