The SNL/Charmin Bears Plagiarism Controversy

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live had the debut of its 48th season. However, in addition to the usual conversation surrounding the show’s host and musical guest, there was more than a little discussion about plagiarism.

The conversation focused primarily on a sketch entitled Charmin Bears, which focused on the Charmin Bear family from the commercials. In the sketch, the son of the family, Toby, is accepted to Toilet Paper College where he is expected to get his BFA or Bachelors in Flushing Arts. 

However, there is a problem. He’s decided that he doesn’t want to go into the family business of being a toilet paper mascot and, instead, wants to dance. Toby invites his friend William to come out to help demonstrate his dancing skill and the father, moved by the display, accepts Toby’s choice.

Though most people seemed to have overlooked the sketch, it drew a great deal of attention from one audience: Fans of YouTube comedian Joel Haver.

Haver, is has been a YouTuber since 2010 and currently has nearly 1.7 million subscribers. He publishes short comedy films every week, including many animated shorts.

In July, Haver published a similar short. His animated short focused on the Charmin Bear family, with a son telling his disapproving father that he wants to take up theater and dancing. However, in Haver’s sketch, there is no change of heart for the father, who says that all this talk of creativity, “seems like a 1-ply kind of thought.”

Fans of Haver quickly turned to a subreddit focused on his work and many shared the sentiment that the two works were suspiciously similar. 

This prompted Haver himself to weigh in on the matter, publishing a video entitled SNL Stole My Video, which looked at the similarities between the two sketches.

However, despite the title, Haver’s video turned out to be much more nuanced. Though he acknowledged the similarities between the works, he said that he did not feel that his video was stolen. 

He came to the conclusion that, while it is difficult to believe the similarities are coincidental, he feels that the borrowing wasn’t malicious and was either subconscious from someone on the SNL writing staff, implying possible cryptomnesia, or could be explained as just a “wild coincidence.”

He illustrates this point by discussing a video he had done a couple of months ago that many felt was similar to another comedian’s video from several years ago, even though he had never seen the original video.

In the end, he says that, even if it were stolen, it doesn’t really harm him as his video did really well, and he’s happy with how it’s gone for him.

But this does raise the question: Did SNL plagiarize Haver? The truth is that we’ll likely never know.

Comparing the Works

The similarities between the two works are pretty obvious. Both feature a parody of the Charmin Bears, in both stories the son wants to pursue a creative career but the father disapproves, wanting them to go into the family business, being a toilet paper mascot.

There are also visual similarities too. Both bear families are blue, the father in both wears glasses and son character in both has no accessories, though other members of the family do.

While that list does sound convincing, as we saw back in September 2018, when you focus just on the similarities between two works, it’s often easy to see plagiarism where there isn’t any

In this case, the sketches also have a great deal of differences. The tones of the sketches are very different with SNL’s being very upbeat and silly while Haver’s is more dark and dry. Haver’s is also significantly less family-friendly than SNL’s version.

The endings are also very different with Haver’s version having no real conclusion and the SNL version ending with the father changing his mind and accepting his son.

Perhaps the most significant difference is that Haver’s version is animated, while SNL’s is live action with the aid of silly costumes. Haver’s is also much shorter, coming in at about half the length of SNL’s.

Then there is another complexity to consider, both sketches are parodies of existing characters. While it is interesting that both sketched featured blue bears, it’s worth noting that, in some of the commercials, the Charmin Bears are blue (depending on the product that’s being featured).

What this leaves us with is a limited list of things that were featured in Haver’s version that also appeared in SNL’s. Mainly, this is the idea of the Charmin Bear son wanting to do something different with their lives and their father disapproves.

That idea has been parodied many times and is a trope in its own right. One of the more famous examples is the Working Class Playwright sketch by Monty Python, where a father wants his son to forgo coal mining to be a working class playwright like himself. 

What Haver did that was unique was apply that trope to the Charmin Bears, something that SNL also did. 

It’s entirely possible that someone at SNL saw Haver’s bit and decided to write a similar one. It’s also entire possible that they came up with the idea independently. 

There’s simply no way to know and, since ideas can’t be protected by copyright, even if Haver were interested in taking some form of legal action, it’s unlikely that any such case would have success.

As such, we’re likely to never know the answer and this is likely to just go down as another time SNL writers were accused of plagiarism.

Bottom Line

Those that are suspicious of SNL certain have reason to be. In recent years, the show has faced a bevy of plagiarism in allegations.

In March 2019, a New York sketch comedy troupe accused SNL of plagiarizing their work in two separate sketches in the same episode. In February 2019, comedian Ted Alexandro accused the show of plagiarizing a sketch from his stand-up material. In September 2020, Twitch streamer William “Willneff” Neff accused SNL of plagiarizing a sketch he submitted as part of his application to become a writer for them.   

Of the recent allegations, this latest story is probably the least certain. The main element that’s the same is the concept from the two sketches and concepts can easily be independently created.

While it is still an amazing coincidence, amazing coincidences do happen as the Dennis the Menace story proves. Given the volume of comedy both on SNL and the internet, overlaps are inevitable, and some of those overlaps will seem extreme.

What is impressive and interesting is that, as of right now, only Haver and SNL appear to have created a sketch about this concept. The question is whether that’s because SNL copied Haver or if two people simply came up with similar ideas.

Either way, I agree with Haver’s more diplomatic tone. It’s possible that this is a coincidence and, even if it is isn’t, it could be explained by cryptomnesia. In short, proving that plagiarism took place is difficult enough, proving that it was malicious is nearly impossible.

Without a confession from the author(s) or some other new evidence coming to light, this is likely the end of this story and, by all accounts, Haver is happy to have it that way.