Josh Ostrovsky, known on the Internet as The Fat Jew, is one of the most popular users on Instagram.
With over 5.7 million followers, Ostrovsky has parlayed his web success into real-life fame; The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that Ostrovsky signed with Creative Artists Agency for representation across all areas.
But once news spread of Ostrovsky’s good fortune, comedians on Twitter amplified an accusation that has been leveled against Ostrovsky many times before: The Fat Jew is a big fat joke thief.
For Ostrovsky’s deal with CAA, “all areas” of representation means quite a lot. The New York Times reported in September that Ostrovsky was in talks to star in a Showtime reality show, had sold a pilot to Comedy Central based on his life, and had cowritten a book, titled Money Pizza Respect, set to be released October 27 by Grand Central Publishing.
Ostrovsky also recently released his own line of wine, White Girl Rosé, and signed a modeling contract, despite having a self-described “body like Shrek” and an odd hairstyle he calls the “Jew Unicorn.” Rounding out his entrepreneurial lifestyle, Ostrovsky hosts his own radio show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 station and has brand deals with companies like Virgin Mobile and Burger King, for which he got a tattoo and belly button ring celebrating the company’s chicken fries.
— The Fat Jew (@FATJEW) August 22, 2014
All of Ostrovsky’s opportunities have sprung from his Instagram success, with brands paying thousands of dollars to be featured in photos on his page. A few months ago, TV personality Katie Couric made a video with Ostrovsky while they got pedicures.
When Couric asked Ostrovsky how his Instagram fame began, Ostrovsky was less than modest, calling himself a hero within 30 seconds.
“It basically just started as me putting up funny stuff because I’m such a giver,” Ostrovsky said. “I can’t stop giving.”
But most comedians would argue that Ostrovsky is more a taker than a giver.
Joke-stealing accusations have been leveled against The Fat Jew for some time. In an early example, comedian and TV writer Patrick Walsh, who has written for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and 2 Broke Girls, put Ostrovsky on blast in a June 2014 tweet.
— Patrick Walsh (@thepatrickwalsh) June 8, 2014
Ostrovsky’s apologies—if he apologizes at all—usually minimize the issue, either by saying he didn’t know the original source of the photo or even by blaming an intern, according to comedian Alex Blagg, a writer for Workaholics and cocreator of @Midnight.
In the case above, while Ostrovsky said he was sorry, he didn’t delete the post or give Walsh credit, despite the comedian requesting it.
@thepatrickwalsh it was on a blog dude. Apologies.
— The Fat Jew (@FATJEW) June 8, 2014
According to Chase Mitchell, a writer for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, this behavior is intentional, because Ostrovsky knows Internet consumers don’t care where the content they consume comes from.
“Unfortunately, The Fat Jew is just the sweaty hipster face of a much larger problem, which is that huge swaths of people on the Internet don’t give a [expletive] where their comedy comes from,” Mitchell said.
“These are your little brothers retweeting Stewie Griffin parody accounts, or your aunts posting Minion memes to Facebook. They don’t care who wrote the joke, they just want to post it. And I don’t know a way to change that.”
In January 2015, Luke O’Neil wrote a story for The Washington Post expressing a similar sentiment, citing the behavior of Ostrovsky and Elliot Tebele, another famous Instagrammer with almost six million followers who has been accused of rampant plagiarism.
“That plausible authorial deniability is by design. After a while, an Internet post becomes so popular that the idea of it ever having been written by someone in the first place is lost. It simply exists, and has always existed. The current crop of savvy content thieves understand that the general public doesn’t care about this sort of thing, particularly those who’ve grown up as Internet natives, where all information is free for the taking.”
The accusations of plagiarism surrounding Ostrovsky earlier this month intensified when he posted the same photo and joke about Cecil the Lion as comedian Davon Magwood without asking the comedian for permission.
Going to start dressing like a Lion. That way cops know that if they kill me. White people will avenge me pic.twitter.com/FIFfcJwOQH
— Davon Magwood (@davonmagwood) July 30, 2015
Magwood wrote an open letter to Ostrovsky and Tebele, saying they not only took his original work but prevented him from earning money for his comedy while making money themselves.
“If it’s my stuff you’re posting, and if you give me credit, then I get traffic to my site,” Magwood wrote in his letter. “Maybe that traffic goes to my comedy album and then I get paid for my work!”
Ostrovsky eventually added credit via the parenthetical in the caption above, but only after the publication of Magwood’s open letter and articles in The AV Club and The Daily Dot highlighting his behavior.
