"Good artists copy; great artists steal." This concept explains roughly 85% of the witty things people say in everyday conversation. I've only ever caught two people in the act of stealing witticisms. I'd like to think that my pop culture radar is so developed that these were the only two to fly under, but my utter cluelessness in these cases would indicate otherwise.
The first time it happened, a friend of friend – call him Mark – had come into town and my crew was showing him around Chicago. After the Bean and karaoke at Trader Todd's, we were merrily driving home when someone mentioned The Godfather.
"You know what I hate about The Godfather?" says Mark. "It insists on itself."
While I didn't agree with the statement entirely (some artworks are allowed leeway to insist as such, and I won't penalize them for being accurate), I did have to admire the sentiment. It was an interesting concept. A great concept. Yes, The Godfather definitely had the conceit of a work that knows it's going to be remembered as a class and thus can take itself as seriously as it pleases.
A couple of years later, I was walking with my brother and his wife down Riverside Drive in New York City. The Godfather comes up and my brother says, "I did not care for The Godfather. It insists upon itself." I nearly lost it. My brother, stunned and mildly curious, informed me that he was quoting a scene from Family Guy.
I was flabbergasted. I had never experienced someone completely ripping off a joke like that, and in a way that could be proven so easily. If someone had recognized the reference during that car ride, I guess Mark could have played it off. But no one did and so he didn't have to.
Of course, as I was to learn when the same scenario repeated itself, people do indeed accomplish that with full intention. Years ago, when voicemail recordings were more of an artform and a novelty than they are now, my entire family was enchanted by a particular person's voicemail. Call him Jacob.
Jacob's recording went something like this:
"Believe or not, Jacob isn't home! Please leave a message on the phone. Is he in bed or maybe drinking tea? Where could he be!"
We would sing the little song at each other - as well as in front of Jacob. It wasn't until this year, when I watched Kat Dennings interact with Jason Alexander on a talk show, that I heard George's voicemail from Seinfeld. It was the same tune, the same self-aggrandizing third person, the same great sense of self-deprecating humor. The familiar feeling from my experience with Mark's reference crept back in: euphoria at my discovery mixed with the sinking weight of disappointment.
Mark and Jacob thought they were stealing when in reality they were only borrowing. On some level I should admire what they accomplished, but I can't help be disappointed - that they weren't as original as they claimed, or that in the world at large I don't personally know whoever came up with that material. Or maybe I'm sad that I could see the behind the window dressings, to the man behind the curtain, to the magician rigging up his carefully-plotted machinations.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.