February 26th, 2015 RESET - +
Art is theft.
— Pablo Picasso
BEFORE I HAD anything to say, I had the desire to say something.
No, let me revise that. I had the desire to be heard.
A family legend is that at the age of three I leaped on stage during my brother’s Christmas pageant at his elementary school and launched into an extemporaneous monologue in which I apparently demanded that the audience answer for being in “my mother’s house.” It was my very own toddlerized version of that Dean Martin bit where he steps up to the mic, starts at the sight of the audience, and asks, “How’d you all get in here?”
My God. Even at three I was a plagiarist.
Plagiarism is basic to all culture.— Pete Seeger
Plagiarist. The word is a snake. Writers loathe its greasy venom. All our worst nightmares begin with the accusation of plagiarism. Why? Because it impugns the myth that we are “original” and therefore “special” and “different.” But, even worse, “plagiarist” lives next -door to the accusation we most suspect to be truth: “fraud.”
To further torture the metaphor, “fraud” is a crack house — an urban blight easily cast out because it exists at an extreme so far from most people’s experience. You can always say: “That’s not me, I’m not an addict and a criminal,” and, as long as your shoes, clothes, and teeth are passable, have some benefit of the doubt.
“Plagiarist,” however, is the lawyer’s mansion with the obsessive-compulsively manicured lawn, mirrored hardwood floors, and massive library. “Plagiarist” is a rich and burnished space of unlimited resources, where a methodical investigator — a latter-day George Smiley — has made his fortune exposing everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before he turns his unblinking sight on you.
And the insidiously magnificent thing about the word “plagiarist” — as opposed to, say, “plagiarizer” — is the sinister double implication of mastery and serial offense. There’s something about that -ist at the end. It tops the injury of the accusation off with the insult of “and these are just the ones we’ve caught … but we’re on to you now.”
To this day I suspect, in the darkest corners of my guilty soul, that the cottage industry of quotes from famous writers and intellectuals endorsing some form of theft as the only way to evolve the culture is little else than a great, collective, preemptive strike. I’m reminded of the greatest, and most frequently ignored, truth in the PR business: “Go ugly early.”
“Go ugly early” basically means “Own it before they catch you.”
For example: had Bill Clinton admitted to his infidelities before the media caught on — the strategy goes — the scandal would have been short-circuited by blunt and factual admission. Tawdry speculation dies when perpetrators shine a harsh, specular light on their unpleasant truths and take responsibility.
There’s “plagiarists” and there’s “fucking plagiarists.” The former plagiarize by accident — or at least claim to with plausible deniability — they forgot they heard or read something somewhere and mistook the idea for their own, or skipped a footnote, or maybe they just had the same idea as someone else and are the unwitting victims of fate, and that’s their story, and they are sticking to it. The latter did it on purpose, they know damned well they did it, and they’ll deploy all the same arguments as the former to make sure you never know it.
Of course, not everyone gets away with it.
For the fucking plagiarist, the “early” in “Go ugly early” means “any time before someone else busts you.” Hence, I believe, all the quotes. The more flowery your defense of your own plagiarism before the truth comes out, the better. The more flowery your defense after, the more you come off looking like a fucking douche.
It’s all in the timing, you see.
Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.
— Carl Jung
Twelve years after the “Dean Martin incident,” I was a sophomore in high school. Bringing Great Honor to my people (a line I just stole from Mark Leyner’s bio page in his novel My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist), I was also co-founder and president of “Lunchbox Theater.” Tired of not being cast in our high school drama team productions by a faculty coach who hated the smug sight of me, I worked with another student on the idea of a side project for the school’s drama team.
(Her name was Stacie Ressler, and to this day she’d probably tell you I never gave her enough credit for our joint venture.)
The idea? We would write and perform short plays during the lunch recess, thus giving students the ability to, well … be heard.
Taking the sum of our ideas home, I quickly typed a proposal on my mother’s Royal typewriter, waved it in front of the drama coach’s face, and — based on her most cursory and dismissive wave-off of tentative approval — scheduled a meeting with the school principal to get permission to launch the project.
The meeting with the principal went like gangbusters. By the time our drama coach — a gloriously overworked sexagenarian with a vindictive streak mitigated by her rapidly eroding memory — realized what was going on, our first play, written by yours truly, was in production and the posters announcing the premiere were up in the school hallways.
Score one for the rebels.
This first play was called “Flicks” — and fitting for someone too young to have anything to say — it was about a movie mogul whose work was constantly interrupted by assorted caricatures of “industry types” inasmuch as I understood them. It was essentially a 10-minute vignette of even shorter vignettes taken from my impression of how Hollywood “worked” based on my obsessive viewing of the then-nascent Entertainment Tonight.
