Monday, February 18, 2008

The Clinton Plagiarism Charge-- A Comedian's Perspective

I usually don't get too political here on my blog, but I think as someone who works both in a spoken medium and in a field where plagiarism is a serious charge I have some insight into the situation, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on Senator Clinton's recent accusation of plagiarism on the part of Senator Obama.

First of all, in the world of standup comedy we eschew the snooty, academic term of 'plagiarism' and just plain call it 'stealing,' and, with a few notable exceptions, a reputation as a joke thief is career death.

And due to the seriousness of the charge, accusations of joke theivery are soberly deliberated among comedians before we label someone a thief. Often it is determined that comedians came up with similar jokes independent of each other. The more common and obvious the joke, the less likely an accusation of stealing is going to stick. If a comic says "Joey Donut's a thief because he does a bit about his wife nagging him all the time, I do a bit about my wife nagging me all the time," he'd get laughed out of the club because 80% of the comics on the road do a bit about his wife nagging him all the time.

And that's kind of how I feel about Clinton's accusation. She criticized Obama for being all fluff, saying his speeches are just words. Obama responded with the question, "Are 'I have a dream' just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' just words?" Since a gubenatorial candidate in Massachusetts made the same point 2 years ago when he was criticized for being all talk, Clinton's folks said Obama is a petty theif for taking the idea without crediting the Massachusetts guy.

Hell, I would have made the same point if someone told me that words don't mean anything, and I've never even heard of this guy from Massachusetts. It's not like Obama cribbed someone's theory of relativity and passed it off as his own. It's an obvious rebuttal to a weak accusation. If Clinton were a comic accusing Obama of stealing Massachusetts guy's material, 9 out of 10 comics would tell her to get lost and go write something funnier.

And if we really want to split hairs, the FDR line, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" is borrowed from Henry David Thoreau. And I came up with that all by myself... after learning about it from an episode of the sitcom Head of the Class.

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