I mentioned in an earlier post that The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the shows that frequently has plots “borrowed” by later shows. (Another is The Andy Griffith Show, which inspired everything from the Seinfeld “sentenced to be a butler” show-within-a-show to the Simpsons episode where Homer makes a friend that nobody else ever sees.) Because Dick Van Dyke wasn’t rerun much where I lived, I would sometimes see these borrowed plots and only later find out that they came from an old black-and-white series.
And checking on YouTube, I found that they have the example I remember best: there was an episode of Perfect Strangers (which I watched religiously in my misspent youth) where a hypnotist tries to put Cousin Larry under, only to accidentally hypnotize Balki in another room. Balki then becomes convinced that he’s Elvis Presley every time he hears a bell ring. It wasn’t until TGIF was long gone that I discovered that this whole episode was lifted from the plot of a Dick Van Dyke episode, “My Husband is Not a Drunk”: a hypnotist tries to put Buddy under, only to accidentally hypnotize Rob in another room. Rob then becomes convinced that he’s drunk every time he hears a bell ring. (The creator of Perfect Strangers, Dale McRaven, was a writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show, but he did not write or produce either of these episodes, so it’s not even a case of someone borrowing from himself.)
Lifting old TV plots and using them again used to be more common than it is now, but it’s still done, and the practice resides in the grey area of intellectual property: everybody knows that the one episode was inspired by the other, but it’s not actually plagiarism, because the characters, setting, dialogue and so forth are all different (and in this case, not as good). Only the inspiration is borrowed, and you can’t copyright inspiration.
The whole Dick Van Dyke episode is not on YouTube, but here’s a relevant excerpt:
And here, in three parts, is the Perfect Strangers episode that “recycled” this old story (there seems to be an impressive array of Perfect Strangers clips and fan pages online):
Part 1 (with the hypnosis scene):