Thursday, March 08, 2012

Do shows steal stories from other shows?

A reader/Sitcom Room attendee, Johnny Walker, posed an interesting question:

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.

I remember once Neil Sedaka told a story of when he was writing songs during the Brill Building era in New York in the early ‘60s. Neil was one of the most prolific songwriters of that era. Among the songs he wrote or co-wrote were “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, “Love Will Keep Us Together”, “Where the Boys Are”, “Laughing In the Rain”, and about a thousand others. One day he came up with a sensational melody. He quickly assembled musicians to record a demo. He was very excited as he gathered them for a session, saying it was the best melody he had ever came up with. The musicians read the charts and said, “Neil? Are you kidding? This is Gershwin.”

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…


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!


John said...

M*A*S*H's Season 2 opener, "Five O'Clock Charlie", which is fondly remembered by most of the show's fans, used the same basic starting point for it's plot as a 1963 episode of McHale's Navy entitled "Washing Machine Charlie" (and which featured a very young Mike Ferrell in a small role).

Same basic plot about the enemy bomber who couldn't hit anything and was considered more of a joke than a threat to everyone but the show's designated bad guy, but the plots diverged in the second act, with the original focusing on Tim Conway's slapstick abilities in capturing the plane, while the latter dealt with Hawkeye and Trapper trying to eliminate Frank's ammo dump.

Chris said...

They pay a lot of money when they steal someoene else's song. And get written consent from the guy they're stealing from. Somehow I have a hard time identifying that as theft. If you don't like 17 year old kids with computers who make millions by adding drums to some obscure song from the 70s, that's a different discussion.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Interesting you should tell that Neil Sedaka story (which was new to me). Billy Joel tells a similar story:

After Billy wrote the song "Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)," he sat down at the piano and began to play it for his band. Two lines into the song, his drummer stopped him and said, "That's 'Laughter in the Rain' by Neil Sedaka." Billy - who doesn't recall if he'd even heard that song before - had to throw out the melody and write a new one. (Test it out yourself - sing the first two lines of "Movin' Out" to the tune of "Laughter in the Rain," and you'll see they fit perfectly.)

David said...

Of course the opposite can happen to. As the legend goes, when Paul McCartney wrote the melody for Yesterday, he was convinced it had already been written and he subconsciously plagiarized it. He went around for a month asking everyone if they had heard it before. When no one had, he then proceeded to claim it.

It seems the diametrical opposite of the showrunner in your story.

Harry the Bastard said...

Everything is a remix! And everyone should watch this chap's documentary series, it's very good and quite eye-opening (unless you're a creative sort, in which case you probably already got it - still worth a watch though):

Anonymous said...

Isn't "30 Rock" just a recycled Mary Tyler Moore Show? You can cut-and-paste almost every character, including Fey's, to that show.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think it's inevitable that there will be repetition of story ideas; writers in any given era read the same newspapers and participate in the same social trends. I will say that I see a noticeable amount of reuse between 2 1/2 Men and The Big Bang Theory - same stable. One that springs to mind: Leonard sleeps with a rich older woman to get funding for an expensive piece of physics equipment; Charlie sleeps with a rich older woman to get an expensive piano.

ARGH these captchas. No, I can't just let it go. Couldn't you use the kind that have numbers? They're so much easier to read.

Thomas said...

The music side of this is something I can relate to. When composing a melody, I am very wary if I just pull it out of thin air - it seems more times than not I am accidentally copying. The way for me to write an original song is to knowingly take a melody and aggressively modify it, as this is the only way to be sure I am not directly stealing.

LouOCNY said...

Not a sitcom, but legendary Star Trek producer Gene Coon needed a story, so went home one weekend and wrote what he thought was a masterpiece - the infamous "Arena", AKA "Kirk Meets Godzilla" - in no time flat. The show quickly started into production, and THEN someone realized it was a direct lift of a classic story by SF legend Frederic Brown. Without telling Brown it was already in production, they bought the story from him and gave him a 'story by' credit.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken!

One thing I've noticed whilst recently watching Frasier is how every episode feels fresh. I have frequently wondered if it's because of your strict "no reused storylines" policy.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I don't know if this has been noted before, but let's not blame Ken (I think) for the captcha verifications -- I believe those are placed by Blogger, not the account holder.

