Our Comedies Are Not To Be Laughed At

Samuel Goldwyn? William Cox? Cumberland’s Comedies? Mack Sennett? Johnny Grey? Christie Comedies? Abe Stern? Carl Laemmle? Anonymous?

movies07Dear Quote Investigator: A Hollywood movie producer had achieved great fame with opulent historical dramas. His company also released financially lucrative comedies which were embraced by audiences but lambasted by critics. While attending a lavish party the producer overheard a negative comment about the humor in his films, and he proclaimed loudly:

Our comedies are not to be laughed at.

He was confused by the uproarious laughter that greeted his remark. Samuel Goldwyn is usually identified as the perplexed speaker in this anecdote. Would you please examine the history of this inadvertent oxymoron-like jest?

Quote Investigator: This joke was assigned to Samuel Goldwyn by 1937, but it began to circulate more than one hundred years before that date.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the “New-York Mirror” in 1829 within a theatre profile written by a drama critic named William Cox. The profile by Cox discussed a popular performer named Mr. Richings. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As a vocalist Mr. Richings is rather distinguished by force than sweetness; and as a comedian, many of his efforts, like Cumberland’s comedies, are not to be laughed at.

The phrase “Cumberland’s comedies” may have been referring to the prominent playwright Richard Cumberland who crafted many comedies. The context suggested that Cox was repeating an existing joke, but it was also possible that he constructed it.

In 1833 the newspaper profiles written William Cox were gathered together and published under the title “Crayon Sketches by An Amateur”. The portrait of Mr. Richings was included; thus, the quip was further disseminated. The author’s name was not specified in the pages of the work, but an article in the journal “American Literature” clearly identified Cox. 2 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1829 August 29, New-York Mirror and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, Volume 7, Number 8, The Drama: Theatrical Portraits: Richings (by William Cox) Quote Page 61, Column 3, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1833, Crayon Sketches by An Amateur (William Cox), Edited by Theodore S. Fay, Volume 2 of 2, Richings, Start Page 196, Quote Page 198, Published by Conner and Cooke, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1944 March, American Literature, Volume 16, Number 1, William Cox: Author of Crayon Sketches by Kendall B. Taft, Start Page 11, End Page 18, Published by Duke University Press. (JSTOR) link

Not Everyone Will Understand Your Journey. That’s Fine. It’s Not Their Journey To Make Sense Of. It’s Yours

Zero Dean? Anonymous?

journey08Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook I saw a potent statement about purpose and individuality:

Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.

These words were superimposed on a beautiful picture, but no ascription was provided. You have examined many quotations with incorrect attributions. There is a comparable problem that is endemic online. Sometimes quotations and images are appropriated without credit; original attributions are erased or cropped out, and new web addresses and logos are added. Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: The statement above was crafted by the computer graphic artist, photographer, and writer Zero Dean in June 2013. He wrote a post on this topic and created a set of vivid images which have been widely shared on social networks such as Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter. However, sometimes Dean’s name has been effaced or replaced by other identifiers.

In 2007 Zero Dean was a senior artist at a computer gaming company. He created artwork for games such as Rise of Nations and Red Dead Redemption. In 2009 he left his job and started on an epic road trip adventure. He has shared his experiences via his writings, photography, and art.

The quotation was written on June 26, 2013 and shared via a blog post and a pinned image on Pinterest. Interestingly, there were two different versions in the beginning. This was the longer version: 1 2

Not everyone will understand your journey. And that’s fine. You have to realize that it’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.

Quotations often are simplified, and in this case Dean himself immediately streamlined the saying to yield:

Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.

Below are additional selected citations.

