Celebs Sounding Off... Sort of.

  Jerome Shea       December 15, 2007      Weekend Wonk

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded to me, with tacit endorsement, an essay by Jay Leno that a friend had found on the Internet. I found the jingoistic ideas expressed in it repugnant, but that’s not the point (after all, I disagree with most of what is floating around on the Internet). No, the point is that Jay Leno—with the exception of one line of his that got lifted from an old Tonight Show monologue—had nothing at all to do with it.

More details on this and other examples will follow, but first I want to make a plug for a truly invaluable website, https://www.snopes.com. The Snopes people track down urban legends and expose them. They have taken on as a subcategory these misattributed essays (Jay Leno, George Carlin, John Cleese, Denis Leary, Bill Cosby, etc.) with which the web is awash. You can while away many hours at the Snopes site; it’s much cheaper than a trip to Vegas and, for my money, far more entertaining.

Memorable stuff that people write or say has been collected at least since the first Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1855). And probably even some of those entries are misattributed. Not Shakespeare or the Bible, because we have the irrefutable texts within easy reach. But for writers and speakers who came later, who may have written things in obscure publications or tossed off a bon mot during a lecture or interview, things get murky. Mark Twain is probably the best example. It has been said that if Twain really did say everything that has been attributed to him, he would have had no time to eat, sleep, or puff those famous cigars. In one case that a western American literature scholar unearthed, a zinger widely attributed to Twain should really have been credited to his contemporary and co-practitioner Bret Harte. On the other hand, a Twain witticism has been widely attributed to Harte, so they’re even.

A couple of points to keep in mind as we look at the newer cases: I suspect that the old misattributions were honest mistakes; and the attributions at least ring true. That is, even stuff that Twain didn’t say, he could have said—it is in character, it “sounds like him.” I don’t think either of these things is true nowadays.

And that concerns me. “Identity theft” is much in the news these days. Usually we mean that someone has stolen enough information to start looting your bank account, running riot with your credit cards, and so forth. But what if someone puts his ideas in your mouth, starts screwing around with your reputation and good name? If someone hijacks your reputation, isn’t that, too, identity theft?

In the Leno case, the essay is actually the work of a right-wing commentator named Craig R. Smith. To be fair, it may not have been intentionally attributed to Leno. What we do know is that someone tacked onto the end something (“Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?”) that Leno said during a comedy monologue. Voila, an instant Jay Leno essay! But “comedy” is the operative word. This is simply not an essay that Jay Leno, a successful comedian, would write. In public at least, comedians are supposed to be funny—they are not supposed to give moralistic lectures. In business terms, you don’t mess with the brand.

Probably the man most sinned against in this regard is the acerbic comedian George Carlin. At least half a dozen essays have been misattributed to him. I recently received, and not for the first time, an essay commonly known as “The Paradox of Our Time.”* It is a long catalog of pieties—about our failings and how to right them, the fact that we must always make time for loved ones, that we should celebrate small blessings, and so forth. Carlin calls it “a sappy load of sh*t.” Another misattributed essay, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is “I Am a Bad American.” (A typical reactionary rant, it has also been attributed (falsely) to Ted Nugent, Rush Limbaugh, and Denis Leary.) When I pointed out to my friend that Carlin did not write “A Paradox of Our Time,” he admitted that it hadn’t quite sounded like Carlin’s voice but guessed that “maybe he had changed” (the story is that Carlin wrote the piece after the death of his wife, Brenda).

Precisely! I have a theory about why Carlin is the most likely target for this stuff. “Bad American” does sound vaguely like Carlin (unapologetic, in-your-face), so anyone can come out of the woodwork and hijack the man’s name to showcase his own reactionary views. But “Paradox” is, well, paradoxical. As much as we enjoy Carlin’s usual schtick, somewhere deep down we need to think that under the crush of tragedy George Carlin will be revealed as lugging around the same pack of pieties that we all take comfort in, that under that cynical facade he is one of us, bless him.

Consider the creative mischief one could make. How about an essay by Al Gore, admitting that he started peddling this global warming nonsense only to make a buck? Or better yet, Ronald Reagan, just before he slips into an irreversible Alzheimer’s haze, renounces the conservatism that he embraced in middle age.

Remember when you used to walk in the door toting something vile? Mother would grimace and say, “You don’t know where that came from! Get rid of it right now!” Good advice as always, Mom.

Now if you will excuse me, I want to get started on that Reagan essay.

*”Paradox” has a truly strange provenance. It was also often attributed to an unnamed student-survivor of the Columbine High School massacre in Denver in 1999. True credit, however, goes to a Dr. Bob Moorehead in a 1995 collection of homilies. Dr. Moorehead was later forced to resign his Seattle pastorship, accused of widespread sexual misconduct.

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