If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Cecile Starr? Billy Wilder? Richard Pryor? James L. Brooks? Dustin Hoffman? Charles Ludlam?

masks09Dear Quote Investigator: Dramatists have discovered that challenging material often elicits hostility or boredom. This is dangerous for creators because jobs in the entertainment industry are precarious. Yet, a provocative production leavened with humor is often embraced by audiences. The following adage now circulates on Broadway and in Hollywood:

1) If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.
2) If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

The playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Ludlam have all been credited with this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1951 article in “The Saturday Review” by critic and film historian Cecile Starr discussing a documentary film festival. When Starr commented on the works of one filmmaker she mentioned the adage and ascribed it to George Bernard Shaw who had died a year earlier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

QI has found no substantive support for crediting Oscar Wilde with the saying. He died in 1900 and the expression appeared decades afterwards. There is some good evidence that the well-known director Billy Wilder employed the saying, but the linkage occurred after it was attributed to Shaw. There was also some indirect evidence Charles Ludlam used the expression. The comedian Richard Pryor, actor Dustin Hoffman, and screenwriter James L. Brooks all delivered the line during interviews, but they spoke when it was already in circulation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1882 a writer in the “Edinburgh Review” of Edinburgh, Scotland presented thematically related advice from the classical world. Some critical topics were acceptable to plebeians when coupled with humor: 2

So also is Ballio’s advice to Plautus as to the subjects of his plays: let Plautus choose his arguments from among the plebs, who ‘will forgive being lashed, if you can make them laugh,’ but avoid touching the patricians, who, according to the laws of the Twelve Tables, have, and can have, no vices.

In 1887 “Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit” was published, and the popular orator Henry Ward Beecher was credited with a saying that expressed a similar idea: 3

Blessed be mirthfulness! It is one of the renovators of the world. Men will let you abuse them if only you will make them laugh.

In 1909 “Harper’s Monthly Magazine” published an article about Mark Twain by Archibald Henderson who was attempting to assess the literary significance of the famous humorist. Henderson reported on a conversation he had with George Bernard Shaw during which Shaw made an intriguing point that was similar to the saying under investigation: 4

Mr. Bernard Shaw once remarked to me that he regarded Poe and Mark Twain as America’s greatest achievements in literature; and that he thought of Mark Twain primarily, not as humorist, but as sociologist. “Of course,” he added, “Mark Twain is in much the same position as myself: he has to put matters in such a way as to make people who would otherwise hang him believe he is joking!”

In 1951 critic and film instructor Cecile Starr ascribed the adage to Shaw in the pages of “The Saturday Review” as noted previously:

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

In 1970 an article titled “The Private Life of Billy Wilder” by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington was published in “Film Quarterly”. The adage attributed to Shaw was printed in a sidebar. Although the article was about Wilder the saying was not linked to him by the authors: 5

“If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” —Bernard Shaw

In 1973 a book about screen sirens titled “Popcorn Venus” by Marjorie Rosen included an instance ascribed to Shaw: 6 7

They point to Bernard Shaw and mutter: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”

The footnote accompanying the text above indicated that the same saying and attribution appeared in the 1968 work “The Lubitsch Touch” by Herman G. Weinberg, but QI has not yet verified this assertion.

In 1976 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio printed the questions and answers of a group interview conducted with the comedian and actor Richard Pryor. He employed the adage but disclaimed credit with the phrase “I read somewhere”: 8

Still another interviewer asked Pryor if he liked to shock people. “I don’t know if I like to shock people,” he said, “as much as I like to get to them.” What, the woman wanted to know, did he mean by that? “Touch them,” Pryor said. “I’m kind of cold — like other people. He paused. “I read somewhere that if you tell people the truth, you’ve got to make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.”

In 1977 the producer and screenwriter James L. Brooks wrote an article reminiscing about the recently discontinued television series “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. He was one of the co-creators of the popular long-lived program: 9

One of the brightest things I ever heard said about comedy is, “If you’re going to tell the truth, make ’em laugh or they’ll kill you.” The show, in its way, has tried to tell the truth and make ’em laugh for seven years now.

In 1979 a production of Shaw’s play “Man and Superman” was reviewed in “The New Yorker”. The article did not contain the adage, but the excerpt below displayed a thematic match that suggested why many have found the ascription to Shaw plausible: 10

He mocked the English for their hypocrisy and railed at them for their innumerable faults, and because he was able to make them laugh they forgave him his truthtelling. Savage as his indictment of them might seem in the world’s eyes, they saw it as mere foolery . . .

In 1986 the American Film Institute (AFI) honored Billy Wilder with a Life Achievement Award. During the ceremony the AFI founder George Stevens Jr. exuberantly praised Wilder and asserted that he had employed the adage although Stevens credited Shaw with coinage: 11

The presentation was as short and succinct as the dialogue of a Wilder script — “He has been known to quote that other writer, George Bernard Shaw, who said, ‘If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh . . . or they’ll kill you,'” Stevens said.

