"There is no such thing as a new idea," said Mark Twain, who probably thought that was a new idea at the time. The real secret behind the creative process is to steal from so many different places that you have plausible deniability if somebody singles out just one thing. But that seems like a lot of hard work, and Hollywood is staffed with very busy people and very good lawyers. So here are but a few examples of some famous TV and movie plots that we are legally obligated to call "accidentally perfect copies" of other scripts.
Simpsons creator Matt Groening claims that only one episode in the history of the long-running show truly jumped the shark: "The Principal And The Pauper," in which it is revealed that Principal Skinner is an impostor. Fans generally agreed that the plot made for a terrible Simpsons episode. However, a decade later, everyone also agreed that it worked a lot better as the basis of a sexy prestige period drama.
In 2007, America met Don Draper, the successful ad exec and mysterious protagonist of Mad Men. As the first season goes on, we find out that Don Draper is in fact Dick Whitman, an orphan who lived in the most depressing parts of the Depression. When he ran off to join the army, he found himself serving in the Korean War under a lieutenant named ... Don Draper. Long flashback short, Dick accidentally gets the lieutenant killed, swaps dog tags with him, wakes up in a hospital with everyone thinking he's Draper, and never bothers to correct anyone.
Ten years prior to Mad Men's pilot, The Simpsons' Principal Skinner did the exact same thing. At a party celebrating his 20th anniversary teaching, a man claiming to be the real Seymour Skinner shows up and accuses the principal of being an impostor. As it turns out, Skinner was once a young gutter rat named Armin Tamzarian (still a better name than Dick Whitman). Armin found himself fighting in the Vietnam War under a commanding officer named ... Seymour Skinner. After the real Sergeant Skinner was presumed dead, Armin took over his identity, and you know the rest. Anyway, that's how the least sexy character on The Simpsons inspired the most sexy character of the 2000s.
The Rebel was a low-budget cowpoke TV serial in the early 1960s which ran for only two short seasons. However, it clearly had a fan in Quentin Tarantino. Let us know if this sounds familiar: In an episode called "Fair Game," former Confederate soldier Johnny Yuma's horse dies in the wilderness, leaving him stranded. Luckily, he stumbles upon a stagecoach. Unluckily, inside that coach is a bounty hunter transporting an outlaw femme fatale. As darkness falls, the group hunkers down in a cabin until morning, all wary of each other. Then the bounty hunter is poisoned and the ex-Confederate has to solve the whodunit before he gets got as well.
The Weinstein Company
Of course, before we start accusing Tarantino of crossing over from pastiche to plagiarism, there are some key differences between The Hateful Eight and The Rebel. Neither the cause for the sleepover nor the identity of the killer match. Also, there's no way of figuring out if Tarantino saw the show and was making a deliberate reference. If only the episode also had a creepy, lingering shot of the femme fatale's bare feet, we could've put this mystery to bed.
The Emmy-winning cult stop-motion show Moral Orel was a Davey And Goliath parody about Orel, a religious kid who often takes the word of the Bible a bit too literally. In a 2005 episode, he learns that it's a sin to waste anything, including his urine. So Orel starts drinking his own pee, believing that God is a fan of water sports. Incidentally, he gets better at running track around the same time. When his coach asks him what the secret is, all the other kids are put on his special "juice" regimen. That's how Orel winds up selling his urine to his teammates like it's Drug Test Friday.
South Park's "Sarcastaball" episode aired in 2012, and follows almost exactly the same plotline. Randy accidentally invents a new sport called Sarcastaball while mocking the school's concerns about the inherent violence of football. Butters, the resident wimpy kid, turns out to be really good at this compassionate sport, and believes that's because he drinks his own semen. To help all the other kids improve, Butters begins selling them his fluids.
But South Park didn't merely rip off the plot of Moral Orel; they even stole specific gags, like a post-victory celebration in which the team's coach is doused in the bodily fluids of children ...
Viacom Media Networks
In Episode 5 of the first season of Downton Abbey, a peculiar subplot focuses on Dowager Countess Violet Crawley's flower competition. Somehow, Lady Violet wins the competition, despite the fact that lowly servant Bill Molesley has obviously crafted the best rose (obviously). Afterward, Violet's granddaughter tells her that she only wins because no one dares vote against her. Stung by the insinuation that she only wins through her status, Violet protests, but eventually realizes Bill has the better flower and gives the commoner her prize, thus ending classism forever.
That's also exactly what happens in 1942's Mrs. Miniver, wherein Lady Beldon wins her local flower contest every year, even though lowly servant Ballard obviously has the best rose (obviously). When Beldon is informed of this, she's stung by the accusation, protests, then changes her mind and awards the prize to Ballard.
When this was pointed out to Downton creator Julian Fellowes, he at first protested, then admitted that he had seen Mrs. Miniver (obviously), and gave his salary to the other film's director. Oh wait, no, sorry, we got too used to typing those events in that order. Fellowes dismissed the whole affair and proclaimed, "Who can say what's lodged in one's brain?"
We can. It's Mrs. Miniver.
In The Simpsons episode "Two Dozen And One Greyhounds," family dog Santa's Little Helper is tearing up the house out of horny frustration. Eventually he runs away from home and to the dog racetrack. He sprints onto the track in the middle of a race in order to "get to know" a female greyhound, She's The Fastest, who has no chance of winning the race with another dog now on top of her. But because this is a sort of a family show, the two animals can't just bang it out and go their separate ways -- they fall in love and become proud parents of many puppies.
Six years later, in the Family Guy episode "Screwed The Pooch," Brian meets Seabreeze, the Pewterschmidts' prized greyhound. When they go to attend her race at the dog track, Brian can't resist, sprints onto the track in the middle of a race right as she's about to win, and gives her a very loving Simpsons reference.
Many puppies are born, and the rest of the episode has Brian fighting a huge custody case over his parental rights like a canine Kramer Vs. Kramer.
Now, it's easy to assume that comedy writers simply think about dogs boning a lot more than others. To which we say: A) Yes, but B) Only six states in the country even still have dog racing, and none of them are in New England. The plot device is not a natural fit for the famously Rhode-Island-based Family Guy. Then again, in the Family Guy episode, the puppies turn out to actually be Ted Turner's. So, y'know ... that's different.
Alex Perry wrote a novel about a time-traveling stalker and a heartwarming kid's book about a boy and his genetically modified pig / organ donor. She wants an agent to help her sell those books, and for you to follow her on Twitter. This isn't the first time Mike Bedard has noticed when plotlines get stolen. You can stay up to date with his other observations by following him on Twitter. Dan Hopper is an editor for Cracked, previously for CollegeHumor and BestWeekEver.tv. He fires off consistent A- tweets at @DanHopp.
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