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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 10/23/2010

The Riff: From 'SOUTH PARK' to 'POOCH CAFE': When a sense of plagiarism plagues comedy

By Michael Cavna


"Cheating on a quiz show. It's like plagiarizing a comic strip."
-- Paul Scofield, portraying Mark Van Doren in the 1994 film "Quiz Show"

One of the most challenging things to accomplish as a creator is coming up with original and inspired ideas. Sometimes, though, even a greater challenge is forgiving those who seem to have brazenly stolen your hard-earned ideas.

As a syndicated cartoonist, I've seen my published ideas later appear in eerily similar reiterations in other comics and spoken near-verbatim by nationally recognized humorists (to the point where scores of readers and viewers alerted me, offended and outraged on my behalf). I've known cartoonists whose gags were filched by standup comics -- on one occasion, the comedian even confessed to the theft, spurring the cartoonist to launch his own successful standup career. And I've encountered professional gag writers who read cartoons for "inspiration," then add only the thinnest coat of comedic lacquer -- apparently convincing themselves their re-sold joke is a new idea.

All such funny business comes with the business of trying to be funny.

This week, though, has brought two especially glaring cases of seeming comedic plunder: In one case, the creators of "South Park" ultimately were big enough to admit that they were overly influenced by another humorous duo and -- through shoddy research -- unfairly pillaged material. In another incident, there was a striking similarity between two syndicated comic strips: Paul Gilligan's veteran strip "Pooch Cafe" and the brand-new strip "Dogs of C-Kennel," by Mick and Mason Mastroianni.

In the case of "South Park," contributor Dan Gurewitch wrote on his blog that a recent episode of the animated Comedy Central show parodied the film "Inception" much how he and writing partner David Young did back in August -- right down to matching dialogue. Gurewitch wrote on his blog:

"Well, this is odd. It looks as if South Park essentially plagiarized Inception Characters Don't Understand Inception, a sketch written by me and David Young a few months ago.

"I'm conflicted, because I absolutely adore South Park. I admire Trey Parker and Matt Stone more than almost anyone currently working in comedy. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I'd say maybe it's an homage -- I'd be honored -- but while our sketch was popular, it wasn't nearly the national phenomenon it'd have to be for them to parody it."

The similarities between the Gurewitch/Young video on and the recent scene from "South Park" are beyond striking, even in a blogosphere of countless "Inception" parodies. To "South Park's" credit, Parker and Stone didn't try to dodge the issue, deny responsibility or claim Incredibly Eerie Coincidence. Instead, they did the straight-up thing: They apologized.

(The repentant "South Park" creators surely are smart enough also to know they're now on a kind of pop-culture probation; were a second ripoff to occur, inadvertent or no, viewers wouldn't be so forgiving.)

Gurewitch subsequently posted on his blog:
"David and I just got off the phone with Matt Stone (coolest sentence I've ever written). He was extremely nice and apologetic. He explained that when they couldn't get a copy of an 'Inception' screener, they used our sketch as source material. They thought that the lines in our sketch were taken directly from 'Inception' (and the joke was that they were arranged in rapid succession), rather than original lines written by us."

(A publicist for "South Park" told Comic Riffs that Parker and Stone were too swamped with production to comment on the matter. They did later explain their apology to Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times.)

Much like Gurewitch, "Pooch Cafe" creator Paul Gilligan took to his blog to air his concerns about a sense of having been plagiarized. Gilligan, who is syndicated by Universal UClick, wrote this week:

"Dogs of C-Kennel" is done by Mick and Mason Mastroianni. I'm assuming one does the drawing, so his only crime is his fallow skill set. To the other, who meditated over the comics page and deduced that what it lacked most was yet another strip about dogs, thanks for buying my book! I don't seem to sell enough of those.

I see C-Kennel has also touched on purse dogs, bird characters, and dogs using cell phones, and they've only been at it for 15 days. Lucky for them Pooch has been around for quite some time, so they've got mountains more material to plunder.

But the Mastroiannis -- who are the descendants of "B.C." cartoonist Johnny Hart -- maintain that the similarities in several strips between "Pooch Cafe" and "Dogs of C-Kennel" (syndicated by Creators) are entirely a matter of coincidence.

