‘SNL,’ the Groundlings, and the Parallel Thinking Excuse

Members of Los Angeles’ famed Groundlings theater company have made headlines by accusing SNL of lifting their sketch during last weekend’s Sarah Silverman episode. The piece in question, “River Sisters,” featured Silverman, Cecily Strong, and Sasheer Zamata as a Tina Turner tribute act performing “Proud Mary” on a crummy river cruise, which many have noticed bears a strong resemblance to a sketch that has been running at the Groundlings for several weeks, with Kimberly Condict and Vanessa Ragland as identically-dressed Tina Turner lookalikes, similarly bemoaning their careers to the song (except in a casino). Groundlings teacher Ian Gary claimed that SNL writers have plagiarized “many, many” of the theater’s bits in the past, with victims too intimidated to ruffle the feathers of the gatekeepers that could one day give them their dream jobs. Splitsider mentioned the similarity in our review of the episode, and several other sources (Deadline, AV Club, Good Morning America) have more or less rendered a guilty verdict for the show.  SNL hasn’t responded, other than to take down its Twitter and Instagram photos of the sketch. Meanwhile, a source close to the show attributed the sketches’ similarity to “parallel thinking.”

Of course, this isn’t the first accusation of joke thievery we’ve heard directed at SNL. Many of them, in retrospect, appear to be baseless. In 2010, when the show featured a tiny hat gag in a 10-to-1 sketch, Tim and Eric pointed out that they had done a similar bit in 2007, essentially trying to claim ownership over the idea of tiny hats. (The controversy has been mentioned in a few articles covering this recent dispute.) Then, a year ago, comedian Iliza Schlesinger accused the show of lifting a joke she had about airport boarding zones for a sketch in the season premiere, despite the fact that air travel is regular comedic fodder for SNL (and, hell, everyone). And let’s not forget the few similar premises that aired on Key & Peele and SNL in the same week… though those never made headlines.

Some accusations have been proven valid, however: former cast member Jay Mohr admitted in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime that he stole a joke from New York comedian Rick Shapiro and turned it into a sketch. Add Mohr’s admission on top of the well documented examples of joke stealing by comedians like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, as well as Patton Oswalt’s elegant clarion call against the practice, and it’s no wonder why people might roll their eyes at the “parallel thinking” excuse.

The legit cases of theft, along with the explosion of amateur comedians on Twitter and sites like Funny or Die, has led to a watchdog culture in the comedy world, with red flags hastily raised at any notice of similarity between bits, prominent comedians readily put on blast for stealing (often in an attempt to drive up site traffic), and premises scrutinized by “experts” who have never written a sketch in their lives. This site has published a number of pieces on the subject (most notably, Adam Frucci’s useful “check list” in 2011), and each arrived at the same conclusion: a comedian intentionally stealing another comedian’s idea, especially if the thief is already more established than the victim, is a legitimate problem that does exist, so let’s make sure we get it right when we accuse someone of it. (Or when we publish articles about people accusing someone of it.)

What makes this Tina Turner instance so alarming – other than the unusual similarity between the sketches – is that the victims of the alleged theft are established writer-performers with a ton of experience in SNL-style sketch comedy. (It should also be noted that they harbor “no ill will” toward SNL… despite their colleagues happily fanning the flames.) As members of the Groundlings’ Sunday Company, they’re also in the pool of talent considered by SNL scouts every summer, which means there’s a chance someone who works at SNL actually saw their sketch.

So, does SNL have some explaining to do? Or has the show once again become every snarky critic’s punching bag, forced to weather the same misplaced outrage that reared its ugly head on Leslie Jones last spring?

While most of the “SNL stole my bit” claims we hear aren’t worth much discussion, this one is, merely to attempt to bring reason to a media frenzy over alleged plagiarism that has jumped the gun with the facts, ignored key realities of working in comedy, and missed the broader point about SNL’s role in the comedy industry.

No one has proven that SNL intentionally stole the Groundlings’ sketch.

All we know at this point is that SNL aired a sketch that was very, very similar to a sketch that had been running for six weeks at the Groundlings – a well-known comedy theater that SNL producers routinely visit during the summer to scout for talent. The Groundlings sketch wasn’t uploaded to YouTube until the day after the SNL version aired, so writers had no way of knowing it existed other than seeing it live or hearing about it second-hand. We don’t know for sure whether any SNL staff members actually saw that sketch in particular, whether any of those staff members pitched or wrote sketches for last week’s episode, or, if both of those are true, whether the writer of the “River Sisters” piece remembered the Groundlings bit or even realized what he or she was doing. We do know that SNL is a high-pressure environment where writers and actors are desperate for air time, and that at least one of them in SNL’s 40-year history has resorted to stealing another comedian’s idea.