They really are less fun than the previous system. I don't know why.

Also, I believe Billy Joel lifted his song-lifting story from Neil Sedaka.

Johnny Walker said...

Hey Wendy! I'm not sure Ken has any control over his captchas. I believe it's entirely Google's doing.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I grew up watching Miller-Boyett sitcoms on TGIF, before I had seen a lot of earlier sitcoms -- when I had seen them, I was astonished at how many stories were lifted from The Dick Van Dyke Show. One episode of Perfect Strangers I loved as a kid, about Balki accidentally getting hypnotized, was a Dick Van Dyke story almost beat for beat.

Of course there's also self-borrowing, like the episode of Cheers where Diane meets Frasier's mother, who threatens to kill her -- the producers had done something very similar with Louie on Taxi.

On one of the Simpsons commentaries, they mention that the episode was inspired in part by Mary Tyler Moore's "The System," and that when they were pitching it, Jim Brooks said "I'm not sure, but I think we did something like this on Mary Tyler Moore" -- and everyone except Brooks remembered the exact episode and knew where the similarities were.

But of course there's an example (Simpsons/Mary Tyler Moore) where both shows were different enough, and the characters were different enough, that the same story idea produced two very different (and very good) episodes.

Michael said...

Some stories are inevitably going to be similar. It's like a line in my field--I'm a history professor: how many different ways can you say, "Lincoln went to school"? Hypnotize a character in a show today and there will be dozens of reference points.

MASH did have one, though. In an early episode, Col. Flagg wants to take penicillin, so Hawkeye and Trapper slip him something so they can do an appendectomy. Later, Hawkeye and B.J. slip a colonel with high battlefield casualty rates something to get him out of action, then they are supposed to do the surgery. But, as I recall the story (Ken surely knows it better than I do), Farrell objected at the table reading that that would be mutilation of a healthy body. He and Alda argued the point, and the argument wound up in the script. So, MASH redid an early plot in a different way that also spoke to what, with all due respect to Larry Gelbart's genius, I saw as the show's increasing maturity.

Anonymous said...

You're talking about showrunners not doing such a thing on purpose, and I agree. But I also can totally picture some minor writing staff member being stuck in a bad place thinking "god, I totally have to pitch something clever already or my sorry ass is gonna getting fired outta here", then intentionally lifting a sub-plot from a little-known episode of an obscure show hardly anyone remembers. Which then actually ends up in the new episode.

Different angle, similar "misremembering" from Home Improvement (I'm slightly paraphrasing the lines):

WILSON: You know, Tim, a wise man once said: "every job has one thing in common - they have to get done."

JILL: That's pretty good.

TIM: Who said that?

WILSON: You did, Tim.

TIM: I used to be a smart guy...

Next day, doing Tool Time:

TIM: ...And folks, remember, every job has one thing in common: they have to get done. You know who said that, Al?

AL: Sure, Tim. I told you that last year.

TIM: No you didn't.

AL: I sure did.

TIM: Did not.

AL: Did too!


chuckcd said...

Are you insinuating that Ken is not a person?

Raj said...

Interesting. At times, Everybody Loves Raymond reminded me of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld had this idea about the belly button that talks. ELR also showed Ray doing the same thing, although unlike Seinfeld, it was not central to the story. Also, Ray's parents always reminded me of Frank and Estelle Costanza!

Maybe it's something to do with the fact that Jerry and Ray were both stand-up comedians in real life.

PolyWogg said...

I think sometimes premises repeat simply because they are just mere premises, like one I saw this week -- an ep of Chelsea had them opening a bar in their apartment, same as HIMYM did a couple of months ago. Probably they all read the same Village article or something.

But the weirdest one I ever saw was an episode of the old Riptide series with Perry King and Joe Penny -- in it, the character played by Perry has a flashback episode looking at his old high school football days. They're solving a murder, but interspersed are his football days. Nothing overtly memorable but fastforward about 8 years and Joe Penny is now on Jake and the Fatman. Writers strike causes problems, people are reusing old scripts that they have the rights to (I guess that's how it worked). And lo and behold, Joe Penny has almost identical script flashing back to solve murder of his QB days. Even the music over the ending was the same.

