Oswalt’s Revenge: Sammy Rhodes And The Dangers Of Self-Promotion

Twitter is not for the faint of heart, nor is it well-suited for wallflowers, the sensitive, or those who think in long, complicated rambles. It works best for the angry, the charged, the righteous, and most of all, the funny.

Funny people on Twitter get just as many followers as celebrities (and indeed, sometimes more) because our world is always up for a laugh. Sammy Rhodes (formerly @prodigalsam) is one of those people who became Internet-famous because of his ability to generate laughs with 140 characters. A South Carolina campus pastor, Rhodes specialized in awkward, self-deprecating humor — a big hit with self-conscious college students and hipster Christians.

For several years, Rhodes has been plagued with accusations of stealing jokes, long considered the cardinal sin of artistry. The evidence doesn’t look good (the website “Borrowing Sam” was expressly created to debunk Rhodes’ claims of “riffing, not stealing”). Rhodes has been dismissive of the apparent similarities between his own tweets and those of other comedians who posted before him, which remains his current stance. In a post that has since been taken down, Rhodes acknowledged that many of his jokes were “clearly inspired by some of his twitter heros,” which is not problematic for him. Honoring one’s heroes with an homage of sorts can be both sweet and smart (and, of course, funny). But taking jokes, tweaking them a bit, and passing them off as original content does not smack of hero worship. It speaks to a sloppiness consistent with the ethic of Twitter, where the true artform is self-promotion.

Critiquing others can be a way of promoting oneself as well. Last week, Patton Oswalt called attention again to Rhodes, describing him as a “thieving hack.” Oswalt, a successful comedian with a streak of independent success both in movies (Big Fan) and television (Parks and Recreation), made the conversation personal, slamming both Rhodes’ character and religious life. An outpouring of rage and righteousness ensued on social media, with Rhodes’ responding that if anyone felt like he had stolen their joke, they should contact him and he would take it down.

Rhodes did not actively engage on Twitter with the underlying issues that Oswalt and other comedians were attacking (although he later went on to talk with Salon and explain why he feels he is not a joke thief). In his round-about-defense and by the mere lack of an apology, Rhodes took a defensive stance. And his Twitter followers, many of them in the Christian community, were mainly silent on this issue which implicitly made them defenders — of Rhodes, his jokes, and the idea that the world is a slippery place where creative content is up for grabs.

Many of my friends have been known to retweet a @prodigalsam joke or two, but I always found him a bit distant — the painful irony, the too-cool-for-school vibe — and I didn’t know anything about him. For me, comedy always works best in context. Patton Oswalt, on the other hand, I had a growing love and appreciation for. Ratatouille is one of 3 DVDs my daughter watches. I loved his scenery-chewing guest spot on Parks and Recreation. He seemed like such a champion of the unknown and the unloved. When I saw him attack not only Rhodes, but anyone who seemed even remotely connected (like Aaron Belz, an editor at The Curator who had written a positive piece on Rhodes a year earlier), though, the tides seemed to change. Was this about plagiarism any more? Or was it simply about who was on top? Who was the funniest, the smartest, the cruelest — who was the true artist among us?

Oswalt and other comedians calling out Rhodes for plagiarism have been marked, by and large, by their meanness. (I would link to some of the tweets here, but no good would come from it.) As an outsider, I was more than a little shocked by the level of vitriol Oswalt and his followers unleashed onto Rhodes. There is a striking difference in the level of fame of @PattonOswalt as compared to @prodigalsam (1,000,000+ followers to 130,000+, respectively). For a country that loves a good underdog story, it was unnerving to see a public figure attack such a relative unknown in repeated, vicious, 140-character missiles.

As it turns out, it is hard to make an honest, back-and-forth dialogue funny. So Oswalt (and his followers) did not even try. While there were people approaching the situation with funny, clever, and enlightening tweets — there were some serious musings on how little the Christian community responds to intellectual property thefts, as well as a few short treatises on the incredible difficulty of producing real and good work — by and large the response was what we’ve come to expect from Twitter: hasty, generalized, and undercut with a nastiness unknown to flesh and blood conversations.

This is not a defense of Sammy Rhodes. He has already spoken for himself and neatly sidestepped many of the real and pressing issues with his work. Based on both his “riffing” on his public heroes and his lack of apology of any kind, I don’t plan on following him any time soon. (Editor’s note: Rhodes recently announced that he is taking a break from Twitter and has closed his account.) But what it all comes down to is the same basic struggle we all deal with, although artists tend to experience it in unique levels: we are all afraid, all the time, of losing our value. So we lie, we cheat, we steal, we slander, or we blindly follow those whom we perceive to be in charge. We do whatever it takes to be the king of the hill, promote whatever part of ourselves we would most like the world to see (how right we are, or funny, or spiritual). We are all trying to explain, all the time, how valuable we are. Because deep down we don’t believe it.

Both Oswalt and Rhodes showed a part of their own fears and insecurities on Twitter; so too did their followers, supporters, defenders, and dismissers. It was a telling picture of how far the game of self-promotion can take us away from the path of love. Once our own artistic identities (and number of followers) become paramount to who we are, we have lost sight of what it means to be children of God. We become what we produce, how funny we are, and how quickly and succinctly we can cut one another down.

