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June 14, 2013 1:01 PM   Subscribe

A Closed Letter To Myself About Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes - Patton Oswalt
posted by nadawi (103 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bring me the head of the man who stole from Blackie Green. Stargoyle will sup on eyeballs tonight!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:19 PM on June 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I was just reading this. Is there actually a widespread perception that "all comedians steal"? That's never even occurred to me.
posted by eugenen at 1:21 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hear that Blackie's charisma score is reasonably high. I can't recall how high, exactly, but it's up there.
posted by Shepherd at 1:25 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was a great article. I really appreciate his acknowledgement that rape culture exists and feminists aren't just humourless killjoys.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:26 PM on June 14, 2013 [20 favorites]


Okay, he has redeemed himself in my opinion after what I considered to be a privileged, whiny reaction back when the whole thing went down.

The only thing I take issue with is the idea that Daniel Tosh might find rape culture as horrifying as Lenny Bruce found racism, or that he could be as smart about skewering it. Daniel Tosh? Really?

Other than that though, Bravo Mr. Oswalt. I will no longer grimace when I see you on my TV.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 1:32 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I was just reading this. Is there actually a widespread perception that "all comedians steal"? That's never even occurred to me.

It seemed to come up a lot during the recent Pastor dustup, and Oswalt butted heads quite a bit with a poetry professor who kept asserting that sentiment in defense of the plagiarizing Pastor.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:32 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending. Blaine and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Blaine and I to watch.

Alright, let's get a name named up in here.
posted by anazgnos at 1:35 PM on June 14, 2013 [27 favorites]


I think "all comedians steal" is up there with "it's just computers, some college kid could fix that" and "I'm not a parent, but..." It's also the sort of thing that people who aren't comedians use to justify their own borrowing of that same material, or just other people's material (I knew a guy in college who would tell you your own story back to your face as if it was his own. That Guy.).

In fact, every viewpoint I’ve read on this, especially from feminists, is simply asking to kick upward, to think twice about who is the target of the punchline, and make sure it isn’t the victim.

I'm so glad to hear Oswalt, who frustrated me so badly that I actually @replied him several times on the topic even though that's a) pointless and b) embarrassing since all my actual friends follow him too and saw it, finally get it. And "kick upward" is a great phrase. Don't take the cheap shot, if you're so sure you can tackle a difficult subject. Reach.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:42 PM on June 14, 2013 [23 favorites]


And just because I find rape disgusting, and have never had that impulse, doesn’t mean I can make a leap into the minds of women and dismiss how they feel day to day, moment to moment, in ways both blatant and subtle, from other men, and the way the media represents the world they live in, and from what they hear in songs, see in movies, and witness on stage in a comedy club.

Well, okay, this is a great thing to read from him.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:43 PM on June 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


Alright, let's get a name named up in here.

I am dying to know. DYING.
posted by custardfairy at 1:58 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


So apparently Oswalt's closed letter/improved understanding of the situation was partially influenced by Lindy West's experience talking about the rape joke problem, including a recent television appearance.

Her screenshots of some of the Twitter comments are NSFW if screenshots of really awful language are a problem for you at work.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:59 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think "all comedians steal" is up there with "it's just computers, some college kid could fix that" and "I'm not a parent, but..."

Yeah, I was watching the Pastor Debacle play out over twitter for the last month or so, and I think that in all three cases he mentions, the theft isn't even based on malice so much as a vague notion that jokes somehow just arise from the ether, rather than being the product of talent, work, and luck.

Coupled with that, I think, is an inherent problem in capitalism, which is that so much of what its subjects we think of as "worthwhile" is measurable in money or the ability to create money. So one of the other common refrains among the Pastor's defenders was "oh, but he's not making money off this or anything, what's the big deal?"

That this all played out twitter was particularly frustrating, since the whole system of Retweets means there's a function built RIGHT IN to allow to you spread a great joke while instantly attributing it to its author.

Anyway, the most interesting part of this essay, I thought, was how Oswalt doesn't try to draw a bright line between stealing, inspiration, and parallel development; he rightly acknowledges that it's kind of murky territory in the Hot Pocket anecdote, and I like that his general takeaway is a hard-work-oriented encouragement to NOT develop a joke if you've already seen someone do it better than you could. It's a way of looking at comedy that not only encourages humility, but also originality. I like that very much.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:06 PM on June 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


Hearing Marc Maron (and many other comics) get purple in the face over "censorship" because they get criticized for saying dumb shit has been grinding on me since the Tosh dustup. Westboro Baptist uses the same argument. Are we not allowed to get pissed at them because it would "censor" them? I'm still not sure Patton completely got this point by the end but at least he's trying to be thoughtful about women (he of the "no rape culture" comment which he, to his credit, said was stupid and wrong).
posted by basicchannel at 2:07 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


From the article -

Hecklers are not critics. Critics have to submit their work to editors, have to sign their name to their opinions, often have to face those they criticize.

I want to stitch this on a sampler and frame it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:10 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also, here is the Oswalt hot pockets joke [latter half of the clip; warning: obnoxious gratuitous still images of overweight people]. It's fascinating in the context of Oswalt's explanation; truly not very funny (and I love love love his comedy), but perfectly plausible as base-level fodder for something that eventually becomes brilliant.
posted by eugenen at 2:12 PM on June 14, 2013


Interesting piece. Thanks for posting it.
posted by rtha at 2:19 PM on June 14, 2013


There's a tumblr page keeping track of the ongoing twitter crimes of the tweet-thieving youth pastor: Borrowing Sam
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:20 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is great to hear. Dude honestly has gotten a lot of comedy mileage out of gratuitous references to rape on his albums, I hope that actually changes.

Also it'd be nice if he'd rethink the amount of yucks he gets out of mocking fat people and people with developmental disabilities. And maybe some of the gay stereotyping could be dialed down a bit? There's still a lot of comedy left in the world when you stop laughing down at people who have things difficult. Like, laughing at people with privilege. It's tougher to make that into comedy though. But he's a goddamned talented man. He can do it. He's done it, he can do more of it.

He could be our Stewart Lee if he wanted to.
posted by edheil at 2:28 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


re: Borrowing Sam - what's even worse than stealing jokes is taking them apart and putting them back together wrong.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:32 PM on June 14, 2013 [11 favorites]


Have I been in a hole for a few months because this is the first I've heard of the Pastor Debacle.

