The Schumergate Joke Theft Controversy, Explained
A fellow comedienne deep-dives into the #Schumergate scandal.
Because I think women in comedy hating other women in comedy is played out and unproductive, and also because I was raised in the midwest, I would like to begin this blog with a compliment to Amy Schumer. First, Amy, if you have a Google alert set up with your name and you’re reading this, this is my favorite sketch you’ve ever done. It’s catchy, smart, well-executed, and makes a hilarious point that women’s butts are both sex-objects and poop machines. Mazel.
Next, let me say Amy Schumer has built an incredible career, and I am excited and proud to have a woman on top. Schumer-gate is an inspiring reminder that women not only can, but must go beyond the traditional realm of what we can and cannot joke about in order for us to flourish as individuals and as a whole.
Now, on to the meat!
A couple of weeks ago and counting, a group of well known comediennes publicly accused Amy Schumer of serial joke thievery, which is a big deal in the comedy world. A very big deal. Though the comedians eventually retracted their accusations on Twitter—to be fair, when my reps found out I was blogging about Schumer, their advice was: “be careful. She’s really hot right now.” —the aftershock resonated enough that Schumer appeared on The Jim Norton Advice Show to defend herself. Then a guy named Brandon Farley made a YouTube mash up of Schumer’s self-defense along with side by side comparisons of Schumer’s jokes and the jokes she is accused of stealing, some of which are verbatim, and some of which are a little bit of a stretch.
Schumer argues that none of her material was stolen or inspired by anything pre-existing, but rather that they are all a product of parallel thinking, the notion that two or more comedians can come up with the same premise and execute similar jokes without either of them actually stealing it. Like, if I did a Sarah Palin impression and then blamed SNL for ripping it off. No dice.
The accusations against Schumer piqued my interest. She has been heralded as the feminist second coming but self-describes her on camera persona as “that girl from the television who talks about her p*ssy all the time.” (Inside Amy Schumer “Last Fuckable Day”)
I’ve hunkered down, read the articles, watched the clips, crunched the numbers and divided the accusations into three distinct sections.
1. This Sketchy Sketch
Parallel thinking aside, Exhibit A is a tough nut to explain away.
Schumer has pledged to take a polygraph test on the next season of her show to prove that she never intentionally stolen a joke, either for her stand-up or her sketch comedy. I would argue that’s beside the point. If you find out your sketch is overly similar to one that pre-exists it, it's a great time to apologize and move on, especially if you have a well respected body of work like Schumer does, on which to fall back. It does nothing but improve the street cred of the show to acknowledge that they made a mistake. If the writers did in fact plagiarize the sketches (Slap Chef and Dating a Magician have also come into question), then they took a huge risk that ended up getting them in more trouble than those millions of online views were worth. Fool you once.
2. Girl Fights
The next chunk of accusations comes mostly from other female comedians who lambasted Schumer not only for stealing, but for doing it exclusively from female comedians, which they say is Schumer's serial offense: that she pushes down other female comedians for the benefit of her own career. I don’t know about all of that, but I did watch the side-by-side comparisons of the jokes, and here’s my takeaway: whether Amy Schumer is stealing jokes intentionally or not is less important to me than the larger conversation about the painfully narrow range of topics female comedians are expected to cover.
Schumer's consistant move is to provide the female perspective on a male dominated conversation of what women should and should not be. When Amy Schumer accepts the Trailblazer Award at Glamour UK’s Women of the Year Awards and says: “I'm 160 pounds, and I can catch a dick whenever I want,” the implication is that even though we all know that being fat is bad, she doesn’t care because she's still fuckable, which is one of the most important things a woman can aspire to be. Fair point, but the more you say it, the less effect it has.
The heart of the matter, I believe, is that Schumer is pulling from a fairly shallow well, and she may have hit the bottom. Remember when Paris Hilton tried to trademark “That’s Hot!” and got laughed out of copyright court? I don’t think Amy Schumer stole Jenny Slate’s “vaginas make underwear look dirty” joke from Obvious Child. It’s a simple premise, and neither comedian put enough spin on the joke to make it a trademark joke. There’s no crime in that. Observational comedy is based on observation, but when it happens again and again, there becomes reason to take note.
3. Her Patrice O’Neal Closer
The premise of the run of jokes is this: name a hilarious sex position and then describe the hilarious thing that it is. Both Schumer and the late Patrice O’Neal used the bit in their respective specials. Fair game. It’s a funny premise with infinite possibilities. So, how did it happen that out of all the possiblitiies, both comedians used extremely similar positions with extremely similar descriptions? I don’t know. Whether Schumer stole it from O’Neal or not, they both stole it from Urban Dictionary who published this in 2004.
Guys, it’s a literally infinite premise. Use your imagination.
4. Really, The Joke Theft Isn't The Point
The worst possible outcome of this would be the fall of Amy Schumer, which doesn’t look likely either way. A year ago she was accused of being racist by The Guardian, and she came out just fine. What I do hope does happen is that Schumer takes advantage of her position as one of the untouchables to tell a story other than that of the female perspective on societal standards set by the male gaze.
Male gaze? I know, I'm ruining it. Analysis is the enemy of comedy. One more, and we can all get back to watching YouTube, I promise.
In the late 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with a design for a prison called the “Panopticon” pan meaning all, opti meaning see, con meaning… I don’t know. It’s just how the Greeks ended their words. In it, the prisoners’ cells were arranged in an inward facing circle with a single guard in the middle who could not be seen by the inmates. Eventually, Bentham argued, you could remove the guard entirely and because the prisoners could see each other, and because they assumed they were being watched by the guard, the prisoners would self-monitor, and no one would misbehave.
Women in comedy are all the rage right now. We are starring in TV shows, hosting major awards shows and landing lead roles major studio movies (as long as we’re under 45). Whether or not Amy Schumer stole jokes is less important than the reality that unless women start allowing themselves each other to touch on other topics, we remain forever confined to an an echo chamber of "any hole's fine!” (Amy Schumer’s 2015 SNL Monologue in reference to Bradley Cooper.)
Women don’t have to write material that is gender dependent any more than men do. All we have to do is use our imaginations. When Schumer soundbites herself as a little girl performing home video versions of “The Amy Show” it touches my heart. I think a lot of us can relate to the feeling of wanting to be heard. It’s on us now to decide what we wan to say, however, and therein lies our challenge ahead.