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Amy Schumer's alleged joke stealing, explained

It's hard to figure out where the so-called backlash ends and the genuine questions about her comedic integrity begin.

Actress and comedian Amy Schumer attends the 21st Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 17, 2016, in Santa Monica, California.
Actress and comedian Amy Schumer attends the 21st Annual Critics' Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on January 17, 2016, in Santa Monica, California.
Mark Davis/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There is no comedian right now as popular and as visible as Amy Schumer. Schumer is friends with Jennifer Lawrence. Schumer has become a pop culture symbol for feminism. Schumer's movie Trainwreck was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics' Choice Award, a People's Choice Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award. Everything Schumer touches turns into gold.

But Schumer now faces an allegation that undermines her recent success: She's being called a plagiarist — a joke stealer. And it probably doesn't matter that the people who initially laid out those allegations have since retracted them.

Some of the allegations against Schumer, whom many consider to be a feminist, came from female comedians

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend three female comedians — Kathleen Madigan, Wendy Liebman, and Tammy Pescatelli — alleged, through their Twitter accounts, that Schumer stole their jokes and presented them as her own. Because Twitter is a fickle beast, the tweets have been deleted. But Refinery 29 and other websites documented the messages.

"What has always been amazing to me is that she purports to be a feminist and yet only steals from other female comedians," Pescatelli tweeted (and later deleted). "If we call her on it we are 'jealous' or career shamed. Be successful. WE want you to do well, just do it [with] your own material. BTW she blocked me."

When it comes to career-derailing events, allegations of joke stealing are any comedian's worst nightmare.

In Schumer's case, there's obviously the implication that her work isn't original, which is bad enough. But what especially endangers her reputation is that her brand is rooted in feminism.

Over the past year, Schumer has become a symbol of feminism and a champion against slut-shaming and body shamers, an image that the media helped crystallize. "Amy Schumer's epic response to fat shaming," a CNN article declared. "Watch Amy Schumer shut down a rude interviewer like a boss," Time beckoned. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed tabulated "21 reasons Amy Schumer was the one true hero of 2015."

Pescatelli basically called bullshit on all that, positing that Schumer wasn't just a joke stealer but a joke stealer who pushed other women down to boost her own success. It's a double-sided evil for someone who is supposed to be a patron saint of feminism and equality.

Here are the jokes Schumer is accused of stealing

Madigan, Liebman, and Pescatelli accused Schumer of stealing three different jokes, one from each of them. Since their initial allegations, two more — one involving the late comedian Patrice O'Neal and the other involving one of the writers for Schumer's Comedy Central series Inside Amy Schumer — have surfaced. Here's a rundown of the jokes.

1) The Slap "Chef" and weight loss (Schumer vs. Madigan)

Madigan's joke:

Schumer's joke:

Madigan's joke is that Oprah is so rich that she could hire someone to slap the food out of her hands. Schumer's joke is centered on a new weight loss program where a chef would slap the food out of your hands and you'd belong to a gym where trainers would work you out while you sleep.

While there's certainly a similarity here, Madigan's argument is more pointed with regard to Oprah's status and inequality in America. "You have enough money to pay a man to stand there and literally slap shit out of your hand," Madigan says, sneaking in a joke about how people who aren't as well off as Oprah eat at Taco Bell.

2) Paying for sex (Schumer vs. Liebman)

Here's a comparison video of Liebman and Schumer's versions of this joke:

Liebman:"Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like it when the guy pays. For sex."

Amy Schumer: "I am very old-school — I think the guy should always pay on the first date. For sex."

The jokes are very, very similar. The small difference is Schumer's inclusion of "first date" and the difference between Schumer's "think" and Liebman's "like." Some of Schumer's joke is also self-deprecation about her dating life (a frequent theme of her comedy).

3) Dressing men (Schumer vs. Pescatelli)

Pescatelli: "Men, if we love you, we dress you for other women too. That’s why we dress you stupid. "

Schumer (to her sister, about her sister's husband): "You dress him like that so no one else wants to have sex with him? That’s cool."

Schumer's version of the joke appears in the trailer for Trainwreck:

These two jokes get at the same idea, but they're not structured the same way. Pescatelli is talking directly to men in the audience during her standup, whereas Schumer's joke in Trainwreck is directed at her sister and her sister's dopey husband.

4) The Houdini vs. the Poltergeist (Schumer vs. O'Neal)

These two jokes involve sex acts called "the Houdini" and "the Poltergeist." This similarity between these two jokes isn't in the Pescatelli/Madigan/Liebman complaint, but it's circulating the internet nonetheless.

Schumer used to open for O'Neal, who died in 2011, and there's an assertion that she copied the joke from him. O'Neal's humor was conversational, and in his version of the joke he would tell his audience about a sex position he'd heard about.

The jokes both operate on the shock of sex acts that have become urban legends; they both describe the same thing, but with different names.

O'Neal: "There’s 'the Poltergeist.' But you need your friend for this one. You’re fucking her from behind, and then you sneak out and he takes your place. And then you walk outside and wave at her through the window."

Schumer: "The worst one I’ve ever heard is ‘the Houdini.’ It’s where the guy’s having sex with the girl from behind. Then, unbeknownst to her, his friend subs in for him. Guy 1 runs outside, knocks on the window, and waves to the girl. Which is just rape. That's just rape. It's not fair to Houdini."

