Playing the Hits

Natalie Shapero
April 4, 2013
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With its premium on concision, pacing, and meditative gaze, stand-up comedy is probably the medium of performance most readily analogized to poetry. That is, when it comes to issues of shape, technique, and voice. As to whether the “industry norms” line up, that’s a separate question.

In particular, I’m thinking of the recent dust-up over whether or not Chris Rock stole a joke essentially wholesale from the younger, sillier comic Aziz Ansari. In a 2012 interview on The Daily Show, Chris Rock bemoaned the fact that stand-ups are under constant pressure from their audiences to produce and perform new material, while rock stars step on stage to the sound of fans chanting for them to play the hits. Sting gets to belt out “Roxanne” over and over and then head out for drinks, while his colleagues in comedy are chained to their desks — it just isn’t fair. Ansari, it turned out, had delivered a markedly similar bit in a radio interview earlier in the year, except he went with “Every Breath You Take.” (After giving this due thought, I remain agnostic as to which is funnier.)

Using someone else’s material is a grave offense in stand-up. (If you’re interested in how joke theft is patrolled for and punished, I recommend this rather gripping episode of WTF.) But what’s most intriguing to me about the Rock-Ansari controversy isn’t how to discern a stolen joke from mere independent invention, nor the obvious grass-is-greener rejoinder that rock stars surely wish to evolve as artists and tire of having old anthems demanded of them. What’s most intriguing to me is how the whole story posits two axes of creative theft: (1) stealing from your past writing to feed your future writing, and (2) taking your neighbor’s ideas and incorporating them into your own work. And then it suggests that you may need to engage in the second in the service of avoiding the first.

So, what does poetry have to say about whether it’s permissible to copy oneself? Plenty of writers are fully uninhibited when it comes to re-using particularly potent lines or images. After all, the severely limited audience for most published poetry means you’re unlikely to get caught transplanting the same old barbs and wisdoms into new scenes and stanzas, unlike a high-profile writer might. This latitude might even double for those writers who toggle between genres, perhaps crafting a book of poems and then a novel from the same source material. I’ve heard people allude to a particular dispensation for copying from previous work in this context, in the way that airline pilots and traveling salesmen have historically been the most successful at maintaining secret families. You can set up a second wife and set of kids in a port city across the country, no problem. But it just won’t fly if you keep them right down the street.

Re-using old material isn’t a particularly high-stakes affair. It doesn’t cause harm or heartbreak; it doesn’t much matter. Still, there may be reasons to push ourselves, as writers, not to do it. I was blown back this month by Thomas Frank’s superb essay “Broken English,” which lamented the “business, now a sort of epidemic, of presenting everything as an ‘argument.'” Frank demonstrates how construction “some might argue” has caught fire among media commentators, providing a tidy escape from having to own the opinions they spout on TV. The world of literature is not even immune from this “conditional voodoo” — Frank gives the example of Junot Díaz relying on the language of argument when discussing the motivations of one of his characters during a radio interview.

This essay makes me want to see writers and thinkers taking the leap of wholeheartedly embracing their reactions to new and uncertain situations. I want this not because I’m some sort of relentless novelty hound, but instead as an acknowledgment of the world’s rapid and incessant evolution and sharpening, and the resulting need for evolving and increasingly sharp reactions to it. I want commitment to new phrasings and concepts, and the rigorous analysis that such a commitment demands. I want to be recognized as a reader worthy of this and more. As a certain high-profile writer might say (and say and say and say), don’t talk to me like I’m other people.



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