An Exhaustive Primer on the Amy Schumer Scandal (Yes, She’s Probably Guilty of Plagiarism)Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Comedy Features Amy Schumer
Before we get too deep into the Amy Schumer plagiarism scandal—and it is a full-fledged scandal at this point, by comedy standards—I want to make my perspective clear. First, I’m an Amy Schumer fan. Second, after considering the evidence outlined below, along with Schumer’s response, I had one immediate reaction and one secondary reaction to the question of whether or not she’s a plagiarist.
The immediate reaction: Absolutely.
The secondary reaction: Probably.
The first reaction is easy to explain, and came about after simply watching the bits she allegedly stole. There’s no escaping the crystal-clear truth here—the original material and Schumer’s copy are almost exactly the same. The only reasonable conclusion is that she’s guilty. Period. Denials and obfuscation are useless against the very plain evidence of outright joke theft, and anyone who disputes it is being intellectually dishonest.
So why did that “absolutely” change to “probably”? Because there’s a concept called subconscious plagiarism that, in Schumer’s case, would entail hearing another comedian’s joke, forgetting it over time, and then writing it later as though she had conceived it on her own. All in all, this version of stealing is more innocent and forgivable than standard plagiarism.
But while a reasonable person might buy that explanation for an isolated incident, or even two, it seems hopelessly far-fetched when we consider Schumer’s pattern of repeat offenses. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to disprove—we can’t be inside her head—and that’s why I’m qualifying the initial absolute judgment.
(A third theory is “parallel thinking,” an alternative reality in which Schumer and the original comedian both came up with the joke independently. Considering the level of highly specific similarity, and the fact that Schumer has been in the comedy world for a long time and would have had to go far out of her way not to see the original bits at some point, I find the idea totally laughable. It has already been employed as a defense in the rocky aftermath of the accusations, by Schumer and others, but you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who supports it, because that person is either lying or naive.)
We’ll start with a video featuring six minutes of evidence that Schumer has a long habit of “borrowing” other people’s material for her stand-up, her sketch show, and even the movie Trainwreck. This is the smoking gun:
Edit: Okay, as you see, the video has been taken down. To summarize until we can get it back up, it shows Schumer doing bits that directly copy Patrice O’Neal and the three female comics named below. In the meantime, here’s a different source for the O’Neal incident:
Edit 3: And here’s the Wendy Liebman bit in question:
The Patrice O’Neal bits are particularly damning here, coming as they do from the same act—it shows Schumer consciously building her own stand-up routine from the material of others, and just changing a few identifying details (“the gorilla mask” is now called “the Abraham Lincoln”) to protect herself. Not that the material she clearly took from Kathleen Madiagn or Wendy Liebman or Tammy Pescatelli is any better; it’s just much harder to form a convincing argument that the O’Neal bits were all a crazy coincidence.
How It Began
So how did this video emerge? Was it just a rogue obsessive tracking Schumer’s career and slowly preparing his own personal Zapruder film?
Actually, no. It originated with the comedians themselves. It would be a bad piece of irony to commit plagiarism in a post about plagiarism, so let me now credit Refinery29, which compiled the tweets—many of which are now deleted—and got the ball rolling. You should read the whole article, but I’ll summarize as briefly as I can. In their words:
Right when Amy Schumer seemed to be triumphing in the Twittersphere, she’s facing another internet debacle — one we’re tempted to nickname “Funny Women, Serious Accusations.”
Over the weekend, three female comedians — Wendy Liebman, Tammy Pescatelli, and Kathleen Madigan — all shared frustrations on Twitter about seeing familiar material appear in a variety of bits by Schumer, ranging from Inside Amy Schumer to Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo to Trainwreck.
Liebman fired the first shot:
“Between Amy Schumer doing 1 of my best jokes on her HBO special and this meme of my joke, I’m done with social media.” The meme, which was not related to Schumer, shows another alleged rip-off of one of Liebman’s jokes.
Pescatelli then launched her own salvo:
What has always been amazing to me is that she purports to be a feminist and yet only steals from other female comedians. If we call her on it we are “jealous” or career shamed. Be successful. WE want you to do well, just do it will your own material.BTW she blocked me
Pescatelli wasn’t done—she later dropped the most vicious line of the entire saga, writing, “at least Cosby knocked his victims out b4 he raped them.”
Liebman was less outwardly angry, but she never quite backed off her original stance:
I never said @amyschumer stole my joke.I just said it was the same.It’s possible we both wrote it.I just wanted you to know I wrote it 1st.
— Wendy Liebman (@WendyLiebman) January 20, 2016
From there, the video posted above was a piece of cake—the comedians had provided an easy-to-follow blueprint. In the comments section, other examples were noted, as when Schumer seems to have used one of John Mulaney’s bits in a stand-up routine.