I was watching it thinking, "I've seen this before, but it wasn't" Suddenly hit me why -- it was Joe in the show, but not Joe's story originally.

Yet no common writers, one was NBC and the other CBS, production comps were different...only thing I see is that they both had some affiliation with Columbia.


Ryan Paige said...

I was surprised to see how many similarities there were between the Psych episode from last week and a spec script I had written about seven years ago. There were at least six extremely similar plot points/things sprinkled throughout the episode and the overall plot was very close.

And yet, there's very, very little chance that anybody who works on that show ever saw my spec since it seems very unlikely that that show's writers are rummaging through my closet when I'm not here looking for ideas.

But there were so many instances where the two scripts were virtually the same that, had that script ever left my house, that little voice in the back of my head would've been sure the writers had "stolen" from my script.

Brian Phillips said...

Not that it is lifting, but I have seen similar lines in different shows.

Here are a couple:
This exchange was heard twice in the same week, in the days that they aired unsold pilots (also known as "Failure Theater" as Robert Klein called it)

"I'm going to use the bathroom."
"Don't take anything to read!"

At least three shows at one time in their run years ago shoehorned in the line about "the heartbreak of psoriasis".

In more recent times, when "Iron John" by Robert Bly topped the bestseller lists, the following shows all had IJ-related shows:

Anything But Love "Call of the Mild"
Cheers "Get Your Kicks On Route 666"
Designing Women (!) "Real Scary Men"
Murphy Brown, "Male Call"

If any of you would like to discuss my post, I live in Georgia. I'll be dressed like a vampire.

Uh oh.

Mike said...

Ryan Paige, was it a spec of Psych?

The scene from The Honeymooners that Ken posted awhile back could easily have been stolen for Friends.

Max Clarke said...

There was an episode of Cheers, Sam loans Diane 500 dollars. She doesn't tell Sam it's to buy a Hemingway first edition book. Sam gets the impression she's wasting the money on lobster lunches and cashmere sweaters.

There was an episode of Frasier when Roz borrows 1500 dollars to help her between jobs. Frasier quickly finds fault with the way she's spending "his" money.

Both episodes were excellent. Both Sam and Frasier found fault where there was none. When I watch one, I think of the other, and then I enjoy the one I'm watching

Cap'n Bob said...

Some early TV shows used the same scripts as their radio incarnations. Gunsmoke is an example of that. One of the first episodes of Mike Hammer, with Stacey Keach, swiped its plot from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely.
I remember Our Miss Brooks, old scudder that I am.

tb said...

I see frequent use of ideas first seen on "Married with Children"

Donavan S. Moye said...

Another famous musical example: George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" and The Chiffons "He's So Fine"...

Mr. Hollywood said...

Classical story was that Quinn Martin, who had many shows on the air at one time years back, would use the same stories on his different shows. Literally the same dialog and the same scripts. All they'd do is change the character names!

gottacook said...

LouOCNY: For the benefit of non-Trek fans, I'd like to state for the record that Kirk's antagonist in the episode "Arena" was a starship captain himself, although one who just happened to look like a lizard. The label "Kirk vs. Godzilla" (which I've never heard until now) obscures this.

A more famous Star Trek idea theft is the tribbles, which episode writer David Gerrold (in his early 20s at the time) inadvertently copied from the Martian flat cats in Robert Heinlein's 1950s novel The Rolling Stones, although Heinlein was reportedly gracious about it afterward.

Bill said...

This phenomenon of accidental plagiarism is actually called Cryptomnesia.

PolyWogg said...

Did anyone ever watch the Sunset Strip show about an SNL-like show? THey had an episode where after they aired the first show i.e. east coast, someone told them that the skit was an exact ripoff of one a comedian was doing in the clubs (and available on YouTube). A writer in the room hadn't had anything stick to the wall in awhile, and was desparate for ideas so pulled an old idea. So they did that part live for the mid-West giving attribution to the comedian. Only to then discover that the comedian used to work as a writer for the show and had pitched it there first, years earlier, so they did it live again, and took credit.

Funny set of scenes...


Ger Apeldoorn said...

One of the episodes of the Dave Hackel's 1995 comedy Pursuit of Happiness had the music version of this as it's story. Larry Miller's character overhears someone whistling a tune in the elevator and likes it so much he buys it and turns it into a hit, until he realizes that it is the tune of a children's tv show - or something like that. Feel free to tweek and use it.