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  1. Personal Communication via Facebook Private Message between Garson O’Toole and Zero Dean, Query from O’Toole sent September 29, 2011, Reply from Zero Dean received September 29, 2011, The blog post on blog.zerodean.com containing the quotation was created on June 26, 2013 GMT: 22:42:24. A graphic containing the quotation was then posted to Pinterest. The blog post was rescheduled to be published the next morning.
  2. Website: Blog Zero Dean, Article title: Not everyone will understand your journey, Author: Zero Dean, Date on website: June 27, 2013, Snapshot on August 5, 2013 from Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Website description: Blog of the artist Zero Dean. (Accessed WayBack Machine on September 29, 2015) link

Always Go To Other People’s Funerals — Otherwise, They Won’t Come To Yours

Yogi Berra? J. F. Shaw Kennedy? Charles Lee? Punch Magazine? Clarence Day? Anonymous?

weath07Dear Quote Investigator: A comical remark about funeral attendance has been attributed to the baseball great Yogi Berra:

Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.

A simple interpretation seems to require ghosts to attend a future funeral. Would you please trace this joke? Is it a genuine Yogiism?

Quote Investigator: In 1987 William Safire who was the language columnist of “The New York Times” asked Yogi Berra about this statement, and Berra denied that he ever made it. 1 Indeed, the jest was circulating before Berra was born.

The earliest evidence known to QI was printed in a novel titled “The Youth of the Period” by J. F. Shaw Kennedy in 1876. The publisher was based in London. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Old John Nobbs was one of those present. Going to funerals was quite a mania of his, and he attended every funeral he could for twelve miles round Ledbury.

“Confound it!” John would say, “if I don’t attend other people’s funerals they won’t come to mine.”

Thanks to magnificent researcher Stephen Goranson who located the above citation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1987 February 15, New York Times, Mr. Bonaprop by William Safire, Start Page SM8, Quote Page SM10, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1876, The Youth of the Period by J. F. Shaw Kennedy (James Frederick Shaw Kennedy), Chapter 19: True Love, Quote Page 232, Published by Samuel Tinsley, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Sinclair Lewis? Mary Heaton Vorse? Felicia Gizycka? Robert Benchley? Douglas Fairbanks Jr.? Marianne Gingher? Stevie Cameron? Andrew Hudgins? Nora Roberts? Stephen King? Oliver Stone? Anonymous?

vorse11Dear Quote Investigator: An astonishingly simple stratagem has been recommended to anyone who wishes to become a famous author, playwright, screenwriter, or composer. The secret to success and productivity is to:

Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

The expression of this thought has evolved, and in modern times blunt phrasing is often employed:

Keep your butt in the chair.
Put your ass on the chair.

In other words, diligence, tenacity, and time are required ingredients for effective composition. The admonition above has been attributed to a wide variety of well-known scribblers and artists, e.g., Sinclair Lewis, Nora Roberts, Robert Benchley, Stephen King, and Oliver Stone. Would you please put your butt in the chair and write something edifying on this topic?

Quote Investigator: The writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse gave this advice to a young and impressionable Sinclair Lewis in 1911 according to Lewis who followed the counsel and later received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis reported the words of Vorse in an article titled “Breaking into Print” which was published in “The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen” in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And as the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s jibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Lewis spent parts of 1911 and 1912 under the tutelage of Vorse, and she once hid his pants and shoes while locking him in his room to emphatically encourage the novice scribe. A detailed citation is given further below.

This piece of writing advice appeared in print before the 1937 article by Lewis, but QI thinks that the 1911 date given by him was probably accurate. Hence, based on current evidence Mary Heaton Vorse should be credited with the adage above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1937 Winter, The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen, New Series, Volume 2, Number 2, Breaking Into Print by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 217, Quote Page 221, Published by Pynson Printers, Inc., New York. (Internal publication note stated that the issue was released in February; the New York Times article that reprinted part of text stated that the issue was released March 22, 1937)(Verified with scans from Carnegie Mellon, Posner Center Collection)

It’s Not What You See That Is Suspect, But How You Interpret What You See

Isaac Asimov? John A. Keel? Apocryphal?

asimov10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I read a book called “The Mothman Prophecies” which discussed mysterious sightings of a human-sized moth-like creature in West Virginia in the 1960s. There are many ways to attempt to interpret bizarre and enigmatic visions. The book included an intriguing quotation attributed to the well-known science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov:

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see.