Mulaney: “Blacking out is when you drink so much that your brain goes to sleep, but your body gets all, “Eye of the Tiger” and soldiers on.”
Schumer: “I black out when I drink. Isn’t that the worst? Your mind goes to sleep, but your body is like, ‘tonight is my night!!’”
On my life, I have never and would never steal a joke.
— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) January 20, 2016
Lucky for Schumer, she won’t have to stand by that rather extreme pledge. It turns out, this isn’t the first time she’s had to answer those questions. TMZ got to her in October, and her dismissal then was equally unconvincing:
This morning, she appeared on Jim Norton’s SiriusXM radio show to defend herself. Summary coming, but listen to the whole interview here, which finds Schumer in frantic damage control mode:
“I’ve been accused of stealing jokes,” she tells Norton, “and I wanted to come and talk to you about it and clear my name. Because I would never, ever do that and I never have. And I’m literally going to take a polygraph test and put it on my show this season and I promise, whatever the results are, I won’t let them cut, I will show that I had never, never seen Patrice do that bit.”
She went on to say the same about Pescatelli and Madigan’s bit, and accused Pescatelli of “trying to get something going.” And then she gets really into her feud with Pescatelli, who she says “doesn’t have much going on,” before insisting that she doesn’t have “a big head.”
“Maybe Tammy pictured a different life for herself, and a different outcome, so to see someone who’s succeeding…”
The character assassination here is almost Trump-like, both for the personal attacks and the way it dodges the real issue—the smoking gun evidence. Her broadside against Pescatelli is delivered in kinder tones, but the intent is just as aggressive. And not surprisingly, she segues from there to the idea that the attacks are also gender-based—even though they came from other female comics—and that “people just want to bring women down.”
More than anything, Schumer says, she wants credibility, reiterating her desire to take a polygraph. At the end, strangely, she seems to insinuate that she might create similar videos implicating other comedians in acts of plagiarism. (This would be interesting, for sure, but I can’t see how it would be much of a defense.)
Form your own opinions here. I found the ten minutes to be rambling, and ultimately unconvincing. She certainly trotted out every argument she could dream up, from jealousy to sexism to the “build-em-up-break-em-down” nature of American culture, and finished by deftly casting herself as a victim who would not “take this lying down.” At the end of the interview, both barrels were empty.
Still, I thought the performance came off desperate. On one hand, you have to give her credit for an outright denial—it’s a refreshing change from the usual mumbling equivocations we get when someone famous is caught in a nasty situation. On the other hand, the intricate web of words can’t refute the video, which remains the most compelling piece of evidence. Frankly, it’s spin-proof, and that’s a bit of a PR nightmare for someone like Schumer, whose natural instinct is to talk her way out of problems. Her handlers would be wise to take the shovel out of her hands, tell her to disappear for a few days, and try to contain this thing before it gets much worse.
For me, two questions linger.
1. Wait, why would Amy Schumer be so stupid as to steal jokes that are readily available on video. These aren’t even obscure comedians! As part of her defense, she points out show idiotic it would be for her to take that path, and it’s by far her most convincing argument.
Yeah, it’s strange for her to be so injudicious, but it’s consistent with other famous plagiarists. For whatever reason, plagiarists are reckless, from Jayson Blair to Fareed Zakaria to Jonah Lehrer to Kaavya Viswanathan. They copy material that is readily available, in an almost pathological way, and aren’t careful about covering their tracks. Why is this true? It’s hard to say without getting inside their brains, but the point is that Schumer’s lack of caution is actually really, really common. In the comedy world, Dane Cook has famously been accused of stealing material from big names like Louis C.K. and Joe Rogan—again, not a very discreet tactic.
2. Will it impact her career?
Probably not, except among hardcore comedy fans and other comedians. Schumer is basically an institution right now, both in comedy and feminism, and as long as she can continue making money for Comedy Central, this won’t bury her. She’s still funny, she’s still talented, and she’s still interesting. Her show, Inside Amy Schumer, has a team of talented writers who are more than capable of writing great material without stealing, and unless she’s a massive self-saboteur, her plagiarism days in stand-up are over.
You’re also seeing a pretty stead trickle of support for Schumer, coming from other celebrities (including John Mulaney, for the record) and her fans. The celebrities will have her back because they’re her friends, and as for the fans, she represents something that they don’t want to see tarnished. It’s human nature to shut out unpleasant ideas when they conflict with something into which we’ve invested emotional energy, and that phenomenon is in full swing with Schumer’s army.
My guess is that we’ll get a half-apology at some point, along the lines of, “I’m sorry if any of my fans were disappointed,” and then she’ll more or less escape any accountability and continue on with what has been a successful career. None of which will change the fact that she is—probably—a serial plagiarist.