When I heard The Fat Jew signed with top Hollywood talent agency, CAA, I immediately hit up my friend Sandy Danto in L.A. A little while back, the nine-year standup veteran and Comedy Store regular had the displeasure of having one of his jokes stolen from the Internet “celebrity” for use on his Instagram feed without any sort of credit. This bit was one that Sandy performed at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, for a set that happened to have been recorded and posted on the club’s YouTube page. A friend of his saw the joke rehashed in a Fat Jew meme on Instagram and tagged Sandy to bring it to his attention. Sandy left an understandably heated comment and the post has since been taken down.
As a stand-up comedian, I can tell you that the comedy community has been onto the Fat Jew’s antics for years. Every now and then my Twitter and Facebook feed will erupt with another case of “The Fat Jew stole my joke,” but no one took him too seriously because he was not—and still isn’t— a comedian. He was just an Internet personality ripping off jokes to use on Twitter and Instagram. The comedy community is a close-knit one, with relationships forged by late nights spent at shitty open mics and 24-hour diners, running jokes by each other in addition to sharing creative ways to make rent. Everyone knows each other, and no one knew The Fat Jew, except maybe online. So while comics continued to toil away at their craft, Ostrovsky was stealing their jokes and racking up corporate sponsorships with every fave and follow. Then the big news hit: The Hollywood Reporter ran a story about his exclusive talent deal with CAA. This may sound like bullshit Hollywood speak, but let me break it down for you like this: signing with an agency like CAA is like getting your golden ticket. The Wonka factory is your career, and the candy is all the money you stand to earn by pursuing your art for a living.
while comics continued to toil away at their craft, Ostrovsky was stealing their jokes and racking up corporate sponsorships with every fave and follow.
Never one to miss an opportunity for a joke, Sandy describes the Fat Jew as “a fame whore on the level of the Kardashians, except no one wants to see him in a sex tape, so he has to steal people’s jokes instead.” But Sandy’s not naïve about the realities of the Internet when it comes to content and the grey area it presents for authorship. “When I started out, I worked for comedy websites, and a lot them are aggregators. But they gave credit, even if they made advertising money off the traffic.” In that way, the violation was not nearly as egregious as what the Fat Jew has done.
“The comedy community polices itself,” Sandy went on, and he suspects that’s the precise reason Ostrovsky has evaded similar scrutiny in the past. There was never really an opportunity to confront him in the way one would another comedian. He’s not there—at mics, at clubs, or at 1AM when you get bumped from a lineup because a headliner showed up and your spot got sacrificed. And yet, he continues to reap all the rewards with none of that hard work. And it is hard. “Stand-up comedy is the hardest platform in entertainment both in terms of success and content creation, and yet it gets the least respect,” Sandy said. CAA’s decision to sign Ostrovsky is testament to that sentiment.
Like most of the comedians I spoke to, Sandy didn’t want to spend too much of his time harping on the issue, but his allegiance to the community prompted a reaction. “It makes me feel shitty that the one time I spoke out about something, it’s this and not some greater social injustice,” he said, “but we have an outlet [on Twitter and other social platforms] and we need to take advantage of it.”
After I spoke with Sandy, I reached out to Marcella Arguello, who was similarly level-headed despite having had one of her tweets stolen as fodder for Ostrovsky’s Instagram feed. Arguello, who resides in Los Angeles and has been performing stand-up for almost a decade, tweeted this photo of P. Diddy using a selfie with this hilarious caption. It wasn’t long before the exact same meme was posted to Ostrovsky’s Instagram and—not surprisingly—without credit.
I'm glad Biggie isn't alive to see this pic.twitter.com/AIi21EeoYA— Marcella Arguello (@marcellacomedy) December 28, 2014
While Arguello humbly admits that “it was nothing genius” she also points out how Twitter and other social media outlets can be used to test out material and build a following. But there’s a darkside to these content platforms. “People just consume and consume so rapidly,” said Arguello. “They don’t know. I don’t really care because I’m constantly putting out new material. His career is temporary. His momentary success does not affect my eventual success.”
Despite Arguello’s zen attitude about it, she acknowledges that the CAA deal represented a breaking point. In the highly interpersonal milieu of the comedy circuit, Ostrovsky wouldn’t have been able to make nearly as much headway. Blacklisting is a real occurrence among comedians, so when it’s discovered someone is stealing material, it’s serious business. A joke thief wouldn’t be allowed to set foot in a show, let alone perform in one.
Blacklisting is a real occurrence among comedians, so when it’s discovered someone is stealing material, it’s serious business. A joke thief wouldn’t be allowed to set foot in a show, let alone perform in one.