Pat Reeder said...

To PolyWogg:

That story might have been inspired by Jay Mohr, who admitted to ripping off a fellow comic's bit when he was desperate to get a sketch onto "Saturday Night Live." Nobody realized the idea was stolen until after it aired. According to his book about his days on the show, that caused quite a hubbub behind the scenes.

I write topical one-liners for radio, not TV sitcom plots, so this isn't a concern for me. But I do DVR all the late-night comics' monologues to make sure they don't do a line we've already written for our next morning's service. Surprising how often that happens. However, we are so timely that often, one of the late-night hosts does a line we already sent out two or three days before. I usually just attribute it to comedy-oriented minds thinking alike. But a few times, when Jay Leno has done a line of ours word-for-word that was based on a detail of a news story 30 paragraphs in that I thought nobody else would even notice, it's made me go "Hmmmm..."

Richard said...

Since we are on the subject of How I Met Your Mother and one step away from Frasier I would like to point out the main plot of the episode "The Stinson Missile Crisis". The main idea, as well the beginning and ending of the episode, are identical to the episode "Dark Side of the Moon" of Frasier.

Best regards,

Dave Scharf said...

Brent Butt, creator and star of Canadian hit sitcom Corner Gas, refused unsolicited pitches. His fear was twofold - (1) Later, subconsciously taking on the story and thinking it was his; and (2) Working on a similar story already and having come unkown person say, "Hey, that was mind. I pitched it to you."

Mike said...

Jaime J. Weinman said...
Of course there's also self-borrowing, like the episode of Cheers where Diane meets Frasier's mother, who threatens to kill her -- the producers had done something very similar with Louie on Taxi.
That story was recycled in great detail in an episode of "Just shoot me" as well. I remember reacting to it because I had watched the "Cheers" episode just days before.

BigTed said...

It's interesting how "The Simpsons," which once was the most original comedy on TV, keeps repeating itself now. But that's what happens when you've done 500 episodes based on the same family in the same small town. (I remember them making meta-jokes about how hard it is to come up with original stories... starting around season 8, more than a decade ago.)

Of course, they still come up with great, original stories and jokes from time to time.

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, Ken has no control how the captchca is formatted. He DOES control whether he uses word verification at all, Frankly, I'd prefer that Ken just approve the comments, but that might be a time-killer.

Kirk said...

LouOCNY mentioned Gene L. Coon. He wrote my favorite Star Trek episode "Devil in the Dark" about a hunt for a monster that's been killing miners. It turns out that it was simply a mother protecting her young, as the miners were unknowingly destroying her eggs. There's a Night Stalker episode with a similar plot, though the monster in that one looks more like the "Godzilla" in "Arena"

One episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show has Rob Petrie, fed up with all of Buddy Sorrel's practical jokes, betting he could play one on him. Throughtout the episode, Buddy become more and more paranoid as he waits for the joke to be sprung. As it turns out, Buddy driven to paronia IS the practical joke. A similar episode shows up toward the end of MASH's long run, with Hawkeye in the Buddy role, and BJ playing Rob.

Andy Cook said...

I have two Friday questions…

Whenever I see yet another family sitcom (Everybody Loves Raymond, According to Jim, 8 Simple Rules, Home Improvement etc), I always wonder how it was pitched. They can hardly say they have a great new idea - a family! in their house! with a sofa! the Dad's a bit of a world worn simpleton! the wife's put upon but secretly manipulates her husband! the kids are adorably young and cute!

If someone pitched that, surely they'd be told it's been done (a million times) - what do they say to make it seem new?

Talking of Everybody Loves Raymond, I saw the pilot episode again the other day and was struck by the differences in the layouts of the sets. For example, the outside door of the parent's kitchen is on the right hand side rather than the left where it was for the rest of the run.

I'm curious why these changes would be made especially when they don't seem to make any material difference and are so jarring.

Paul Duca said...

PolyWogg refers to 77 SUNSET STRIP...Warner Brothers was notorious for recycling stories among its Westerns and detective shows of the 1950's.

Paul Duca said...