Did Asimov really say this? Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1966 Isaac Asimov published an article titled “UFO’s—What I Think” in “Science Digest” magazine. He stated that UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) certainly did exist. But he noted that a creaking sound heard late at night in your house might be labeled a UHO (Unidentified Heard Object), and an entity on the ground seen briefly in the corner of your eye might be called a UCO (Unidentified Creeping Object). These object types probably did not require a supernatural or interstellar explanation.

Asimov suggested that UFOs probably were not the spaceships of extraterrestrial beings. The following excerpt included the quotation: 1

I am told, though, that so many people have seen objects that looked like spaceships that “there must be something to it.” Maybe there is, but think of all the people in the history of the world who have seen ghosts and spirits and angels.

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see. After all, you can see with your own eyes that the Earth is flat and that the Sun goes around the Earth; you see that even though you have been taught that what you see is consistent with the interpretation that the Earth is a sphere and goes around the Sun.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1966 June, Science Digest: The Science News Monthly, Volume 59, Number 6, UFO’s–What I Think by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 44, Quote Page 46, Column 2, Published by The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans; special thanks to the Sadie Hartzler Library of Eastern Mennonite University; the Dick Smith Library of Tarleton State University)

The First Draft of Anything Is Shit

Ernest Hemingway? Arnold Samuelson? Bernard Malamud? Apocryphal?
hemingway10Dear Quote Investigator: The prose style of the famous author Ernest Hemingway was spare and direct, but to achieve that form he often worked through multiple drafts. A pungent remark about rewriting has been attributed to the Nobel Prize winner. Here are three versions:

The first draft of everything is shit.
The first draft of anything is shit.
The first draft of anything is rubbish.

What do you think? Authentic? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the first published evidence of this remark known to QI appeared in the 1984 posthumous memoir “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba” by Arnold Samuelson. In 1934 the nineteen-year-old Samuelson journeyed to Key West, Florida to meet Hemingway whose works had deeply impressed the young man. Hemingway needed a deck hand for his fishing boat, The Pilar, and Samuelson desired a literary tutor and guide. He accepted the job and worked with Hemingway for 10 months.

Samuelson created a manuscript that recorded his experiences, but it was not published during his lifetime. When he died in 1981 his sister found the document and edited it for publication which occurred in 1984. The following advice was given by Hemingway to the aspiring writer. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Apparently, this was written while the guidance was still fresh in the mind of Samuelson. The accuracy depends on the correctness and probity of Samuelson and his sister.

The key citation above was identified by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

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  1. 1984, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arnold Samuelson, Quote Page 11, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)

That’s Not Writing; That’s Just Typewriting

Truman Capote? Apocryphal?

capote08Dear Quote Investigator: The authors of The Beat Generation were an influential disaffected group whose works jolted the culture of 1950s America. The spontaneous prose technique employed by the central figure Jack Kerouac in the composition of his 1957 novel “On the Road” was acclaimed and disparaged. The most trenchant criticism reportedly was delivered by author Truman Capote:

That’s not writing, that’s typing

Did Capote really say this? What were the circumstances?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in January 1959 in the widely-distributed gossip column of Leonard Lyons who discussed a television show hosted by David Susskind. The cutting remark by Capote was spoken during this broadcast. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Truman Capote agreed to appear on David Susskind’s “Open End” show, with Norman Mailer — who kept praising the Beat-Generation writers. Capote thought their product worthless. “It’s nothing,” he said. “That’s not writing; that’s just typewriting.”

The exact phrasing employed by Capote has remained uncertain because several different versions of his statement entered circulation during the following days and months. If future researchers unearth a recording or transcript of the television program then the ambiguities will be resolved.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1959 January 27, Daily Defender, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons (The Hall Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

History Is Just One Damn Thing after Another

Arnold J. Toynbee? Max Plowman? H. A. L. Fisher? Apocryphal?

history09Dear Quote Investigator: The famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote a monumental 12-volume work titled “A Study of History” in which he delineated the trajectories of several major human civilizations. Surprisingly, a comically depreciatory definition of history is attributed to him. Here are two versions:

History is just one damn fact after another.
History is just one damned thing after another.

