“Looking foolish does the spirit good. The need not to look foolish is one of youth’s many burdens; as we get older we are exempted from more and more, and float upward in our heedlessness, singing Gratia Dei sum quod sum.” - John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs
“Will my mom be able to read this and still be proud of me?” That was the only question I had for the reporter from our local newspaper as he called to let me know he’d put the finishing touches on his story. A few weeks earlier we had spent an hour or so sipping coffee, him jotting down notes as he listened to my story. It hadn’t dawned on me then that he might not actually believe what I was saying. Now it seemed disappointingly obvious. Like a twist in a M. Night Shyamalan movie. Somewhere M. Night Shyamalan is eating pretzels as I write this. He loves twists.
They say that there are two sides to every story. More like three. Four even. This is the point Sarah Polley makes in her brilliant documentary, Stories We Tell. The film tries to piece together the tragic, mysterious story of her family, filtered through the lens of her siblings as they remember it. It opens with her father reading from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: “When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion, dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you're telling it, to yourself or to someone else." Our stories aren’t often as neat as we’d like them to be because we ourselves are messy.
It’s a funny thing to read articles written about you, all by people who have never met you or talked to you. It feels a little bit like being robbed, except instead of your wallet being stolen, it’s your chance to tell your story. One of the most profoundly human things you can do is talk to someone instead of about them; to listen to them tell their story instead of telling your own about them. This is my attempt to tell a story that I feel rightfully belongs to me. It’s kind of like a burrito from Taco Bell in that it has 5 layers and made me a little sick to my stomach. As a pastor, naturally I love alliteration, thus the title, “Things that Start with P.” My apologies in advance that it sounds like it was written by a depressed Dr. Seuss.
1. Plagiarism. There is only one thing comedians hate more than other more successful comedians: plagiarists. Take it from Dane Cook, or Carlos Mencia, who both faced serious accusations of plagiarism in the course of their careers. This was an accusation leveled against me as well, that I was purposely stealing other peoples’ jokes and repackaging them as my own. Even though my initial reaction to these accusations was to be hurt by them, the more I’ve thought about it the more I think there was fair criticism in the accusations. To me, plagiarism has always been about a person’s intentions. While I can honestly say in my mind I never purposely ripped off another writer or comedian (lots of people I supposedly stole from actually followed me at the time), I do think it’s fair to say I repackaged jokes. At the time I thought I made them enough my own that it didn’t qualify as plagiarism. I know better now. I never should have repurposed a joke without first checking with the comedian or writer who originally wrote it. This was foolish and selfish on my part, and not the first time in my life I’ve been both of those things. Just ask my wife.
2. Parallel thought. A friend once described twitter as “3 million people all trying to make the same joke.” I was one of those 3 million. I felt like many critics minimized the possibility of parallel thought, or a common joke premise, leading me and other writers to a similar joke. This was exactly Rainn Wilson’s point when he came to my defense. Most people don’t know that whenever someone pointed out that a tweet I had done had been done by someone else before, I almost always took it down. The mistake I made was to apologize for it, which looking back people took as an admission of guilt, instead of a polite way of saying “we both had the same thought, but because you had it first you win.” When critics say people approached me time and time again about plagiarism, I assume this is what they mean. But to me this was always about parallel thought, never about plagiarism. As an introvert there are few things I hate more than being misunderstood, which is a problem since introverts typically hate talking, especially to human beings.
3. Patton Oswalt. What Batman is to Gotham City criminals, Patton Oswalt is to comedy plagiarists. He has very little patience for anyone attempting to advance their own career based upon the work of others, especially his friends. I actually love this about him, that he has a strong sense of justice and honor. But I think when it came to me there were two major assumptions he made. One was to assume what everyone was saying about me was true. In reality, if you followed the chain of accusations all the way to the bottom, you would find a couple of peers doing everything they could to discredit me, to prove that I was a thief and a fraud. But some of those peers were Patton’s friends, and typically we trust what our friends say about someone. The other was to assume that non-comedians can’t be funny. Part of Patton’s critique felt like him basically saying, “leave comedy to the professionals,” which is similar to what @briangaar, the comedian behind the Borrowing Sam tumblr, tweeted the night he launched it: “I don’t care about Twitter but @prodigalsam is starting to f**k with my money and needs to be stopped.” All of this was in response to rumors that I was getting into stand-up comedy and had a book deal in the works, when in reality I’ve done stand-up once and am nowhere close to having a book deal (although if there are any publishers reading this, text me). Patton Oswalt is a hilarious, successful, and beautiful human being. I just wish he had treated me more like one.
4. Pastor. Did it matter that I was a pastor? Yes and no. No in the sense that it was more about the allegations than it was about my vocation. Yes in the sense that being a Christian pastor in the comedy world is like being a muggle at Hogwarts. People either hate you or are just generally confused and suspicious about why you’re there. It also mattered in the sense that the creative approach is vastly different in both worlds. In ministry the last thing you want to be is original. You want to see yourself as building upon the work of those who’ve gone before you. And you’re not afraid to take a thought or idea and put it into your own words. Not so with comedy. I think I brought what Kirby Ferguson calls “Embrace the Remix” into writing jokes. For me the tension was “Thou shall not steal” versus “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But I now realize very few, if any, comedians hold this same position. And I understand that if my living depended on my jokes, I probably would feel much more protective of them too.
5. Pride. I also think I was proud. Too proud to receive fair criticism. Too proud to not respond to unfair, or false criticism. Too proud to admit when I had been careless. Too proud to give up a platform that had become too much of an identity. As a pastor who loves to quote, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” I should have known better. But I didn’t. And for that I am truly sorry and ask forgiveness from family and friends, fans and critics. I am super thankful to know and serve a God of second chances. But I am also not naive enough to think the world works in the same way. And that’s ok. Because my life is much, much better than I deserve.
If you went back to Facebook around the time we found out the hard news about our youngest daughter, and when I started finding comedic solace in Twitter, you would find the following quote from Marilynne Robinson on my wall: “That is how life goes--we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord's.” It was a line I desperately clung to for her. Now it’s become a line I desperately cling to for me. By the way, my mom read the article. She told me she has always been so proud to be my mom. The wilderness is still the Lord’s.
This is the last post of a multiple post series called "Tweeting Myself to Death: The Rise & Fall of @prodigalsam."