There have been a few joke-stealing scandals in recent years: Carlos Mencia stealing from Joe Rogan, Jay Mohr from Rick Shapiro, the lesser-known (though no less egregious) instance of Denis Leary stealing from Louis C.K. And now, Kain Carter stealing from Patrice O'Neal, less than two years after Patrice's untimely death at age 41.
Patrice's own comment on the Opie & Anthony radio show makes the first salient point:
Could you please stop saying 'jokes'? Back in the day when people stole jokes, it was: 'two Jews walk into a bar...' Carlos [Mencia] is taking your life's analogies, man.
In the context of modern standup, a good comic's material comes out of their life experience and represents their analysis of the world. Stealing it means stealing their thoughts, their voice. What theft is more serious than that? It also takes many years to find the right expression for those thoughts and someone who steals is skipping all that hard work, the years of trying and failing in front of audiences until you find a way to say what you think that resonates with people. Not only did Patrice put those years in, but he was a singular comic. He said things no one else would, in a way no one else could. When you steal from him, there's nothing left for you to fear, because Patrice already took the risk. To quote Paul Provenza:
When the heart isn't there, when the fearlessness that comes from honesty isn't there, when you don't really believe what you're saying yourself, the audience isn't falling for it.
And so to Kain Carter: we're not falling for it.
First of all, we're not falling for his delivery. Patrice said more with just a look, with a dismissive grunt, than Carter can say with all the words he stole. Carter's carefully phrased repetition of something he's heard lacks Patrice's comic timing, his personality, and his sincerity. It's mere parroting, and it reveals his inexperience.
We're also not falling for his response to all this, which is neither apology nor acknowledgement. It's more just a sort of confused weaseling: "There will never be anything new. So now it's like, how do you preserve what's already been done?" As if preservation were the issue. Carter would have us believe he has taken a bizarre comedic curatorship upon himself. But Patrice's work is not at risk of being lost. It's on Youtube, he has albums, and a DVD. Revenues from these would go to his family, unlike the money Carter has made.
The notion that nothing is new, that therefore stealing is all a matter of perspective, is bullshit. Art, whether it be literature, music, or standup, is a creative and intelligent response. Answering back means adding your voice to the conversation, serving as a critique or expansion on other art. Copying, however, achieves none of these things. You're just tracing the lines drawn by a greater mind.
This is all particularly galling for Dante Nero, Patrice's long-time friend and co-host of The Black Phillip Show, from which Carter stole much of the material. I spoke to Dante the day after the video was posted, when he had begun his efforts to get the word out online. Dante keenly felt the responsibility of continuing the show as The Beige Phillip Show after Patrice died:
Patrice... those are huge comedic and philosophical shoes to fill. I thought about it just about every day before I even picked up the mic and started doing the show. I wanted to question myself if I'd be able to put together a show Patrice would think was good.
Carter has displayed no such conscience.
Of all Carter's statements, perhaps the most obnoxious is that he is acting as a "vessel" for Patrice to speak through. Patrice of all people had no need for anyone to speak for him. He was accused of misogyny and racial divisiveness, but to know his work is to understand that it wasn't so simple. I listen to him, to Opie & Anthony, to Jim Norton, to Jim Jefferies, maybe because I don't need to hear my own opinions repeated back to me. Granted, when someone beautifully formulates a sentiment you agree with, it can be edifying; it can clarify or extend your own thoughts. But an opposing opinion, when presented by someone with a lively intellect - it's thrilling.
Patrice argued his side ferociously, hilariously, but he would also listen. He thought deeply and acknowledged complexity. He resisted a culture that has moved towards silence, towards static social and political categories which can only lead to lazy thinking. The finest article about Patrice was written by Adrian Nicole Leblanc for New York Magazine and it does far more than I can here to tell you about Patrice. He kept us on our toes, and now that he's gone, we're all the poorer for it.
Patrice's fans know that he didn't receive the recognition he deserved before he died. It's heartbreaking to know how close he was to realizing the success he had worked for. Patrice said, "If I speak, I live." So I'll keep listening to Patrice, as I watch Kain Carter fall from Youtube grace.
For an extended version, including more from the interview with Dante, go to my blog.