Parallel Thinking Is Real: One Concept, Six Sketches, and a Whole Slew of Plagiarism Accusations
“It’s a total coincidence,” Jordan Peele told Twitter when Saturday Night Live aired a sketch on airport boarding around the same time as Key and Peele. It’s not a stretch to see that more than one comedian can joke about airports, or any other subject. But accusations of joke theft have often been lobbed at SNL — it’s one of the biggest and most visible platforms for sketch comedy in the world, after all — and this past season one group again confronted the show about it. For that particular accusation, however, the rabbit hole goes deeper.
There have been six popular sketch videos by different groups about settling for love with a dating service. These include videos by a huge YouTuber, a sketch group at a well-established comedy theater, and an actual major dating site. How similar are they? Titles include Settle.com, GiveUpandSettle.com, Settl, Settling.com, and another Settl.
Settle.com — Super Kudzu (Released: 3/10/14)
66,795 views (as of this writing, counting views on all sites where video was posted)
GiveUpandSettle.com — NigaHiga (Released: 9/5/2014)
Settl — Matt Condon/Ben Zweig (Released: 9/9/15)
Settling.com — Erwin Street (Released: 11/3/15)
Introducing the New JDate — JDate (Released: 11/17/15)
Prior to the release of SNL’s video, five similarly-themed and named sketches were already in existence, having made the rounds on humor websites and popular blogs.
Settle.com, created by former iO West sketch team Super Kudzu, is not the first comedy sketch about bad dates (MADtv’s Lowered Expectations was a character showcase for weird potential partners). Nor is Settle.com the first parody of a dating app, or even the first dating sketch to parody confessional-style ads. It does, however, appear to be the first sketch about giving up on trying to find love through apps, and letting a “settle”-named service match you up with anyone.
In Settle.com, a suited spokesperson (a take on the eHarmony commercials in the mid ‘00s) tells the viewer their personal details don’t matter, and they will be randomly matched with anyone so they don’t die alone. Couples settle for awkward suitors and have trouble relating and kissing. It was featured on the front page of Funny or Die, FoD’s YouTube channel, and on CollegeHumor.
Six months later, NigaHiga’s video GiveUpandSettle.com also opens with frustrated couples wanting to settle for less. The execution, however, is markedly different as the sketch quickly heightens to the absurd (someone misspells girls as “grils” and is matched with a grill, etc.). NigaHiga creator Ryan Higa even registered the actual website with a quiz related to the video.
In a behind the scenes clip, Higa states how he thought of the sketch: “I was watching TV…and they still play those…online dating commercials and I just got inspired.” Splitsider’s guide to accusing someone of plagiarism asks you to consider, “Is it likely that someone saw your video?” The guide gives 500,000 views as mass exposure (in 2011). Would a prolific YouTuber, struggling to put out frequent videos, run in a different direction with a concept he saw on a humor website’s front page? As Settle.com only had 66,000, it seems unlikely.
Almost a year later, Matt Condon and Ben Zweig created Settl. The video was for LA’s Comedy Hack Day, an event that brings comedians and programmers together to create humorous apps. Besides the name, one of the few similarities this idea shared with previous concepts was showing that finding an ideal partner is futile. An actual app was coded to have a Tinder-like interface, and you couldn’t swipe left — the app automatically swipes right.
Sketch group Erwin Street’s video is a detailed parody of those ’00s eHarmony commercials. It includes lines like, “All my friends are married, and I don’t want to feel left out, so it works!” The sketch garnered attention on many news outlets. I got in touch with Joseph Aceves, writer/director of the sketch. Wanting to parody the eHarmony commercial, Joseph wrote a sketch called “Nothappyhappybutnotsad.com.” It was his teacher who didn’t like the name, so Aceves renamed the sketch Settling.com. When Aceves approached his sketch group with this, he notes, “Up until that point I didn’t do any research on similar sketches, which I regret. It just didn’t cross my mind.”
Soon after they uploaded the video, someone on Erwin Street forwarded Aceves Settle.com and GiveUpAndSettle.com. Aceves admits he “felt robbed even though there was irrefutable proof these sketches had come before [mine]. It was like a cruel joke that my one sketch that got an inkling of attention had been done before, twice.”
After the initial shock, Aceves noticed differences (of which there are indeed many). He notes that Erwin Street’s sketch is “a shot by shot recreation of the 2007 eHarmony commercial.” While the sketches are similar, Aceves states, “at least there are differences. And to me, they’re enough to [allow his sketch to] exist separately.”
