Groucho Marx? Frank Parker? Marty Allen? Steve Rossi? Dorothy Shay? Ed Reed? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The comedian Groucho Marx apparently crafted a witty twist on beauty and inheritance. Here are two versions:
- He got his good looks from his mother. She’s a plastic surgeon.
- She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.
Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?
Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx who died in 1977 received credit for this joke by 1968, but it has a very long evolutionary history. A precursor in 1898 implied aesthetic enhancement via makeup instead of plastic surgery: 1
Ella—Where does Belle get her good looks from—her father or her mother?
Stella—From her father; he keeps a drug store.—New York Journal.
The above item from “The Times-Visitor” of Raleigh, North Carolina appeared in multiple newspapers with occasional small modifications. For example, “The McPherson Daily Republican” of McPherson, Kansas referred to “Bella” instead of “Belle” and acknowledged “Stray Stories” instead of “New York Journal”. 2
In 1904 a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina printed a variant that referred to an uncle: 3
Gossip No. 1.—Did Miss Hanson get her good looks from her father or her mother?
Gossip No. 2.—From her uncle; he keeps a drug store.—Princeton Tiger.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1907 the “Lawrence Daily Journal” of Lawrence, Kansas printed this version of the gag: 4
When the druggist’s daughter has a beautiful complexion she probably gets her good looks from her father.
In 1935 a newspaper in Belvidere, Illinois reported a variant delivered by a well-known singer and radio-personality. This was the earliest instance mentioning surgery known to QI: 5
Frank Parker, that merry jester of the CBS “Atlantic Family” series, says that good looks are inherent. He knows a girl who got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.
In 1958 the comedy team of Marty Allen and Mitch DeWood employed the joke according to a Uniontown, Pennsylvania newspaper: 6
Allen and DeWood know a gal who owes her good looks to her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.
In 1960 the line was delivered by a popular singer-comedian who later became an actress: 7
Dorothy Shay checked in with this bit of overboard dialogue: “Of course, she gets all her good looks from her dad. He’s a plastic surgeon.” (Sidney Skolsky).
In 1968 the compendium “20,000 Quips and Quotes” assembled by Evan Esar credited Groucho. This was the first linkage to the luminary located by QI: 8
She got her good looks from her father—he’s a plastic surgeon.
– Groucho Marx
In 1970 the widely-syndicated columnist Earl Wilson also credited Groucho: 9
Remembered Quote: “She got her good looks from her father—he’s a plastic surgeon.” — Groucho Marx.
In 1979 a one-panel comic by Ed Reed employed a gender-switched variant: 10
“He got his good looks from his father — the plastic surgeon.”
In 2013 the London newspaper “The Independent” reported the results of a poll of “history’s funniest insults”. The eighth jibe in the top-nine list was ascribed to Groucho: 11
8. Groucho Marx: “She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.”
In conclusion, this family of comical sayings entered circulation by 1898. The first anonymous instances referenced cosmetics and not plastic surgery. The singer Frank Parker employed a gag based on surgery during a radio program in 1935. Other entertainers used the joke during the ensuing decades. However, the fame of Groucho Marx led to the displacement of many other attributions after he was linked to the quip by 1968.
Image Notes: Picture of a golden mask excavated in Kalmakareh, Lorestan, Iran. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons; image author: Nightryder84; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Promotional postcard showing Groucho Marx from You Bet Your Life. Picture of makeup brushes from kinkate at Pixabay. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1898 August 5, The Times-Visitor (The Raleigh Times), (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1898 August 19, The McPherson Daily Republican, Artificial Beauty (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, McPherson, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1904 November 3, The Western Sentinel, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1907 December 2, Lawrence Daily Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 6, Lawrence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 October 24, Belvidere Daily Republican, Jane Froman Heads Music Hall Lineup, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Belvidere, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958 August 19, The Morning Herald, Dream Street, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1960 February 3, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Best of Hollywood, Quote Page 21, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Surgeon, Quote Page 785, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970 October 14, The Hartford Courant, Dry Humorist Joins Brown Bag Set by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1979 April 6, The Des Moines Register, Comic: Off the Record by Ed Reed, Quote Page 8S, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2013 October 14, The Independent (UK), Article: ‘My dear you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly’: Winston Churchill tops poll of history’s funniest insults, Author: Rob Williams, London, England. (Accessed April 4, 2017 at www.independent.co.uk) ↩