Just before midnight on March 17th, I reached for my notebook to write down a joke about my vibrator, which laid next to it. The line — “I’m 48 hours away from putting googly eyes on my vibrator” — felt like a fun play on all the Wilson references I’d been seeing, and the 48-hour window felt like a delightfully specific threat. I posted it on Twitter 12 hours later, and it did well enough for me to post it on Instagram a few days after that. Which is around the time my friend DM’d me with a gentle heads-up: an L.A.-based comedian had raised the stakes visually, posing with her cartoon-eyed sex toy that same day.
There were few scenarios in which I could imagine any working comedian going through the trouble of “stealing” the joke. What was far more likely was that we had found the same premise hiding in plain sight.
Parallel thinking was originally a philosophical term that has been, somewhat ironically, reappropriated to describe a phenomenon in comedy where two creatives arrive at the same observation. Much like the humor behind it, the line between what is parallel thought and what is actually theft is subjective, but it’s not without a few famous examples. When Amy Schumer was accused of stealing Patrice O’Neal’s poltergeist joke, it was ultimately attributed to parallel thought. And when SNL aired a sketch in 2013 about airline boarding, Jordan Peele took to Twitter to warn Key & Peele fans that they’d already shot a similar scene. Meanwhile, in 2016, Vulture pointed out at least six comedy sketches about a dating service related to settling.
“It’s actually quite common throughout all the arts. Composers experience this, same for songwriters and screenwriters,” Nancy Irwin, a psychologist and former stand-up comedian, tells me.
But if it seems like you’ve been seeing a lot more of the same jokes on social media over and over again lately, it’s because you have been. Parallel thought is directly related to common experiences and the media we’re consuming, and in quarantine, we’re obviously sharing more of those things than ever before.
“We live on screens now more than ever,” Irwin continues. “This shrinks our real-life experiences greatly, and our almost ‘telepathic’ abilities are emerging.” In other words, in an age filled primarily with nothing but coronavirus, face masks and toilet-paper shortages, there really aren’t enough original observations to go around.
Another good example: When New York-based comedian Maria Wojciechowski posted a joke on Twitter about how men are bad at social distancing because they think six feet apart is 5-foot-11, she received a vaguely accusatory message from another comedian. “He sent a screenshot of a similar joke the day or two before, so I deleted mine because it just seemed like comedy code to take it down,” she tells me. “Afterwards, I went on a deep dive and saw so many iterations of that joke before him and after him.”
Wojciechowski suspects that comedians are more sensitive to parallel thought right now because they’re creatively frustrated by the limitations of only being able to perform online at the moment — a venue where many meme accounts like Fuck Jerry unapologetically “borrow” their intellectual property without credit, devaluing their work in the process. “Normally, there are so many different directions you’d be able to take that joke on stage that you can’t on Twitter,” Wojciechowski explains. “So it kind of limits us to the premise. On stage is when we really make it our own.”
Not to mention, she adds, “Obviously, comedians always wanted to go viral, but now it’s the only thing we have. So I totally understand the weird importance.”
To her first point, Brian Morton, the general manager at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago, is confident that as soon as comedians are able to safely perform in front of a live audience again (not just a Zoom call), the most original perspectives will still rise to the top. “It might take a while, but creative people will always come up with creative ways to talk about things,” he tells me. “The best part is that no one can do any airplane jokes for a while.”
As for me and my vibrator, about a month after anthropomorphizing it, it tragically died at the aggressively early hour of 7:54 a.m. “The coronavirus killed my vibrator,” I later posted on Twitter.
The following day, of course, my friend sent me a link to an SNL sketch with a similar joke, outraged that they’d “stolen” it from me. I gently explained that there was no way that could have been the case with a pre-taped sketch and that it was only a coincidence.
If anything, I’m pretty thankful for this bit of parallel thought. Because on a family Zoom call later that Sunday evening, my parents embarrassingly called out my “masturbation material.” Now, though, I had the perfect retort: “Oh, I got that from SNL.”