Erich Segal died the other day. He was famous (or infamous) as the author of “Love Story,” the book and then movie that gave us the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The movie was a smash but is utterly forgettable; if you’re looking for a throwback experience featuring its star, Ryan O’Neal, then take a look at “What’s Up Doc,” with Barbra Streisand as his foil and Madeline Kahn as his wife. Streisand repeats the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” and O’Neal replies, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Segal should have been better known for his classics scholarship, but he couldn’t escape Love Story. I took a course from him at Yale in the early 1980s, when he was still something of a celebrity and Al Gore, ostensibly an inspiration for O’Neal’s character, hadn’t yet invented the Internet. The topic was comedy. We read Plautus. Everyone should read Plautus; I’m grateful to Segal, because but for Erich Segal, I would never have discovered Plautus. But his lecturing style was a little frenetic, and when his mind got ahead of his speech, he reverted to basics. One day, in the middle of class, he blurted, “Comedy means never having to say you’re sorry.” Which may be true, but we were too busy laughing.
I thought of Erich Segal a year ago when I was writing a comment on Sprigman and Oliar’s piece on social norms among stand-up comics, and how (in their view) anti-plagiarism norms substituted effectively for copyright law in preventing joke theft and encouraging comic innovation. (Here’s a link to their piece and the various comments on it; don’t miss Sprigman and Oliar’s follow-up. The reviewers said they killed; rumor has it that there is an HBO special in the works!) Sprigman and Oliar’s thesis might be reduced to the proposition that copyright means never having to say you’re sorry, because “I’m sorry” is, presumably, part of the matrix of norms that govern informal creative communities.
Erich Segal, copyright scholar ahead of his time. RIP.
Bonus video: The Muppets play the Love Story theme.