Category Archives: Billy Wilder

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.

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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)

Storytelling: Just Give Them Two and Two and Let Them Add It Up

Billy Wilder? Ernst Lubitsch? Ted Elliott? Terry Rossio? Ray Bradbury? Vince Gilligan? Andrew Stanton?

twoplus13Dear Quote Investigator: On the commentary track of a video I once heard a screenwriter discuss the requirement to engage the audience’s cognitive powers while spinning a tale:

Give the audience two plus two, and let them come up with four.

A famous Hollywood figure was credited, but I do not recall the name. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Filmmaker Billy Wilder directed classic comedies such as “Some Like It Hot” and influential film noirs such as “Double Indemnity”. In 1976 and 1986 he presented seminars at the American Film Institute, and segments from his talks were later published as a chapter in the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute”. Wilder cautioned against over-explaining or providing too much exposition to viewers. He credited another well-known director Ernst Lubitsch with an illustrative arithmetic metaphor. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it. This is what I learned from Ernst Lubitsch. He had a real touch, a gift of involving the audience into writing the script with him as it was unfolding on the screen.

In other words, he was not the kind of a director who kind of hammered it down and said, “Now listen to me, you idiots. There now, put down the popcorn bag, I’m going to tell you something. Two and two is four.” He said, “No, just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.”

QI has not yet found a citation in which these words were spoken by Ernst Lubitsch. Perhaps this guidance was communicated to Wilder during a private conversation with Lubitsch. In any case, Wilder can be credited with popularizing the figurative language which employed simple addition.

In recent years, successful storytellers such as Vince Gilligan, writer/director of “Breaking Bad”, and Andrew Stanton, writer/director of “Finding Nemo”, have discussed the “two plus two” adage for weaving compelling tales.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2006, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, Edited by George Stevens Jr., Chapter: Billy Wilder, Start Page 302, Quote Page 320, (The Wilder chapter is dated December 13, 1978; however, a footnote supplies additional dates: “This transcript contains segments from seminars Wilder gave at the American Film Institute on January 7, 1976 (with his writing partner I. A. L. Diamond) and on March 3, 1986)”, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)