Two Cartoons, Living or Dead.

Almost nine years ago today, I ran the strip that is probably now the most closely identified with Pearls.

Today, I’ve had a number of readers point out this Dennis the Menace to me.

The funny thing about comics is that stuff like this happens all the time.  I know that Wiley Miller (Non Sequitur) and I have even run the same joke on the same day, a few weeks after Dave Coverly (Speed Bump) ran the exact same joke.   Of course, I’ve also had the bad kind of “coincidence” where someone has taken one of my three-panel strips and copied it word-for-word.

What’s your opinion here?  (But be nice.)

123 thoughts on “Two Cartoons, Living or Dead.

  1. I am a graphic designer, photographer and artist; there is a saying in the advertising industry, “There is no original idea anymore.”
    You can always present the same idea but in different ways. Great minds think alike. Keep up the great work!

  2. There is also a story involving the mathematical logician Rudolf Carnap who, when immigrating to the US from Germany and faced at the interview with the question: “Would you favor the overthrow of the US government by violence, or force of arms?” thought honestly for a while, and then responded: “I would have to say force of arms…”


  4. Even if it isn’t coincidence, do you have anything to gain by pressing the issue?

  5. I think you should be flattered, after all it’s not everyday nor everyone who’s ever mimicked or copied by another artist like this. Dennis is a long running strip and Pearls is still seen as the youngling of modern day comics. I think it shows that Pearls is being more accepted by peers

  6. Meh. If the Dennis the Menace characters were dressed up in rat and pig costumes, it might seem like a problem, but as it is, it’s kind of a big fat whatever.

  7. I think (hope) your strip made such an impression that it stuck in his head and he thought it was his idea. The thing is, the joke isn’t nearly as funny without the personalities of rat and pig factored in.

  8. This does happen a lot with comics. However, with the publication dates being so far apart I would lean on the side of anger. Dennis is an older stip and I imagine jokes are getting harder and harder to come by so it wouldn’t be surprising if the joke was ripped off from you.

  9. I’m sure it happens a lot. There is so much humor that has been done that it is hard to find something truly original. A couple of months ago, Dan Piraro blogged about the desert island comic gag. You might say it’s been done to death but he managed a new twist on it. The key is to not make a stink about it because you may inadvertently do the same joke and not end up smelling like a rose.

  10. Hey Im a musician and stuff like this happens all the time with music. They say ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’…

    Sometimes there are the blatant obvious ones that might cause slight irritation. But theres also a thin line between stealing and being influenced, i have taken ideas from other artists without even knowing they had already done it before, i.e, subconciously.

    So I am suggesting that maybe this guy liked your joke and wanted to use it with his characters. And he probably wanted to get it done and get his ya-ya’s out of his system.

    I think you should be flattered and not that much annoyed…

  11. Aw, it’s just a happy innocent coincidence. It seems like a response a kid like Dennis would say to a very common question in our society. Shoot, it’s a response I’d probably come up with eventually, too, and I think I’ll come up with it next week!

  12. Of course these things happen all of the time, especially with plays on words.

    I’d be surprised if this particular joke hasn’t happened more than just these two times.

    Your spin on the joke, obviously, is in the last panel.

  13. Pearls 1/23/11 strip talks about Facebook friend request and being denied. Dilbert 1/24/11 strip talks about Facebook friend request and being denied.

    I actually hate when this happens but I quickly move on. Let it go Stephan, let Pig start a relationship with a stuffed Tiger that comes to life just for him. That’s never been done. Call the Tiger, Hubbes.

  14. I’ve often wondered whether there was some kind of monthly comic strip meeting where all the artists meet at a conference table somewhere and decided, “okay, so we’re all going to run a strip about snow this day, and then we’ll all do a back to school joke this day…”

    It happens so often all over the funny pages! Are you saying you guys never compare notes?

  15. As I tell my students – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That said – while Pig and Rat are a great pair to have this exchange – I don’t think you were the first or the last person to make a joke by purposefully misunderstanding this question. I am sure that if I asked my concretely literally fourth graders, they would say the same thing.