This thought seems out of character for Toynbee. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this statement about the contingency of history was built upon an earlier expression which emerged circa 1909:

Life is just one damned thing after another.

The Quote Investigator website article tracing the above saying is available here. This entry will concentrate on tracing the evolution of the variant remark about history.

In 1932 a journal called “The Adelphi” published “Keyserling’s Challenge” by Max Plowman who was very unhappy with treatises that emphasized the naïve collection and reiteration of miscellaneous facts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

So, like savages before their gods, they worship facts. And in return, the facts hit them like hailstones. Life is just one damned fact after another. They turn to collecting facts—laying them down—making “Outlines” of every real and fancied fact in the universe, until “truth” becomes an endless succession of stepping-stones that have a way of disappearing into the bog as soon as they are passed over. . .

Plowman was critical of the saying in boldface. He asserted the primacy of elements that were non-material and not easily reducible to simple facts such as community, emotion, and beauty. This instance of the saying did not employ the word “history”; hence, it did not completely match the expression under examination.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1932 December, The Adelphi (New Series), Section: The Adelphi Forum, Keyserling’s Challenge by Max Plowman, Start Page 212, Quote Page 213, The Adelphi, Bloomsbury Street, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley library system)

Lyricist Versus Composer: The Song “Ol’ Man River”

Oscar Hammerstein II? Dorothy Hammerstein? Leonard Lyons?

river09Dear Quote Investigator: The division of credit between music composers and lyricists can be controversial. Some lyricists believe that their song writing skills are not given adequate respect. One vivid anecdote revealed the unhappiness of Dorothy Hammerstein who was the wife of the prominent Broadway composer Oscar Hammerstein II.

During an extravagant New York gala Dorothy overheard a man effusively praising the song “Ol’ Man River”. The man’s remarks concluded with acclaim for the genius of Jerome Kern. Dorothy stepped forward and responded energetically:

Jerome Kern wrote ‘dum, dum, dum-dum’. My husband wrote “Ol’ Man River”.

Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The song “Ol’ Man River” was included in the 1927 theatrical production “Show Boat”. The earliest evidence of this story schema located by QI was published in the gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1949; however, the aggrieved response was from Oscar Hammerstein II instead of his wife. Boldface has been added to excerpts. The ellipsis was present in the original text: 1

Jules Styne, the composer of “High Button Shoes” and the forthcoming “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” was discussing the popular tendency to ascribe a hit song only to the composer and neglect the lyricist. He told of the time a series of Kern-Hammerstein songs were referred to as “Jerome Kern’s hits,” at a dinner where Oscar Hammerstein was to speak … “I guess that when Jerry Kern wrote the ‘Show Boat’ songs, they came out like this,” said Hammerstein, who then hummed “Old Man River,” and ran his fingers over his lips to produce a dribbling sound.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1949 October 31, The Canton Repository, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, (Syndicated, Dateline: New York), Quote Page 18, Column 5, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

Insanity Is Hereditary. You Can Get It from Your Children

Sam Levenson? Oscar Levant? W. C. Fields? Helen Gorn Sutin? Dave Berg? Ann Landers? Erma Bombeck? Grace Kelly?

heredity08Dear Quote Investigator: Many parents concur with a very funny quip that reverses the traditional notion of inheritance:

Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids.

This joke has been attributed to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck, the television host Sam Levenson, and the comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please resolve this ambiguity?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published on April 6, 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper within a column containing a miscellaneous set of short comical items. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children.
—Sam Levenson

During the same time period, the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the jest with an identical attribution: 2

Sam Levenson’s merciless truth: “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children!”

During the following years: Oscar Levant employed the joke; Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck placed it in their respective newspaper columns; and Grace Kelly used a variant quip. Nevertheless, QI believes that Sam Levenson should receive credit for this witticism.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1961 April 6, The Ada Weekly News, Strayed From the Heard by Connie Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ada, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1961 April 7, San Diego Union, Walter Winchell’s America, Quote Page A16, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)