To everyone’s surprise but mine (my attempts at publicity included physically pulling people from the school hallway into the auditorium), “Flicks” attracted something of an audience. The smattering of applause we received was ultimate confirmation that my end run around our tyrannical drama coach had been a righteous move. It was also my first taste of that most addicting of sensations — the dragon everyone who puts pen to paper is chasing even if they want you to believe otherwise.
I had been heard.
I was also immediately overtaken by a sense of abject dread. Later in life, as a working television writer, I would come to understand that tensing of the chest as pretty much the normal state of my screenwriting brethren. This was our first show. We had committed to doing one of these plays every other week.
What were we going to do for an encore?
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.
— Jim Jarmusch
At the end of my junior year, I stepped down from the Lunchbox troupe’s leadership and settled into an emeritus role: producing and directing as many short plays as I could write. I could no longer pretend to be an outcast malcontent. I had become a generally popular member of the student body, the co-creator of a popular theater program, and pulling double duty as features editor of the school paper.
Even better, our new drama coach turned out to be an extraordinarily supportive mentor with a remarkable way of simultaneously encouraging me, giving me enough rope to hang myself, and calling me out on my general stupidity and arrogance.
I even went on a few dates and acquired written proof that at least one girl at the school found me “very handsome.”
By the time Huron High School released me, Lunchbox Theater had become an institution that would go on for almost a decade and a half after my graduation, and the yearly “Lunchbox Theater Festival” — which I had inaugurated after our second year — had become something of a highlight of the school year.
Moreover, other teachers started to pay attention to our little island of misfit toys … one of them was impressed enough by my leadership and the sheer volume of my output to nominate me for a scholarship from the National Council of Teachers of English. Another one of my teachers wrote a college letter of recommendation I aspire to live up to pretty much every day.
The xeroxed 8.5-by-11” posters of my accomplishments hung proudly on my childhood bedroom wall alongside posters for Lucas and Spielberg films. The titles of my plays were as silly as adolescence: “Flicks,” “Suburban Life,” “Table Talk,” “The Incredible Frampster,” “King Rex,” “Son of Rex,” “The Date,” “The Incredible Adventures of the Intrepid Teddy Potsdorf,” “Son of the Incredible Adventures of the Intrepid Teddy Potsdorf.”
Out of that collection, point your attention to title number two: “Table Talk.”
That’s my original sin. The act of plagiarism that defines my self-concept to this day. It is the smoking gun whose discovery I have spent three decades fearing.
I don’t think that you saw me do those jokes and said, “I’m going to tell those jokes, too.” I don’t think there’s a world where you’re that stupid. Or that bad a guy. […] I do think, though, that you’re like […] a rocket […] and your engines are sucking stuff up. Stuff is getting sucked up in your engines, like birds and bugs and some of my jokes. I think you saw me do them. I know you saw me do them, and I think they just went in your brain, and I don’t think you meant to do it, but I don’t think you stopped yourself either.
— “Louie” to “Dane Cook” fictionally addressing real-world accusations of plagiarism of Louis CK’s material by Cook. From the episode “Oh Louie/Tickets” of Louie
These are the facts:
On May 15 of 1982, the third-to-last sketch of Saturday Night Live was a two-hander entitled “Table Talk.”
The premise: cast member Tony Rosato played a rough-around-the-edges vulgarian food critic using a first-person, break-the-fourth-wall monologue to teach the audience how to defraud good restaurants of their wine. A less-than-competent waiter served as his foil. The sketch ended with Rosato telling the audience to tune in next week when he would teach them how to “stuff an entire salad bar into a doggie bag.”
Sometime in 1986, I wrote a short play about a stuck-up, manners-obsessed restaurant critic using a first-person, break-the-fourth-wall monologue to teach the audience the make-up of a perfect meal and the way a proper restaurant ought to go about serving it. The critic’s monologue was continually interrupted by such digressions as a noisy family with children, a tacky lounge singer on a date with a cheesy divorcée, and a Cuban hijacker with multiple personality disorder bent on redirecting the restaurant to Havana. An incompetent waiter and grotesquely stereotypical French maître d’ — who was more than a little derivative of John Cleese in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — served as his foils.
“Table Talk” was performed three times by Lunchbox Theater: it premiered during a lunchtime recess in the fall semester and was subsequently revived as a curtain-raiser for the drama team’s spring production, and for the year-end festival. During my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, I convinced the extracurricular drama club to perform the play in one of the school’s restaurants.
“Table Talk” had its swan song in 1992 when the Flaming Gorilla Company — a troupe I formed with my friends to perform new work during the summers between college semesters — decided to go out with a bang by making our last-ever production a charity event/nostalgia fest for our high school theater company: “The Original Lunchbox Theater Festival.”