Anyway, I like this article and I like Patton Oswalt and I like it when people publicly change their mind to something better.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:35 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hearing Marc Maron (and many other comics) get purple in the face over "censorship" because they get criticized for saying dumb shit has been grinding on me since the Tosh dustup.

I really like a lot of what Maron is doing and his interviewes are top notch but it's partly that he's so in his own head that allows him to get into other people's heads. His folks have their own mental illness issues (dad is charismatic bipolar, mom is a narcissist) and I think he grasps a lot at trying to figure out what normal is in ways that are less difficult for people who are better empathizers. I think of him as the reddit of comedians: broad appeal but feels slightly persecuted by a world that he's actually got a decently statused position in and doesn't realize that his constant complaining is a little unseemly when broadcast to folks who have it much much worse.

Anyhow, thanks for this post nadawi.
posted by jessamyn at 2:36 PM on June 14, 2013 [15 favorites]


Alright, let's get a name named up in here.

I want to know who The Actor is, too.
posted by RakDaddy at 2:37 PM on June 14, 2013


The actor is some dude named Nick Madson.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 2:41 PM on June 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


It seemed to come up a lot during the recent Pastor dustup, and Oswalt butted heads quite a bit with a poetry professor who kept asserting that sentiment in defense of the plagiarizing Pastor.

Not to defend joke thieves, as I think that's totally wrong, but I do find it interesting that there are such strong negative reactions when someone lifts any part of a comic's joke compared with the relative hospitality for thoughtfully re-using ideas in literature or movies. What makes the two practices different? (Sincere question.)
posted by quantity at 2:44 PM on June 14, 2013


I've never heard someone recite someone else's bit word for fucking word. This is mind-boggling.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:44 PM on June 14, 2013


So, would Oswalt be okay with someone heckling a joke thief?
posted by ogooglebar at 2:46 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think of him as the reddit of comedians

Eww no. I mean, I read your explanation and all, but eww no.
posted by item at 2:51 PM on June 14, 2013


And the Nick Madson thing got worse.
posted by hydatius at 2:57 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not to defend joke thieves, as I think that's totally wrong, but I do find it interesting that there are such strong negative reactions when someone lifts any part of a comic's joke compared with the relative hospitality for thoughtfully re-using ideas in literature or movies. What makes the two practices different?

I think that what you're referring to as "ideas" in literature and movies are raw material -- plot archetypes or structural elements -- on which an author brings his craft to bear in order to create a finished product that hopefully lives and breathes on its own. Joke thieves, by contrast, have taken the finished product -- the joke is the craft. It's more akin to plagiarism, which is not looked upon kindly in any medium (though there are sometimes debates about what crosses the plagiarism threshold and what doesn't).
posted by eugenen at 2:58 PM on June 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


ISTR reading that some young comedians wouldn't come out if they learned that Robin Williams was in the audience. In his case it wasn't necessarily that he'd put their material in his act, but he might be a guest on the Tonight Show or something, get on a roll and out would spout someone else's entire act. Everything he heard was grist for his mill and liable to end up in an ad lib, including other comedians' material.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:00 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I didn't think that Oswalt could set out and write a definitive essay on the three biggest controversies in stand up all at once. Then he totally did.
posted by Apropos of Something at 3:03 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Weird, I've just recently been trying to identify the very small handful of honestly funny rape jokes, and I've come up with an interesting (to me) discovery;

The rape jokes that are funny, are not actually about rape. My example: Louis CK did a bit about how if someone had a time machine, they wouldn't need to actually go back in time and kill Hitler, they could just rape him and that would put an end to his quest for world domination.

Obviously he said it in a way that was much funnier, but that was the gist. I always laughed, but at the same time, felt kind of skeezy because rape isn't funny.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize the genius of the joke; it isn't really about rape, it's about the horrors of what rape does to people. In it's own way, it's a cleverly constructed shell around the argument that rape is worse than murder, in that your victim suffers for years instead of for a moment.

Louis CK just opted to make it about the most loathed person in historical memory. Raping Hitler isn't funny, the disaffected psychological damage that it would do to a monster like Hitler is funny. (depending on your level of comfort with Hitler suffering, leastways).

That's when I finally accepted that a rape joke could be funny, but the only ones that make me laugh are the ones that fundamentally understand that what could be funny is the horror that underlay the topic.

On that subject, here is another one that is funny for the same reason. Not because rape makes me laugh, but because the comedian understands that what it does to people and our reactions to it, could be funny.

All that said, I'm not a comedian. I'm not even remotely funny most of the time, so I'll never even make the effort to come up with a clever rape joke. I'd fail, and I don't want to ever be that guy. But I will acknowledge that it can be done, by people better than I.
posted by quin at 3:05 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whenever I see someone say " I used to think X, but on further consideration I was wrong" my faith in humanity is a tiny bit bigger.

Now I need to figure out how to get this piece in front of that nameless extended relative of mine who blatantly tweets recognizable jokes without credit. I've been relying on replying with "LOL that's my favorite Steven Wright joke" but that's apparently too subtle.
posted by ambrosia at 3:06 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


The only thing I take issue with is the idea that Daniel Tosh might find rape culture as horrifying as Lenny Bruce found racism, or that he could be as smart about skewering it. Daniel Tosh? Really?

I think this is misunderstanding what Mr. Oswalt is saying in that part. He brings up Lenny Bruce not to compare Tosh to him directly in any way, but to give an example of a bit that is HORRIBLE if you only hear the setup, but if you keep going you rapidly figure out that the point of that setup is to get you ready to hear a bunch of stuff about how awful certain ideas/practices/whatever are.

It's an example of "someone doing it right," not a direct comparison between the two (as the discussion right after of the open mike environment as a laboratory for half-formed, probably-bad ideas somewhat underlines).
posted by sparkletone at 3:07 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then he totally did.

Agreed (now that I've RTFA). Oswalt is great not because he's a totally decent comedian and knows a lot of people and is generally respected, but that he seems to be able to branch out into other stuff (writing, acting) very competently and bring his observational style to those things. I know we talk a lot about how one of the things that needs to happen to sort of wear down rape culture is for more men (and some women) to basically say what Oswalt said "I’m a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change."