Mick Mastroianni spoke to the Daily Cartoonist about the matter, telling Alan Gardner: "Any cartoonist will tell you, this happens all the time in our industry. Gag writers come up with similar ideas, especially when working within the confines of one particular theme - 'dogs,' in this instance. The old adage 'great minds think alike' more often than not rings true."

Great minds -- and sometimes even terribly average ones -- indeed can think alike. But it's worth pointing out: What sometimes passes for verbal theft in literature or theater or journalism -- crimes worthy of a revoked prize, publishing-house excommunication or an Oprah-esque dressing-down -- registers as barely a misdemeanor in the realm of comedy and comics.

The currency of the word, it seems, changes valuation based on how high, or low, be the brow of its culture.

To his credit, Gilligan, emerging as magnanimous as the CollegeHumor contributors, has subsequently said there are no hard feelings. The cartoonist reportedly wrote to the Mastroiannis in an e-mail: "We all wear our influences openly on the comics page. I'm sure Poncho wouldn't be drinking from the toilet if Grimmy hadn't done it first, and who can do a snowman gag without bowing to Calvin? I totally understand that we're all pouring from the same kettle, so similarities are bound to happen, and I guess that's just what happened here."

There is much truth in that. Especially when writing for a creation that centers on, say, "dog humor" or "workplace humor" or "dysfunctional family humor," there are the more obvious jokes that naturally come to the fore. And Gilligan also rightly gets at how often comic-strip creators stand on the shoulders of their forebears, both visually and comedically.

Yet Comic Riffs urges that cartoonists be willing to acknowledge that when two ideas are glaringly identical in execution or wording, the possibility is distinct that the repeated idea was indeed once seen and then lay dormant till deadline, filed away without full realization. Because when you write humor for a living, some part of your brain is almost always "on," searching and scouring and scouting for any scrap of potential fodder. Fodder that you hope you can mine for entirely original comedy gold.

Too often, though, someone has already mined that same river. It's crowded terrain, which is why Comic Riffs applauds not only those creators who can turn over a fresh idea. We also laud those who can admit when they errantly stole someone else's stone.

The kicker to all this is that the respective parties say they plan to get together for "no hard feelings" meet-ups: Stone and Parker say they'll see the guys the next time they're in New York; the "Pooch Cafe" and "C-Kennel" cartoonists say they'll all hoist a few at a 2011 cartoonists' convention.

So comedic kumbayas of forgiveness all around, eh? Hardly an original idea. But still a worthy one.




By Michael Cavna  | October 23, 2010; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  General, The Animation, The Comic Strip  | Tags:  College Humor, Dogs of C-Kennel, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Mick and Mason Mastroianni, Paul Gilligan, Pooch Cafe, South Park  
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Have you seen the Seinfeld episode "The Cartoon" where elaine rips of Ziggy in a cartoon she does for the new yorker.

Posted by: boywaja | October 23, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

In one of my college art classes, two guys told a gal that what she was drawing was not original.

The art professor heard them and he told them, "If she has never seen anyone do what she is doing done by anyone else, her work is definitely original."

Many people can have the very same original idea and they can have it at the same time even without even knowing each other exist.

Posted by: joe_allen_doty | October 23, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

yep instead of nope, now that's original!

Posted by: jimbo1949 | October 24, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I hate to see an excellent strip like "Pooch Cafe'" be copied by the B.C. guys, but then as the old saying goes, "If you're going to plagiarize, then plagiarize from the best." Imitation is the sincerest form of theft, etc.

I really miss "Pooch Cafe'" in the print WaPo, which is yet another reason why I read the online version a lot more than the dead-tree edition. Of course, the print edition can't make space for a really good contemporary strip like "Pooch Cafe'" (or "Frazz", for that matter) on the comics page, since they have to reserve that space for creative break-throughs like "Beetle Bailey", "Family Circus", and, of course, the "Classic Peanuts" re-runs.

Posted by: seismic-2 | October 25, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Bad dog. Is that yours? You know that's not yours. Put it down. Put. It. Down.

Posted by: laboo | October 25, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse

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