The Commodity of Humor
try not to use this space to promote my work or further my career or direct
you to my website where a personalized copy of my book is available for
$9.95. Today, however, I must drag you into a fracas involving my cartoon, "Snapshots."
Recently people began pointing out similarities between Snapshots
and the comic "In the Bleachers." Because Steve Moore is
a celebrated cartoonist, readers questioned my gall to copy him. And
whereas I spend long hours in meditation trying to transcend the ego,
I live by one comic commandment: thou shalt not look at others' work.
Every joke I see represents one more area that I can't go. In other
words, I have to at least think that what I am doing is original. Looking
at other cartoons, then, only limits me.
It drives my agent batty. "Look at what that site is doing," he
says. "Don't be such a Rain Man," he says.
Yet I refuse.
At first I didn't even open the paper to verify the similarities but
dismissed them to chance. Cartoonists are bound to drum up the same
material. After all, we are all mining in the same caves of the collective
Then, at the gym, I passed a clipping from the funnies. I averted
my gaze and stayed my course to the dumbbells (the weights, not the
people). I passed the cartoon again on my way to the Stairmaster and
once more en route to the sauna, each time without looking. After the
sauna, however, I was feeling relaxed and rubbery and thought, Why
not? Let's have a look, shall we?
Wouldn't you know that it was a clipping of "In the Bleachers." And
wouldn't you know that it looked familiar. Really, painfully familiar.
The drawing was identical to a cartoon I published months earlier,
all the way down to perspective. The caption differed by only one word.
No longer feeling relaxed and rubbery, I snatched the cartoon from
the corkboard and turned to the guy beside me:
"Can you believe it? This guy ripped me off! I published this
cartoon six months ago."
The man tilted his head, confused by a conversation that didn't involve
I rushed home and spewed all over my wife. It wasn't one of my normal
spewings, either, but a real, live call to duty kind of spew. I went
upstairs and offered free books to anyone on the mailing list who could
find other instances in Moore's archives. They came back with a pile
of jokes that bore uncanny resemblance to Snapshots.
The injustice lodged in my throat like a steak fry and no soda: while
I've been banging my head on the syndicates' doors, this guy has been
shopping my site for material. Am I bitter? I don't know. Is that what
it means when you disown anyone who utters the word "Steve"?
I e-mailed Steve Moore to point out -- "without casting aspersions" --
the parallels between his work and my own. Having a surplus of sports
gags, I offered to write for him. He said that he had never heard of
Snapshots and laughed at my offer (why buy the cow when you can suck
I believed the man until my admin logs confirmed that he had, in fact,
used my search engine. Keyword: "sports."
In junior high, an English teacher failed my essay exam because it
echoed that of another student. The kid had peeked over my shoulder
throughout the test, and I didn't have the guts to shoo him. I assumed
that he would give up when he saw that I was writing about having nothing
to say. I begged the teacher for a reprieve as he handed us our F's.
"I can't play favorites," he said. "Plagiarism must
In school, they call it plagiarizing. In the humor industry, they
call it business as usual. Instead of creating comedy, people like
Moore look over the shoulders of their colleagues. They aren't humorists
so much as humor locators. Referencing normally isn't as blatant as
the example above but entails taking the shell of a joke and applying
The kicker is that most people can't tell the difference. It's like
a Twilight Zone in which only a handful of people can discern between
creativity and the lack thereof.
The steak fry is still in my throat. After meditating in the mountains,
I decided to resist my first plan -- to break the man's thumbs -- and
get back to the joy of doing. In the end, it's all about the laughter
I don't mean to excuse plagiarism. That Moore is developing a program
for Fox based on others' ideas is sickeningly, O.J.-went-golfing-like
wrong. But instead of bickering, I will seek refuge in something my
English teacher said to me after class that day: "Imitation is
the highest form of flattery."
Then he said that my parents would have to sign by the F. So it goes.