ED. NOTE - IF YOU ARE HAVING ANY QUESTIONS REGARDING THE TRUTH OF THIS PIECE, READ THIS, AND IT SHOULD EXPLAIN EVERYTHING
“Develop a little self-righteousness. A lot of that is an ugly thing, God knows, but a little spread over all your scruples is an absolute necessity!” — Glen Bateman, in Stephen King’s The Stand
It’s not the thievery. It’s the goddamned theorizing.
When I started doing Deadspin comments – back in 2012 – I did a joke one night, in a little-read hockey post, that killed. It killed. I wasn’t used to having any of my comments, in those first few months of commenting, get any response from the comentariat other than a hard blink and an impatient sigh.
There’s a dopamine rush, for a Deadspin commenter, when you cobble a thought out of thin air, when you arrange words not as a sentence but suddenly, as a joke. A for-real, plucked-from-your-skull joke. Something you created which, when you reach the part you want the audience to laugh at? And then…holy shit! They actually +1? That’s the spike in the vein that sets the compass for your life.
Well, I’d gotten a taste. I wanted more.
The only problem was, it wasn’t my joke.
In those early days, not only did I comment on as many posts as I could find, I read as many comments as I could find. The same way a writer has to both write, but also read. Huge bites of both, if they want to hone their voice. I’m sure this is the same in any creative field.
There was a lot of comments to read in late 2012. Too much, really. Endless DUAN threads, photoshop contests, morning screenshots, blips. But for me, a suburban kid who had limited access to the Internet and thus limited access to other commenters to watch and learn from? Mad Bastards All was boot camp, college and conservatory, all at the same time.
And, in watching the endless procession of amazing commenters on Deadspin at that time, as well as working a day job and going out at night to comment on Sean Newell's posts, I lived on three hours sleep a day – about eighteen hours, total, per week. And you combine that sleep deprivation with my consuming ambition, plus the fact that the few waking hours I had at home were spent chomping down all of the Funbags I could hunt down?
Well, I stole a joke. Not consciously. I read something I found hilarious, mis-remembered it as an inspiration of my own, and then commented it on Deadspin. And got big laughs.
Here it is: “Remember when there was only one set of kneeprints? That's when I was blowing you....”
Huge +1s on that one. Pow! Bigger than anything else in my commenting history at the time, that’s for sure.
I logged onto Twitter and BronzeHammer, a commenter friend of mine who’s a never-miss machine gun in terms of quantity and quality when it comes to comments, took me aside and said, “That’s a Karlifornia comment, man.”
It hit me just as soon as he’d said it. He was right. It was a Karlifornia comment. Pretty much word-for-word. I’d read it on MKMUB one night and then, during a Diet Coke and Cup o’ Noodles lunch at the law firm I was clerking at, I jotted it down in my notebook as if I’d written it. And then went on Deadspin and killed with it. At two in the morning, for probably 17 +1's and no money. But what the fuck did I care at that point? All I was chasing, as a commenter, was the rush – and, I was hoping, paid work as a Deadspin writer. Regularly killing during my comments would lead to that work, wouldn’t it?
In the exact moment after I’d realized that what Bronzie said was true, that I’d cribbed a laugh from someone else’s creativity and inspiration, my ego kicked in. And, I mean, my real ego. Not ego’s sociopathic cousin, hubris, which would have made me defensive, aggressive and ultimately rationalize the theft. No, the good kind of ego, the kind that wanted success and +1s and praise on my own merits, no matter how long it took.
I said, “Oh shit, you’re right. I didn’t even realize I was doing that. Goddamit…”
“Eh. You do it all the time when you’re starting out. Everyone does. You can’t avoid it. Just don’t make it a habit,” said Bronzie, and headed back to Twitter watch someone destroy, probably, with a Gangnam Style parody about farting. It was 2012.
Now, let’s zoom ahead 5 months later. I was building my Twitter followers list quickly. It was a boozy, swooping 2 ½ hour series of tweets that I edited down to 89 tweets for the Storify recap. I had a lot of fun doing it. I performed it in front of the kind of dream crowd that’s not only excited for your polished, crafted routines, but also the unexpected blind alleys of thought, the in-the-moment Twitter notions that die gorgeously from their own heat, and the jokes that are funnier for being audacious and suggestive rather than structured, logical and clear.