By the time this final production came around, “Table Talk” had metastasized to include the scene-stealing addition of an explosively flatulent restaurant patron.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
— T. S. Eliot
I have a great memory — maybe not photographic, but definitely classical realist. I can’t tell you with a straight face that I didn’t remember I hadn’t seen the SNL sketch when I sat down to write my “Table Talk” on that Royal typewriter at two in the morning on a dateless Friday night. That would be a lie.
Yes. I knew it. It’s why I went out of my way to write something radically different. I even considered changing the title to “Dinner Mints” because I realized in the forefront of my mind that, while I found the alliterative title positively beguiling, it would — quite rightfully — raise the dreaded specter of plagiarism.
To this day, I wish I had. I also wonder if I would be a different person for it.
The one thing I can’t figure out no matter how hard I rack my brain is whether I was a dumb kid who just sort of figured “who the hell has ever heard of this Saturday Night Live show anyway,” or whether I believed that I had changed so much of the structure and content of what I had seen that I convinced myself the title wasn’t going to matter …
Or whether I perversely reasoned that I had earned the right to keep the title because I had made so many “improvements” on the concept.
There are dark places in the mind that stubbornly resist the effort to excavate the irritating artifact whose removal will provide relief. Or maybe it’s just that there is no artifact and no relief is possible.
Maybe I just wanted to be heard.
I do know this: after the play went up for the first time, a girl on whom I harbored a massive crush asked me if I had ever seen a similarly themed sketch on Saturday Night Live a few years before. I denied all knowledge.
Before that, when my friends would call me out on quoting Monty Python or SCTV too liberally — which, by the way, was invariably — or whether I had invented my superhero “Galactic Cow” in the sixth grade not just out of a bovine obsession born of multiple childhood trips to my great uncle Vicente’s dairy farm, but also a misguided admiration of the Ted Knight sitcom Too Close for Comfort, I would generally sheepishly cop to it and go on my way without much moral injury. But this was somehow different. Nixonian levels of denial were the only way to go.
Frankly, I wish I had admitted to it and either retitled or withdrawn the play altogether, because I now believe it was at that moment — and not when I conceived of the possibility of making a thing taking themes from a sketch I had seen on a show one time — that I truly shamed myself.
I was a plagiarist already — but that’s the moment I became a fucking plagiarist.
All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?
— William S. Burroughs
In the mid-aughts, then–Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan received what was widely reported as a half-million-dollar-plus contract for a novel she wrote in high school — How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life — and a projected sequel. The real-life story was sensational headline-bait: a high-achieving young woman of color writing an exceptional book about her coming-of-age experiences and getting richly rewarded for her hard work.
High-profile agents at William Morris and a movie deal followed.
Until the entire shitbox came crashing down when it was revealed that many passages of Viswanathan’s book bore a striking resemblance to the work of well-established and respected YA novelist Megan McCafferty.
Several excruciating months of accusations, denials, and outright class warfare followed. The color of her skin aside, Viswanathan’s “superhero origin story” was chock-full of signifiers of wealth and privilege: her parents, both physicians, had spent thousands to hire an “admissions coach” to help her get into Harvard, and it was this person who first recognized her literary genius. Cowed resignation followed, Viswanathan was duly, and — my waggish tone notwithstanding — rightfully, shamed.
Her book was pulled from the shelves and pulped.
By the time the dust settled and all the online and mainstream media outlets had their way with the carcass, Viswanathan had been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to have not only lifted passages from McCafferty’s novels Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, but also from Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret?, and even Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The Collective Detective — that legion of crime-busting journalists professional and amateur, armed with Google, PDFs, searchable ebook editions of the Western canon — had judged her not just a plagiarist, but a fucking plagiarist.
In her own defense, Viswanathan claimed that, yes, she had read those books, but that as she wrote her novel, she truly believed that she was writing her own voice and experience. Further along the line, she also explained that — because she does in fact have a photographic memory — it was quite possible that, in the rush of creation, her prodigious mental capacity did too good a job of transposing her experience of reading into those places where the words corresponded to her experience of life.
While calling “bullshit” may seem to be the only reasonable response to Viswanathan’s protestation — followed by a snide comment about how, even in contrition, Viswanathan just couldn’t stop herself from bragging about her prodigious gifts — I must admit I don’t find it entirely implausible.
When I was in the ninth grade, a substitute music teacher suggested to our choir that the way to “get good” at anything creative was to mimic the work of the masters. He even gave the example of how, when he was our age and learning his craft, he played his clarinet along to Benny Goodman records — matching Goodman note for note — until he achieved proficiency.
