Monday, June 10, 2013

"I Steal!"

The above title is just me trying to be dramatic, misleading you into reading this, ultimately disappointing you in the end.  Hardly the best strategy, but it’s the best strategy I have today.

Movie buffs will recognize this title as the climactic line from the Paul Muni-starring film, I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932).  When the girl he has resurfaced to say goodbye to asks him, “How do you live?”, the Muni character, retreating into the shadows, replies dramatically,

“I steal!

Which has nothing to do with this post.  But, you know, when else will I get to use it?

The stealing I am referring to today is a metaphorical kind of stealing, in which a standup comedian pilfers material from another comedian, representing it as their own.  On second thought, this may not be metaphorical at all.  Although there is no actual burgalization, or any “Hands up!  Gimme your jokes!”, it remains an unauthorized appropriation.  An idea is a thing; and if you take it, you’re stealing. 

Some practitioners of this odiferous activity are highly regarded in their field.  I once read a claim made by his contemporary standups that the skyrocketing Robin Williams repeatedly boosted material from them 

(Blogger’s Note:  The book I learned this from claimed this was common knowledge, and I am simply repeating what I read.  If it turns out to be fallacious – like when I repeated the “urban legend” that “Mama Cass” died choking on a ham sandwich – I am not going to feel good about it.)

Williams, whose stream-of-consciousness riffing has often been dazzling in its insightful and explosiveness, explained he just opened the floodgates, and whatever came out came out.  Everything comes from somewhere.  Though it was not impossible, Williams conceded, that some of it came from the mouths of his competitors. 

Nobody has the right to profit from the originations of another; that’s stealing gold out of somebody else’s pan.  However, though I am in no way retreating from the belief that stealing is wrong – it’s in the “Ten Commandments” for heaven’s sake – I am aware from personal experience that such nefariosities are not always premeditated.

The following are three examples from Best of the West (1981), a TV series I created as a comedic homage to my beloved westerns, exemplifying how easily “homage” can slip unbeknowingly into theft.

I am watching The Westerns Channel, as is my primary viewing preference, when I catch sight of the sign overhanging the saloon run by the lead character in the movie, played by the legendary Clark Gable.  The drinkery is called the Lucky Chance Saloon.

I named the bar in Best of the West the Lucky Chance Saloon.  This was not me, tipping an homagial Stetson to a favored “oater” from yesteryear.  Nor was it me, stealing a saloon name that sounded good. 

What is was, was me, unconsciously dredging up a saloon name that sounded good from a mind that had stored it away when I first encountered it, awaiting the time when it could appropriately be used.  If I had never sold Best of the West, it would still be sitting there, the adjacent brain cells going, “Why is he squandering a brain cell on a stupid saloon name when he so desperately needs it to retain the name of a person he has just been introduced which he’s forgotten while he is still talking to them?”

“So there!”, adjacent brain cells.  I used it. 

But it wasn’t mine.  It simply floated up from the “library.”   

A key element in Best of the West’s comedic premise was that, when fighting Down South with the Union Army, Sam Best met his adored future wife Elvira while burning her family’s plantation to the ground.

I am watching the John Wayne classic Rio Grande (1950).  As Wikipedia describes it in its plot summary:

“During the {Civil} war, {the John Wayne character} Yorke, has been forced by circumstances to burn Bridesdale, his wife’s family plantation home in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Yikes!  Though, believe me, the poaching was in no way deliberate.  If I’d remembered, I’d have pilfered the plantation name as well. 

Also in one episode, a “Yankee” and a Southerner went head-to-head with dueling renditions of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Of course, that’s straight out of Casablanca.  But I swear to Gosh I did not remember.  (Although as they say, “If you are going to steal, steal from the best.”  Though the people who say that usually do so deliberately, demonstrating the “twin sisters” of plagiarism and chutzpah.) 

More disturbing than pinching from others, I have become aware of occasions where I unknowingly pilfered from myself. 

Once, on a major birthday whose number ended with a zero, I decided during the hours before my wife joined me in a luxury hotel room that I would screen videos of my favorite self-written episodes, in a all-out, self-congratulatory, “Earl-a-bration!” 

It was during this screenfest that I realized I had employed the exact same joke construction in three different episodes.  A character is babbling on incessantly in an effort to forestall an uncomfortable revelation, when another character says, “Are you stalling?” to which the busted babbler replies, “Yes.” 

Three times, I did that!  With no awareness whatsoever that I had employed this constructural stratagem twice before!

I know writers who rationalize recycling previously used characters and storylines, citing the “Everybody does it” literary tradition.  “How many actual storylines are there?”, they explain.  “And besides, I am making significant ‘adjustments’.”

To me, this is justifying kidnapping a child because you’re giving them a good home.  Though that may be a little harsh.  (It is possible I may have enjoyed too many SVU episodes.)  My critique is also, possibly, literarily incorrect. 

Everybody does do it.  And by not doing it, I may have erred in the opposite direction.  In an effort to be “totally original”, I have made choices that proved commercially imprudent.  (I may also have self-censored myself into scriptorial silence.)

The bottom line is, I oppose deliberate stealing.  But I am less sticklerish if the pilfering’s unconscious.

Particularly if the pilferer was me.


Harkaway said...

Actually, the moment I saw the title "I Steal" I figured you would be applying Paul Muni's great line to comedy writing.

But jokes and set-ups are a bit like recombinant DNA. Just deploying them in different situations makes them fresh, if not entirely new and original.

And the bit about delaying for time could become a signature bit--if deployed in the right situations.

Thanks, however, for at least broaching the question how this can unwittingly happen.

Keith said...

I deliberately stole a joke once for a spec that I wrote, although it's a phrase I'd heard a few times.

So, the line is: "He'd lie to make a dollar when the truth would make a dollar-fifty"

I hadn't heard it too often, because it's not often that the context comes up to use it. In my spec I had a character that frequently used colloquialisms and I wanted to use that line. So I asked around about it and was told by someone that it was a Mark Twain quote. So now it was planted in my brain that if I used it I wasn't just using a common idiom but actually stealing from Mark Twain.

The internet was no help. I couldn't find any attribution to Mark Twain, nor even the phrase itself. So, I used it under the rationalization of "common expression". However, just to cover my ass I have the same character say just seconds earlier "Sometimes you gotta paint your butt white and run with the antelope". A much more well known expression, but its whole purpose was to create a pattern. That way, if anyone showed proof of me stealing from Mark Twain, I could point to that pattern and say "plausible deniability".

So there's my confession of possible deliberate stealing. Since I still have never seen the quote in writing, I've begun to think it might actually be just a very uncommon common expression.