The allegation that SNL has ripped off Groundlings sketches in the past is equally vague, without knowing which sketches exactly, whether SNL writers had access to them, or how closely each of those allegedly lifted premises resembled the original versions. We’ve seen no verified history of stolen sketches, only that some people at the Groundlings certainly believe there’s a history – strongly enough to say so publicly.

To be clear, word-for-word comedy plagiarism is a very real problem that far too many people – both consumers and producers of comedy – remain shockingly tolerant of. SNL does not have a perfect record. But so far, the only evidence that SNL lifted the Tina Turner sketch is similarity, which is far from a smoking gun. The two sketches have much in common – premise, wardrobe, music – but are, in the end, different scripts. To say they’re the same would be intellectually dishonest, or the result of watching them on mute, perhaps. So it’s worth at least considering other explanations.

Parallel thinking and coincidences actually do occur among comedy writers.

What should surprise any comedy writer following this story is that the accusers in this case do not also entertain parallel thinking as a remote possibility. True parallel thinking – in which two writers conceive and develop the same idea independently, without influencing each other – seems so implausible that most people shrug it off, like some kind of insanity defense for intellectual thieves. Admittedly, the phenomenon is rare, especially when the subject matter isn’t a trending topic or a theme currently bobbing around the zeitgeist. Contrary to what the source close to the show told AV Club, Tina Turner lookalikes performing in a shoddy venue while venting about their miserable lives, is not a “common idea.”

However, unless they’re living in a bubble, every comedy writer has experienced that moment of incredulity upon learning that someone else has genuinely given birth to the same premise or joke that they have. “Tiny hats” is a random visual gag that amused SNL writers, and before them, Tim and Eric, and before them, Damon Wayans on In Living Color. And while it seems suspect that the Groundlings’ and SNL’s finished products so closely resembled each other, it’s not the biggest logical leap to imagine two writers who both separately thought it would be funny to see a sad Tina Turner lounge act, and then possessed similar instincts for how to heighten that idea. With comedy schools like the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade standardizing the way comedy writers develop sketches, and with more platforms than ever for those writers to put up their material, these kinds of intellectual overlaps will continue to happen. And we can’t freak out and accuse each other of theft every time it does.

Without knowing for sure whether “River Sisters” was the result of this kind of parallel thinking, or was somehow lifted by an SNL writer, the show could avoid these awkward situations by increasing its awareness of the work its colleagues are doing.

SNL should hold itself to a higher standard of originality.

With so much sketch comedy being produced for television, online platforms, and live theaters across the country – not to mention all the sketch comedy from TV shows in the past – it’s virtually impossible to be aware of every idea that’s ever been done, and avoid any similarity to each of those ideas. That said, SNL isn’t a broke online sketch group blissfully shooting a sketch that Mr. Show did 20 years ago. It’s a flagship comedy institution with a network TV budget and a staff of comedians who could afford to be a little more aware of the material that’s blowing up elsewhere on television, online, and at their home theaters. However “River Sisters” made it to the SNL writers room, it wouldn’t hurt the show to exclusively produce content that viewers have never seen before – by retiring worn, recurring bits, and, yes, by doing everything in its power to make sure a sketch wasn’t previously performed elsewhere. And while that seems like tall order for a live show produced in under a week, all it takes is for one person in the room to speak up and say, “Hey, doesn’t this NFL Intros sketch seem pretty similar to that Key & Peele bit?” or, “This Tina Turner idea feels like something I remember hearing about in LA. I should check that out.”

As a show that pretty much every comedian was influenced by at some point in their lives, SNL should carry the creative burden that true originality requires – not live in ignorance and hide behind the parallel thinking excuse when the show’s material looks too much like sketches other established comedians have already done.

Alternatively, SNL can continue to piss everyone off and inspire think-pieces on comedy plagiarism. And that doesn’t seem to bother SNL one bit.

Erik Voss has been writing about SNL for Splitsider since 2010. He does improv and sketch comedy at the iO Theater in Los Angeles, performing on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way. He once wrote a sketch about overzealous Ghostbusters, just to see the same freaking idea pop up on Funny or Die the following day. There is no way this was just parallel thinking.

‘SNL,’ the Groundlings, and the Parallel Thinking […]