Now, I’d love to sell you on the notion that my “misunderstanding” of this kind man’s generous advice is what led to my own crimes — or that it in some way exonerates Viswanathan — but that would be unfair to him, and would let everyone off the hook way too easily. No, I need his words to make another point entirely that does not exonerate me in any way, but rather to ask a question …
How does a zygotic writer “play along to Benny Goodman?”
Around the same time as the Viswanathan scandal, another writer — Cassandra Clare — emerged from a shit storm of often scathing online criticism to publish her first novel, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Clare’s previous incarnation had been as a popular writer of Harry Potter fan fiction. Like much other fanfic, her work was chock-full of “meta” in the form of lines of dialogue and plot points referencing other fantasy properties.
In Clare’s case, the Collective Detective appeared to be convinced that her fan fiction lifted the form and structure of an entire chapter from another fantasy novel for her own uses as well. Unlike Viswanathan, Clare answered her critics early and often — claiming that the echoes of the work of others in hers were an act of homage on her part. To the many who vociferously continue to make the detracting case online, Clare’s fanfic committed acts of straight-up plagiarism. To her, and her defenders, it simply did what is an essential component of fanfic: to conflate, aggregate, and flatter its influences through quotation.
Clare had the last laugh on her online critics. Her book series — which is unrelated to her Harry Potter fan fiction other than in being a fantasy portrayal of young people grappling with their entrance into a “hero’s journey” paradigm of magic and questing — has become a publishing phenomenon. Multiple sequels, prequels and equals — as well as a movie — followed. A TV series is currently in the works.
Viswanathan went on to law school, where she excelled academically, landed an enviable summer associate position, and presumably continues to flourish. A tragic footnote to her journey is that when her parents perished in an airplane crash in 2011, the story gained some news-cycle traction because of her notoriety.
Do a Google search and imagine yourself in the shoes of someone whose mother’s and father’s sudden and horrible passing at a young age (both were early fifties) was widely reported as the death of the parents of Harvard plagiarist Kaavya Viswanathan.
People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favor.
I followed the Viswanathan plagiarism scandal with great interest, and great dread.
As the Collective Detective pulled apart Viswanathan’s novel, finding all of her legitimate lifts from other authors, I couldn’t help but ask myself a question. What young person’s creative work — even one without such flagrant steals — could possibly hide its influences against that level of fine-toothed scrutiny?
Between high school and college, I wrote or co-wrote some 26 pieces for the stage including one-acts, a full-length play, and the book for a musical. I wrote a weekly column for my college paper, and occasionally contributed movie reviews and an additional editorial column. I even sent back dispatches from a semester in London. I also performed two one-man monologue shows. How is that level of output not going to, in some way, reflect every idea that came over the transom?
Hell, my entire adolescent psyche was an act of intellectual plagiarism made in rehearsal for something that would eventually become an adult life — and I dare you, dear reader, to claim that anything you did in your formative years was anything different.
If you read my journals, you will find a boy who was certain that he would spend a lifetime upholding the undeniable and enduring value of post-structuralism by way of Eco and Baudrillard … followed by the undeniable and enduring value of Sartrean Existentialism … and then Camusian Existentialism, and then Brechtian Marxism vis-à-vis the theater audience as a metaphor for humanity at large, and then Liberation Theology, and then Ayn Randian Objectivism, and — by the end of my senior year of college — morose and resigned Orwellian truth-telling socialism.
I was playing along with Benny Goodman, and the varied institutions responsible for my growth and development threw Benny Goodmans at me as fast as I could listen to their LPs.
Unlike Viswanathan, I had the good fortune of not having anything I wrote mistaken for mature professional work and bought for a fortune. I had the lucky break of not being covered as a phenom by the world press. I had the privilege of not being the voice of my race, class, or generation in any way whatsoever. What I was given was space to experiment, and — most importantly — fail.
Which I did. Often.
I was also lucky for the tutelage of a legion of patient teachers and peers who sometimes by honest criticism and guidance, and others by open derision, forced me to find my own voice as opposed to borrowing those of others. Or at least borrowing without citing.
That’s right. Somewhere in that unconscionably protracted period of gestation, even this slow learner caught on to that truth to which the entire world expects all true writers to be born — because it’s clearly a one-strike-and-you’re-out offense.
“Thou shalt not be a fucking plagiarist.”
It was for the best that it took so long for me to learn this lesson, and even longer to gain some proficiency and become a professional in my field. As any legitimate prodigy will tell you — accused beneficiary of “nepotism” Lena Dunham comes to mind — being anointed “child genius” and given a showy and much-publicized financial boon for preternaturally brilliant work is the world’s biggest “kick me” sign. Few are hated more than the young, gifted, and perceived as unfairly munificent.
