Yesterday morning, Marc Maron used the top of his ever-popular WTF podcast to open up a fiery conversation on the accusations of joke theft that have been hurled at Amy Schumer in the last week. For around 20 minutes, he addresses the men — and he clearly identifies them as men — whom he sees as gleefully attempting to shred Schumer to ribbons while she sits at the apex of her career.
If you missed it, Maron memorably labels those behind the campaign against Schumer “an army of unfuckable hate nerds” whom he sees as having “verbally career-raped” her. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: He goes on to point out the inherent lunacy of expecting comedians to never overlap ideas while regularly checking their jokes against every tidbit of comedy that’s ever existed in human history.
But beyond defending Schumer, whom he calls “a real fucking comic,“ Maron uses the conversation to drill into what he sees as the heart of the matter: rampant, unchecked misogyny. To put it plainly, he says, “This is about annihilating a woman… a comedian.”
As a feminist and a comedian, I’m happy to hear a conversation like this opened up, especially by Maron (who, granted, can indulge in his fair share of naval-gazing and ranting for ranting’s sake). But let’s spend a minute on the joke-stealing issue, which, while tricky to parse, is certainly nothing new. World-famous standups are primed for attacks, justified or not, given their visibility and influence. But to boil down Schumer’s situation, as Maron does, into an ethos that essentially says most joke-theft accusations are almost entirely bullshit, shuts down an important conversation about what happens when comedians put their creative efforts out into the world.
Behind Maron’s rage lies the fact that joke overlap and theft both happen, all the time. There are numerous examples of gross thievery that rightfully needed calling out, as when a small-time standup in Iowa performed whole chunks of Patton Oswalt’s material on stage as his own, including his near-historic KFC Famous Bowls bit. A recording eventually made its way to Oswalt, who thoughtfully called out the comic and reminded him, “I worked very hard on those jokes. I honed them night after night.” There are also the cases of Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia, who were rightfully made into near pariahs in the comedy community for their rampant joke theft pointed out by their hard-working peers.
Schumer is as real-deal a comic as they come, unlike the poor schmuck in Iowa. Whether you like her comedy or not, she has a longstanding record of writing and performing her own material. Like Maron points out, the likelihood of her willfully stealing material likely has more to do with shared perspective (e.g. working alongside Patrice O'Neal) and/or collaboratively written material (e.g. the jokes on her sketch show).
Over the years I’ve been performing and watching comedy at the UCB Theatre in L.A., I’ve seen best friends come up with the same sketches independently and laugh about it over beers afterward. Improv shows regularly regurgitate the same scenes so much that experienced players will roll their eyes when they see them trotted out for the zillionth time. And I’ve seen a sketch turn up on Saturday Night Live in nearly the same form as it appeared at UCB with no clear through line tracing back to the original writer. But at the end of the day, there are comedy tropes that will rise again and again, executed with new flourishes to differentiate them.
It’s also important to note that improv is not sketch and sketch is not stand-up, where success is hard-won by individual perseverance and the ability to stand out from the crowd with undeniable charisma. While there are talented comedians who overlap in these comedic worlds, they require different skillsets and experience. But looking at the vastness of these adjacent comedic realms only points further to the fact that idea overlap will exist inside and between them.
This doesn’t mean we stop policing joke thieves. On the contrary, it’s important to remember that people in positions of influence and success can and sometimes do take advantage of those still working their way up, even if Schumer is being wrongly accused. While Maron’s defense opens up a necessary discussion of women in positions of power in comedy, his frothy anger over the issue also makes it hard to talk about any grey area existing between what he sees as “right” and “wrong.” I think it’s fair to acknowledge it’s more nuanced than he might feel, though asking listeners to look for ugly patterns in society — especially as they relate to women — is always something I can get behind.
Schumer, for her part, has handled the controversy with her usual wit and intelligence, cracking jokes on social media while addressing the conversation head-on in interviews. Not long after Monday’s episode of WTF went up, Schumer simply tweeted, “@marcmaron I don’t know how to thank you. Thank you.”
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