Plagiarism in Pop Culture: Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live (SNL) is a long-running late-night comedy sketch show. First airing in October 1975, the show has racked up some 962 episodes and 47 seasons as of writing. 

The show has become something of a cornerstone in American culture. It was how many famous comedians broke out onto the national stage, and many of its characters, segments and events are among the most widely recognized in the world.

Though the show has long waxed and waned in popularity, it’s remained a fixture of late night television for over 40 years.

With so many episodes and so many sketches, it should be no surprise that the writers of SNL once turned their satire toward the issue of plagiarism. 

That is precisely what happened in episode 18, season 29 of the show, which aired in May 2003. With Ashton Kutcher as the host and guest star, the show took us to a high school classroom where the students are not just plagiarists… but really, really bad ones.

Content Warning: Spoilers for the SNL sketch entitled plagiarism. Video embedded below so you can watch before reading

The Plot

The sketch begins with the announcement he will be returning term papers that were submitted the week before and that he believed many of the students did not write their own papers, with some taking almost everything off the internet.

He then starts handing out the papers and discussing them. The first student to get their paper back is Karen, who “wrote” an essay on War and Peace. However, as the teacher noted, it was the exact paper that could be bought for $15 on an essay mill website. Karen tries to claim that they might have copied her paper, but the teacher doesn’t fall for it and gives her an “F”.

The next student was Kirstie, who “wrote” her paper on A Tale of Two Cities, but the teacher claimed that she may have gotten it from a website entitled “”. His reasoning for believing that is the address is printed on every page of the paper in the corner.

Kirstie then admits to the plagiarism say that she knew her plan was “too perfect” only to have it pointed out that it was actually “wildly imperfect”. She also gets an “F”.

Another student, Danny then speaks up protesting that he didn’t get his paper off the internet and that all the words were his. The teacher then says there is some truth to that as the paper is an email to his older brother asking for a copy of his paper from a previous year. Unfortunately, not only did he leave the email in, he printed the essay off from Hotmail directly. He also gets an “F”.

Finally, the teacher turns his attention to Peter, who was supposed to write a paper on 1984. However, he just printed off unrelated pages from including a photo by “Phil Stiens” of the Associated Press. When Peter claimed to be Stiens, the teacher challenged him on it and offered to call his office.

However, the number Peter gave rang Kristie’s cell phone, prompting a comical attempt to pass the phone back to Peter who does an inept job impersonating an Associated Press employee.

The scheme naturally fails and Peter joins the others in receiving an “F”. The students can’t believe it, wondering if he’s “psychic” while the segment ends with the teacher trying to explain how bad they are at cheating and that other students who copied Amazon reviews were also getting an “F”. 

Understanding the Plagiarism

Taking a comedy sketch and applying it to real life is a nearly impossible task. The goal of comedy such as SNL is to satirize through exaggeration. It’s meant to be a distortion of reality.

But, if that’s the case, then SNL may have failed by not distorting enough. 

2003 was a very interesting time for plagiarism in academia. The internet was just becoming ubiquitous but plagiarism detection tools, such as Turnitin, were not common. Turnitin, for example, launched in 2000 but was still rare for universities in 2003, let alone high schools.

Student plagiarism was a serious problem at that time, and teachers were genuinely struggling with ways to combat it. That said, students were not always the brightest when it came to covering their tracks. 

Many teachers reported catching plagiarists because of stupid mistakes, including leaving the URL on the printout, hyperlinks still being blue on the printed page and so forth. These mistakes still happen, but they were much more common in the early 2000s as the technology was still often unfamiliar to student and teacher alike.

Within the sketch, SNL covered a wide variety of plagiarism. The first student bought a term paper, the second, copied off the internet, the third sought help from a family member and former student while the fourth was just an abject moron.

These are each very different plagiarism scenarios that were possible at the time. 

To be clear, there was some exaggeration. It’s unlikely anyone would print the Hotmail page or simply print off pages of, but it was (and sometimes still is) common for students to turn in work without thoroughly scrubbing where they actually got it from. Teachers routinely found and find bylines, hyperlinks, images and other elements from the source. 

So, while there was definitely some exaggeration, it may not be as much as some viewers likely think. Academic plagiarism was an evolving space in 2003 and, as crazy as the sketch seems, I’m pretty sure many teachers found themselves laughing in agreement as much as at the jokes.

Bottom Line

This sketch, to me, is something of a time capsule. It’s a look back of a very different era for both the internet and academic plagiarism.

Yes, it is a comedy sketch. No, it does not really make much of a moral stand on the issue of plagiarism, but it’s not supposed to. The plagiarists are punished (though it’s debatable if an “F” without a disciplinary referral is adequate) but mainly they are mocked. 

It’s a short watch and a great watch. I seriously doubt any students watching this will be tempted by plagiarism, especially given how stupid the students are made out to be. Most of all, the sketch is a great glimpse into what plagiarism was like nearly 20 years ago.

Compare this to Boy Meets World, a 90s sitcom that aired their plagiarism-oriented episode a few years before the SNL sketch. It played the topic for laughs but ended up sending something of a pro-cheating message by indicating that essay mills were of “good” quality and by the plagiarist only getting caught because of his brother, not his own ineptitude.

In this sketch, the plagiarists are the joke and the plagiarism itself is exaggerated, but still fairly realistic, especially for the time.

That alone makes it worth the watch. 

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