What differentiates Schumer's is the inclusion of rape and not being fair to Houdini — it twists the joke a bit, and changes the afterthought.

5) The Inside Amy Schumer bit

This one involves a comedian named Joseph Tran and his web series, Reasons Not to Date a Magician. Tran first raised the question of Schumer potentially stealing jokes in a YouTube video posted in May 2014; it has recently resurfaced due to Madigan, Liebman, and Pescatelli's newer allegations.

He believes his sketch was ripped off by an Inside Amy Schumer writer for a bit that copied two gags: one that involves the magician turning condoms into balloon animals and another that involves pulling a never-ending scarf out of a woman's vagina. Tran makes his case in the video below:

(content removed)

The initial allegations against Schumer have since been retracted

Madigan, Liebman, and Pescatelli all deleted their tweets alleging that Schumer aped their material, but not before some absolutely bonkers stuff happened.

Pescatelli in particular spiraled into a Twitter-induced rage and began comparing herself to Martin Luther King Jr.; she then compared Schumer's alleged joke stealing to Bill Cosby allegedly raping several women.

"At least Cosby knocked his victims out b4 he raped them," she tweeted (and deleted) on January 19.

After Pescatelli's comments veered toward the absurd, she appeared on the Jim Norton Advice Show on Sirius Radio on January 21, where she apologized for bringing MLK into the mix and for comparing Schumer to a serial rapist. But the most fascinating part of the interview came when she walked back her allegation of Schumer's joke thievery.

She said the similarities between hers and Schumer's jokes were "probably parallel thinking."

The day before, on January 20, Liebman used the same phrase, "parallel thinking," in a tweet about her material versus Schumer's:

It's unclear if Liebman and Pescatelli discussed their charges against Schumer. But it's interesting to see both of them employ the same phrase in absolving her.

Talking to Death and Taxes, Liebman explained that Schumer had reached out to her.

"After posting about Amy doing my joke, she wrote to me," Liebman told Death and Taxes. "I told her I maintained that I thought someone must have sold it to her. She said no one sold it to her, but she thought of it herself but she still wanted to make it right. Her writing to me was enough."

Meanwhile, Norton asked Pescatelli if she had felt pressured to apologize. Pescatelli revealed that she felt like she was singled out by Schumer (who had wondered on air if Pescatelli was doing this for publicity), and that Liebman and Madigan weren't targeted.

"I'm the only one being ripped apart," Pescatelli said. "She has every right to be mad. And it's funny that three people walked into the room and only one is an asshole."

And here comes the Amy Schumer backlash

Schumer has responded to the Liebman/Madigan/Pescatelli allegations in interviews and tweets. She also told Norton — on the January 20 episode of his show, a day before Norton spoke to Pescatelli — that she would take a polygraph test to address the allegations, film it, and air the results on Inside Amy Schumer.

She had already denied the allegations outright in a tweet on January 20:

However, even though Madigan, Liebman, and Pescatelli's allegations have been deleted and retracted, it's not like they have been forgotten. It's ultimately up to the public to decide they believe the allegations and keep them circulating them, or to decide they believe Schumer and quash them.

What makes things tough for Schumer is that she's recently been facing a growing wave of backlash. Over the summer, her comedy came under attack after a column at the Guardian and a follow-up column at the Washington Post accused her of being racist. Headlines like "Amy Schumer isn't as feminist as the internet thinks" and "Don't believe her defenders, Amy Schumer's jokes are racist" challenged her reputation as someone who pushes boundaries and doesn't let anyone else define her. Another questioned her popularity with "I don't get Amy Schumer."

The pushback continued at the Golden Globes earlier this month, with Schumer's publicized friendship with Jennifer Lawrence fueling the flames.

During the awards ceremony, host Ricky Gervais made a joke about Schumer and Lawrence's friendship being a publicity stunt (one of his better lines of the evening). And after the show, Schumer and Lawrence had parallel, separate experiences where they called out men — a teen movie critic and a reporter, respectively — whom they felt were disrespecting them.

Schumer had posed for a picture on the Golden Globes red carpet with teenage YouTube critic Jackson Murphy. Murphy uploaded the picture with the (now deleted) comment, "Spent the night with Amy Schumer. Certainly not the first guy to write that."

Schumer responded on Twitter:

Newsday surmised that "Amy Schumer can't take a joke."

Lawrence's backlash-inciting incident took place in the Golden Globes pressroom, when she shamed a reporter for looking at his phone. The exchange inspired pieces like Mic's "The Internet Is Furious at Jennifer Lawrence for Phone-Shaming a Texting Reporter" and its follow-up, "We Have Reached Peak Jennifer Lawrence."

And Schumer has caught some spillover. In a recap of the awards show, the Daily Beast pondered, "Is this the end of our Amy Schumer-Jennifer Lawrence love-in?" The article is an inspection of why internet opinions only seem capable of extremes when it comes to covering these women.

With regard to Schumer, it's hard to figure out where the so-called backlash ends and the genuine questions about her comedic integrity begin.

With her accusers rescinding their claims and Schumer emphatically denying any and all joke-stealing allegations, we should be able to give all involved parties the benefit of the doubt. But for some, this episode is just confirmation that Amy Schumer is the fraud they've known her to be all along. And those people had their minds made up about Schumer long before this latest controversy.