Michael...Ken and David wrote that second M*A*S*H. Ken did an installment on how it happened. They ended up using that episode as the competition for the Oscar telecast, to obscure the fact it was a case of Cryptomnesia (thanks, Bill!).

Michael said...

Paul, I bow toward you. Likewise Kirk--I should have recalled that Dick Van Dyke episode, which is another example of an excellent premise that may not have been ripped off but really can be used over, because it's so plausible!

Nelly Wilson said...

The Cheers storyline involving Frasier being unable to beat Woody at chess was reused on Frasier.

Pat Reeder said...

How about this recent news story, in which Miss Seattle blatantly ripped off the plot of one of the most memorable episodes of "Frasier"?:

Rob in Toronto said...

Polywogg is referring to Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, not 77 Sunset Strip.

KOB said...

I marvel at the careers casting director Fred Roos has helped shape, from Mayberry to the Mafia... is he just that good? What other examples of great ensemble cast assembling can you think of?

Curt Alliaume said...

As a preteen, I remember watching Bewitched reruns and thinking "Didn't I already see this one?" Years later, I learned in the last year or two of the series, script ideas that were used when Dick York played Darrin were recycled after Dick Sargent took over the role.

Helena said...

How about when they steal the entire premise of a show? THE MENTALIST ripping off PSYCH comes to mind. A psychic who really isn't a psychic who works as a consultant for the police. First the Shawn Spencer character on PSYCH, and then the Patrick Jane character on THE MENTALIST. I think the creators of THE MENTALIST liked to watch the USA Network on Friday nights, which featured PSYCH (fake psychic) and MONK (detective who throughout the show was on the hunt for his wife's killer); resulting in THE MENTALIST: fake psychic who throughout the show is on the hunt for his wife's killer. Sorry, the killer of his wife AND daughter; I wouldn't want to imply that the shows are exactly the same.

Stef said...

An example of intentional recycling from the Dick Van Dyke Show: A song Rob Petrie supposedly wrote in the Army called “I’m in Love with Attila the Hun” showed up later on That Girl, supposedly written by Don Hollinger. Then it was recycled again on Good Morning World. All shows were written by Bill Persky & Sam Denoff.

I’m not sure, but I think originally it might have been sung on Our Miss Brooks, which I still remember fondly…from radio.


Coincidences definitely happen.

For example, years and years ago, before there was 30 Rock and before I was even aware of Tina Fey's existence, I had made a couple of jokes that seemed to be very unique as they were based not only on some common experience everyone else will have in life, but very specific to how I viewed certain things.

Imagine the déjà-vu experience when seeing those jokes on a TV show several years later...

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

Two instances of self-plagiarism:

In the pilot for MATLOCK, the clue that reveals for Matlock the murderer's identity is the same one that, several years before, had proven Oskar Werner's guilt in an episode of COLUMBO. Both episodes were written by Dean Hargrove. (After MATLOCK ended production, Hargrove created another series about an Atlanta-based lawyer, McBRIDE.)

There was a short-lived series in the 1980s, BLACKE'S MAGIC, that was the creation of William Link, Richard Levinson, and Peter Fischer. Link and Levinson had created Columbo, and with Fischer they had produced a series based on the Ellery Queen books. In the BLACKE'S MAGIC pilot, the clue that leads to the solution is repeated from a COLUMBO episode, and the murder method is repeated from an ELLERY QUEEN episode.

I presume it is only a coincidence that the same actor played the murderer in both pilots.

cadavra said...

Roy, if it's the episode I'm thinking of--I won't spoil it--it goes even further back, to the 1946 Don Siegel thriller THE VERDICT with Greenstreet and Lorre.

And I may have mentioned this before, but has there ever been a family sitcom in which at least one kid is a teen that did NOT do an episode where said teen(s) decide(s) to throw a wild party while mom and pop are away...only to have them come home early?

Joe said...

I think PERFECT STRANGERS swiped from everybody. One episode had Larry and Balki moving a piano up a long flight of stairs. Anybody on staff there ever see Laurel and Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX, you think? (Oh, wait. The MUSIC BOX stairs were outdoors and the STRANGERS stairs were indoors. That makes it completely different, I guess.)

BEWITCHED once swiped the chocolate factory/conveyor belt scene from I LOVE LUCY, even carrying over some dialogue from the original.

