So What’s The Theory, SNL, That After 40 Years, It’s OK to Plagiarize?

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Saturday Night Live’s  “Draw Muhammad” sketch this week was very funny, but then, the cast knew that, since it had already been funny on a Canadian television satire show called “22 Minutes.” The skit, in short, was stolen. You can compare for yourself here.

Yes, what SNL does every week is incredibly stressful, difficult and risky. Writing, rehearsing and performing more than an hour of new material week after week is the equivalent of walking a tightrope with rabid weasels following you. I wrote and directed two original satire stage shows, and it was like riding a roller coaster that crashed every other time you buy a ticket—and you can’t stop riding. So I am sympathetic, very sympathetic. The temptation to swipe proven material from another source must be very strong when time is short and the ideas aren’t coming. Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart never stooped to plagiarism when they had to churn out new comedy classics for Sid Ceasar to perform every week on “Your Show of Shows,” but then they were Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart. I understand.

Nevertheless, this is a high breach of comedy writing ethics, especially for Saturday Night Live. After 40 years, it is an icon now. It has the status as an elder statesman of satire, a role model for Comedy Bang Bang! and Funny or Die and Archer and every other show written by people who have been watching SNL all their sentient lives. For this show’s writers and cast to cheat validates comedy plagiarism, or, perhaps, invalidates Saturday Night Live.

It will be better, but still unethical, if it turns out that the show bought the skit. For 40 years, SNL has built a reputation as brave, irreverent comic kamikazes who present brand new, original, daring, up-to-the-minute topical material never tested in front of an audience before. If its writers are now recycling the work of other less storied satire shows and their less well-remunerated writers, what does that mean? Is the grind becoming too much? Is the show unable to meet the expectations its previous incarnations created?

Or has it been cheating all along?

5 thoughts on “So What’s The Theory, SNL, That After 40 Years, It’s OK to Plagiarize?

  1. I will agree that doing live comedy every week is stressful. I will also agree that doing funny live comedy is really, really stressful. I will also (also?) agree that Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny for almost 20 years (with very rare exceptions – Mike Myers is a genius). They lost their comedic edge along time ago and have become complacent. Even Tina Fey couldn’t save it from itself.

  2. I am not certain that even “22 Minutes” version is particularly original. It is a rehash of an old skit about not wanting to draw something taboo. Dozens of standup comedians likely used Mohammed as the subject of the skit long before “22”. The only original thing “22” added is perhaps its morbidly lucky timing.

    The Canadian version seems to have come out in January 2015, possibly in response to the “Charlie Hebo” attack. The SNL version comes on the heals of the “Draw Mohammed” shooting. I suppose it is possible SNL researched other post-attack skits because it could not come up with its own…

    But, SNL has a long tradition of turning news headlines into skits. The young women joining ISIS may have seemed to come out of nowhere to many viewers for instance (my guess why it drew criticism), but there were in fact contemporary reports of “white” suburban girls flying oversees to attempt to join.

    I am sure that lightly digging through the SNL archives would uncover numerous examples of the forbidden-topic Pictionary sketch. Does adapting your “own” (but used elsewhere) skit to the day’s headlines count as plagiarism?

  3. But, but… Jack. EVERYBODY does it! Heck, it seems like half the pop songs I hear on the radio these days are recycled songs from my own boyhood. There’s no originality now because there’s nothing original left! Just old stuff with some sex and profanity added.

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