There's a much longer bit, not at all funny, that Utah Phillips did along the same lines, about when he had a similar realization. Much longer intro, very similar ending "And I realized right then,... I knew that it was all wrong, that it all had to change and that change had to start with me."
posted by jessamyn at 3:10 PM on June 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


There's a tumblr page keeping track of the ongoing twitter crimes of the tweet-thieving youth pastor: Borrowing Sam

I hadn't heard anything about this until this article/thread because I don't follow Mr. Oswalt on twitter, preferring to experience him via RTs from friends (of which I see a fair number). And just... Wow. That is really shameless, and what's worse is how frequently his rewording makes the jokes noticeably less funny.
posted by sparkletone at 3:11 PM on June 14, 2013


I think that what you're referring to as "ideas" in literature and movies are raw material -- plot archetypes or structural elements -- on which an author brings his craft to bear in order to create a finished product that hopefully lives and breathes on its own. Joke thieves, by contrast, have taken the finished product -- the joke is the craft. It's more akin to plagiarism, which is not looked upon kindly in any medium (though there are sometimes debates about what crosses the plagiarism threshold and what doesn't).

Good point. I had a similar idea in mind, but you articulated it much better than I would've. What's interesting to me is what comes up in your parenthetical—the increasing notion that borderline-plagiarism is good for literature. I don't see any similar sentiments cropping up in comedy circles anytime soon. Oswalt says at the end of the piece that comedy is an art, but I think that's at least potentially contentious as well. I wonder if the art-ness of a medium has an effect on the acceptability of plagiarism—Homer's not losing any money when Joyce writes Ulysses, even if the two were contemporaries their livelihoods (I have to imagine) and statuses in the art world are secure. The same doesn't seem to be true for comedians.
posted by quantity at 3:12 PM on June 14, 2013


I can't help think that if I were a comedian and found myself working on a rape joke, at some point I'd check myself and go "y'know, this could be really funny, and I bet I could probably frame it well enough to not trigger a shitstorm and come out the other side still socially okay with pretty much every rational person in the world... but I can't help thinking there are also other things I could be working on that are also funny and don't involve going down that road in the first place. In fact, by the sheer numbers I bet I could spend the same amount of time and emotional energy producing an entire really funny act which was not a goddamn rape joke..."
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:16 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Homer's not losing any money when Joyce writes Ulysses

In situations like that, the allusion is usually one the second author or artist wants the reader or viewer to see. It's an explicit reference. Plagiarizing jokes (or anything else) is an attempt to hide the influence of the original work.

I can vaguely imagine some way in which a comic references an earlier or classic stand-up routine in a way that builds on it, and so explicitly acknowledges the influence of the older work, but I don't know enough about comedy to know if that would work and still be funny, or if anyone's already doing that.
posted by jaguar at 3:22 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


ISTR reading that some young comedians wouldn't come out if they learned that Robin Williams was in the audience. In his case it wasn't necessarily that he'd put their material in his act, but he might be a guest on the Tonight Show or something, get on a roll and out would spout someone else's entire act.

My other half, who is not a comedian, worked as an extra in a Robin Williams movie, and they ended up bonding over a shared love of Neil Gaiman comic books, of all things. A few weeks later, he told a funny story about her cat when he was on Letterman. She was pretty flattered.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:22 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


" I always imagined the villains in my life would be the diabolical, Harry Roat Jr./Hans Gruber/Fantomex types. Instead, I've got Buford T. Justice, Witchy-Poo and The Hamburglar."
posted by panboi at 3:29 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


OTOH, having written comedy I also realize that it's all about working on things that make you uncomfortable, and that it's very difficult to walk away from a funny idea when that sense of its potential is occupying your head. I can't speak for anyone else but I bet this is a common terror in comedy writing: I have to work this through because it's a comedy blockage in my head and I WILL NEVER BE FUNNY AGAIN until I deal with this. It's really hard to abandon a gag until you've really explored it to learn where it's funny or not. Comedy writing -- in my very limited experience -- is serial: the next joke comes after the one you're working on, it's not a parallel track that you can just switch to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:29 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


re: joke stealing. Back in the '80s my partner did stand-up in L.A., mostly at the Laugh Factory. Getting jokes stolen was an ever-present anxiety -- because if someone bigger than you stole your joke and did it in a public forum, that was it: they owned it now.

One of the most famous comedians of the period was (possibly still is?) a notorious joke thief; his M.O. was to go see the up-and-coming comics at their shows, and lift the best lines for himself. (There was the time when my boyfriend saw Famous Comedian kill on the Tonight Show with one of his friend's jokes a couple of weeks after Famous Comedian had dropped into his friend's performance -- at which point, of course, his friend could never, ever do the bit again, because he'd be accused of stealing his own material.) So this would put the up-and-comers into a no-win conundrum when Famous Comedian was in the house: go ahead and do your best stuff, and risk having it stolen? Or do your second-rate material, even when there might be other important people in the audience who could help your career?
posted by scody at 3:30 PM on June 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Just to play Devil's Advocate a little bit here: There are a ton of ideas that have sort of obvious jokes within them, so that people can independently come up with the same things. You see it all the time in MeFi threads where functionally equivalent one liners go up, often even at the same moment. I've seen some complaints about "joke stealing," where it's like, no, anyone who heard about that would have made the same joke, especially if they have any skill in the format of jokes. A lot of the craft comes from the execution, not the idea.

(That said, in these cases, they've stolen more than just riffing similarly on a similar idea. And it was a great essay.)
posted by klangklangston at 3:31 PM on June 14, 2013


In situations like that, the allusion is usually one the second author or artist wants the reader or viewer to see. It's an explicit reference. Plagiarizing jokes (or anything else) is an attempt to hide the influence of the original work.

Good point. I think there are some fringe cases where writers are saying its OK to plagiarize without any attribution, though. David Shields is maybe the most notable example, but some of the more technologically-preoccupied work I see coming from writers in MFA programs has this sort of quality, too.
posted by quantity at 3:33 PM on June 14, 2013


Not to defend joke thieves, as I think that's totally wrong, but I do find it interesting that there are such strong negative reactions when someone lifts any part of a comic's joke compared with the relative hospitality for thoughtfully re-using ideas in literature or movies. What makes the two practices different? (Sincere question.)
Okay, so I'm going to answer this with an embarrassing personal anecdote.

