Of Plagiarists, Liars and Squirrels, or A Long Overdue Confession

Earlier today, one of my favorite comedians outed a Columbia University graduate for plagiarizing the comedian’s material in a valedictorian address.

When Patton Oswalt learned that Brian Corman had stood before his graduating class and wholesale ripped off the “Physics for Poets” bit from Oswalt’s album Werewolves and Lollipops, Oswalt was not forgiving. He posted a tweet reading “Congrats to Columbia University valedictorian Brian Corman! Great speech,” and included a link to the exact moment in a YouTube video that contained the act of plagiarism.

The video was apparently taken down and later reposted as news of the incident quickly got picked up by media outlets all over the place. This is the second alleged instance of Oswalt’s material getting ripped off in recent weeks. The first was at the inept comic hands of Nick Madson, whom Oswalt exposed on his MySpace blog.

I caught the video this morning. As a former English TA who had to confront some student plagiarists, I watched in horror as Corman stood at the podium in his baby blue regalia and passed off a well-known comedian’s anecdote as his own. In public. On camera. WTF.

Screencap courtesy PattonOswalt.com.

Oswalt blogged that Columbia and Corman had both apologized. Columbia also posted the above statement of apology as a comment embedded in the YouTube video.

Since the advent of Google, it’s been almost impossible to get away with wholesale plagiarism. The rule of thumb teachers use when grading papers: If a student’s writing suddenly becomes more lucid and clever than usual, it’s probably not his writing.

Yet some people think they can still get away with it.

It’s mind boggling to try to comprehend why an otherwise intelligent Ivy League grad would decide to appropriate someone else’s published and relatively well-known work without proper citation in front of a room full of fellow students, all of whom, thanks to smartphone technology, had the ability to call him out instantly.

Just imagine the tweet: @ColumbiaStev088: I’m not wearing anything under this gown LOL. PS The valeDICK just plagiarized @PattonOswalt.

The only explanation I can come up with is neuroscientific: The human brain is not fully developed until one’s mid-20s, which is why car insurance premiums usually go down when drivers turn 25. It’s true. I read that very explanation in some AllState ad copy once.

Why did Corman risk it? Probably, he felt that his own ideas were lacking. That’s why people plagiarize — because they feel themselves incapable of generating, in honest fashion, the kind of material the occasion calls for.

I have experience in this. But, I did not plagiarize.

Instead, I merely lied.

Now, in matters of intellectual honesty, lying is more complex than plagiarism. When plagiarists steal material, they disrespect the original creator of their property and show their own stupidity in committing a crime so easy to catch. Fabricators however, from memoirist James Frey to journalist Stephen Glass, calculatedly deceive their audience by inventing histories.

In all cases, the motive is always the same: The truth just isn’t interesting enough.

I did this once. And it’s time I fessed up.

It was 7th grade English class. I was 12 or 13. The assignment that I, along with the rest of my zit-ridden, greasy-nosed classmates were given was to write essay about the funniest thing that had ever happened to us in our individual lives.

I racked my amorphous, severely underdeveloped simian brain for days. To really do the essay right, I thought, I needed something epic. Some freakish incident of family slapstick or animal humor, such Bob Saget lovingly curated every Sunday night on America’s Funniest Home Videos.

After scouring my comedically barren past for any workable shred of humor, I made the decision to cut one from whole cloth. My justification: It would make for a better piece of writing than anything that had actually happened to me.

So, I invented a story about traveling with my family to one of those drive-thru wildlife retreats. You know, where you drive up, pay at the gate and slowly creep along a dirt road beside free-roaming safari animals: giraffes, lions, elephants, gnus and whatnot. I don’t remember the details except that there was some fracas among the wildlife next to our car. The climax: an innocent bystander squirrel ended up seeking refuge in our car — specifically, by clinging to my head and urinating down my neck.

It had all the elements, right? A bizarre but not completely unlikely setting, lions, a peeing squirrel, me… Who wouldn’t marvel at the uncanniness and veracity of a story like that!?

I still remember this fiction not just because I still harbor guilt but because it was so desperately unfunny. It’s  the only time I’ve ever tried to pass off fiction as fact. Sorry, Ms. Hicks.

I got an A on the undeserving turd of a story, but my own disappointment at my failure to invent something genuinely funny was enough to teach me that choosing colorful dishonesty over uninteresting reality is an act that’s doomed to fail.

Later, during the years immediately following the solidification of my skull contents, I worked as a journalist. I didn’t need to be told that in that line of work, making up a story — or even fudging a single fact —  can end a career and do actual harm to people.

Even during my darkest moments of creative blockage, I never considered making stuff up to fill in inconvenient holes in a story. Writing a crappy story based on a lie once was enough. Thank God I got it out of my system early — and well before the age of social media.

So, to the Brian Cormans of the world: Even if you think you don’t have much to work with, go with reality.

Chances are you’ll tell the story better, even if it’s not necessarily a better story.

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