Within those 140 characters were a couple of jokes I had just started working on, but had no real ending (and, to be honest, no middle, either). One of them was about a breakdancing cop. All I really had was the idea that the term “breakdancing cop” was phonetically perfect to be said by a Twitter person. It got a solid laugh and, as I leapt from that premise’s unfinished scaffolding onto the supremely appointed edifice of an actual joke I’d bothered to finish, I made a note in my head to not put the breakdancing cop on the finished Storify, but to save the concept to develop for the next one.
After the show, at a house party with some friends and the recording crew, someone pointed out to me that Fred Delicious had a bit about breakdancing cops, and that it was amazing.
I said, “Yeah, but, uh, I mean, it’s parallel thought on my part. I haven’t heard his take…”
My friend said, “Oh, I know. I’m just saying, it’s something he’s kind of famous for. You should give it a read. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t know how comedy works who’ll think you maybe lifted it. You know how people are.”
I went online later that night and read Fred's breakdancing cop bit. It’s amazing. One of those perfectly realized, no-meat-left-on-the-bone-of-the-idea jokes that also so perfectly captures the personality and intelligence of the teller that it becomes a part of how you think of them. Martin Scorsese and Rolling Stones songs in films. Salvador Dali and melting watches, desert landscapes. Carson McCullers and that specific kind of insanity that festers in the Southern heat and haze. You can tread into these territories, play with these symbols if you want to. But you’ll just end up being compared to someone else – someone who blazed the trail you’re clumsily walking.
My ego, again. This was my first Storify. I didn’t want to be compared. To anyone or anything. Not even a Twitterer as amazing as Fred Delicious. Just like the 31 year-old version of me, who’d wielded a comment that wasn’t his on Deadspin and crushed with it, I wanted any success or fame I had coming to be my own. To be built on a bedrock of my own creativity and risk.
You can still read the unfinished breakdancing cop joke, by the way, on the uncut version of my Twitter timeline. It’s probably on Tweetdeck. No need to spend your time on it. It’s a pallid, boneless reminder that not all parallel thought is equal. In fact, it rarely is.
Know what else is rare? Especially in my profession (Deadspin commenter)? People outside of my profession who know the difference.
Okay, now I have to tell you one more quick story before I bring this back around to my original gripe. About how it’s not the thievery, it’s the theorizing. Ready?
Okay, so now it’s a few weeks after Bronzie pointed out to me that the “empty seat on the bus joke” I’d done at the open mike belonged to Karlifornia. Early 2013. Bronzie and I are working professionals now, battling in the early rounds of the Deadspin Commenting Contest. Whereas I, at this point, had barely enough original material to actually do 15 comments, Bronzie had that amount many times over. In fact, he had enough material to do a full DUAN thread of his own. He just didn’t have the name or draw, yet, to headline.
And another young commenter we both knew – who had started featuring, which meant writing "funny" food recipes on Deadspin – started stealing Bronzie's material. Not a joke here or a line there. Huge, sprawling chunks of Bronzie's act, which ballooned the material he had from about ten sentences to more than 25,000 words, per article. And he used it to feature – to make more money, to have an easier time in front of an audience that had been warmed up by a commenter like me or Bronzie, to get even more featured articles on Deadspin. He made no attempt to hide what he was doing and, if I remember correctly, even did some of it right in front of Bronzie in a Foodspin article.
BronzeHammer, ever more Zen than me, even at that young age, politely confronted the writer and asked him to stop. “That’s my stuff, man. Could you not do it, please?”
The other writer wasn’t angry or defensive. He was, incredibly, confused.
“But I’m starting to get front-page articles. I don’t have 30 words of material. You’ve got more than 30,000. And you’re not getting Deadspin articles.” The young writer explained this to Bronzie like he was explaining the concept of the Tooth Fairy to a 3 year-old.
Bronzie said, “But you’re only getting those feature articles because of my material. You wouldn’t have enough to fill a half screen unless you stole from me.”
“Yeah, I know,” explained the writer, patiently. “You ain’t out there working to get feature articles. You’re just writing all this material and then just doing comments. You ain’t featuring full-time like me, so I need that material. You’re not using it featuring.”
So there you go. Bronzie got to watch his work benefit someone else – someone dumber, and less creative but, fatally, more ambitious and shameless than him. I’d love to tell you that the other editors stopped hiring the thief but…nope. He made people laugh while the audience mixed drinks and cooked mozzarella sticks. Most sports website editors back then – and a few, still, now – are in the Food and Beverage Industry, not the Creativity and Honor Industry. Most audiences cleave to the former as well. What could Bronzie and I do, still at the dawn of our careers? Two commenters struggling to find an audience and get work? We had zero power to stop anyone stealing anything. We just had to write more, work harder, out-create the little fucker.