    It is one of my fav Pearls strips though!

  16. Remember, Stephan, flatulence is the most sincere form of flattery. Oh, wait.

  17. The punchline was several degrees funnier when Pig said it. It’s more consistent with his character.

  18. This is more or less word for word the exact same setup and punchline. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but out and out plagiarism is the most blatant form of hate.

    I’m not saying this is plagiarism, not necessarily, but its hard not to think it considering this person, being a cartoonist for as long as they have been, wouldn’t have come across your strip years ago that more than likely appeared on the exact same page of the newspaper as their strip does.

    Its not something I’d blow out of proportion, but its not something I’d take too kindly to.

  19. When you do 300+ strips a year, it is inevitable you’ll subconsciously pull from someone else at some point. This is especially true of jokes that don’t really revolve around particular characters.

    It’s only when it’s intentional or reckless (Lawyers love your strip, doncha know?) that it’s a problem.

    Now if Dennis kills off a character only to undie him, I suggest writing a stern letter.

  20. No big deal. Your version is funnier though because it seems like exactly what Pig would say.

  21. Obviously Ketchum is Begging for the Family Circus/Mary Worth/Bloom county etc treament. Let e have, both Barrels Like what would happen if Lil Guard Duck took steroids. Maybe a storyline where Dennis is hiding at Rat and Pigs house because Mr Wilson wants him to dress up in clothes that “make him pretty”. And what’s in those cookies that Mrs Wilson keeps handing out to all the neighborhood kids?

  22. It is soooo hard to not do that. I mean how hard is it to be able to read and remember every single comic strip out there for years and years. I say it’s unintended, but what do I know. LOL!
    BTW Pearls ROCKS!!!! 🙂

  23. I like Lori’s Idea. Rat should kick the crap out of Margaret. ….but I thought Dennis was so old he was either a menace in an assisted living facility or was dead.

  24. If you leave a comment on a blog, but you’ve never seem the author respond to any comments, are you having a conversation with a living or dead blogger?

  25. Really, Stephan, you should be embarrassed. The same gag as a Dennis the Menace strip? Even if yours came first? I think this is the comics equivalent of “jumping the shark”.

  26. I think it is more remarkable that people remember a strip you drew 9 years ago well enough to point out a copy. That said, the idea is pretty obvious. Others already wrote that the fun of the joke is in the way you present it, not the actual words. Pig’s comment in the last panel is what really drives it home. So if it was an intentional copy, it is not only nine years late but also less funny.

  27. Yours is funnier because you didn’t just take a joke so old the Romans probably told it at the Forum, you added a follow up line that was actually funny. DtM is expecting us to laugh at the old joke itself.

  28. I think it’s very cute. I have seen the same jokes used in many comic strips over the 53 years I have been reading them. I don’t think it’s plagiarism, just a happy coincidence.

  29. “What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.”

    – Ecclesiastes 1:9

  30. Sue the pants off them because they have more money, and, well, pants… Maybe instead of money, they could give you ‘pants drawing’ lessons. Just sayin’….

  31. Just as long as it’s not Mother Goose and Grimm which manages to completely rip off (and render unfunny) a Far Side comic at least once a week.

  32. The difference is that DtM is being snotty (with the added duh) while Pig is sincere. In other words, while I would like to give Pig a hug, I would also like to beat DtM’s brains out.

  33. Abbott and Costello used that line all the time. Did you really think you were the first??? You, however, are much funnier than anyone I know, living or dead.

  34. I believe “the strip that is probably now the most closely identified with Pearls” involves Annie Mae the anemone. 🙂

  35. I think it’s a bit odd that it just happened to run today, the day which the original first ran 9 years ago… I say nothing more for “be nice” isn’t really my nature. I’m a Rat-type of person.

  36. You’re the lawyer. What does the law say? It seems I read somewhere not too long ago that jokes cannot be copyrighted. The same applies to food recipes, as I remember. If there’s a joke there, I can’t tell.

