Earlier this week an essay appeared on the Huffington Post which accused Heritage Action of plagiarism with regards to some Internet spots they are currently running starring Clint Howard. As the writer for the Heritage Action ads in question, let me address the charge of plagiarism directly. First of all, I can give you my word of honor as a gentleman* that until yesterday morning I had never seen or even heard of the SEIU ads I am accused of plagiarizing. I have heard of Lee Camp, as I peruse the Huffington Post regularly for joke premises, and I have even sampled a couple of Mr. Camp’s alleged comedy offerings. Not being a fan of his work, however, there would be no reason for me to seek out additional examples of it. I would be more than happy to undergo a polygraph examination to corroborate my claims of innocence on the condition that Mr. Camp undergo a polygraph test to corroborate his claims of being a comedy writer which I have been unable to document elsewhere.
Moreover, even if I had seen the SEIU ads, Mr. Camp’s claim that I plagiarized his work is preposterous. As any legitimate comedy writer knows– no, as anyone who owns and operates a television set knows– the boardroom “pitch meeting” featuring an ill-tempered, out-of-touch boss surrounded by yes-men and women alternately sucking up to him and pitching lame ideas, is one of advertising’s most durable, time-honored scenarios. [For a lengthier discussion of this phenomenon, go here.] It is the joke-teller’s equivalent of “a priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar”**; the screenwriter’s equivalent of “boy meets girl”***. Saying I plagiarized his work is like saying that E.R. plagiarized St. Elsewhere because they were both shows about hospitals.
After acknowledging that not a single word of his deathless prose was actually lifted from the SEIU ad (the usual definition of plagiarism), Mr. Camp claims that I copied the “mannerisms, style, and feel” of his piece. In the sense that both spots were shot with a hand-held camera and featured actors speaking to one another in English, I take his point. But if that’s Mr. Camp’s idea of plagiarism, I suggest he get himself a good lawyer because he’s got a lot of TV, movie and advertising writers to sue. He could start with this list of companies that have created humorous TV ad campaigns using the classic corporate boardroom pitch meeting as a premise:
- Air Tran Airways
- Big Boy restaurants
- General Electric
- Burger King
- Bud Light – including Super Bowl halftime ads
- Diet 7-Up
- Del Taco – many ads using this premise
- Fed Ex – literally dozens of classic, often award-winning TV ads since the 1980’s, many of which aired during Super Bowls
- Jack in the Box – dozens of such ads over the years
- Direct TV – currently, featuring Ed Begley, Jr.
- Snapple – current, where the woman says, “We’re dating!” at the end.
This is, of course, just a partial list, and just of TV commercials. It doesn’t include the probably hundreds of sketches on Saturday Night Live and other TV shows since at least the Johnny Carson era (remember the Lowenboy beer ads?), and at least one scene every week from a current show Mr. Camp may have heard of called Mad Men.
I think we can all agree that accusing another writer (let’s just say for the sake of argument that Mr. Camp really is a writer) of plagiarism is a serious matter, and before doing so one should really have one’s facts straight. Clearly, Mr. Camp’s claims that I plagiarized his work have no merit. So in closing I say to you, Lee Camp, have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency? The world awaits your response.
*a figure of speech I occasionally use but did not, in fact, originate
**If Mr. Camp were actually a comedy writer he would know this.
***Full disclosure: I am currently working on a screenplay during which a boy meets a girl, a scenario my attorneys assure me is in the public domain.