Under normal circumstances an Internet personality might be thrilled to find their name trending on Twitter. But for Josh Ostrovsky, a flurry of attention over the weekend came for all the wrong reasons—or all the right ones, depending on who you ask—as the man behind the extremely popular Instagram account @TheFatJewish was being hammered from all corners for his constant and unapologetic history of plagiarism. Everyone from hundreds of aspiring comics to the likes of Patton Oswalt spent Saturday piling on. You might almost feel bad if the target in question wasn’t so richly deserving of the beatdown.
The renewed interest in Ostrovsky, who commands an audience of 5.6 million on Instagram, came with the news that the 30-year-old Internet phenom had signed a deal with powerhouse entertainment agency CAA for an all-purpose representation deal. Among many other stars, the agency is home to comics like Chelsea Handler, Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Maher. While accusations of joke theft would typically be enough to sink—or at least severely dampen the careers of—other comics, for Ostrovsky, plagiarism isn’t an aberration, but his entire modus operandi. One wonders exactly what his television pilot in development with Comedy Central or his forthcoming book are going to look like, what with stolen Tweets and memes being particularly hard to translate into other mediums.
This is by no means the first time Ostrovsky has been taken to task for lifting jokes, and I’ve sounded this particular alarm before myself. Comedian Davon Magwood recently penned a widely shared letter to Fat Jew and @FuckJerry, another widely popular Instagram joke fencer, after they lifted one of his posts. “In news that shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with actual jokes or any degree of skepticism where the internet is concerned, yet another comedian is mad at Instagram users Fuck Jerry and The Fat Jew for stealing his jokes,” the AV Club wrote, summarizing what’s become an all-too-familiar occurrence.
This time around the sniping seems to have been prompted by writer Maura Quint, whose Facebook post encouraging people to unfollow and block Ostrovsky has been shared far and wide throughout comedy Twitter.
“For those of you who don’t know, this guy, The Fat Jew is someone whose entire career is simply stealing jokes from tumblr, twitter, etc,” she explained. “He is making a living off of the hard work of other people. The people he steals from are struggling writers, comedians, etc. They would love to be able to profit from THEIR OWN WORK but can’t because this complete waste of a person is monetizing their words before they even have a chance to.”
Her harangue was shared by Patton Oswalt, who sharply boosted the signal to his own sizable audience. The comedian then spent the rest of the day Saturday riffing on the concept of “aggregation,” which is the default justification plagiarists like Ostrovsky and the very many likeminded thieves out there use whenever they’re called out on their behavior. Meanwhile, the folks at Death and Taxes have been editing his Wikipedia page to better reflect the reasons for his rise to fame. Other comedic actors, like Timothy Simons of Veep, joined the chorus. “Fat Jew was signed by CAA. They are going to ask for his ideas and he'll be like 'yeah I've got a ton' then surreptitiously open Twitter,” he tweeted. “As @FATJEW once said, ‘I have a dream.’” joked Kumail Nanjiani of Silicon Valley.
Comedian Ben Rosen, also of Buzzfeed, similarly mobilized the pitchforks with his posting about a joke of his that was copy-and-pasted to the Fat Jew’s Instagram. “Thanks FatJewish for straight up stealing my tweet without any credit whatsoever,” he wrote. He’s got a point, although it’s sort of funny to see someone from Buzzfeed complain about someone else building a career off of other people’s content. Buzzfeed is just the Fat Jew with about a five-year head start on rounds of corporate investment and a pivot toward self-righteousness.
When called out for his behavior in the past, Ostrovsky has responded with dismissive non-apologies, like this one. When he was suspended from Twitter years ago for allegedly sharing David Cross’s phone number, he responded with an amazingly unfunny doubling down gag. Sometimes, as in the case of Magwood, when someone complains, he will later add on a credit to a post, something that seems like it would have been very easy to do in the first place, but then again I’m not a famous comedic personality so maybe I don’t know how these things work. Ostrovsky’s publicist, meanwhile, declined to speak on the record with The Daily Beast.
And here’s the part where we pause to say, so what, what’s the big deal with stealing silly memes and jokes online? Very many people online don’t seem to care, including the millions who delight in the feed of accounts like Ostrovsky’s, who divest jokes of authorship, effectively replacing the admirable act of creation with one of mere aggregation. To make matters worse, the majority of the jokes he posts screenshots of, dutifully cropping out the original user’s name to obscure its origins, are, in fact, hacky, lowest common denominator “reliability” premises: I love pizza and alcohol and so on. But no one, as the old saying goes, ever went broke underestimating the taste of the general public. That’s in large part why he’s been so successful.
So what’s the point? As the dozens of fawning profiles of Ostrovsky over the past couple years have pointed out, including a recent one in the Financial Times and one last September in The New York Times, there is considerable celebrity, not to mention financial reward, to be gained by building a career off of plagiarism. As the FT writes, an Instagram user like Ostrovsky can command thousands of dollars for the mere mention of a corporate brand in a post, and easily make several hundred thousand dollars doing so over the course of a year. Buzzfeed reported on the phenomenon of so-called parody accounts, another scattering hive of joke plagiarism, raking in big money as well last year. The jokes themselves might not be what you’d call gold, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spin them into it.
Neither of those profiles, incidentally, use the words “plagiarism” or “theft,” which, in large part, is what has irked so much of the online comedy community about Ostrovksy’s success. Yes, of course, there is a certain amount of jealousy at play, but it’s not hard to see why so many aspiring comedians, or those who went about building a career the hard way, would see a man rising to fame and riches off the back of other people’s work as a slap in the face. What’s the point of toiling away every day trying to carve out your own career when someone taking every shortcut imaginable is rocketing to the top? And what’s worse, others who may not be as scrupulous look at the example set by the likes of the Fat Jew and have erected a wholesale joke-laundering apparatus on Twitter and Instagram in order to make their own quick buck off the sponsorship opportunities.
If there’s anything heartening to be taken from the sordid mess, Twitter, for their part, does seem to have recently begun at least paying lip service to the problem of plagiarism on their platform, responding to DMCA take-down notices filed by users who say their material has been stolen, but that’s not so easily enforced when the joke-laundering crosses platform borders. Instagram has their own method for reporting copyright violations as well, although those are largely instances of photograph theft.
In the meantime, it’s not unreasonable to expect that, faced with the prospect of actually having to write his own material as his career advances, Ostrovksy might flame out. If I understand show business correctly, once the suits in Hollywood find out he’s a hugely popular, albeit derivative hack without the respect of his peers, he’ll be ridden out of town on a rail.