I was recently surprised to see a storyline I recognized in an episode of How I Met Your Mother: In the 2009 episode "Double Date", Marshall reveals that he can only fantasize about other women in his head, if he imagines a tragic illness has taken Lily away from him first. (He feels too guilty, even in his dreams, to cheat on her.) She discovers this and is upset.
I recognized this storyline from a 2004 episode of King of Queens called "Damned Yanky" I happened to catch recently. In it, Doug reveals the same thing to Carrie, who has a very similar reaction to Lily.
I was really shocked to see two shows doing the same scenes with different characters, not five years apart.
What do people (or Ken) think? What's most likely: Did the writers unwittingly duplicate the story, or did they come up with the idea, realise it had been used recently, but decided to go ahead with it anyway?
Not being on staff of HIMYM I have no way of knowing whether that particular instance was a coincidence or a lift (or “sampling” as they say in music when they just steal someone else’s song). And I’ve seen neither episode so I can’t compare the similarities and details. But I could almost guarantee that HIMYM didn’t knowingly copy another show. Those guys pride themselves on creating original stories inventively told.
Coincidences do happen. I doubt if many showrunners actively steal another show’s idea. They don’t come into the room and say, “Hey, I saw a great story on THE OFFICE. Let’s do it, too.” But sometimes you see things that stay with you subconsciously and then a year or so later you pitch it, honestly thinking you came up with it.
A mortified Neil realized that he had subconsciously lifted a melody from George Gershwin. No wonder it sounded so great.
These things happen.
But what’s inexcusable is this:
A writer I knew on a long running sitcom said someone in the room pitched an idea one day. Everybody loved it. Then another writer in the room said another show did essentially the same story a year before. The showrunner rationalized that it was a while ago, different network, most people probably didn’t see it, etc. and decided to go ahead with the story. So that’s both stealing and lazy showrunning.
That showrunner, by the way, was always crying that his show never received any Emmy nominations. Well, THAT’S why. Cause he’s lazy!
On all the shows I’ve been lucky enough to work on, story notions were discarded immediately if it was discovered they had been used before.
But the practice happens enough in television and features that you can’t go a week without reading about six plagiarism suits and four cease and desist orders.
Ideally, you’d like to create a show so specific that no one else can do your stories. Good luck to the writers of THREE’S COMPANY trying to do the Korean black market stealing medical supplies story we did on MASH. But the reality is, most stories you do on any show you can do on any other show. And so there’s going to be overlap. A version of the daughter not doing her homework story that they did on LAST MAN STANDING has been done on every family sitcom featuring teenagers since OUR MISS BROOKS (and the fact that you probably have never even heard of OUR MISS BROOKS only underscores my point). The trick is to find fresh ways of telling those stories. And that’s not easy because…
BREAKING STORIES IS THE HARDEST PART OF THE SITCOM PROCESS.
Not the jokes, the STORIES. So the temptation is always there to take a shortcut. But the good writers don’t.
And still there are times they find their stories are similar to others. In those cases, the best you can hope for is that you did it better.
By the way, that HIMYM/KING OF QUEENS story was a damn good one!