When I was in high school, I ran a D&D campaign with a bunch of my friends. I was the dungeon master, so I got to write the story and help craft my friends' characters into this big expansive fictional world full of heros and villains and thieves and dragons and tentacled horrors. The D&D source books give you the basic elements on which to base your campaigns, although you can also buy nicer, pre-written campaigns. But I never had the money for the big expansive universes (those books ran $50 a pop, sometimes, and I was a little snotty-nosed kid who made his allowance hauling bags of soggy carpet out of the basement every summer when the area flooded), so I made do with what I had, and wrote the rest myself. I drew a world map and peopled the continents with nations and cities culled from both my imagination and inspired by other sources – videos games, novels, comic books, etc. But even though I was heavily leaning on fantasy tropes, it was original work – I took the bits and pieces and mashed them all up and made a game that nobody had played before. It was a lot of work to keep this big fictional universe running, especially given that I had to keep making up the story as we went along, to keep the game fun for my friends.

We met to play once a week. I must have gotten lazy over time. One week, I ran a section of the campaign that was very plainly stolen from a video game that one of my friends and I both knew very well. I don't mean it was based on the game, I mean it was verbatim the same plot, with the names swapped out, and a little bit of plot-glue to stick in some other characters. I felt shady doing it, but I figured no one would notice or care. This was at a time when my relationship with said friends was on rocks, as high school friendships often are, and I think I knew I was kind of giving them the shaft. My friend, the one who knew this game very well, became enraged. It wasn't fun to play, so I had to bail on it and do some last-minute edits to the story to save face.

What this tale of nerdy adolescent chicanery demonstrates is that yes, you're right. Story ideas are never 100% "original", in the sense that they spring, fully-formed, from someone's head, bearing no relation to anything else that has ever been done before. Stories have common shapes and even deep, well-developed characters tend to fall into identifiable archetypes. There is a foggy line between inspiration and thievery. I can't pin it down in words, but if you feel like you're stealing a story, you're probably stealing a story.
posted by deathpanels at 3:33 PM on June 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


One of the most famous comedians of the period was (possibly still is?) a notorious joke thief...

OK, out with it, scody! No need to be all cagey like this Patton Oswalt fellow. We want a name!
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:45 PM on June 14, 2013


It is possible that his first name rhymes with "bobbin."
posted by scody at 3:48 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did the red light in the back of the club flash on and off when this person walked in scody?
posted by dr_dank at 3:51 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The same doesn't seem to be true for comedians.

Well, comedians have a practical problem (which Oswald touches on in the blog post) in that a huge part of the process of improving their art is trying it out in public. Their first-through-umpteenth drafts of a joke are right out there in the open, and since it's an oral medium, there's not much in the way of documentation to prove that Comedian A came up with the joke first.

This may be a conundrum unique to comedians or other spoken-word artists.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:55 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


How is this a "closed" letter?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:03 PM on June 14, 2013


broad appeal but feels slightly persecuted by a world that he's actually got a decently statused position in and doesn't realize that his constant complaining is a little unseemly when broadcast to folks who have it much much worse.

This is really how he comes across to me when he picks twitter fights with Kumail Nanjiani.
posted by drezdn at 4:05 PM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the comedians I competed against was named Vince Champ.

He’s now sitting in prison in Nebraska, serving a 55 to 70 year sentence for a string of rapes he committed at college campuses where he toured as a comedian.


Great. I work in college booking. Now I have a new nightmare.
posted by bq at 4:08 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


How is this a "closed" letter?

No comments allowed?
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:11 PM on June 14, 2013


A canvassing company I used to work for actually hired a serial rapist and murderer for their Chicago office, and he got caught while on the clock attempting to rape a woman. That's been the constant low mark of comparison for all hiring decisions since.
posted by klangklangston at 4:11 PM on June 14, 2013


How is this a "closed" letter?

I think his idea is that an open letter is one where you tell people your conclusions on an issue. This one, I think, is one he's treating as a way to work out his own not fully formed thoughts on the issues. Of course, they actually are pretty close to fully formed.
posted by ambrosen at 4:19 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


How is this a "closed" letter?

It's sealed inside the internet.
posted by yoink at 4:21 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


To be fair to the guy, Nick Madson's Twitter feed shows his creativity pretty well.
posted by Nossidge at 4:27 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Homer's not losing any money when Joyce writes Ulysses

This would be a relevant comparison if Joyce's Ulysses were basically Homer's Odyssey with the names changed. I don't think a comic would have any objection to someone doing a joke that in some way referenced or played off of one of their bits. A comic doing a joke about Seinfeld-observational-type-jokes or a comic doing a joke about Lenny Bruce political humor etc. isn't stealing. And that would be far more parallel to what Joyce is doing with regards to Homer.
posted by yoink at 4:34 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


He's completely wrong about rape jokes. I get what he's trying to say, but Nazi genocide and serial killer jokes work as black humor because chances are genocide and serial killing hasn't actually happened to people in the audience. Rape probably has. 33% of all women have been sexually assaulted, that's one in three. More than one of your female friends or acquaintances have been raped, and if you don't know that it's only because they haven't told you about it.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:35 PM on June 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


I mean, the old "dead baby in a blender" jokes are funny (I guess), but would you tell one to someone whose infant child just died? That's what you're doing when you tell rape jokes.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:37 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


scody: "rhymes with "bobbin.""

No need to be coy, Greg Nog already wrote about Robin Williams earlier in the thread.
posted by mokin at 4:42 PM on June 14, 2013


and he got caught while on the clock attempting to rape a woman. That's been the constant low mark of comparison for all hiring decisions since

as if raping someone wasn't bad enough, they were doing it on company time
posted by Dr. Twist at 4:45 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Actually, I was talking about Sobbin Gilyums, the bastard. (Sorry, didn't see previous references to R. Williams.)
posted by scody at 4:47 PM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Good point. I think there are some fringe cases where writers are saying its OK to plagiarize without any attribution, though.

David Shields' Reality Hunger unfortunately kind of sucks, but there's a long tradition of so-called "appropriative writing", in forms like the cento (a formerly popular pursuit: take lines of the Aeneid and rearrange them to narrate the life of Jesus), which has some modern exponents as well:
Where, like a pillow on a bed
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude
Where through the Golden Coast, and groves of orange and citron
And one clear call for me
My genial spirits fail
The desire of the moth for the star
When first the College Rolls receive his name.
But in things like this part of the point is that you're arranging lots of bits and pieces into a new whole. I'm not sure there's a reasonable analogue in standup.
posted by kenko at 4:55 PM on June 14, 2013


Only sorta on track:

People who quote Picasso's "great artists steal" line as a justification for joke theft or plagiarism infuriate me. It's like they've never seen a Picasso or have any idea who he is, or can fathom at all what it was that Picasso was saying. It's like the creative version of misusing "literally."
posted by Bookhouse at 4:57 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Alright, let's get a name named up in here.