Still, one of the most jarring incidents involved Amir K., another comic I know from Los Angeles. Amir was doing some shows in New York not too long ago, before his Last Comic Standing appearance. Of his many great jokes, he has a fan favorite about taking a one-night stand to Starbucks and hoping the barista would write her name on the cup so he could remember it. After performing three shows a night for ten days, he returned to Los Angeles to discover a battery of Facebook and Twitter notifications from his fans who had caught wind of the joke posted as a Fat Jew meme. When I asked him how he felt about it, Amir didn’t seem all that shaken.
“I don't really give a shit,” he said, “I believe this shit works itself out.” And yet, because comics are comics, he did feel an urge to “protect the community.” Eventually, the pressure from Amir’s fanbase was enough to get Ostrovsky to remove the post, so in this case, things did work themselves out. However, the same can’t be said for every comic who The Fat Jew has ripped off.
What’s particularly scary about Amir’s case was that this was material that hadn’t been digitized yet. You still can’t find a clip of this joke on the Internet, although you may have caught it on his set for Last Comic Standing. His TV appearance hadn’t aired nor did he tweet or post this joke anywhere. Forget the fact that this could have been hugely damaging to Amir had his followers not made the discovery and the show aired to an audience who thought Amir was the one stealing jokes. This also speaks to rumors that Ostrovsky sends interns to shows to get content. “I knew this guy was based in New York at the time, so I had to wonder,” Amir admits.
You can blame the Internet all you want, but stealing content from a live performance is clearly a more blatant offense. I spoke to Brian Redban, a Comedy Store fixture and Deathsquad host, who played a major role in launching the offensive against Carlos Mencia, who was similarly accused of joke stealing, his career subsequently dismantled by the grassroots campaign. (Fun fact: CAA signed Mencia, too.) Redban has been following the issue closely, having been anointed somewhat of a comedy watchdog since the Mencia incident. Whenever he gets accused of stealing content, “[The Fat Jew] goes on record blaming his interns and assistants,” Redban informed me. “The thing is, he takes things down or tweets half-assed apologies if people start talking about a particular post, so he knows he’s doing something wrong.”
It’s both neglectful and defeatist to use Internet culture as an excuse for this kind of behavior. Not all “stealing” is created equal, especially once money and contracts enter the picture.
But as Redban pointed out, there’s blame to be placed on major corporations that continue to sponsor Ostrovsky as well. “One of the biggest things that’s driving me crazy about this whole thing is that companies that are known for supporting artists and fostering creativity, like Apple, continue to work with him. People should be angry at these companies, too.
Strange times we live in, where procurers of dick jokes have become the world’s moral compass. All joking aside, Redban’s 100% correct. Ostrovsky hosts a show on the Apple platform and Vice, the media company who built a reputation founded on exposing truth through documentary shorts, also airs The Fat Jew Show.
The CAA should shoulder some of the blame, too. And I’m sure some aspiring performers and their very own clients are afraid to speak out given the agency’s leverage in the industry. But, last I checked, they were a talent agency. Ostrovsky does a great job at finding talent, so maybe they should have hired him as an agent instead. That way, he’d be entitled to the industry standard of 10% of the artist’s earnings, which is definitely a smaller but fairer share than what he’s getting now. And while Ostrovsky does make passing mention of a “curatorial” role in his Instagram bio, I’d like to see a museum curate an art show without crediting the artists.
It’s both neglectful and defeatist to use Internet culture as an excuse for this kind of behavior. Not all “stealing” is created equal, especially once money and contracts enter the picture. If your cousin in Iowa regrams a comedian’s post, it doesn’t become part of his portfolio as it has for The Fat Jew. Furthermore, the line between IRL and the Internet quickly becomes blurred in the entertainment industry, especially when talks of representation involve questions like, “What’s your Twitter and Instagram following like?” And they do—I’ve had them. At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business trying to satisfy a bottom line. A large following means having a consumer base to hawk whatever you want to, whether it be a feature film or sneakers. In Ostrovksy’s case, it’s Stella Artois beer and his very own brand of (shitty) rosé.
The silver lining to all this is that the problem is also the solution. Ostrovsky’s relative power is in his numbers, followers which represent real people. Some of them may not care that he steals his content, but a lot of them are simply unaware and would reconsider following him if they knew otherwise. But for the former group, I urge you to consider this: What is the end result of setting this kind of precedent, where we reward people like Ostrovsky who rip off content from real artists without doing anything to credit them or advance their careers? Without financial incentive, or at least the prospect of being able to live off their art, artists don’t have the ability to create. In short, if we allow stealing to slide, we will have no art.