Is This the Most Plagiarized Joke of All Time?
A few years ago I was flipping through Twitter and saw this joke:
Those first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane, what were they so excited about?
Weeks later I was at an open mic and I heard a comic tell the same joke on stage. I couldn’t figure out why it felt like I had heard that particular comic’s material before, even though I knew I had never seen him perform. Eventually I remembered the tweet. I cared for about a day and then decided not to anymore. If I were to start worrying about every open mic comic who steals material I’d drive myself crazy.
About six months later I was at a well-regarded show and about eight or nine minutes into his set, the second comic told the joke. I had more of a problem with it this time around. This wasn’t an open mic full of young comics looking to get stage time and one homeless dude looking to get non-sidewalk time. People had paid money to see this show. Patton Oswalt was the first comic to go up. Furthermore, this wasn’t a young punk no one cared about, stealing jokes to get a laugh and boost his self-esteem just enough to keep him from moving back to Topeka. This was a comedian who had done the late night circuit. Why would an accomplished comedian steal jokes? Didn’t he see what had happened to Carlos Mencia? No, not the part where he made a bunch of money and got super famous. The part where everyone thinks he’s a butthead now.
I hadn’t thought about the joke in a few years and had all but forgotten about it until I saw it again recently on Twitter. It was interesting to me that the joke was still being passed around, and I was curious as to how many people had tweeted it. I did a Twitter search and this is what I found.
This joke has been tweeted by multiple people across the world every day for the past five years. We may need FiveThirtyEight to take a look at it in order to get a full statistical analysis, but in the meantime I would like to invite you down the rabbit hole that has been this joke’s life.
October 18th, 2009
As far as I can find, this was the first time it was tweeted:
Speaking of Superman, why do people in Metropolis get excited if they really thought they saw a bird or plane?
— Seven (@Prostatus52) October 19, 2009
Keep in mind this doesn’t mean this is the first time the joke was made, just the first time it was tweeted. Also, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was the first time it was tweeted, either. If someone tweeted it before this, but has since deleted his or her account, it wouldn’t have shown up in my search.
November 2009 – May 2010
During this period, the joke is only tweeted three times by three different users. But then…
June 2nd, 2010
Comedian Shari VanderWerf tweets it to 38k followers:
Those first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane… ? What the fuck were they so excited about?
— Shari VanderWerf (@shariv67) June 2, 2010
This blasts the joke into the stratosphere. VanderWerf may not be Patient Zero, but she’s definitely the person who infected the most people the earliest. In fact, two years later, Penn Jillette would give VanderWerf a shout out to let people know she was the first person to make the joke. She wasn’t the first person to tweet it, but she also does standup, so there is a possibility that she said the joke on stage at some point before it was tweeted for the first time.
Then, in April of 2011, there’s a twist! Like a virus, the joke adapts and morphs into a different joke! A worse joke! Or even, dare I say, a non-joke!
"@FreddyAmazin: It's a bird! It's a plane! No it's SUPERMAN!!!! Wait No..no it was a bird. Guess we got a little over excited on that one."
— Dawi Marshall (@Dawii36) April 28, 2011
As you can see, now that the joke has been altered, its entire essence is lost. Instead of ending with a punchline, it ends with a shrug of the shoulders. People keep attributing the change to someone called Freddy Amazin (3.46 million followers). I can’t find the original tweet, but several people give him credit. I’ll take their word for it. Even if he’s not the person who made the change, he’s still the person who made this version of the joke popular.
April – December, 2011
People are now plagiarizing both versions of the joke. It’s like a fight between two heavyweight contenders, if a heavyweight contender was fighting against a cloned version of himself and something had gone wrong during the cloning process, leaving the clone without a head.
Fuck you, Freddy Amazin. You took a perfectly good joke, ripe and succinct and tight, and turned it into your ugly non-comedy. It was a bird? You guess you got a little over excited on that one? What are you talking about?
December 23rd, 2011
After battling it out for months, the clone dies.
Freddy’s shitty version of the joke is tweeted for the last time:
it's bird, it's a plane, NO IT'S SUPERMAN! wait no.. no it was a bird. guess we got a little over excited on that one.