I want to know who The Actor is, too.
posted by RakDaddy at 4:37 PM on June 14 [+] [!]

The actor is some dude named Nick Madson.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 4:41 PM on June 14 [2 favorites +] [!]


to be clear, there are two actors spoken about - one is the the Bland Midwestern Actor and one is mr. "But I’m starting to get feature sets." - nick madson is bland actor, i don't think we know who getting feature sets and then failed spectacularly in la is...


There are a ton of ideas that have sort of obvious jokes within them, so that people can independently come up with the same things.

this is actually the point of the first 20 or so paragraphs - that there's a continuum from parallel jokes, to accidentally remembering someone's joke as your own inspiration, and out right stealing word for word, multiple times, from multiple people. his annoyance is that people, like non-comedian bloggers and such, confuse those things and try to pretend that doing the first two are exactly like doing the last one.
posted by nadawi at 5:08 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


klangklangston: A canvassing company I used to work for actually hired a serial rapist and murderer for their Chicago office

That's why you have to proofread the want ads before they go to the printer.
posted by dr_dank at 5:23 PM on June 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


jaguar: "I can vaguely imagine some way in which a comic references an earlier or classic stand-up routine in a way that builds on it, and so explicitly acknowledges the influence of the older work, but I don't know enough about comedy to know if that would work and still be funny, or if anyone's already doing that."

This happens. All the time. And I think it's some of the funniest material out there. You could argue that the definition of comedy is subverting expectations, and building off known existing material is exactly that.

I remember a really great Who's On First routine I saw that replaced Who, What, I Don't Know, etc. with the then current lineup of the New York Yankees. I thought both performers yelling "CHUCK KNOBLAUCH!!" in unison was amazing.

Doing your own variation on that routine is almost a rite of passage.
posted by danny the boy at 5:30 PM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I get what he's trying to say, but Nazi genocide and serial killer jokes work as black humor because chances are genocide and serial killing hasn't actually happened to people in the audience.

That doesn't really follow. People who have been subjected to appalling atrocities are often the very people most interested in making humor out of it. And this is one of the things humor can do; it can help us think through extremely painful experiences in new ways--ways that often ease the psychic grip of those experiences by giving us distance from them.

That, to me, is the real problem with the "you can't make a joke about that; it's too serious for humor!" response: the assumptions it is built on are always that A) you wouldn't joke about it if you properly understood that it was a serious issue and B) that humor is essentially trivial and that it is impossible to approach serious and weighty matters humorously without cheapening them. But both of these assumptions are just absurdly wrong. Yeah, sure, you can cheapen serious subjects with silly, wise-ass jokes that are offensively blind to the gravity of the subject--but "don't make stupid, unfunny, insulting jokes" isn't a rule that needs to be specially evoked just for Serious Subjects, it's something that is self-evidently good advice.

The problem is that as soon as someone stands up and says "how DARE you make jokes about X" they've pulled a switcheroo on the conversation--one that they themselves are probably not entirely aware of. It's no longer "is this or is this not a valid line of humorous investigation of this topic" but "is this topic one which you consider to be SERIOUS or not?" And there's really no way to respond usefully to that: it's a "have you stopped beating your wife yet" type of conversation killer. If you jump to "no, see, the way this particular joke works is..." then you've fallen out of the logic of humorous discourse and into quite a different one--and all you're understood to be saying is "no, I don't think this is a SERIOUS topic, because I want to make with the jokes about it: ho ho ho tee hee hee, it is to laff."

One sees this kind of thing in operation every time some person in the public eye is caught making an ironical joke about some Grave Concern of the Moment. They'll be pilloried by talking heads everywhere and excoriated all over the internet by people who regard them as political enemies or as culturally uncool or what have you, but it's almost always the grossest hypocrisy. Every single person getting on their high horse about the issue will, when they find themselves talking about that same Grave Concern of the Moment (the Challenger disaster, 9/11, some school shooting, whatever) will happily trade in whatever black-humor jokes are going around. Not because they're unfeeling monsters who think that the event is trivial or amusing, but because we use such humor precisely to find ways to think about and deal with emotions that we simply can't usefully or healthily address in more solemn ways.
posted by yoink at 5:31 PM on June 14, 2013 [23 favorites]


this is the first I've heard of the Pastor Debacle

Salon have been strangely attentive to Twitter Drama recently; their overview from last week.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:39 PM on June 14, 2013


danny the boy: "I remember a really great Who's On First routine I saw that replaced Who, What, I Don't Know, etc. with the then current lineup of the New York Yankees. I thought both performers yelling "CHUCK KNOBLAUCH!!" in unison was amazing.

Doing your own variation on that routine is almost a rite of passage.
"

i.e.


posted by rebent at 5:55 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


People who have been subjected to appalling atrocities are often the very people most interested in making humor out of it. And this is one of the things humor can do; it can help us think through extremely painful experiences in new ways--ways that often ease the psychic grip of those experiences by giving us distance from them.

I absolutely agree, and what I loved about the original article/post is that Oswalt acknowledges that the butt of the joke matters, in those cases. Making fun of Nazis? Probably ok. Making fun of Holocaust survivors? Probably not ok. And by "not ok" it's not just, "Oh, our society's delicate feelings don't allow that," but more of a "You're being a jerk, which is not funny."
posted by jaguar at 6:01 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Making fun of Nazis? Probably ok. Making fun of Holocaust survivors? Probably not ok. And by "not ok" it's not just, "Oh, our society's delicate feelings don't allow that," but more of a "You're being a jerk, which is not funny."

Sure (although one could get into slippery areas as to what "making fun of" means here; does the Seinfeld Schindler's List episode count?), but my point is that "you made a shitty joke which is shitty because it attacks victims" is a perfectly fine response; "you should never make jokes about this topic because it's so solemn and important" is not. The whole problem with the "rape jokes" debate, for me, was that it wasn't "is this or that joke a good or bad one" but about an entire class of jokes ("rape jokes") and whether one should ever make them at all or not.
posted by yoink at 6:10 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


People who have been subjected to appalling atrocities are often the very people most interested in making humor out of it.

This is true but the vast majority of comedians making rape jokes are men who have not been raped.