And I remember someone pointing out here awhile back that Martin Short's very short-lived 1980s sitcom swiped a bit from a LUCY SHOW episode.

BTW, I do remember OUR MISS BROOKS. A local TV station used to run it as a late-night filler back in the '80s. Funny show, for its time.

Joe said...

Oh, another I LOVE LUCY bit swiped by BEWITCHED. In one episode, Samantha interviews potential housekeepers, just as Lucy Ricardo had a decade earlier, and as with the conveyor belt routine, BEWITCHED went so far as to lift dialogue straight from the LUCY episode. (William Asher, who produced and frequently directed BEWITCHED, as well as being married to series star Elizabeth Montgomery, had directed I LOVE LUCY. Perhaps because of that he felt entitled to such "borrowing." God knows he had absolutely no reservations about BEWITCHED borrowing from itself!)

Maureen said...

My biggest gripe is when writers reuse their own lines. It happened in two Susan Harris shows and two Linda Bloodworth-Thomason shows.

On Soap, a pastor played by John Hillerman tells Jessica Tate that his wife left him when a guy came to install new carpeting "and got confused about what it was he was supposed to be laying." A few years later on the Golden Girls, Bea Arthur's character says the line to someone else, I forget who.

Here's the especially galling example: In Filthy Rich, a short-lived Bloodworth-Thomason show, Dixie Carter's character says of Delta Burke's character something like, "I hate it when she pummels us with her witty repartee." It was reused on Designing Women, with Dixie Carter saying the same line about Delta Burke's character.

I can see how it's tempting to reuse a great line, especially if you think no one saw it (on Filthy Rich, for example). But if it's that memorable, people will probably REMEMBER it, and then it ruins it. My estimation of both those writers went down, down, down.

Betsy said...

A script from the Six Million Dollar Man's first season episode "Survival of the Fittest" '74 was blatantly recycled in 1976 as the episode "Fly Jaime" in the spin-off Bionic Woman series. Same co-writer, same plot, same shooting locations and even many of the exact same lines, just spoken by different characters. I was told "Oh, they used to do this all the time in 70s TV" Huh?!!

Was this a widely accepted practice back then? If so, at what point did Hollywood or networks realize this was insufferably lazy and insulting to audiences? (especially on this Harve Bennett Bionic franchise series where so many fans were regular viewers of both shows--did they think nobody would notice?)


cadavra said...

Recycling has always been normal practice since the earliest days of movies. Warner Bros. in particular would constantly reuse the same stories over and over again, merely changing locales, professions, etc. (See TIGER SHARK > SLIM > MANPOWER, for one.) Heck, they did THE MALTESE FALCON three times in ten years, the second of which (SATAN MET A LADY) was a comedy! And one episode of "Cheyenne" was a crunched-down western version of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT! They never threw away anything!

Dan Coyle said...

I remember when Peter David noticed the 1991 John Badham action comedy had a premise completely ripped off from a Hill Street Blues episode, then noted that one of the screenwriters had worked on Hill Street, and said, "If you're gonna swipe, swipe from yourself. That way, you steal from the best.

Paul Duca said... the GOLDEN GIRLS pilot, Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is explaining to Blanche and Rose why her husband Stan left her after 38 years of marriage for a stewardess he met on a flight to Hawaii:

"She was told to give the passengers a lei...she got confused...he got lucky--now they're living in Maui"

Paul Duca said...

Cadavra...have you ever seen the film MOVIE MOVIE? They spoof the conventions of old-time filmmaking by having two installments--a black-and-white boxing drama and a color musical. Part of the humor is seeing the same sets and backdrops, reused stock footage--and the cast playing different (or if character types, the same) parts in both.

Paul Duca said...

Cadavra...there's another movie about electrical linemen that predates SLIM and MANPOWER--this TIGER SHARK? My late father spent his entire career with the local power company, and it was a great joy when he was able to get tapes of those two movies.

dangermandownunder said...

I remember the Don Rickles sitcom C.P.O. Sharkeyusing almost exactly the story as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.

Mike Doran said...

