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East of the River: A comic’s worst nightmare

Last week, Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli and Kathleen Madigan all took to Twitter to accuse Amy Schumer of being a joke thief. All insinuated that this was habitual for the successful comic and movie star and wasn’t by accident. Pescatelli claimed to be speaking for other comics and even went as far as to say:

“So many more but nobody listens…at least Cosby knocked his victims out b4 he raped them.”

Schumer subsequently went on the Jim Norton Advice Show to defend herself. She offered to even take a polygraph to prove she had never stolen a joke and replied to Pescatelli by saying: “I don’t think she’s got much going on, this is my guess. . . . I think people get upset by success.”

A quick Google search can give you full video “proof” of each alleged joke theft. In all of these instances, I believe it’s simply a case of parallel thinking.

The punch lines in question don’t seem that difficult to come up with. Plus, the setups of the jokes are different in each case than the “original” joke.

I find it hard to believe that Amy Schumer would find some of these jokes SO amazing that she would steal the punch line and then work backwards to make her premise fit. That’s like getting the answer to a math problem and trying to makeup the formula that would make it make sense; you might figure it out eventually, but it’s not worth it.

There is just so much stand up out there in the world. To assume, or expect, that each comic should have their pulse on all jokes ever told on TV forever is insane. Schumer watches dozens of set a week, and used to listen to many more than that a night when she was starting out. Multiply that times the 12 years she’s been performing and it really adds up.

Let’s say she did hear these jokes 10 years ago and they embedded their way into her subconscious. Then, low and behold, the idea comes out in a brainstorming session in a writer’s room and after many edits the joke still makes it to production. Could you blame her?

The main point of that argument is that the joke “stealing” was done unwittingly. So why are you getting mad at that person? You’re all but admitting it was out of that comic’s control and it was done in their subconscious. Even if Schumer did this, she could still pass a polygraph because in her mind she has no clue she ever heard the material before. So why hold onto the anger?

Even in the plausible scenario of unintentional theft, it’s more likely this joke inception would happen to one of her writers than to her individually. She has too much to lose. Plus, there are more writers working on her show than there are of her. Statistically, the odds are in favor that fault might lie with someone else.

I know one of the writers for Inside Amy Schumer, and he recently wrote on Facebook that Schumer often cuts sketches from the show because she thinks they are too close to someone else’s concept. She is very careful not to put out any content that could even be reminded of someone else’s intellectual property she’s seen before.

It doesn’t matter if it’s basically impossible to prove joke theft. The payoff isn’t worth it regardless. No hard-working comic I know would ever risk it for fear of being labeled a thief. Having that attached to your name is the worse thing a comic could imagine.

I know this because it happened to me this week.

About six years ago I was the victim of parallel thinking. Scratch that, I was the perpetrator of parallel thinking. OK, to put it simply, I told a joke at an open mic and afterward a comic came up to me and said another comedian we knew had a similar joke. Honestly, at first I thought he was being a jerk.

It’s fairly often that female comics are accused of doing similar bits to another female comic’s. Usually, it’s barely related and just another example of how little people actually pay attention to women’s strife. “Oh, so Tori has a joke about having boobs, or sleeping with men or having a period? How bizarre. Me too. It’s like we’re the same person.”

Plus, I found it hard to believe someone had a similar joke to mine. I spoke of two totally separate and specific experiences that had happened to me in my life. I combined the two stories together to make a joke. I didn’t love the punch line I came up with, but with the premise I built, it seemed like the obvious end. I tried to reword it a couple times but settled for my first draft.

Still, the comic who came to me at this open mic was respectful and honest and certain another female comic had the same joke. I decided to go straight to the source. Without explaining I asked her to recite her joke for me.

Though we lead similar lives, both single and somewhat promiscuous dog walkers in New York City, our jokes setups were entirely different. “Ugh,” I thought. “So now I can’t talk about being a dog walker because someone else already does?” But as she finished her joke she said her punch line and it was the same as mine…verbatim. It worked better, and was funnier, but the words were the same.

I was shocked. I wouldn’t have believed it if it didn’t happen to me. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, she apparently didn’t believe it either. After all, she came up with the joke years earlier and had apparently said it many times before.

Just this week I found out that she still always thought I took her joke, even if it was on accident. It was like a punch in the gut when she just told me that.

I couldn’t fault her for being pissed, even though I clearly “turned myself in” and never told the joke again. More so I was caught off guard that she carried that anger with her more than five years later. And I couldn’t help but picturing all the times she probably said: “Joke thief,” whenever someone mentioned my name. It’s a comic’s worst nightmare.

So, I definitely feel for Amy Schumer. I don’t think anyone involved truly believes she purposely stole jokes but yet her head is still on the platter for the public to enjoy. And though I’ve never been in the same boat as Liebman, Pescatelli or Madigan, I can only imagine how infuriating it is to see a younger more successful version of yourself recite material you sculpted a decade earlier. No matter which side you’re on, it’s obvious there’s a lot of misdirected anger without any resolution in sight. Sounds like the good start to any joke.

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