DecemberBoy's point is a very good one and should be highlighted. When comedians lump rape in with genocide or babies-in-blenders they're making rape seem like something that happens to other people, not lots and lots of women every day.
posted by wemayfreeze at 6:20 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


In addition to the very good points about rape jokes being traumatizing to people who have been raped, they can also be very comforting to rapists.

Studies have shown that anywhere from 6% up to about 15% of men will actually admit to interviewers that they've had sex with someone who didn't want to. One of the researchers, David Lisak, talks about how these guys would take on a sort of collegial tone about it, and brag about rapes as though they were conquests.

So there aren't just rape victims in your audience at any given time. There are also rapists. And some of the people in that audience aren't laughing at that rape joke because they think it's absurd and over the top. They're laughing because they think it's something all men do but aren't supposed to talk about in public, like some sort of embarrassing toilet habit or something.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:49 PM on June 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


From a MeFite who would prefer to remain anon
DecemberBoy- I understand where you're coming from but there is actually room for a few other perspectives here. I was raped. I have laughed at rape jokes. For me, it's about what Patton Oswalt calls "kicking up". If the rapist or rape culture is the butt of the joke, it can be ok for me. It can even be hilarious and healing. I don't presume to speak for all rape survivors but it's not cut and dry that 33% (or whatever it is) of your audience will never ever every be ok with it under any circumstances. I also think it's fine to respect the art but avoid certain artists if what they do doesn't make you feel comfortable. (I will never see a Lars Von Trier movie but I don't think he should stop.) It's also ok to leave without making a judgment about the artist. I like comedy so I know if a set veers into rape-territory chances are I will laugh (most comics are in my experience insightful, decent human beings) but sometimes I might be hurt. I have left shows that made me feel uncomfortable. Fortunately in most of those (very few) cases, the comic was doing a "kicking up" bit or one that might have turned into "kicking up" but for whatever reason it was doing more harm than good for me personally. I left. No judgement against the artist. But that's not to say I never judge under any circumstances. For what it's worth I started watching a Tosh special once and turned it off because I felt like he was just being misogynistic. So he won't get my cash and I'll say openly that I think his bits are hateful. That's just how I manage being a comedy fan/rape survivor.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 PM on June 14, 2013 [24 favorites]


Coupled with that, I think, is an inherent problem in capitalism...

You had me at "inherent problem in capitalism".
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:07 PM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm a huge comedy nerd and I love Patton, so this manifesto was right up my alley. I just registered to tell my "reverse heckling" story, which I'm still quite proud of.

Something like a decade ago, I took my then-girlfriend (now-wife) to a stand-up show and this mediocre-at-best comic picked me out of the crowd (I was actually sitting near the back) and decided to start picking on me. He was getting laughs from it so he kept coming back to that well, even though I had never heckled him, hadn't talked through his set, and wasn't doing anything to bring on that kind of abuse.

By about the fourth time he tried to engage me, I made a point to not only not respond to his question (which was clearly a setup for another insult), I made sure I wasn't even looking at him. When he tried to get my attention and repeated his question, I replied, "What? Oh, I wasn't listening."

I got a much louder ovation than any joke he told. He stared at me until the clapping died down about 10 seconds later and then said, "Fuck you." Needless to say, he didn't say shit to me after that.
posted by Scott Carefoot at 8:13 PM on June 14, 2013 [34 favorites]


Jim Gaffigan Hot Pocket bit.

Patton Oswalt Hot Pocket bit.
posted by dgaicun at 8:26 PM on June 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


People who have been subjected to appalling atrocities are often the very people most interested in making humor out of it. And this is one of the things humor can do; it can help us think through extremely painful experiences in new ways--ways that often ease the psychic grip of those experiences by giving us distance from them.

I agree with you, yoink, but sometimes that psychic distance seems to come at the expense of laughing at yourself as if all that horrible stuff had happened to somebody else, almost the way a perpetrator would laugh at a victim.

Years back I happened to be listening randomly to NPR, and an interview with a refugee from Central America (El Salvador?) came on.

He had been brutally, grotesquely tortured by the regime then in power, but he was denied asylum in the US because whenever he tried to talk about his torture, he was unable to stop himself from laughing.

And sure enough, he tried to say something about the prison where he was first held-- and burst out laughing. It sounded quite a bit like a man trying to imitate the sound of an Uzi, but it was recognizable as laughter and it went on and on. He was kind of able to talk over it as if another person were actually doing it, though his voice shook really badly.

It made my skin crawl, but that didn't keep me from wanting to know whether his torturers had laughed at his agonies. However, the interviewer didn't ask that, and I wouldn't have been able to bring myself to, either.

Since then I've been wondering about the whole process of victims laughing at themselves; does it always entail a loss of self and a partial transfer of that selfhood to the victimizer-- even to the extent of an identification with the victimizer?

That feels ridiculous, but I just don't know.
posted by jamjam at 9:01 PM on June 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I always thought an open letter was when someone writes to another person or entity, but instead of being sent privately, the letter is posted publicly for all to read and not just the recipient, thus "open".

A closed letter to one's self would therefore be a letter that is written but never read by anyone but its author, which is obviously not what this is. I therefore took the title as a jab at the idea that writing a blog post using the "open letter" framing has become a rather cliche way to air grievances of late, and Patton Oswalt does not want to traffic in cliche.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:18 AM on June 15, 2013


I mean, here's a theoretical anecdote for you: one of my very best friends, someone I would more than likely step in front of a bullet for, was raped, and I know the guy who did it. You know how sometimes when your apartment charges you a late fee for your rent or whatever, and your like "aw man, they raped me!". I though "what if I make some fucking hilarious crack like that in front of her?". I'd want to kill myself. I had to eliminate that shit from my vocabulary really fucking quick.
posted by DecemberBoy at 1:48 AM on June 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


DecemberBoy, I have excised words out of my own vocabulary so I know how embarrassing and scary it is to realize you can't say something you thought was harmless any more. But a person being thoughtless and not making much of a point is exactly the opposite of a well done comedy bit. Rape bits can be very funny. They can be very feminist. IF they're done with care and good intentions (as Patton Oswalt talks about). A seasoned comedian knows that by going there some people may turn off but when it's done right what you get in return is actually a public refutation of rape culture.