Two weeks after Settling.com, JDate released their own confessional dating commercial parody. Sad couples awkwardly interacted thanks to “‘…Eh’, the first ever dating site that helps you aim low and dream small.” The tagline urged viewers, “Don’t settle for an ‘eh’ partner, choose JDate.”
The video features Jon Rudnitsky, who was already an SNL cast member at the time of this video’s release. Perhaps that’s why JDate decided to use the video’s description to call out SNL with some (weirdly cheery) passive-aggressiveness:
This caption, then, leads us to the video that spurred all the outrage and accusations:
Settl — SNL (Released: 12/6/15)
Settl introduces women that want to get married ASAP, so they meet guys with “characteristics [they] are now willing to overlook.” The sketch then shows that on their app, swiping left isn’t an option. Vanessa Bayer delivers the tagline, “Remember, it’s not giving up, it’s settling up!” She seals the deal with an awkward kiss. Those are elements similar to almost every previous video. Settl was quickly picked up by news sites and dating blogs across the internet.
Zweig, co-creator of the first Settl, was deeply upset. He wrote a post on Medium — “Dear SNL: You Ripped Off My Hackathon Project.” Despite being flattered, he asked, “What the shit, SNL…it’s the same goddamn app. It’s named the same goddamn thing,” providing a side by side:
He also accuses SNL of stealing his idea about the inability to swipe left. He may have been spurred into creating the post by a Reddit thread, which he mentions in his comparison. The thread began because someone was searching for SNL’s Settl, but instead found Zweig’s Settl. Other Redditors ask, “…have you guys considered trying to get an explanation why nobody working for the show didn’t bother [sic] to do a simple web search before filming their version?” Both Zweig and Reddit users question the connection that Hack Day judges could potentially have to SNL writing staff.
Zweig writes directly to SNL, stating, “What happened is either a degree of comedic plagiarism, or an impressive lack of basic, easily-done research. In 2015, I’m not sure which one is worse.” It’s worth noting that before Zweig’s piece, Recode noted a similarity between the SNL and Higa videos — without mentioning Zweig’s video.
Zweig’s Medium post led to more articles in the Washington Post, Gothamist, Flavorwire, and many other sites about the plagiarism accusation. Neither SNL nor NBC Universal responded to any press outlets for comment. Articles noted that SNL‘s version focused on older women urgently wanting to get married, while Condon and Zweig’s app targeted sad, exhausted millennial men.
Did SNL put together a sketch from the ideas of aspiring comedians? Did a busy YouTuber steal a concept? Did JDate use someone’s comedy for advertising? After an exhaustive look, it’s hard to see this as anything other than years of parallel thinking.
Settling is a bleak concept, but one that people have been empathizing with since the beginning of relationships. The 1832 classic Russian novel Eugene Onegin even ends with (184-year-old spoiler) the main character unable to be with his love because she settled for someone else.
By mid-2015, Tinder was processing 1.6 billion swipes a day. Many articles and studies have been published on how dating apps lead to too much choice. People begin to think there’s always someone better. It’s not a stretch to think that after the rise of Tinder, many comedians saw friends or themselves working too hard to find the perfect match. Comparing themselves to happy friends, they realized if they don’t want to end up alone, it was time to settle.
The format, too, seems like something that could have been thought up in parallel. If you’re writing a comedy video and you want to depict two incompatible people, it would naturally follow that they would have nothing to talk about, dislike each other, or struggle to kiss. In terms of deeply similar names, meanwhile, settling seems to be the most efficient way to explain the concept. Otherwise you’re looking at Acquiesce.com? SayUncleandConcede.com? Aspiring late night monologue writers will tell you that topical jokes they intend to include in writing submission packets often appear on screen in an almost identical form before they can submit them.
Internet commenters are quick to identify similarities and denounce creators for plagiarism, and writers can be extremely hurt when they feel their ideas have been appropriated. A Google deep dive could be helpful; it could potentially lead to other executions of an idea, letting a writer decide if they want to adjust the material. It’s not surprising, however, that similarly-aged comedians, struggling in relationships or other common issues, decide to use humor to address their problems in the same way.
Aceves’s teammate, Janine Hogan, perhaps puts it best when she notes that, “A website or app for just simply settling for anyone is a very relatable idea and a concept people laugh at and relate to. That’s why numerous people made it and [the videos were] loved so much.”
There’s room for more than one interpretation. Your concept may have been done before, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon your vision — there’s no need to settle.