There’s a new pizza place going in just a block from where I work. By my count that’s the seventh pizza place within a half mile radius, not counting places that aren’t exclusively for pizza but still sell pizza. If you include them the number goes up to a hundred and seventeen, including the doughnut shop that’s serving up its special pizza doughnut–for a limited time only because no one really wants to eat that, but that’s another story. I realize it’s near a college campus but even when I was a college student I didn’t eat pizza more than twice a day four days a week. How can that many pizza places in such a small area survive and, more importantly, how different could they possibly be from each other? Some may be better than others but it’s still going to be flattened bread with, in most cases, a tomato-based sauce, some cheese, and various toppings ranging from meats to vegetables to mushrooms, which aren’t exactly vegetables but they’re sure not meats and while some pizza places serve good mushrooms at others you might as well ask for pencil erasers. What’s funny to me is I noticed the new pizza place just as I was thinking about accusations of joke theft against various comedians, most recently Amy Schumer. But as some of her defenders have pointed out she’s making jokes about popular topics—sex, race, men and women—that get covered by a lot of other comedians. It’s really hard to come up with something on almost any broad topic that’s going to be funny and that hasn’t already been thought of by someone else. Unless you’re Steve Martin making a joke about working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ gangly wrench to a roomful of plumbers–a joke, by the way, that had been going around plumbers’ conventions since Roman times–it’s almost impossible to avoid instances of parallel thinking, a term I freely admit I’ve taken from somewhere else, even if I can’t remember where.
I know some performers are really guilty of outright plagiarism because they’re too lazy to write their own jokes and too cheap to pay someone genuinely funny to write jokes for them and that’s a terrible thing and I think they should be booed off the stage, but then I get worried because everybody else around me is yelling “boo!” and I feel like I should come up with something original to yell. And then I feel guilty because I’m not sure whether joke theft is a joking matter, especially since there have been times when I’ve felt like a victim of joke theft. Many years ago I wrote something about videophones and how I thought there would be a big market for miniature interior design so people could impress each other with cool backgrounds. About six months later there was a commercial with Jason Alexander trying to impress a woman he’s video chatting with by putting up a cool backdrop in his shabby apartment. Of course I realized that it was extremely unlikely whoever wrote the commercial had read what I’d written–it was probably just a case of parallel thinking. A true original idea at that time would have been to realize that eventually mobile phones would have video capability and that if you want to impress someone you’re talking to by having, say, the pyramids in the background all you need to do is hold up your phone while you’re standing in front of the pyramids.
And possibly originality is overrated. There’s an episode of Frasier where Frasier and his brother Niles read an unpublished manuscript by a reclusive author, and then they try to one-up each other by coming up with clever things to say about it. One of the things they come up with is that the story’s structure is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and the author, frustrated because he feels he has nothing original left to say, throws the manuscript out the window and, hey, I just got the irony of Frasier and Niles trying to one-up each other with unique insights. But it’s not like Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven were concepts invented entirely by Dante, nor is he the only artist to use them form metaphorical purposes. Imagine if someone had said to Hieronymous Bosch, “Hey, that Garden of Earthly Delights triptych is really cool. Did you get the idea from Dante?” and he had said, “What? I thought I had an original idea here!” and burned it. Or maybe it would be Dante being asked if he’d gotten the idea for The Divine Comedy from Bosch. I don’t know. I can’t remember which one came first. This also reminds me of a short story called “Who’s Cribbing?” by Jack Lewis about an author whose short story submissions keep getting rejected because the editors accuse him of copying the stories of an earlier writer he’s never even heard of. And as one of the editors tells him the chances of two authors writing exactly the same story, word for word, are the same as the chances of four royal flushes on a single deal. Now that I think about it, though, four royal flushes on a single deal isn’t impossible–it’s just extremely unlikely. When I was eating pizza twice a day four times a week I read that story to a bunch of my friends and we all agreed it was a writer’s worst nightmare because we forgot that even Shakespeare lifted whole plots from other sources and that a great source of creativity is being inspired by others. There’s a fine line between copying and retelling, and stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from many is research. I forget who that line is commonly attributed to, but I’m sure they heard it from someone else.
Granted I do think copyright is important, to an extent. Artists deserve to be paid for their work (and if you’re enjoying this won’t you please donate?) and one way they can ensure they track their work to make sure they get paid for it is through copyright protection. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was a flop in Vienna but went on to become a blockbuster in Prague. He died in dire poverty because he never saw a penny of that revenue, but they could at least have sent him a Czech. What I’m getting at is that if Mozart had gotten a share of the profits from his work he might still be alive today, even though he’d be two-hundred and sixty now and collecting killer royalty checks. Ray Davies expressed his frustration with this problem in the Kinks song The Moneygoround, although the album went on to be Top of the Pops. On the other hand some works only really become widely known because being really cheap or even free means they get passed around and a lot of airplay. It took decades for Moe Howard and Larry Fine to finally get some financial compensation and at that point most of the other Stooges were dead. The syndication of their films made the studio that owned them a tremendous amount of money and the Stooges certainly deserved a cut of that, but if their law firm of Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe had given them extensive and complicated contracts the cost of replaying their films could have gone up and they wouldn’t have gotten as much airplay and consequently wouldn’t have been as profitable or as famous. Whether this is good or bad is a question I’ll leave you wiseguys to murtilate each other over because the value of copyright and its abuse is a whole can of worms I don’t want to open because I’m afraid I’ll be sued by the publisher of at least one of about two dozen books titled Can Of Worms that are out there, not to mention the song by Squeeze.
What I’m getting at is that the best any creative person can do is offer their own unique vision, keeping in mind a joke that’s been around since I was at least a kid in Roman times: each of us is an individual, just like everybody else. So who wants pizza?