  37. You think you are bent NOW? Wait until you pick up tomorrow’s paper see Dennis greet Mr. Wilson with, “Hullo zeeba neighba!”

  38. That is hilarious.

    I remember when I first discovered Pearls – Scott (“Dilbert”) Adams had a link to a batch of your strips with the comment that “This guy is really good.”

    I read about a month’s worth. Most of them were meh but this one strip, along with maybe one or two others, convinced me you were a genius.

    Of course, now your strips are much funnier, and Pearls has long since eclipsed Dilbert as my favorite strip. (As much because of Dilbert’s decline as Pearls’ rise.)

    If it hadn’t been for that strip though, I might not have kept reading Pearls. 🙂

  39. I believe “the strip that is probably now the most closely identified with Pearls” involves Annie Mae the anemone.

  40. As you mentioned, this happens a lot in comic strips, and surprisingly, not just with the joke, but the set-up, the blocking of the art, etc. And although I’m sure your mind is great, it’s not always the great ones that think alike. Sometimes it’s just “ordinary minds-under-pressure-to-come-up-with-a-joke-before-deadline think alike.”

  41. stolen from Mark Twain, so the point is moot.

    Oh wait… I think that’s been said before…

  42. And anyway, when they “steal” classic jokes like this, eh what are you gonna do. But the first time Garfield utter’s the words “Hello, Zeeba neighba” I’d sue the crap out of ’em!

  43. Go all lawyer on them Stephan. Sue them for copyright infringement and take all the money they have.

  44. I would be flattered to a certain extent but on the same hand pissed because they were acting extremely lazy.bogus and infringing on the quality of PBS,unless they gave you a kickback just like our government operates!

  45. I hate to break it to you, but I’m pretty sure the joke was not an original when you used it, so let it go. I don’t think you need to worry about Dennis the Menace threatening the popularity of Pearls… it ‘ain’t happening.

  46. My wife thinks there’s a conspiracy among cartoonists, that you all hang out in the same bar (or something) and hatch nefarious plots involving characters and themes. She’ll point this out to me, saying thing like “Look! Two of the strips feature horses!” or some such thing. I usually explain that it’s like the birthday problem, where once you have 23 people in a group the odds are 50/50 that two will have the same birthday. The Sac Bee has something like 4,000 strips (well… maybe fewer), so the odds are good that two of them will have some similarity.

    I tell her that because I happen to know all about the Cartoonist Conspiracy and I don’t want her to know.

  47. If you’re looking for that type of joke, you’ll more likely find it on the old radio version of Burns and Allen (rather than Twain or Abbott & Costello). Pig could be Gracie Allen’s great grandchild. But, on second thought, maybe you better not listen to those great routines, because your subconscious might be too tempted to do some five-finger shopping on a few cherse OTR morcels.

  48. Be flattered.

    How many times have I heard the same joke from different sources, sometimes each coming up with it independently. You never know, and besides, the point is making people laugh, not making the comics afraid to create new stuff. After all, there are 7,000,000,000 of us on this planet, if you manage to have 1 unique thought, I’d be impressed.

  49. Given the fact that the best jokes come from simple, everyday sayings and doings, it’s natural that the same progression of thought will occur on occasion.

    The question “if you could have lunch with/talk to/sleep with anyone alive or dead who would it be?” is an oft asked and well recognized question. It’s one of those that help our society get to know strangers.

    A person with particular innocence, naievety or blonde of hair (heh)could easily misconstrue the semantics of the question based on the either or quality.

    The joke is definitely funny. And Dennis and Pig each bring a different tone to it. But I’m thinking that it was not intentionally stolen.

    Subconsciously, it’s possible that a good idea sits in your head for a bit and festers before boiling up to the surface. But its also possible to come to the same joke and punchline.

    The difference is, that while it is a strip that defines pearl’s, it’s just another day in the life of Dennis the Menace.