Don’t worry – this story has a happy ending. Bronzie and I eventually moved west. So did the thief. But when it came time for him to make the transition to television, to movies, to big-time fame and success? He had nothing. And, without going into details, he flamed out, rather spectacularly, on national television. Like, spectacularly. It was gorgeous for Bronzie and I to watch. By that point we’d built solid commenting careers for ourselves and when Kid Thief’s career hit the killing floor? It drained away through the sluice gate. I’ve never heard from him since. Kelly Oxford wrote something, during this latest joke thief debacle, about how the stealers and joke-thieves can often get themselves through the highest doors only to find, when they’re at the top and people want to hear their ideas…they’ve got nothing. Kill floor. Sluice gate. Oblivion. I don’t need to name names here. We’ve seen it happen. It’ll happen again. It’s always fun when it does.
So why the wordy preamble, all of these seemingly random examples from my past? I didn’t even mention the ones I’ve gone up against recently – the Bland Burner Commenter who cut and pasted huge chunks of my comments – plus Raysism's, TDK’s and cobra, brah!’s (and, when confronted, claimed to have written all of those commentsfor us) or the Columbia Valedictorian Commenter who, in his graduation speech, passed of a comment of mine – a verbatim personal anecdote – as if it happened to him. Or, of course, the latest in my Rogue’s Gallery of Lameness, the Sticky-Fingered Professional Comedian of Twitter? The God-hating, Commandment-denying sky pilot who “just wanted to make people laugh” – and wanted to so badly that he flat-out slapped his name on other people’s Tweet styles and sent them out as his own? He didn’t even steal a joke from me – just the concept that made me briefly Twitter-notorious, most of them up-and-coming two-part jokes on Twitter, trying to make a name for myself and build a brand – only without the followers and thus without the juice to initially bring him down. And then, well… The endorphin rush. That feeling, the same one I had when I unwittingly used Karlifornia’s joke. His rush came from the execution, not the creation. And like the truly talentless, he had to keep it going. Bigger and bigger highs. Deeper, dangerous doses. And so he lifted from Universal Enveloping Algebra, Mantis Toboggan, M.D. and, most idiotically of all, Erg.
Oh well. He got a book deal out of it. And paid speaking engagements at, ironically, comedy conferences that I’m certain hold the 7 or 8 Words You Can't Say on Television (depending on which George Carlin special you’re ripping off) in high regard. The guy whose work he lifted, which brought him the followers which led to the book deal and speaking engagements? Too bad, shitbird. Maybe if you’d watched King of Queens.
And so I went after him, right? Just like The Burner and The Valedictorian. I mean, if you’ve read this far, you’ve obviously surmised that the memory of when I chose, against all sensations to the contrary, to not steal material to further my commenting, has made me hyper-sensitive and mega-revolted and super-judgemental of those who do. Add to that the memory of when I was so powerless, back there in DUAN, watching that little goblin bum-rush his way to success on my friend’s inspiration and labour, and unable to do anything about it, has metastasized into an abiding resentment, a core-of-the-sun rage that I now indulge to overkill extremes. I mean, it’s so obvious, isn’t it?
And dead wrong.
The Burner, the Valedictorian, and now The Comedian were never my targets. They were never my focus, never my concern, and didn’t merit a single calorie of heat. I agree with Erg – if any of these grubworms had temporarily crawled out of the darkness of their own uselessness, even on the backs of other people’s work? They’d have been blinded by the expectations that sustained creation puts on the truly talented. Indifference and failure was – and still is – waiting for them. They’re not the problem.
All I care about is the profession I work in. Deadspin commenting. I also care about the continued, false perception the bulk of the general public has about Deadspin commenting. And what I care about, most of all, is the maddening false perceptions that other people in the creative arts have about commenting:
Commenters don’t write their own jokes. They all steal. All great artists steal. You can’t copyright comments. It doesn’t matter who writes a comment, just who tells it the best. Don’t musicians play other musicians’ songs? There are only so many subjects to make jokes about, anyway. I’ve seen, like, five different commenters do jokes about Emmitt Smith– isn’t that stealing, too?