In 1996 an instance was printed in “The New Yorker” magazine within an article about the writer, actress, and icon Mae West: 12

Sex was her subject, not her effect. And it was what she had to say about sex that was genuinely dangerous. As West’s admirer and fellow-aphorist George Bernard Shaw once observed, “If you tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”

In 2003 a drama critic in “The Santa Fe New Mexican” discussed a play written by Craig Lucas. The critic stated that Lucas employed a version of the saying with the word “funny”, but Lucas credited another playwright named Charles Ludlam: 13

What is surprising is how wickedly funny the play is. Lucas is fond of quoting visionary playwright Charles Ludlam, who once said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better be funny, or they’ll kill you.”

Also in 2003 a self-help book titled “What Winners Do to Win!” credited Wilder with an instance using the word “funny” 14

When I’m conducting a program, I heed the words of film director Billy Wilder: “If you are going to tell people the truth, you better be funny or else they’ll kill you.”

In 2008 a syndicated daily horoscope by Holiday Mathis attributed the saying to the famous wit Oscar Wilde: 15

Oscar Wilde said that if you’re going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh or they will kill you. He was on to something.

In 2013 the actor Dustin Hoffman used an instance which he attributed to Wilder: 16

“Billy Wilder once said something that I wrote down in the front of the script for Quartet, and I looked at it every day of the production,” Hoffman notes. “He said, ‘If you’re trying to tell the truth to the audience, you better be funny or they’ll kill you.'”

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of what is currently known about the saying. The earliest appearance occurred in October 1951; Shaw was credited, but he had died in November 1950 almost a year before. Thus, the evidence was not ideal. On the other hand, support for other candidates for ascription only emerged decades later.

Wilder was present at the 1986 AFI award ceremony when the presenter remarked that Wilder used the expression, but the presenter credited Shaw. Charles Ludlam was born in 1943 which was too late to coin the expression by 1951.

Image Notes: George Bernard Shaw and a notebook from the LIFE magazine photo archive circa 1914 via Wikimedia Commons. Masks of comedy and tragedy from ClkerFreeVectorImages at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Aanel Victoria whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Victoria who noted that the 2003 book excerpt credited Wilder and not Shaw. The introductory remark was corrected.)

Update History: On March 18, 2016 the 1909 citation was added. On March 19, 2016 the introductory comment for the excerpt from the 2003 book citation was corrected; “Shaw” was replaced by “Wilder”.

Notes:

  1. 1951 October 13, The Saturday Review, Ideas on Film: Edinburgh’s Documentary Festival by Cecile Starr, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  2. 1882 January, Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, Volumes 155, Modern Italian Poets: Cossa and Carducci, Start Page 26, Quote Page 43, Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1887, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit: Selected from the Writings and Sayings of Henry Ward Beecher, Edited by William Drysdale, Section: Human Life, Quote Page 59, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1909 May, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 118, Mark Twain by Archibald Henderson, Start Page 948, Quote Page 955, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1970 Summer, Film Quarterly, Volume 23, Number 4, The Private Life of Billy Wilder by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, Start Page 2, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Published by: University of California Press. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1973, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies & The American Dream by Marjorie Rosen, Quote Page 127, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1974 (Copyright 1973), Popcorn Venus by Marjorie Rosen, Quote Page 132, (Reprint of 1973 edition from Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York), Avon Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1976 December 19, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section 5, Amory’s People: Don’t pry Pryor; he hates gorillas by Cleveland Amory, Quote Page 2, Column 5 and 6, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1977 March 12, The Palm Beach Post, Mary and Company Say Goodby by James L. Brooks, Quote Page B1, Column 1, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1979 January 1, The New Yorker, The Theatre: Shavian Arias by Brendan Gill, Start Page 46, Quote Page 46, Column 2, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online archives.newyorker.com)
  11. 1986 March 8, The Anniston Star, Wilder tribute shows respect for the world by Jim Vickrey, Quote Page 10, Column 2 and 3, Anniston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1996 November 11, The New Yorker, A Critic at Large: The Wrath of Mae West by Claudia Roth Pierpont, Start Page 106, Quote Page 106, Column 3, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online archives.newyorker.com)
  13. 2003 September 26, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Section: Pasatiempo, Article: The Cruel, Funny Truth – Craig Lucas’ Reckless, Author/Byline: Teri Thomson Randall, Quote Page P-66, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (NewsBank Access World News)
  14. 2003, What Winners Do to Win!: The 7 Minutes a Day That Can Change Your Life by Nicki Joy, Section: Winners Make Common Sense Common Practice, Quote Page 113, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)
  15. 2008 July 21, Bangor Daily News, Daily Horoscope by Holiday Mathis, Quote Page D7, Column 3, Bangor, Maine. (Google News Archive)
  16. 2013 January 20, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: Features Arts & Entertainment, Article: Dustin Hoffman on directing and trying hard, Author/Byline: Steven Rea, Quote Page H02, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)