— Lindsey (@lllindsaye) December 23, 2011
Eat shit, Freddy.
You eat shit too, Lindsey.
The Philosoraptor rears his ugly head.
Hey, you guys. A dinosaur is doing the joke now.
January – December, 2012
The joke is tweeted hundreds of times. Some people use the hashtag #philosoraptor, but most continue to pass it off as their own. Even if they do use the hashtag, they’re crediting the wrong person (or dinosaur), so why do I care? I guess I just want people to give credit to someone. Or at least say “This isn’t mine, but…”
It’s around the end of 2012 that the joke starts to lose some steam, but then…
January 2nd, 2013
Internet garbage-pail 9GAG picks up the joke and spits it to 4.3 million followers.
The first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane… Why the heck were they so excited?
— 9GAG (@9GAG) January 3, 2013
9GAG’s followers eat it up. Some of them even do Spanish laughter.
Jajajajaajajaja RT @9GAG: The first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane… Why the heck were they so excited?
— Adriana Manzanares (@Adde8) January 3, 2013
But others are concerned that maybe 9GAG is being “ultra gay.”
ultra gay RT @9GAG The first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane… Why the heck were they so excited?
— Duta P. (@dutapermana22) January 3, 2013
January 2013 — Present
The joke gained popularity from 9GAG and is still going strong to this day. Just last week, Mr. Bean (Parody Account) even got in on the action.
Those first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane…? What the fuck were they so excited about?
— Funny Mr. Bean (@mrbeantweet) March 29, 2015
What interests me most about Mr. Bean (Parody Account) and everyone else is their willingness to take a non-original thought and pass it off as an original one. Let me clarify: I’m not trying to shame anyone for stealing a joke. People unknowingly plagiarize things all of the time. I was once looking through my old tweets and saw a joke about wishing I still carried around a binder so I had something with which to hide my boners, and as I kept scrolling down, saw that I had retweeted a very similar joke months earlier from Mike Leffingwell. It creeped me out to think I had put the joke out into the world thinking I had come up with it, but I had actually read it months earlier and even liked it enough to retweet it. I had been incepted with a dick joke.
The idea that thousands of people all thought they came up with the same joke is a bit preposterous, though, so let’s rule that out. Another possibility is that multiple people came up with the joke separately, at least initially. When you consider the fact that the phrase reached a wide audience when it was used in the opening sequence of the 1950s TV show Adventures of Superman and an even wider audience when the 1978 film came out, that possibility becomes a probability. If you’re doing observational comedy, chances are someone out there has observed the same thing in the same way. It’s just a matter of who says it first, who says it best, and who says it loudest.
The plagiarism didn’t actually begin until people started tweeting the exact same version of the joke and passing it off as their own. Even so, can we really call it plagiarism? Is it plagiarism to tell the “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock-knock joke? Maybe that’s what this joke has become. Maybe this is what it looks like when a joke crosses over into immortality in the internet age. But instead of sitting around with a few friends, reciting “a guy walks into a bar” jokes that have been passed down for generations, people are sharing it online. There are probably hundreds of jokes out there just like this.
My opinion? It’s definitely plagiarism if you’re telling the joke on stage. And it’s plagiarism if you tweet it if you consider yourself a comedian. Or you’re a Bro Humor or 9GAG-esque account stealing jokes from unknown comics.
Everyone else? Tweet away. Whoever made this joke for the first time would probably just be excited to know that it’s had such a long run.
Throughout this entire thing, I only saw one person who tweeted it and gave credit even though he had no idea where the credit should go. Mr. Dana Gould, you are a class act and we love you for it:
"The first two guys who thought Superman was a bird or a plane, why the hell were they so excited?" – not mine, saw on a Tumblr.
— Dana Gould (@danagould) January 15, 2012
But sometimes, even if you don’t want to take the credit, someone is still going to give it to you:
Why were the first two guys who thought Superman was a bird and a plane so excited? -Dana Gould
— Joe Porter (@Joeporterrr) January 22, 2012
Casey Gullickson is a writer/improvisor in Los Angeles. He’s written for the Hulu series The Morning After and performs at the UCB Theatre.