  50. Well you’ve certainly stolen enough gags that its a might hypocritical for you to get high and mighty now. Even if it’s in an ironic way, you steal gags and get “funnies” off of other peoples work.

  51. It’s not what you say it’s how you say (I just made that up!). The timing of the joke in your strip and pig’s follow up in the third panel is perfection. Not to mention the wonderful characters and their expressions (or lack thereof).

  52. I believe that this means that you have finally arrived as part of the “old” guard in the cartoon world. Congrats…now prepare to pass the strip off to your son as soon as he is eighteen or other hack cartoonists that will keep Pearls alive for decades…nay..Centuries to come

  53. Personally, I had the “Dennis the Menace” writers pegged as the sort who are so out of touch that they’ve likely never even heard of your strip. So I’m voting coincidence.

  54. I think the “Duh” seals it; it incorporates not only the second panel apparent punchline, but also the more subtle third panel kicker.

  55. i think that yes it could have been an honest mistake.
    i mean seriously, that is an iconic strip. someone could have easily caught it. i recommend sueing the shit out of someone…good way to get anger out

  56. WAY too much emphasis is put on originality in this world. If God didn’t want us copying off each other’s papers, he wouldn’t have put the desks so close together.

  57. It’s hard to make up a new joke. Here it is in November 2001. I’m going to look for an older example.

    Martin was being interviewed for a new job. The person
    conducting the interview wanted to find out something about
    his personality so he asked, “If you could have a
    conversation with someone, living or dead, who would it be?”

    Without hesitation Martin responded, “The living one, of

  58. You’re doing just fine, Stephan. Your strip had a definite “twist” that made it Pearls worthy – deepr than the Dennis comic.

  59. Trust that YOUR version will always seem more amusing to readers. Don’t be concerned about the other strips.

  60. This “joke” is older than the hills.
    I probably heard it when I was a small child.
    There’s nothing original about it…

  61. According to the Greeks there are only 39(ish) plot lines. Perhaps the same is true with humour.

  62. It’s the giant, joint underbrain of all comics. Sometimes they all have the same idea at the same time. How else to explain why sometimes 10% or more of the comics on the same day had jokes or lines about crash test dummies? Or about dog food dishes?

    Golf, baseball, and zombies jokes I can understand but it happens too often with off-the-wall ideas.

  63. It would be the same as trying to copy-write “Knock-knock”….hold on…I might be have an idea there!

    That being said. I love it when people say “Great minds think alike”, because the sequel to that is “But fools never differ”.

  64. “there’s nothing new under the sun” and I’m pretty sure many bloggers have said the same thing with different words…and maybe (one huge maybe, so huge it’s humanly inconceivable) some one has said the second part of this comment too!! That’s life. What is unique is your characters saying it, much funnier than denis the dumbass (I like denis the menace, but thought that would be funny). “Original means going back to the origin”, aka nature, as Antoni Gaudi is most famously quoted for.(p.s. and if you do read this, which it’s hard to believe you will, please 😉 an email to me signaling you have read this comment. I will greatly appreciate it :-D)

  65. Rat incarnate puts out a post asking for people to tell them what they think of what he’s done and he ends it by saying “But be nice.” Now THAT’S funny.

  66. I did a google search like this:
    “if you could” meet living or dead “the living one”

    That finds other things but your joke as well. Nevertheless Google lists 819000 results, many of them actually being some variation of the joke you told. So it’s definitely an old joke now, and while there is a chance they got it from you, it’s also possible they got it from one of the other thousands of possible sources.

    However it turns out it’s not your joke anyway. Have a look here:

    This is the joke from the two strips, in a joke compilation from 1999, so it was around well before you published.

    It’s quite possible that you re-invented the joke on your own. It’s also possible that you heard it once and thinking about something rat and pig might say, the thought popped into your head again.

    I think these things just happen, no malice intended by anyone.

  67. I say do a homage–have a strip with Dennis the Menace copying Rat or something like that, just for fun. I seriously doubt any harm was planned or anything like that, so just enjoy that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and do an obnoxious smug dance to celebrate the honor. That’s the PBS way.