Then, after news of Ostrovsky’s deal with CAA broke on August 13, even more people weighed in on The Fat Jew. One of the most shared tweets was from Someecards writer Maura Quint, who posted a message to her Facebook on Saturday about Ostrovsky’s alleged plagiarism.
— (maura) (@behindyourback) August 15, 2015
A Twitter user named Kevin Kelly put together a list called “Top 50 Jokes @TheFatJewish Bogarted From The Internet” highlighting some of the many instances of Ostrovsky’s purported joke thievery.
A host of successful comedians, actors, and comedy writers chimed in as well.
To me, what makes @fatjew so funny aren't the stolen jokes he posts, but THE WAY he posts them.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 16, 2015
As @FATJEW once said, "I have a dream."
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) August 15, 2015
Now I kinda feel bad because @FATJEW didn't steal from me. I gotta step up my instagram game
— Paul Scheer (@paulscheer) August 16, 2015
"It was easier for us to reward the Fat Jew than all of the unique, funny, hardworking people that comprise him" – the industry.
— Mike Lawrence (@TheMikeLawrence) August 15, 2015
— Timothy Simons (@timothycsimons) August 15, 2015
Patton Oswalt made light of The Hollywood Reporter‘s labeling of Ostrovsky as an aggregator in their August 13 article.
My favorite Jane's Addiction song is "Been Caught Aggregating."
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) August 15, 2015
Always chokes me up in "Purple Rain" when Prince sings, "Baby I could never aggregate you from another…"
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) August 15, 2015
For those unfamiliar, aggregation in new media-speak means to report on an existing story through a combination of cited sources and, when possible, original reporting. It’s like content curation. Again, though, the key word is “cited.”
Though many comedians stood up to admonish The Fat Jew, his follower count has not dropped, and he seems to have suffered few ill effects from his shaming, despite countless articles labeling him a thief, including one from The Daily Beast calling for Instagram to ban Ostrovsky.
Response from the public has ranged from indifferent to hostile.
Here’s the thing: While anonymous Internet commenters may decry tweets and Internet jokes as inherently low-value, the television shows they watch are often staffed by young writers who prove themselves on Twitter.
Mitchell started his comedy career writing articles for sites like CollegeHumor and Someecards, but it was jokes on his Twitter page that first got him noticed by the right people in show business, eventually leading to a gig contributing headlines to Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update and, subsequently, his current job writing for The Tonight Show.
Don't worry, Confederate flag supporters, you may have lost the battle, but you haven't lost the w– oh right
— Chase Mitchell (@ChaseMit) June 22, 2015
Twitter recently recognized the problem behind alleged joke thieves, adding a tool to the service that lets users request that stolen tweets be removed on the grounds of copyright infringement. But Facebook (who owns Instagram) does not offer similar protection. In a piece on The Awl called “Instagram Created The Fat Jew,” author Brian Feldman pointed out that Instagram does not allow hyperlinks to be added and does not support a sharing function akin to Twitter’s retweet or Tumblr’s reblog, which can make sharing someone else’s content with credit difficult.
It’s not just Instagram, either: Words and images are shared seamlessly across social media platforms, often with little regard for their origin. But your aunt sharing Minion memes on Facebook, as Mitchell put it, is not the same as Ostrovsky building an Instagram empire off of jokes he knows the author of. Here, he posts a Twitter user’s joke by screenshotting the tweet, making it clear who wrote it.
Screenshotting a joke is as easy as the click of an iPhone button. But Ostrovsky doesn’t take that route the majority of the time, choosing instead to type out the joke and strip it of its author, making it appear to be his own hilarious original thought.
Ostrovsky makes real money off of his purportedly stolen material, earning $2,500 for a sponsored Instagram, according to a 2014 Billboard.com article. With a follower count five times larger than when Billboard‘s article was posted, his sponsored posts now command $6,000, according to an interview in The Financial Times.
As of now, Ostrovsky has kept mum on the situation, while continuing to post screencapped jokes to his Instagram, albeit with a small credit added in the caption, a practice he picked up only after Magwood’s letter and a series of articles called him out.
We reached out to Ostrovsky for comment; his public relations representative refused to speak on the record.
And though Ostrovsky’s Instagram fans don’t seem to care where his material comes from, some of the companies he’s affiliated with have stepped forward to clarify their relationships. Comedy Central told Entertainment Weekly they ceased working with The Fat Jew months ago, while online food delivery company Seamless said their ad campaign with Ostrovsky was scheduled to end in a couple weeks.
— Nick Cicero (@nickcicero) June 11, 2015
Mitchell says that the only relief to aspiring comedy writers out there is the likelihood that once Ostrovsky has to produce material on his own, he’ll flame out.