Content Warning: Due to the nature of the sketches involved, this post will include both adult language and sexual themes, in particular in embedded videos.
On March 15, Variety reported that the the NBC program Saturday Night Live (SNL) is facing allegations that it plagiarized two sketches from a different New York sketch comedy troupe.
The allegations come from Nick Ruggia and Ryan Hoffman, the founders of the troupe Temple Horses. Since 2011, the duo have been filming a variety of comedy sketches, and uploading them to their YouTube channel.
However, the controversy with SNL deals with two specific SNL sketches and how they overlap with two earlier sketches by Temple Horses.
The first is the SNL Sketch The Pumpkin Patch, which deals with a pumpkin patch owner that is forced to fire three employees after they are caught having sex with some of his pumpkins.
According to Ruggia and Hoffman, this sketch closely mirrors a sketch they put on Youtube in October 2014 entitled Fucking a Pumpkin, which deals with a group of pumpkin patch customers simulating and discussing having sex with a pumpkin until the owner throws them out.
The second pair involves the SNL sketch Pound Puppy, which involves various couples trying to have sex but being interrupted by their dogs. This sketch proposes a giant dog-shaped pet blinder that they can have sex in.
Ruggia and Hoffman compare this to a September 2011 sketch they uploaded entitled Pet Blinders where the problem of pets interrupting sex is solved by a blindfold made for the dog.
Ruggia and Hoffman felt strongly enough about the similarities that they had an attorney send a letter to NBC about the issue. The letter, which did not threaten any specific legal action and took care to say that NBC nor SNL were likely aware of the plagiarism, did request a response by March 4, 2019.
Temple Horses C&D FINAL by on Scribd
According to a report from Vulture, NBC did respond to the letter but to say that an internal investigation had found that SNL writers “had independently developed the ideas for those sketches and found no similarities to the Temple Horses sketches that would be protected by copyright law.”
But this raises an interesting question: Is there actual plagiarism and, if so, does it arise to copyright infringement? The internet, at least judging from YouTube comments, seem to be divided.
However, that’s likely because it’s a thorny question and one that doesn’t have a clear answer and there may never be one to be found.
Examining the Allegations
The similarities between the sketches are pretty easy to see. With the first pair, both sketches feature pumpkin patch owners who are dealing with people having sex with (or discussing/simulating having sex with) pumpkins until they are thrown out.
Likewise, the second pair both deal with the issue of sexual intimacy being interrupted by dogs and offering a fake product to stop the issue.
But, for all of the similarities in the premise (and smaller ones point out in the letter), they also have many differences.
SNL’s Pumpkin Patch focuses on employees who were caught in the act by the groundskeeper the night before. They are ultimately fired but the owner winds up being sympathetic to their desires. This is different from the earlier version, which focuses on a group of customers acting out the deed before being thrown out by and irate owner.
Likewise, Pound Puppy features a different product, namely a large blind that couples can have sex in, and much of the humor from the sketch comes from couples trying to have sex in such an unusual space.
In short, while there are similarities between the sketches, there are also key differences. To make matters worse for Ruggia and Hoffman, some of the ideas they are saying were plagiarized are not unique to them.
For example, others have pointed out at least two similar sketches to Fucking a Pumpkin that predate Temple Horses.
This is on top of the fact that the SNL sketch made reference to American Pie, a 1999 movie that featured sexual acts with a pie.
While it’s entirely possible that SNL writers (Note: NBC said the two sketches were written by different writers) took inspiration from Temple Horses, it’s going to be impossible to prove and, even if they are able to prove it, its unlikely anything that’s taken would rise to the level of copyright infringement.
That’s because copyright does not protect ideas. It only protects the expression of those ideas. Though the ideas may be similar, the expression is very different between the works as the exact jokes and implementation are very different.
Though Ruggia and Hoffman may argue that the number of dogs featured in Pound Puppies or the ending of Pumpkin Patch point to a stronger similarity, the truth is that the differences matter as much as the similarities.
When making an argument of copyright infringement, it’s not enough to show that two works have similarities. You have to show that the work involved used copyright-protectable work that could have only come from the allegedly infringed work. It’s a high burden of proof and much stronger cases have failed to meet it.
In the end, NBC and SNL is likely right. Even if SNL’s writers did plagiarize from Ruggia and Hoffman, which there is no conclusive evidence of, it almost certainly doesn’t rise to the level of copyright infringement.
To be clear, I don’t think that Ruggia and Hoffman have any bad intentions here. As we’ve discussed before, it’s very easy for creators who are intimately familiar with their work, to see it when looking at other media.
They are essentially looking at other people’s work through the prism of their own and that makes it very easy to see plagiarism that doesn’t exist. We’ve seen this the Star Trek: Discovery lawsuit and I was even able to do it artificially by creating a fake plagiarism story involving The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a random Episode of Star Trek.
Fans, as we’ve seen many times before, can get caught up in it too. For example, fans of Repo! The Genetic Opera saw plagiarism in the movie Repo Men, even though they are two very different works in many respects.
The simple truth is this: There are going to be similar works and plagiarism isn’t required for two or more works to have a great deal in common.
It’s unlikely that this story would have gotten the attention it has if not for the fact it involves the most popular sketch comedy show on television. SNL and its perceived quality has been a punching bag for jokes for decades and the idea that its writers are plagiarizing YouTube-based sketch comedy only feeds into that meme.
Whether SNL writers drew inspiration from those sketches we will likely never know. It’s simply impossible to prove one way or another. However, even if it is true, the likelihood of succeeding on a copyright infringement claim is very slim.
Simply put, the onus to prove plagiarism is on the shoulders of Ruggia and Hoffman and they have not met it at this time.