Glance at the popular Instagram account of “The Fat Jew,” a comedian with 5.7 million followers who just signed with the Hollywood talent agency CAA, and you’ll see nothing of particular note. His feed is a collection of Internet memes, with some screenshots of funny tweets and other joke snippets, that he’s somehow parlayed into a modeling contract, a personal wine brand, and a book deal. But the Fat Jew (real name Josh Ostrovsky) is also a poster child for the nebulous world of online joke plagiarism, cherry-picking and re-broadcasting other comedians’ jokes while giving them slim to no credit for it.
In one way, his deal with CAA feels like ironic commentary on Hollywood’s lack of originality. All Ostrovsky does is take other people’s material and package it into an easily viewable, if trashier, format—not unlike popular shows such as Tosh.0. But the news was greeted with a wave of outrage from comedians from who’ve been pointing out his practices for years. While Ostrovsky now usually makes sure to note his sources on Instagram, either with a barely visible watermark on the image or a link in the description below, there are dozens of notable instances where he’s failed to do so, sometimes offering thin excuses for the error.
The debate over Twitter joke theft has escalated in recent years as people find more and more ways to monetize their feeds. Ostrovsky’s joke “curation” on Instagram (and Twitter, where he has 255,000 followers) might seem harmless, but he reportedly makes thousands of dollars anytime he endorses a product online, a smaller-scale version of the endorsement empire created by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Simply by taking a screenshot of whatever jokes were trending any given day, Ostrovsky somehow parlayed his way into a pilot development deal with Comedy Central, although Splitsider reported that the deal has fizzled out after huge protest from other comics.
While the comedy community isn’t divided on Ostrovsky, the idea of joke “ownership” seems less concrete to the wider public, considering that the age-old concept of joke-telling seems built on the idea that no one can claim the rights to a particular concept or line. One aggrieved Twitter user, Robert Kaseberg, who sued Conan O’Brien for telling similar jokes on his late-night show to ones Kaseberg had tweeted, doesn’t have much legal ground—it’s hard, after all, to prove that two people didn’t have the same idea, especially about a topical event.
But Ostrovsky’s approach is more obvious and direct—he snaps a screenshot of jokes, crops out the original user’s name, and posts it. It’s easier, by contrast, to claim ownership of a joke when your actual online footprint is there for all to see. That’s why Ostrovsky makes a half-hearted effort to credit the original creators of his curated feed, but without drawing too much attention to them.
The incentive for CAA to hire a content aggregator is unclear, and Ostrovsky may end up vanishing into obscurity. As the comedian Andy Richter pointed out on Twitter, it’s one thing to get representation in Hollywood, but another to create material the industry actually wants to produce. Well-curated aggregation is a way to generate interest online, but it creates no audience loyalty, and it’s hard to imagine why the Fat Jew’s many Instagram followers would feel compelled to follow his brand to an entirely different venture.
The backlash within the comedy community matters, too—comedians might not be able to control who collects followers online, but it speaks volumes that Comedy Central is no longer doing business with Ostrovsky. Though Twitter remains slow to address copyright complaints and spambot accounts that recycle other comedians’ material, comedians have always self-policed. Their show of force against Ostrovsky is the kind of thing the industry notices, even if many casual Internet users remain unaware of the issue. Ostrovsky may have already booked time at New York Fashion Week in September (presenting “an eclectic collection of apparel”), but it’s much more of a stretch to imagine him breaking into the comedy industry he’s plumbed for material over the years.
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