For Roy Perkins:

When I watched the Blacke's Magic pilot on its first airing, I recognized the murder set-up from a Burke's Law episode by Levinson & Link, circa 1964. From the outset, I knew who the killer was and how he'd committed his "impossible crime".
I thought at first I'd use this ill-gotten knowledge to impress my family, who fortuitously didn't remember the Burke show, but thought better of it.
Years later, Aaron Spelling revived Burke's Law for CBS, and reused this particular episode more or less in toto, even to the point of crediting Levinson & Link for the story.

Staying with Blacke's Magic:
One of that show's staff writers had been head writer on The Edge Of Nightat the time of that show's demise. He had set up an "impossible crime" cliffhanger at the end of the last show, in hopes of getting a pickup from another network. That didn't happen, so when he got Blacke, he used the gimmick in one of the episodes, finally getting to pay it off.

Steven Bochco used a story about a murderous dentist on McMillan And Wife in the '70s, and later on Columbo in the '90s.

There was a TV-movie in the '80s that starred Suzanne Pleshette as a police captain taking over a screwed-up squad. My dad recognized the basic story as a straight lift of 12 O'Clock High; he wondered aloud if Bernie Lay's estate could sue.

But the all-time classic has to be when 77 Sunset Strip lifted Strangers On A Train, getting around it by giving on-screen story credit to Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Czenzi Ormonde; I guess it isn't really plaigiarism if you're up front about it ...

cadavra said...

Paul: Yes, MOVIE MOVIE is terrific, and very authentic to the period. Stanley Donen was the director and Larry Gelbart co-wrote it. I wish it were out in a decent DVD edition. And TIGER SHARK, as the title suggests, involves fishermen, but the plot is the same. Can't think of an earlier film about electric linemen, though LOOKING FOR TROUBLE and I'VE GOT YOUR NUMBER deal with telephone linemen.

Mike: Warners made STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, so it was perfectly legal for them to remake it as a 77SS episode, so long as Highsmith got payment and screen credit, which she obviously did.

Don Austen said...

Back in 1977, I wrote a television pilot about an average woman in her mid twenties, who winds up being pursued by semi-humans from the future, who want to kill her daughter, because her daughter's existence as an adult threatens their survival.

In the course of hiding from them, she uses the alias Susan Conners.

Terminator is about a woman named Sarah Connor, who has to protect her son from semi-human robots from the the future, who want to kill him, because his existence as an adult threatens their survival.

In 1980, I pitched the story to Cliff Alsberg, senior vice president of dramatic development for Filmways. Several months later, Filmways was purchased by Orion Pictures, which, four years later distributed the first Terminator movie.

My pilot had also been shopped around by my manager and by Robert Thompson, supervising producer for the Paper Chase TV series.

James Cameron said that the idea for the Terminator came to him in a dream; that he dreamt of a robot torso, dragging itself with knives. But he didn't dream about bad guys from the the future coming back through time to kill someone's child.

The Terminator franchise has generated billions of dollars. Sometimes I haven't had enough money to eat.

Registration date: May 4, 1977
Screenplay title: A Rift in Time
Confirmed by letter from WGA, West, then head of script registration, Blanche W. Baker

Edouble said...

A Different World story line: while Dewayne is in Japan,Whitley realizes that she wants to be with him. When she decides to tell him, she sees that he's come back with a girlfriend from Japan - Kinu. A very similar plot line on Friends except it was Rachel, Ross and Julie.

Anonymous said...

In WINGS Peri Gilpin plays Barbara 242, Brian's video date. She gets in an altercation with some biker and shakes the telephone booth he's occupying. At the end of the episode she tells the waitress tk "spill a little into the glass." On FRASIER, Roz is attending a soiree that Frasier is throwing for Martha Paxton, and she is annoyed that her outfit isn't cooperating. Frasier asks if she wants something to drink and calls the waiter over. Roz orders a double bourbon on the rocks and she tells him to "spill a little in the glass." Early the next season, Roz is craving chocolate and the vending machine won't vend the chocolate, so she shakes it in the same manner as Barbara shook the telephone booth.

Oriole Adams said...