And woe betide the ones lacking the cunning to cover their sins adequately, because these days, the judges, juries, and executioners all have Google.
As for Cassandra Clare, if she did, in fact commit acts beyond mere homage, they all took place in the gray-market world of fanfic, which is not for profit, not covered by mainstream media, and has only recently led a very selected few to mass-market glory (as evidenced by E. L. James, who pioneered her blockbusting Fifty Shades of Grey series as Twilight fanfic, and Clare herself).
The difference between plagiarism and fucking plagiarism, it seems, has as much to do with context, intent, venue, and — some would say most importantly — the material gains, as it does the act itself.
Though Clare suffered a great deal of madness, rage, and abuse from a large segment of the Harry Potter online fan community, she wasn’t exposed to the world at large by journalists, nor was she publicly stripped of her contracts, and labeled a plagiarist by The New York Times and others to the point where the indictment would go so far as become the lede in the story of her parents’ death. Clare did, apparently, change the spelling of her last name from “Claire” and deleted her fanfic from the web, presumably in order to avoid lingering associations between her “profic” career and the controversies of her previous incarnation.
Clare was smart, or lucky — or both, or neither — to do all her throat-clearing, rehearsals for prolificity, and playing along with Benny Goodman in a world where the watchers are limited to fandom, the financial stakes don’t get you labeled the Mozart of the YA world and put a target on your back, and — at the end of the day — you are still playing in someone else’s sandbox and are not liable unless you turn a profit without permission. It wasn’t until she had earned her thick hide — and, presumably, the ability to mask her influences appropriately — that Clare moved into the mainstream world of Urban Fantasy. Whatever she did or didn’t do took place during a productive but still gestational moment in her writing career.
Of course these are all excuses. Nothing exonerates me for “Table Talk.”
I am still a fucking plagiarist.
If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.
— Wilson Mizner
Plagiarism may be the only crime in which the cover-up ultimately generates far more profit for the perpetrator than the stolen object.
One of the more interesting aspects of getting my start as a television writer in the pre–Second Golden Era TV of the 1990s was getting to work with a number of people who had cut their teeth back when television was REALLY disreputable: the 1970s and ’80s.
Aside from getting the general impression that TV in the ’80s was essentially Mad Men with cocaine, I found many of my superiors to have a very interesting attitude toward … well, if not plagiarism, at least appropriation.
Among the older generation of executive and co-executive producers, the guys who had worked for Stephen J. Cannell, Glen Larson, and their ilk, the running joke was “television is the original derivative medium.”
Among the younger writer/producers occupying mid-level positions — the people with whom a rookie writer like myself had the most contact — there was a general disdain for the old guard. Many of these upstarts, who later did, in fact, help bring about the current Golden Age, saw themselves as renegades eager to wrest TV from thieving forebears.
A great deal of their contempt found voice in accusations of plagiarism and fraud. The most salient accusation was always thrown at “this guy who worked at Cannell.”
To this day, no one has conclusively told me who “this guy” was, even though I have heard the story told several times. I sometimes wonder if “this guy who worked at Cannell” was the TV equivalent of “this girl I met at summer camp.”
Anyway, “this guy” was legendary for setting up his 22-episode seasons of television by writing on a white board a list of all the classic films he wanted to rip off that year and handing out the titles as assignments to his staff.
Of course, the guys who told the story about “this guy who worked at Cannell” always portrayed themselves as shocked and horrified by the blatant plagiarism. At the same time, they gladly took the paycheck to write “the Die Hard episode” or “the Rashomon episode,” and, of course, the hardy perennial, “The Most Dangerous Game episode.” God knows I have.
One thing was always clear — even if on occasion we in the rank and file are forced to do the bidding of a hack showrunner who has no scruples about being a fucking plagiarist — those of us who tell the story of “this guy” are never the hacks or the thieves. That’s the point of the tale. It’s a totemic object of immunity, like on Survivor. The dishy tale of “this guy” is a shibboleth that alights to others that we too are in the fraternity of Those Who Know Better.
That’s why it’s always someone else. That’s why it’s “this guy who worked at Cannell.” We’re not the thieves. We are the ones who are self-aware and self-referential. We’re the ones who excoriate the thieves and occasionally bear with gritted teeth the stark and unpleasant necessities of our trade. We are the ones who say clever things in the writers room like “yes, you’ve seen it before, but not with these actors” and “that idea is so brilliant I have NO choice but to steal it and claim it for my own” while we bide our time until we can call the shots and chisel True Original Stories from the living rock of our beloved medium.
Inside every writer lives the fantasy that our worst and most derivative work is the result of someone else’s influence. Happenstance may occasionally make plagiarists out of us … but we sure as shit ain’t fucking plagiarists.