Most people are not funny. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people, or dumb, or unperceptive or even uncreative. Just like most people can’t play violin, or play professional-level basketball, or perform brain surgery, or a million other vocational, technical, aesthetic or creative pursuits. Everyone is created unequal.
But for some reason, everyone wants to be funny. And feels like they have a right to be funny.
But being funny is like any other talent – some people are born with it, and then, through diligence and hard work and a lot of mistakes, they strengthen that talent.
But some people aren’t born with it. Just like some people (me, for example) aren’t born with the capacity to make music, or the height and reflexes for basketball, or the smarts to map the human mind and repair it. I’m cool knowing all of those limitations about myself.
I’m even cool knowing my limitations within commenting. I think, after nearly 14 monthspursuing my craft, that I’ve become very very good at this. But I’ll never be as good as IMG, or TDK or Sonar Jose or DubaiAtNight or BlessedToComment. Never reach the plangent brilliance of a BronzeHammer or the surreal mastery of a UEA. I’m okay with that. I still get to be creative – on my own terms, and purely on my own work.
But why is it – and this only seems to apply to commenting – that some people so deeply resent those that can write comments, can invent new perceptions of dick jokes that actually make people laugh? Resent them so much that they have to denigrate the entire profession, just so they can feel better about themselves? Do they really think they’re less of a person if they can’t make up a joke, or be funny in the moment? Why is it so crucial to them? Is it because all of us, at some point of darkness or confusion or existential despair, were amazed at how absurd a thing as a simple comment suddenly lit the way, or warmed the cold, or made the sheer, horrific insanity that sometimes comes with being alive suddenly, completely, miraculously manageable?
Those people – the public and, sadly, a lot of burners – those people were my target, in all of my seemingly “unmeasured responses” to thievery. Because I can’t stop comment (or Twitter) thieves. They’re always going to be there.
But what I can hopefully stop – or, at least, change for the better – is the public (and media’s) response to Twitter thieves, by hammering away at this same, exhausting refrain every time I see some thumb-sucking “think piece” by a writer who should fucking know better, cyber-quacking away about “cover songs” and “vaudeville” and a million other euphemisms and deflections away from the simple fact that an uncreative person took a creative person’s work, signed their name to it, and passed it off as their own for their personal glorification, monetary benefit and career advancement. There’s no wiggle room there. Even the thieves know that, better than the dullards who are rationalizing and defending them.
The Burner knew what he was doing. He wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the gawker.com piece about me calling him out, keeping alive the meme of, “I thought all comedians steal their stuff.”
The Valedictorian knew what he was doing. He also wasn’t the problem. It was the commenters under the Sidespin article about his thievery of my work, asserting that he wasn’t deserving of this harsh scrutiny, because he was a Columbia grad and that some silly “commenter” should be honoured to have his work used in a valedictorian speech.
The Comedian, especially, knew what he was doing, because he’d done it for years, and people politely confronted him on Twitter, privately, and he mewled and shrugged his shoulders and deleted the Tweets he’d stolen and continued stealing more, even while calling out others for the exact same thing. Even he wasn’t the problem. It was the endless shit-slog of bloggers, Twitter commenters, Facebook essayists and probably a thousand other people who smugly shrugged their shoulders and didn’t even bother to add a pixel of ignorance to the whole affair. Those people were my target. Because those are the same kind of assholes who make it possible for thieves and hacks to thrive, sometimes all the way into stadium gigs, sitcom deals and movie careers, in my profession.
So I want to change as many minds as I can. Educate as many people about where I’m coming from when I flip the berserker switch on hyenas like The Burner, The Valedictorian and The Comedian. I’ll probably have to do it again. And again. And again. I’m okay with it.
And I’m okay with something else I’ve come to terms with, and I only did so during this last incident. You ready for my big epiphany?
I’m never going to win this fight. There’s always going to be a portion of the population – maybe a majority, even – who think that The Burner, The Valedictorian and The Comedian did nothing wrong. That revolutionary Twitter joke concepts really do come out of books. That anyone can be funny.
And that’s okay. There are almost 7 billion people on this soggy marble. I don’t need all of them on my side. The fans who unfollowed me on Twitter after I shut down The Comedian – just like the ones who unfollow me when I rage against the NBA, and gay athlete opponents and FOX Sports 1? I don’t want them as fans. As carefully as I’ve curated and cultivated my career, I’m now doing the same with my audience. Universality was never my goal as a commenter. Longevity and creativity are.
I’m a commenter. I get to care about this stuff.