Two TV shows stand out in my mind as far as copying these cases, it was almost copying the previous script word for word. One is an episode of Room 222 when Miss Brown was showing the early signs of dementia. The same script was used on an episode of Head of the Class (my folks were amazed when I was able to quote dialog before Howard Hesseman said his lines). Another was an old, long-forgotten, short-lived sitcom called "Getting Together", which starred Bobby Sherman. There was an episode where he and his roommate, Lionel, needed to earn money in a hurry so they volunteered to be human guinea pigs for an experiment. Again, I amazed my parents when Laverne and Shirley volunteered for an experiment on their show, and I stated "One of them has to go without sleep, and the other has to eat dirt."

kgwrotethis said...

There was an episode of I LOVE LUCY where Lucy, in Europe, needed help communicating her situation and required translators in multiple languages to tell her story and a similar bit was used on an episode of FRASIER when Niles thought Maris was cheating on him with her fencing instructor. said...

Having watched the Mary Tyler Moore show series twice now, Frasier AND Raymond AND even several of the Golden Girls have swiped A TON of scripts from the MTM show. MTM was/is a classic. said...

Johnny Walker
Watch the Mary Tyler Moore show and see HOW MANY of her scripts/ideas were used on Frasier, Raymond, and even the Golden Girls. In fact, the classic ending hug on the MTM final show was used in the Golden Girls. After binge watching the MTM series (7 seasons) twice now, Frasier has swiped MANY of MTM's ideas.

Unknown said...

Gary Gibson
This subject has always interested me as I haven't just thought about small similarities in the story, I've been wondering about exact story lines with different writers getting credit. There has been one story in particular...the free dance lesson that turns into a lifetime contract. This morning I saw an episode of My 3 Sons that I had never seen before. Uncle Charley wins a contest and gets one free dance lesson. Soon the dance instructor signs him to a lifetime contract which will cost him a bundle. This episode was from 1966. Also from 1966 was and episode of The Monkees, Dance Monkee Dance, where Peter wins a contest and gets one free dance lesson but is then signed up for a lifetime contract. A year earlier there was an episode of Gomer Pyle titled Dance Marine Dance, where Gomer wins a contest and gets a free dance lesson...and you guessed it...he is signed up for a lifetime contract. 1966 brought us Clampett Cha Cha Cha where Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies wins a free dance lesson and is hoodwinked by the dance instructors as well. Like I said, each of these episodes has different writers credited. There's an episode of Andy Griffith where a new girl in town gets Barney to propose to him and then when he tries to tell the girl's faather that he doesn't want to marry her, the father tries to extort him. A few years later the same story appeared on Gomer Pyle when a new girl in town swindles Gomer into proposing in hopes of extorting money. Again...different writers getting credit. Honorable mention goes to shows where the spouse/best friend suddenly become allergic to the significant other. Three come to mind...I Married Joan, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Gilligan's Island.

lynda said...

I've noticed Everybody Loves Raymond has swiped at least 3 shows from Dick Van Dyke.

Rob and Laura get into a fight. They both complain to others and tell differing versions of the fight making themselves look good and the other look bad.

Everybody Loves Raymond (The Can Opener Season 4 Episode 2) Ray and Debra get into a fight over a can opener. They both complain to others telling differing versions of the fight making themselves look good and the other look bad.

Laura writes a children's book and asks Rob to look at it. He criticizes it, they argue, and Rob ends up writing the story HIS way. They read both stories to Buddy and Sally to have them choose which one is the best.

Everybody Loves Raymond (Season 2 Epi 8) Same thing. Debra's character in her book was even a bunny just like Laura's. They read both stories to Ally their daughter to choose.

Laura makes a special dip that she is famous for and everyone loves. Millie is having a dinner party and asks for the recipe. Laura leaves out an ingredient to sabotage Millie. Once confronted, she admits it and apologizes because she wanted herself to be the only one who made great dip.

Everybody loves Raymond Season 2 Epi 15 Debra wants to learn how to make meatballs the way Marie does. Marie teaches Debra, but secretly sabotages her ingredients setting Debra up for failure. When confronted by Ray, Marie admits to doing it in order to make sure everything "stays right". However, Marie apologizes and passes her recipes on to Debra.

susan wiener said...

Great article. I know that quite a number of plots rom "Everybody Loves Raymond" an "King of Queens" were 'borrowed' from each other and lso "Friends" I watched tons of these shows 'n know that Raymond's show used exactly the lines about the wife being there in the morning, being there in the evening, etc is really a good thing. It's crazy that they make so much money!