It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.
— Jean-Luc Godard
I will always remember my first year in TV as the one in which not one but three major network television shows flagrantly ripped off John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The venerable The X-Files — currently, though erroneously, thought to be above such shenanigans — even went as far as to stage their episodic riff on Carpenter’s paranoid tale of serial possession by an alien parasite found in the ice near a desolate arctic ice station in … well … an arctic ice station.
They even titled the episode “Ice.”
Coming in second was seaQuest DSV and … well … that program actually ripped off The Thing twice in the same season. Apparently, the series’s warring showrunners each had the same brainstorm individually, and then refused to budge on who would withdraw the script written without the other’s knowledge. In one, the cause of the possession of successive crew members was a helmet from the lost continent of Atlantis, in the other, an ancient chest found in an undersea mining colony.
Coming in third was Earth 2, which substituted an alien parasite found in the ice for … well, an alien parasite found in the ice.
The ugly truth of the matter is this: as respectable as television may have become in the last 20 years, showrunners still have to produce a fuckton of hours of entertainment. When the beast must be fed at regular intervals on pain of death, the real test of originality is how far you can stretch the trope until it’s no longer recognizable as the trope — preferably while finding some sort of resonant human context to which a broadcast audience of millions of all races, creeds, and colors can relate.
When a show becomes popular and produces 22 hours a year — for many years — those who love the show ultimately remember the characters, the great moments they shared, and the few truly standout stories in the overall narrative miasma. Few of the fans — even at their most obsessive-compulsive — actually remember that the individual story of the episode in which their beloved weekly visitors first kissed, or had some other such watershed moment, was probably something as hackneyed as the “Most Dangerous Game episode.”
The amusing truth of the matter is this: often — especially in a mature career in a medium with six decades of mass visibility — you will hear a pitch that is derivative of something that was, itself, derivative of something else that the pitcher is not aware of. More than once I have heard a younger writer say, “Do you remember that old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Riker passes out in the teaser and wakes up 16 years later as captain of the Enterprise, but he can’t remember anything … and he cleverly realizes that his amnesia is really a Romulan ruse to get him to give up sensitive information?” only to be shocked when told, “Yeah, it was a takeoff from an even older James Garner movie — based on a Roald Dahl short story — where he’s an Allied spy who passes out before the D-Day invasion, wakes up in a U.S. Army Hospital six years later, and can’t remember anything, then cleverly realizes that his amnesia is a German ruse to extract from him the location of the invasion.”
Derivation is the air we breathe.
And yet there’s “Table Talk.”
We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.
— Saul Bellow
As I walked off the Emmy stage into the dark backstage of the Shrine Auditorium with the cast of Lost and my fellow writer/producers after earning the award for Best Drama, I entertained the thought of how quickly and easily all of this could be taken away from me if anyone found out — and decided to make a Viswanathanian stink about — “Table Talk.”
It wasn’t anomalous for me to entertain that thought at the time. I have dined with that unwelcome guest on the average of three to six times a day, every day, for the past thirty years (alongside other, better known, hits from the depressives’ jukebox, including the classics “I hate myself and I want to die” and “oh God, oh God, why was I born such a revolting troll?”).
“Table Talk” was produced at my university. Even if it was extracurricular — for no school grade or profit — the production was funded by a student activities fee levied on every one of the school’s attendees. How do I know the administration won’t take back my degree after reading this?
How do I know that the National Council of Teachers of English couldn’t retroactively rescind the scholarship that sent me there?
How do I know that when the sixth episode of the second season of Helix — the show on which I have toiled as a co-executive producer for the past two years — hits the air, someone isn’t going to think that my use of the line “this is a cleansing moment of clarity,” my little homage to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, is now beyond the pale in the context of these confessions?
How do I know that the very act of putting these thoughts to keyboard won’t result in some sort of archaeological examination of my life’s work leading to the final determination that — as a fucking plagiarist — I am essentially unfit to continue doing the only thing I have ever wanted to do?
How do I know that someone isn’t going to figure that the time has come to gut this son of a bitch once and for all?
There’s no negotiating with plagiarists, Dubbie — you take credit for a man’s ideas, you rob his spirit!
— “The Middleman,” from the episode “The Boy-Band Superfan Interrogation” of the television series The Middleman, written by Jordan Rosenberg, created by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
In 2006, Marvel Comics asked me to create a new hero. All they wanted was to name the character “Wraith,” as they owned the name. I came up with the idea of a space zombie — a dead man whose body was reanimated by an alien entity that remains symbiotically bonded to his skin and consumes the souls of others: a power that the grimly revenge-obsessed Wraith occasionally used to vanquish his foes.
