Abbott Elementary and 4 More Comedy Shows That Got Sued
Sure, creating a comedy show is a barrel of laughs -- until the haters start filing lawsuits. If you think we’re kidding, suing sitcoms is way more common than one might think. ALLEGEDLY. Here are five examples of TV comedies that got caught up in court.
Abbott Elementary gets accused of copying someone else’s homework
Just days after collecting a school bus full of Emmy nominations, a performer accused Quinta Brunson and ABC of ripping off her idea.
Christine Davis says she copyrighted a script in 2020 about an inner-city school one year before Abbott Elementary’s debut. According to the suit, similarities included: "look and feel of the inner-city school, the mockumentary style, unique plot synopsis, set design, and unique characters." The suit alleges that Davis had meetings with Hollywood producers in the summer of 2020, and that the producers then showed her script to Hulu. Neither producer had any connection to Abbott Elementary, a show that started filming just a few months later.
We checked in with our amateur ComedyNerd lawyers and in their not-at-all-professional opinion? The suit doesn’t stand a chance. Abbott began shooting a few months after Davis’ initial meetings? That means Brunson got wind of the idea in July, wrote a season’s worth of scripts, got a green light from ABC to front the money, cast the entire show, assembled sets, a writing room, and a production crew, then was performing before a camera by October? Mmmm, we don’t think so.
And the idea of setting a TV show in an inner-city school? Welcome Back, Kotter, Room 222, and Dangerous Minds are three shows that must have used a time machine to pilfer Davis’ wholly original concept.
People claiming comedy shows “stole my idea!” is nothing new. Most recently, the producers of Mixed-ish were accused of stealing the idea for a show called Mixed -- even though Mixed-ish was a direct spin-off from Black-ish. Note to future show creators: Count on someone claiming they thought of your idea first.
Arrested Development (the music group) sued Arrested Development (the TV show)
Hey, 90s kids, remember Arrested Development, the hip-hop group responsible for head-bouncing hits like Tennessee and Mr. Wendal?
Apparently, the group wasn’t sure you’d remember. Or at least, your memory would be so fuzzy that you might mistake a sitcom about a dysfunctional, formerly wealthy white family in Newport Beach for an Atlanta-based, alternative hip-hop group full of Black musicians.
It didn’t matter to the music group’s leader, Speech, that the common phrase “arrested development” goes back more than 200 years, used to describe stunted physical and/or mental health. “The use of our name by Fox is not only confusing to the public, but also has the potential to significantly dilute what the ‘Arrested Development’ name means to our fans,” he argued.
Surprisingly, Fox gave in -- or at least decided that paying off the group was cheaper than going to court. The network settled for a measly 10 grand, or as it’s known in the business, “lawyer lunch money.” And in typical Arrested Development (the TV show, the TV show!) fashion, narrator Ron Howard made in-jokes clarifying that a fictional Motherboy event was not named after (the fictional band) Motherboy.
A stalker claimed Two and a Half Men based a stalker character on her
Who watches an obsessed stalker on TV and shouts, “Hey, that’s me!”
The answer is Ursula Auburn, a woman who claimed that Charlie Sheen used her as the basis for “wacky neighbor and female stalker Rose.” In the lawsuit, Auburn admits that she pursued Sheen, who didn’t have much interest. "Auburn would show up at events Sheen was to attend, and generally was captivated by Sheen."
That doesn’t seem … flattering. But Auburn’s lawsuit also named specific storylines in which Rose acted out her real-life hi-jinks. For example, Rose creates a website calling out Charlie for being a womanizer. The real-life Ursula created a website describing her obsessive relationship with Sheen.
Sheen settled the lawsuit out of court. We’re assuming his character did the same thing on the show.
Comedy legend Carol Burnett sued Famly Guy
In the season-four episode Peterotica, Peter and the gang visit an adult bookstore where Quagmire points out Carol Burnett working part-time as a janitor.
Whoops! An incensed Burnett filed suit, claiming that depicting her cleaning-woman character violated her exclusive rights to her name and likeness. (No mention of the Tim Conway and Harvey Korman blow-up dolls.) She wanted $2 million for the slight.
We’re partial to Carol over Family Guy generally, but Fox came back with a pretty good argument. “Family Guy, like The Carol Burnett Show, is famous for its pop culture parodies and satirical jabs at celebrities,” said a studio statement. “We are surprised that Ms. Burnett, who has made a career of spoofing others on television, would go so far as to sue Family Guy for a simple bit of comedy.”
Indeed, Carol’s show in the 1970s made fun of other hit TV shows on nearly every episode.
A comedy-loving (we’re assuming) judge agreed with Fox, declaring that the Carol Burnett parody was protected under the First Amendment, ironically using Hustler v. Falwell as an adult-themed precedent.
Family members accuse Big Bang Theory of stealing horrible, horrible song
Sheldon has a favorite song. It’s an obnoxious song. It’s a song no one would want to hear twice. It’s a song Big Bang sung all the time.
No one denies that Soft Kitty was based on an old children’s song called Warm Kitty, with lyrics by poet/nursery school teacher/terrible songwriter Edith Newlin in 1937. And Big Bang producers thought they were doing the right thing when they purchased the rights from Willis Music, a music publisher that owned clearance for an old book containing the song.
Even though the lyrics were rewritten for the show, Edith’s daughters called foul, saying Willis Music didn’t own the rights after all and they wanted some cold comedy cash.
Eventually, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, determining that while Willis Music could not prove it owned the copyright to the lyrics, neither could the daughters. Why anyone would want to claim those lyrics is beyond us. We’d have preferred a decision erasing that obnoxious earworm from all reruns forever.
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