One of the best bits I've seen in awhile was when Doug Stanhope did an extended pieces on helping his mother commit suicide. Certainly some people in the audience were still too raw from similar experiences to be able to hear it right now. But it was the most generous, and genuinely touching portrait of the bittersweet relationship between an adult son and a dying mother that I've heard in a while. Maybe ever. And it was a laugh riot. Comedy is a serious art and while "no rape jokes ever" works for hacks and misogynists, it also blocks out the work of geniuses who are trying to make the world better with art.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I just found the essay today via Longreads and it turns out I'm late to the corresponding Metafilter thread.

But I'm glad that we're revisiting the topic of whether rape jokes can be funny, because it gives me the chance to share (if I'm not too late) this insightful TEDx presentation on What Makes Things Funny [12 mins].

The speaker focuses on the intersection of humor and moral violations, and presents an interesting "benign violation theory" with 3 conditions necessary for finding jokes funny and several possible approaches to satisfying each condition.

I can't explain the theory of humor any better than McGraw does, but I think it would be very interesting to apply this theory to the rape joke discussion, because it provides a vocabulary for saying things like "I don't find joke X funny because it presumes Y is only a harmless violation and I disagree", or "The joke doesn't provide enough psychologically distance to find violation Z funny, and I doubt that any joke could". I would love to go back in time and introduce this before that big meta from a few weeks ago just to see how our more eloquent members could make use of this vocabulary in their arguments.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:09 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Edit windows never seem to be long enough for me to change the draft of 'doesn't psychologically distance the listener' to 'doesn't provide enough psychic distance' without making a mistake. Sigh.)
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2013


OK, I'll admit to one really funny rape joke. The South Park episode "The China Problem", with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. That was really more of a "Deliverance" reference though than a Family Guy style LOL RAPE gag.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:21 AM on June 15, 2013


anazgnos : Alright, let's get a name named up in here.
My strong suspicion is that the Joke Stealer who got his comeuppance is Carlos Mencia, aka "Menstealia". Mencia had a quick rise to fame, a highly rated national TV show (second only to South Park - though no doubt it benefitted from the vacuum left by the abrupt end to the Chappelle Show). For a brief period, Carlos Mencia was arguably one of the hottest comedians in the country.

Then, at the height of his career, Carlos Mencia was confronted on stage by Joe Rogan about his joke stealing. A year later, Mencia's show was cancelled and his career quickly faded. I don't know whether he crossed paths with Oswalt 's friend, but he seems like a short-list candidate.

Wikipedia has a decent rundown of the criticisms and accusations against Mencia.

(George Lopez supposedly punched Carlos Mencia over stealing 13 minutes of material. And a 2010 Wall Street Journal article noted that Mencia, along with Dane Cook and Jay Leno, were three of the most hated popular stand-ups by fellow comedians)

Also, could The Actor be Dane Cook?
posted by Davenhill at 10:30 AM on June 15, 2013


If you want to know what it would look like if somebody uses somebody else's act as a *premise for* his own material, rather than *stealing and re-using that material*, check out Louis CK Tells The Classics..
posted by edheil at 11:38 AM on June 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


i considered both mencia and dane cook - but it seems to me that a comic that got so fabulously wealthy would be described differently. they both have had more success than is indicated here : But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing - looking down the list of accomplishments, there's arguments for either of them to be more successful than oswalt (while obviously not more talented).
posted by nadawi at 1:04 PM on June 15, 2013


Yeah unless we see names. this 'someone stole from me, a lot' is just another act he's polishing, sort of like the whole Carlos Mencia/Joe Rogan 'spat'.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 3:31 PM on June 15, 2013


I don't think Joe Rogan's calling out of Mencia was an act. AFAIK, Mencia had built up a lot of ill will among other comedians, and that moment where Joe called him out on stage was something that had been building for a long time and was not a surprise to anyone. Shortly after that his career was effectively over. I can't find any comedian working today who has anything kind to say about Mencia, or that they wish he'd come back.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:58 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


nadawi: i considered both mencia and dane cook - but it seems to me that a comic that got so fabulously wealthy would be described differently. they both have had more success than is indicated here.
I think you're probably right about it not being Mencia or Cook. On closer reading, Oswalt says the Thief moved out to the West around the time he did (presumably from the East coast). That would seem to rule out Mencia, who was raised in LA and got his start in LA.

He also refers to him as "Kid Thief", suggesting someone noticeably younger than Oswalt. Dane Cook is only 3 years younger; Mencia is one year older. (Of course, 'Kid' could just be a generic pejorative term)

I also think you're right Oswalt likely ruling out people who achieved major success (e.g. people with several movies under their belt, e.g. Dave Cook, etc.), though I'm not sure whether Mencia should fit in that category.

Whoever it was seems to have flamed out badly on TV (like Mencia), and their career (however successful it was before then) was over after that:
But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Blaine and I to watch. By that point we’d built solid careers for ourselves and when Kid Thief’s career hit the killing floor? It drained away through the sluice gate.
It would help to narrow the time frame down to something more specific than 'anytime after 1995'. Of course it may well have been a more obscure, up-and-coming comedian who landed a sitcom but then failed so badly it destroyed their careers. That could be scores, even hundreds, of comedians.

I'm still curious to know who it is.
posted by Davenhill at 4:57 PM on June 15, 2013


He could have been just saying the Thief moved west at that time, so as to muddy the waters a bit to stave off "wait I think I know who it is" guessing games like this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:05 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


well - estimates put mencia's net worth at double oswalt's. i question that math, but i still think mencia achieved too much success to fit, even considering details being changed to protect the thief's identity.
posted by nadawi at 5:48 PM on June 15, 2013


The Bland Midwestern Actor that Patton refers to is Nick Madson. The list of comedians that "the Actor" stole from is the same as for Madson.
posted by jonp72 at 7:56 PM on June 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


yeah, i don't think there's any confusion about the midwest actor being nick madson - i think he didn't mention him directly because everyone who has followed along knew who he was talking about (and probably to not bump the idiot's google rank or whatever).
posted by nadawi at 8:59 AM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the last year or so of debates about rape jokes, is that I've found Louis CK to be more thoughtful and compassionate in his acts and actions than in his words when he's directly responding to the issue. I think this is weird/sad/interesting, but not surprising, as Louie is an artist and a comedian and not an essayist. Maybe he expresses himself more clearly through his art and maybe I'm giving him extra credit because I like what he does, am one of the many voices declaring him one of a small pantheon of living geniuses, and I generally consider him on the side of good and not evil.