Wraith was the Man with No Name in space. At first I loved him in all of his goth glory — I was certain I had created Wolverine by way of The Dark Knight for the Hot Topic set. When I talked to my editor about the character during the heady early days of the project, we were so excited that we even schemed to see Wraith become one of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” (a comic series that was about to be relaunched in the publishing event of which Wraith was part) in much the same way that Spider-Man had once joined the Fantastic Four.
That was until I told a high school friend about Wraith’s oil-slick black body-suit and poncho-like cloak, his pale skin, white hair, and the polymorphous weapon (sometimes it was a sword, sometimes it was a raygun) he wielded with all his might … and he quickly convinced me that I had ripped off Michael Moorcock’s Elric.
Okay: to be fair, he didn’t “convince” me. He only dropped the suggestion in my mind — and my immediate response was to exasperatedly shriek, “I’ve never read Elric!”
And it was legit. I never had. Seriously — I have, as I’ve said, a classical-realist memory and I’d definitely remember reading a whole series of novels about the ultraviolent adventures of a soul-sucking albino goth. And, frankly, if I were to rip off Elric, I would have done more to cover my goddamn tracks than putting the motherfucker in space and changing the color of his eyes from red to black.
But all I could think about was “Table Talk.” All I could think about was wanting to make my mark once and for all without being a fucking plagiarist.
On the verge of a full-blown nervous breakdown, I spent a sleepless night doing all the internet research I could on Moorcock’s Melnibonéan fantasy stories, trying to figure out how I might have known them — and combing my own library for clues as to how I might have come up with an idea so derivative of someone else’s work. I became convinced that this was not “Table Talk” all over again, but something far more insidious: a criminal impulse that had, having been tamped down over time, now taken up residence in my unconscious mind.
By the time I called my editor the following morning — pure confession in my now ragged and sleep-deprived voice, convinced that this was the moment of my final unveiling — and told him the entire project had to be scrapped, I had also convinced myself that I had ripped off everyone from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice to Dan Simmons.
Of course, the first thing my editor asked was, “Have you even read Elric?” I replied, “Absolutely not!” and that was kind of that. Actually, that wasn’t kind of that — I spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince this poor man that I am a fucking plagiarist. But he just wasn’t having it.
Duly talked off the ledge, I hung up the phone and quickly decided that my world-class meltdown had probably just destroyed both the character’s and my own long-term future in comics. Well, the freak-out, but also the truth that I had managed to create an utterly derivative character all by myself.
To this day, when the phone rings from Marvel Comics — usually in the form of a young and newly installed editor who likes my work from a few years back and thinks it’d be nifty to collaborate — I open the conversation by asking, “Are you sure you want to work with me? You do know I’m crazy, right?”
It’s self-fulfillingly self-destructive, I know. But everyone deserves fair warning.
I’m not gonna sit here and plead not guilty. […] If you watch comedy eight hours a day, something will register, and it’ll come out. And if it happened, I said, “I apologize. I’ll pay you for this.” But I wasn’t going out of my way to go fucking grave robbing. ’Cause if you’re on top, they’re gonna look for your ass. […] And there’s lots of people who took entire mannerisms from me. It’s not something I can get mad about. It’s flattery. It’s great. When it happens the other way around, you’re just supposed to smile.
— Robin Williams, Rolling Stone magazine, February 21, 1991
It makes perfect sense that my childhood idol was dogged by allegations of plagiarism for much of his professional life.
But you know what I truly loved about Robin Williams? The thing he did that freed my mind and inspired me to be something other than who I was? It was how his turbo-charged brain combined and recombined disparate elements into a cohesive absurdist whole.
The Byzantinely circular, free-associative part of Robin Williams’s early, cocaine-fueled work (even though at the time I wouldn’t have known cocaine from lemon/lime Tang) was to me what punk rock, a skateboard, and hand-painted Doc Martens were to my way-cooler contemporaries.
Williams’s pioneering collage-and-remix bits — like “Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen,” the “Soviet Suppressions” that kicked off his album Reality, What a Concept, his Shakespeare pastiche (“the moon, like a testicle, hangs low in the sky!”), the digressive riff where he goes to the prom on acid (“No, Mr. Smith, I’ll have Becky back in this dimension real soon! Wings! We’ve got to get those snakes coming out of your eyes fixed!”), or even how he once greeted a swell of applause from the audience by shouting “GIVE US BARABBAS!” — hit me with the force of shattering cosmic revelation. All his flights of illogical, yet comedically sensical, and emotionally real, insanity made me feel like I was watching a kindred soul broadcasting Truth from a far more advanced place on the spectrum of consciousness.