The Oswalt/Rhodes drama is a sobering look for all of us to consider where we find our identities. In the end, we’re all thieving hacks, insecure artists, and people trying to claim our spot as king of whatever hill we have staked our worth on.

But the beauty of the Gospel is this: we don’t have to stay there.

Photo Credit: Sammy Rhodes

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield lives and writes in the Midwest, where she currently is a part of a Christian order among the poor. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Image, Christianity Today, Books and Culture, and The Other Journal. Her book of essays is forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. Learn more at www.dlmayfield.com.

  • wordsampersand

    This is easily my favorite response so far.

  • hannah anderson

    Really great reflections–thank you.

  • http://www.cross-platform.org John Hanan

    This idea that silence on an issue is implicitly defending one side or another is absurd and needs to stop. Ever consider that perhaps people are silent because they simply don’t know about it?

    I don’t care about Rhodes or Oswalt or any of this one way or another because I didn’t know about any of it until I read this. I didn’t even know he shut down his account simply because I do not see absolutely every tweet from every person I follow. The assumption that because I followed Rhodes and saw a couple of his tweets and didn’t say anything about it makes me a defender of some kind of plagiarism is ridiculous.

  • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

    Yikes–and yes. We need to be sharply kept in line on this…plagiarism is far too easy in the ocean of ideas that is the Internet and it’s got to stop.

  • Jason Cornwell

    I have known Sammy personally for almost 10 yrs. His self-deprecating humor is far from the “too cool for school” vibe. It’s part of Sammy’s humble, unassuming nature. Many of his jokes centered around a caricature of his personality traits (e.g., his being an introvert) and stealing from someone in order to amass followers on a social media platform is the last thing on his mind.
    Many of the tweets from the “borrowing sam” tumbler are from folks he’d never heard of nor ever followed. Furthermore, jokes and tweets as intellectual property is somewhat of a longshot. Some of the tweets/jokes have been recycled since I’ve been in Jr High (that’s was 25 yrs ago for those who are counting).
    What’s most egregious is the vitriol that spewed forth from these professional “comedians.” Not only are these the same folks who glorify the rape culture in much of their “comedic” material, but these are also the same people who cannot prove their material is 100% originally from them.

  • Susan Gerard

    Agree with your conclusions, but would add one more. As a pastor, he is held (unfortunately for him) to a higher standard. It would be great to model humility and repentance as well, if it is called for.

  • ChanceDM

    “Ever consider that perhaps people are silent because they simply don’t know about it?” Exactly. Not trying to be mean, but it’s as if people don’t know how twitter works. If I follow Rhodes and not his critics, then there would be no way to know about the accusations until Rhodes talked about it himself, or, you happen to visit his page directly and bother to read the other end of the conversations he participated in regarding this topic – which is what I happened to do.

  • Kris Kail

    Not for nothing but there was nothing “Christian” about Sammy Rhodes the Twitter personality, regardless of how Christian his real life personality may have been. I’m not saying he dropped all his beliefs at the door, but from what I’ve seen he never spoke much about his beliefs, it was all just stolen jokes.

    And even though he was the “underdog”, it doesn’t mean it was okay for him to do what he did. If I rob a bank and ten cops try to shoot at me that makes me the underdog in that situation but I would hope people would be rooting against me.

  • Christopher Waller

    I too know Sammy personally. He chose to not to broadcast the fact that he was a Christian on Twitter, but never hid from it when people asked him what he did. But that is a small point. The other thing is that I wanted to respond to was your claim that “he never spoke much about his beliefs, it was all just stolen jokes.” Are you serious? For every one tweet that held any similarity to someone else’s tweet, there were at least 50 completely original jokes from him. I actually think that is one of the biggest defense points is that he didn’t only steal and re-word, riff, or whatever you believe it was that he did in those tweets, that was a tiny part of his jokes on his account. Many many many tweets were indeed original. Just some food for thought.

  • Kris Kail

    All I remember from him was really really bad jokes and stolen jokes and he’d repeat various bad jokes constantly. And we don’t know the real extent of what was his and what was stolen, but it’s pretty obvious he had a history of stealing tweets, even admitting to it when a fan tweeted a response to one of his jokes and he responded with “I’m stealing this!” and proceeded to tweet the exact same thing without crediting the fan.

    And the “riff” bullcrap is a horrible excuse, I can’t believe he thought it was a good idea to say that, he should’ve just apologized and left it alone. The worst was him saying “it’s only twitter” as if that makes a difference. It only serves to make it seem like it isn’t as big a deal as it is. What he did was not okay because he took jokes, sometimes from people with less followers than him, and used them to establish a following of over 100,000 people which he could’ve used to monetize his brand (which he attempted to do by setting up a website for himself that would help lead him to a big stand up career).

    I’m sure the “Christian” Sammy Rhodes of the real world is a great man, a loving father, and a minister that can keep your attention, but the prodigalsam of Twitter is nothing more than a common thief trying to piggyback on the talent of others.

  • mmmm

    Rhodes was my absolute favorite person on Twitter. He made me smile everyday. I didn’t understand why Oswalt was so upset until his blog post today. It’s worth a read.

    http://www.pattonoswalt.com/index.cfm?page=spew&id=167


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