Earlier this week, fans pointed out similarities between a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch starring Louis C.K. as a lonely guy who hires a clown and comedian Tig Notaro’s 2015 short film “Clown Service” about … a depressed and lonely woman who hires a clown to cheer her up.
While C.K. has yet to respond, Notaro released a statement saying she couldn’t ignore the “cacophony of voices reaching out personally and publicly about the potential plagiarizing of my film.” (A representative for “Saturday Night Live” declined to comment.)
Before she headed south to start production on the second season of her Amazon series “One Mississippi” (which counts C.K. as an executive producer), Notaro opened up to Variety about the controversy and why the film is so important to her.
Why did you decide to speak out about “Clown Service” and the “SNL” controversy?
It’s more a feeling of I just want to stake my claim and be like this is a film I made. It’s been out there and touring around and screening for awhile now and I don’t want to stop doing that. People were like, “Oh, were you going to sue?” That’s not even crossed my mind. It was people contacting me who were saying I’ve seen this movie of yours and so that’s the only reason I thought god I have to go back out on tour and this is my opener of my national tour and I’d look like a fool.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” suggests that, at least at the time that show is set, comedians use each other’s material all the time.
I’m not one to accuse or quickly do anything, but if other people around me are pointing (it out) and I find out (I know) other people involved (with that sketch) … Look, I made this movie. It’s out there. I’m proud of it. I worked my a– on it and I wrote this 20 years ago. I have it registered. It’s not some silly sketch I wrote.
You won an award for that film at Iowa City’s Landlocked Film Festival. What does that award mean to you?
I think there’s a part of me that’s still a failure drop out because I failed three grades and dropped out of high school, so I don’t expect too much from myself or my work. It’s always oh that’s fun. Even getting into standup, I felt successful when I just did an open mic. I don’t have huge expectations for myself. They’ve grown over the years. Winning that award was fun. It was touching. It felt nice. The documentary they made about me on Netflix, I didn’t think anyone was going to see that. I didn’t think I was going to win an award for “Clown Service.”
Don’t a lot of comedians have this self-doubt?
I don’t know what it is. I truly got into comedy because I loved the art form. People responded to me as though I was funny. I really just wanted to do it. I was never focused on [winning awards]. People say it all the time, but it’s genuine [for me] that it’s a fun bonus.
Is it hard for comedians to accuse others of plagiarism, especially in a standup act?
I’m not quick to call people out, especially if it’s observational. When it’s something directly from your life, and obviously things directly from your life can happen in other people’s lives, [that’s different]. For me, personally, it was tricky finding out that somebody [I knew] – my sister-in-law’s ex — worked on that. It started to get fishier and fishier. Whenever any of these comics are calling people out, I pretty much roll my eyes because it’s a hard thing to pinpoint.
Can you copyright a standup routine the way you can a script?
I have no idea. I’ve never looked into it. There’s jokes of mine where people are like, “Oh, I’ve heard something similar,” and I drop it and move on.
Do most people do that?
I’ve heard about people saying that it’s too strong of a joke in their set and they’ll keep it. I wouldn’t do that.
Is it hard for you to drop a joke?
If it’s something that’s not directly from my life, I don’t feel that attached to it. At most, I’m like, “Ah man I really liked that.” But not like no way, I’m holding onto that. I don’t want to be doing sets or making movies or TV shows that are too similar to something else.
It’s like I have a 15-minute story about running into Taylor Dayne, the pop singer, that I’d much rather invest in that than some observation that I made. There’s no weight there. That’s from my real life. It’s a thing that happened, similar to the clown thing.
I was just telling Stephanie [Allynne, Notaro’s wife] that have you ever notice that in one city, there’s two different classic rock stations? I was driving and I’ll flip back between the two and it’ll be “the home of classic rock” and then you go to the next one and it’s “the only classic rock.” It’s like, why are you guys battling this out? One of you had to know there was already a classic rock station. Why are you trying to convince me that I should not change my channel? It’s a serious, hilarious thing to me that these stations are “the home of hip hop. Go nowhere else for hip hop.”
That’s a stupid observation that, if I really wanted to, get in there and try to write a joke about. And if somebody was like, I’ve heard that, then I’ll never do that again. But if somebody was like, “I’ve heard about something running into Taylor Dayne” repeatedly, I’d be like I’m going to go ahead and show proof that I’ve been doing that.
There’s the argument that everything is derivative …
Somebody wrote something like “you might have come up with it first, but you’re so clearly influenced by Louis that it’s basically you ripping off Louis.” No, I did this years ago and it’s registered. Twenty years ago, I registered the script and I didn’t know Louis C.K. existed. No, I’m sorry. Your argument doesn’t hold up.
And, I’m sorry, Louis didn’t create darkness and morose. I love darkness. I love dark, I love dramatic, I love documentaries. I follow reality probably more I follow comedy. All those arguments, I just don’t know what to tell you … It’s all I have and I want to continue screening it with confidence and joy because I love that film and people worked very hard on it.
Has Louis contacted you this week?
We don’t …
You still don’t talk? He’s an executive producer of your show.
Yeah … He doesn’t have anything to do with the show.
That sounds like a difficult situation.
It’s truly not. I’m proud of the film. I’m proud of “One Mississippi.” Everyone that is directly involved with the show works so hard on it and I wouldn’t change anything that’s happening right now. I’m very happy. If the show goes onto another season, terrific. If people don’t want it anymore, I’ve lived through worse and I’m very happy and content with where things are.