Oscar Levant? Edmund Fuller? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I see on the website that you looked into a quotation credited to the pianist, actor, and wit Oscar Levant and showed that someone else probably said it first. But I am confident that the following quote was originally said by Levant, and it fits the theme of the blog:
An epigram is only a wisecrack that’s played at Carnegie Hall.
Could you tell me whether these are the words of Oscar Levant?
Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to research this saying for you. To understand the humor in the remark it is helpful to know that Carnegie Hall has historically been one of the top venues for musical performances in New York and the world. This epigram about epigrams does appear to be the creation of Levant, but the wording given above differs from the earliest instances found by QI.
In 1941 a collection titled “Thesaurus of Quotations” edited by Edmund Fuller listed the following version of the saying attributed to Oscar Levant [TQF]:
An epigram is a gag that’s played Carnegie Hall.
There are a few other versions of the saying. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
The next cite after the one above occurred in 1943 in another compilation from Edmund Fuller called “Thesaurus of Epigrams”. The adage had the same form and it appeared in the introductory chapter [TEF]:
What is an epigram? What sets it apart from the quip, the quiddity, the bon mot,… It is Oscar Levant who has definitively scored it for our time with a fine sensitivity to the fact that stuffing is out of place in a humorist’s shirt. By Oscar, “An epigram is a gag that’s played Carnegie Hall.” It is Bob Hope at Harvard; it is Sinatra singing with the Philharmonic. It is the irreverent leaven of earthy humor, however polished, that keeps the arteries of intellect from hardening.
In 1945 the publisher and joke collector Bennett Cerf published “Laughing Stock” and it contained a version of the saying that used the word “wisecrack” instead of “gag” [LSBC]:
Epigram: A wise-crack that has played Carnegie Hall. (Oscar Levant)
In 1949 the editor Evan Esar featured the saying with “wisecrack” in his book “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” and attributed the words to Levant [DHQE]:
An epigram is only a wisecrack that’s played Carnegie Hall.
Yet, the version using the word “gag” was not forgotten. It was mentioned in a Georgia newspaper in 1955 within the review of a book called “Dictionary of American Maxims” [AG]:
“An epigram is a gag that’s played Carnegie Hall.” Who said that?
Perhaps hundreds of persons have. Possibly the reader will now that he has been introduced to the clever gambit. It was of course, originally attributed to Oscar Levant, the vinegar-witted pianist and film star.
In 1965 another variant of the saying was used in a Connecticut newspaper, but no attribution was given [TDG]:
An epigram is a wisecrack that lived long enough to acquire a reputation.
In 1996 the Baltimore Sun ran an article titled “The Art of the Epigram” that began with a clever description that the author credited to W. Somerset Maugham [BSE]:
The making of a good epigram is like the construction of a ship in a bottle. It has to be small enough to fit in a tiny space, but it should come packing a cannon or two.
The story also included a version of the saying under investigation credited to Levant together with a saying attributed to Mencken [BSE]:
Oscar Levant defined an epigram as “a wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall,” and H.L. Mencken called it “a platitude with vine leaves in its hair.” But both men might have been quicker to point out that they were making an exception to their epigrams about epigrams, thus avoiding the dangers of a self-referential paradox.
In conclusion, the most common modern version of the adage uses the word “wisecrack”, but the earliest citations located by QI use the word “gag”. All the cites credit the phrase to Oscar Levant whenever someone is credited. QI believes he is the most likely originator. Thank you for your question.
[TQF] 1941, Thesaurus of Quotations by Edmund Fuller, The Epigram, Page 331, Column 2, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper in Third Printing, October, 1943)
[TEF] 1943,Thesaurus of Epigrams edited by Edmund Fuller, Page v and 101, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper) (Full view HathiTrust) link
[LSBC] 1945, “Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage” edited by Bennett Cerf, Page 185, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified on paper)
[DHQE] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Evan Esar, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Checked on paper in 1989 Dorset Press reprint, Page 129)
[AG] 1955 December 18, Augusta Chronicle, “Wisdom in Small Doses Collected in New Volume”, Section D, Page 4, Column 7, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
[TDG] 1965 June 25, The Day, Grist And Grits, Page 10, Column 3, New London, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)
[BSE] 1996 July 30, The (Baltimore) Sun, “The Art of the Epigram” by Stephen Vicchio, Section Editorial, Page 7A, Baltimore, Maryland. (NewsBank)