EXAMPLE:

In the first season of LOUIE, there is a scene where he's playing poker with a group of comedians, and he asks a gay friend what he thinks when he hears the word "faggot" in Louie's act. The other comedian responds by explaining the dehumanizing roots of the word, and how every time he hears it, he is taken back to a time when that word was used against him specifically, personally, and often attached with physical violence. He explained how this experience was universally, if not identically, shared by other gay men.

The message was jokes are weapons. Say what you want, but realize what baggage cones along with certain words and subjects, and make sure the jokes are worth it.

MEANWHILE, when asked about Daniel Tosh, Louie came off, to me, as petulant. His message(s) seemed to be: don't blow shit up out of proportion, don't go to a place where you'll be offended, don't tell me or anyone else what we can or can't say, don't dare interrupt a comedian (or any working person) in the course of their job, and nothing a comedian can do is as bad as anything a heckler dpes in response.
posted by elr at 1:11 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


dan harmon discusses lazy rape jokes at the end of a long apology post.
posted by nadawi at 12:23 PM on June 18, 2013


I don't really have anything smart to add to the discussion about joke theft or rape jokes. But, does anyone else think he's completely wrong when he says that you're either born funny or not? Comedy is not genetic, neither, for that matter, is drawing or music. All are things that anyone can learn to do with enough hours of the right training.

He's also wrong when he posits that the resentment of talent is unique to comedy (although I guess that's couched in the form of a question). Modern art comes to mind ("Looks like something my kid made.").
posted by runcibleshaw at 3:23 PM on June 18, 2013


Well, as far as I know, the extent to which talent is actually technically genetic (like encoded in the DNA) vs., say, the result of creation of neural pathways in the brain as part of the process of child development is still largely To Be Determined.

But from a practical standpoint I'm not sure it really matters - "born with it" is simply shorthand for "some people are better at Creative Endeavor X than others." Because there really is something more to it than enough hours of the right training (although talented people will be the first to admit that it sure helps a lot.)

I mean, I actually fully believe that most people are capable of more creativity than is generally encouraged or allowed in current U.S. culture. I get pretty GRAR-y about the regular reduction in funding or elimination of arts & music programs in our public schools, even though I don't have kids myself. I do think both individuals and society in general would be better off - fitter, happier, more productive - if "the arts" were seen more generally as a valuable part of of a full life, and less as a "weird thing that weird people do, that only unserious or pretentious people care about."

But that doesn't change the fact that, regardless of the root cause of talent (DNA or early development or whatever), not everyone is going to reach the same skill level, no matter how much work any given individual puts into their art. Every artist has a plateau where once they've reached it, they just don't get any better. ("Better", of course, having a highly variable definition.) Picasso's plateau was so high and far away that it essentially didn't exist, whereas I'm pretty sure I can see Jon Bon Jovi's plateau from my house.

So it's kinda irrelevant, especially for the purpose of Oswalt's letter, whether you're actually literally "born funny."

Which ties into the "resentment of talent" thing - sure, there's plenty of resentment of talent in other arts, but he's talking about a more specific kind of resentment. Your "My kid could do that" example is very similar; it's not so much expressing a resentment of talent, but a resentment of the (apparent) fame and fortune achieved via creating something that the speaker thinks actually requires little or no talent. IOW, modern artists (or hip hop acts, or DJ's, or Elvis in the 50's, or etc etc etc) don't "deserve" their success.

And Oswalt's talking about something related at work in how the public perceives comedians. Almost every one of us knows someone who's "funny", whether IRL or on the Internet. Hell, Metafilter's got its' own cadre of wise-crackers. So because the general condition of "I know a funny person" is so damn common, lots of people don't think that hard work or "born with it" talent have anything to do with reaching Patton Oswalt levels of funny. As far as they're concerned, Patton's no funnier than Bob From Work Who Sits Two Cubicles Over, just either luckier or crazy & irresponsible enough to attempt to make a living at it. So they don't think he really "deserves" any success.

So if comedians don't "deserve" their success, then it's no harm, no foul if you steal their material - fuck 'em, it's not like they worked for it, right? And that's the kind of resentment that Oswalt's battling. He's trying to spread the idea that comedy, like music or painting or acting or so on and so forth, requires a base level of "born with it" talent plus hard work in order to achieve a better-than-average level of skill and (possibly) success - that there's more to it than "funny guy gets lucky."

And I do suspect that this resentment is something that's unique to comedy at this point in time, because other arts have gained a cultural level of respectability and/or public knowledge of the process of creating the art. Outright passing someone else's work off as your own is frowned upon. If I tried to pass off the guitar solo in "Comfortably Numb" as my own work I'd be roundly mocked and derided, but when Patton's story gets nicked for a valedictorian's speech a bunch of people seem to think he's being a big ol' crybaby for pointing out that it's his creative work that's being nicked. And I think that's bullshit.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:12 AM on June 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


That's a really well written response soundguy99, for reals.

I think it's just that I disagree with his premises. I don't think that people think comedians don't deserve success any more than any other creative field. I don't think there's any base level talent required to be successful at comedy other than the purely physical ones (like being able to communicate with an audience). Anyone can learn to draw. Anyone can learn to play the violin. Anyone can be a comedian. Sure, some people will start out with an advantage in terms of talent, and some will go further than others. But, the idea that raw talent is what separates a true comedian from everyone else is just wrong. The real separation is the desire to do it and drive to continue to improve.

I guess I do resent Oswalt in that I think he's pretty full of himself when he paints the general public as resentful joke-thief-apologists, who don't understand how hard he had to work (even though, by his own admission, he was born with a talent the rest of us just don't have) to get where he is. I think he has every right to be mad that someone uses his material without crediting him. I just don't think that comedy is as special a case as he makes it out to be.

I think the only real difference between comedy and other art forms is that there are very few jokes or routines that a majority of people would recognize as being stolen. I couldn't very well paint the Mona Lisa and call it my own, but I could probably do a routine from one of the most well-known comedians in the world and still not have very many people realize it's stolen (other than Who's On First and the like). Try doing that with any popular song or piece of art (well some art might be easier than others). So the real problem isn't the general public's or journalists' reaction to joke thieves, it's that joke thievery isn't as instantly recognizable as it is in other art forms. I could go on a whole rant about "swipes" and porn tracing in comics, but I won't.

(I am a bit resentful that I cannot craft as well thought-out a response. I guess some people are just born writerly.)
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:12 PM on June 19, 2013


(Also, Patton does come off as a bit whiny and self-important.)
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:14 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


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