Robin Williams’s comedy explained the world with the same labyrinthine framework with which I understood popular culture: speed, juxtaposition, and incongruity.
He spoke the way I processed the then-nascent 100-channel universe — where the still-standing UHF channels routinely programmed Hazel in close proximity to Ultraman, in close proximity to scrambled, pre-internet softcore, and a new thing called MTV featured five-minute programs of constantly changing genre 24 hours a day.
In every creator’s life there is one icon in the culture who seems to reach out from the television screen, or the stage or page, or the hi-fi speaker, and says, “I make a living using the skills you hope to someday develop — it’s okay for you to move ahead, it can be done.” Even though it was George Lucas and Star Wars that made me want to tell stories for a living, it was Robin Williams — even though he was a comic and I desired to be something very different — who showed me how I wanted to tell those stories.
Before you think all the hand-wringing confession that has gone before this was merely a Trojan Horse into yet another think piece about our postmodern condition of sampling, ripping, appropriating, and recontextualizing, let me make one thing absolutely clear. Robin Williams stole jokes: it wasn’t cool, he eventually copped to it, and I consider that example with the same weight as I do what I learned from his rapid-fire comedic stylings.
The reason I bring up Robin Williams is not just to expiate the piece of my psyche on the table, but to suggest that there is another, gentler part of my consciousness that, on occasion, whispers — in a pacifying Jeff Bridges–like drawl — something along the lines of “Duuude … go a little easy on yourself, lest you forget, your childhood idol committed suicide … and that Marvel thing’s kinda nuts!”
Why shouldn’t I be a little more forgiving of the venal sins of my teenaged self?
Seriously, I live in a media universe in which a man who is arguably the most influential filmmaker of the past thirty years emerged from widespread accusations that his first film Reservoir Dogs was lifted lock-stock-and-barrel from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong New Wave film City on Fire …
A director whose last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, literally include in their very names the titles of the pulp war film and spaghetti western that served as partial inspirations (The Inglorious Bastards and Django … and interestingly, the latter was subject to countless rip-offs due to its own success, all bearing the “Django” name in the title) …
Indeed, for the vast majority of my adult life, Quentin Tarantino — whose mastery of collage is, to be fair, matched only by his peerless ability with dialogue and scene structure — has been one of if not THE standard-bearer for art and innovation in screenwriting. That alone says more than a million online think pieces about our culture of appropriation.
So why can’t I stop hating myself and forgive myself for being a fucking plagiarist?
There are dark places in the mind that stubbornly resist the effort to excavate the irritating artifact whose removal will provide relief. Or maybe it’s just that there is no artifact and no relief is possible.
Or maybe I just want to be heard.
Or maybe it’s something even worse. Something that is equal parts mercenary and pathetic.
Don’t quote other movies. Don’t tell a story someone else could tell better.
— Wim Wenders
A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party.
A mutual acquaintance — a fledgling writer who has yet to land her first gig on a television series — tells me about the various jobs she has taken to make ends meet until her ship comes in. One of the more recent ones was at least fun because it required her to watch TV for a paycheck.
That sounds cool. I ask her to tell me more. She explains that she spent several months watching and transcribing broadcast materials, and writing summaries, for an app commemorating Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary.
The app’s main selling point? On-demand access to every sketch ever performed by the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players and their assorted descendants.
I emit the closest I will ever come to that horrible cliché, the audible gulp.
She smiles, trying to read me. To her, this conversation is about little else than the scope of her work in what was a transiently pleasurable temporary occupation. My mood turns a deeper shade with each passing word as I try to maintain my outward composure. I choke back the black bile rapidly gathering in my throat.
I return home from the party, head for my computer, and type the words “I am a fucking plagiarist.”
Time to go ugly early.
As we manipulate everyday words, we forget that they are fragments of ancient and eternal stories, that we are building our houses with broken pieces of sculptures and ruined statues of gods.
— Bruno Schulz
I’d like to share something with you. Something I learned exactly 48 hours ago when I began researching this piece.
On January 24, 1976 — four years before I immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico … years before the widespread availability of cable television would have allowed me to watch American network TV in my homeland … long before I’d hear the words “Saturday Night Live,” or “Robin Williams” … a full 18 months before the world premiere of Star Wars, much less its run in Spanish-language theaters … and six years before the broadcast of the sketch that moved me to become a fucking plagiarist — the sixth sketch of the 11th episode of the first season of Saturday Night Live featured guest hosts Dudley Moore and Peter Cook performing one of their celebrated comedy routines from the ’60s.
The premise? A food critic attempts to interview the incompetent proprietor of a truly horrible restaurant with hilarious consequences.
The sketch was titled “Table Talk.”
Don’t shoot a western if you don’t like horses.
— Wim Wenders