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The Commodity of Humor

I 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, that smarts.

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 unconscious.

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 his body.

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 for free?).

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 be addressed."

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 new faces.

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 anyway.

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.


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