  68. Seeing yesterday’s DtM reminded me of Dick DeBartolo’s version of this:

    Questioner: “If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you pick?”
    DDB: “The dead ones, so I could eat their dessert!”

  69. The less information you have in the bit, the more likely it is to be used by someone else almost verbatim.

    As a humor columnist (syndicated too) for 23 years, I can tellya it happens across genres. But when you deal with 750-1,200 words, you have more chance to develop differences. At 750 words if each word is exactly the same, then you have a clear case of plagerism.

  70. considering the joke works perfectly with your characters, i’d say even if it is “the same” or has been “done before” the way it is presented is different and more meaningful/funny.

  71. Scott Adams has blogged about this phenomenon before happening to him as well. Something to do with the finite amount of actual jokes when you break them down to their core, although, there’s many ways to retell the same joke.

  72. While this happens from time to time (The Ziggy influence in Elaine’s comic in the New Yorker – Seinfeld) I don’t think that you should let it go necessarily.

    Go with the Ziggy Response and draw it into the strip. Respond with a stip where Rat to takes Dennis to court and see what happens. Maybe Margret gets fed to the crocs or Mr. Wilson battles Guard Duck. Could be a great series…

  73. Are you saying that Darb Conley really stole your strip that time he applied it to Get Fuzzy? That would be a shame. It was funny.

  74. I must say… this sort of dialog would take place if I proposed the same question to my daughter or my best friend. They are two of the dingiest people I know, but also two of the sweetest. I would swear that my friend was my daughter’s mother if I didn’t know for a fact that she was mine. I have some very funny stories that come from some of their responses, that no writer on Earth could dream up. So I’m sure that there is just nothing new under the sun and people, though unique, are also very similar!

  75. That’s an old joke that I have heard many times over the last 30 years. The coincidence of 2 cartoonists (that we are aware of) using it within 9 years isn’t worth mentioning.

  76. Bergh!! And neither are we very original either, us commenters to your post. Of all our comments thus far, we too keep repeating ourselves.

  77. “the most closely identified with Pearls”? That’s not something I’d be happy about; it’s pretty meh.

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  79. I thought the strip that is probably now the most closely identified with Pearls was the one with the cows standing in the field talking, and the one on lookout says, “Car!”.

  80. Not all comic strips run in all papers. The joke is in the presentation with the individual characters representing the “foil” therefore I deem it a compliment to be “copied”. Readers enjoy the strips for divertion and reflection of the author’s statements. Cartoonists keep their audience by transmitting interesting thoughts..keep up the great work and enjoy the company!

  81. yes, you are definetly not wealthy. Therefore I implore you to take immediate legal action against said cartoonists. Futhermore, since you be hella poor.

  82. I’ve noticed similar themes shared in two or more comics on the same day and concluded that cartoonists probably communicate with each other, mention one thing and another, and all the creative brains involved are sparked by a similar idea at the same time! Reminds me of how much fun we used to have in writing workshops when someone would suggest a theme, a situation, several objects, whatever, and we’d all have to turn out a short piece in a few minutes using the idea(s) given. What’s interesting is how many different ideas can come of a single theme that way.

    On the other hand, the “living or dead” choice is simply an old joke from centuries past that gets recycled and reused by cartoonists, comics, and after-dinner speakers all the time! No harm, no foul!

  83. There is an old comic strip joke this situation reminds me of.

    Character 1: “Did you read the story I wrote?”
    Character 2: “Yes.”
    Character 1: “What did you think?”
    Character 2: “They say that, statistically, 1000 monkeys typing non-stop for 1,000 years would recreate the entire works of William Shakespeare.”
    Character: “But what did you think about my story?”
    Charecter 2: (thoughtful look)
    Character 2: “Five monkeys, ten minutes.”

  84. Pingback: Broadside Blog - Military Times – Intellectual property

  85. With the puns you’ve written through the years, why would anyone want to copy anything you’ve written word for word? 🙂

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