Category Archives: Robert Benchley

I Do Most of My Work Sitting Down. That’s Where I Shine

Robert Benchley? James G. Berrien? Anonymous?

benchley14Dear Quote Investigator: Some regions of garments develop a shiny appearance when fibers are repeatedly compressed. Hence, the seats of pants sometimes become shiny. A few fabrics are particularly susceptible to this problem; in the past, blue serge suits were well-known for becoming undesirably shiny. The verb ‘to shine’ also has an alternative meaning: ‘to excel’. The popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley crafted a clever apposite joke:

I do most of my writing sitting down. That’s where I shine.

Should Benchley really receive credit?

Quote Investigator: In October 1942 the widely-distributed Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” published a profile with the title “He Works Sitting Down” and the subtititle “And that’s where Robert Benchley shines” by Irving Wallace. Thus, Benchley’s quip was built into the header of the article. It was also repeated in the article body. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But Benchley won’t forget his gags, either. He can’t stay away from humor.
“I shouldn’t complain,” he says with one of these apologetic chuckles. “After all, I do most of my work sitting down. That’s where I shine.”

QI believes that Benchley should receive credit for this formulation using sharp wordplay; however, amusing precursors were circulating by the 1920s.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1942 October 4, The Los Angeles Times, Section: This Week Magazine, He Works Sitting Down And that’s where Robert Benchley shines by Irving Wallace, Start Page 10, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)

People Laugh at This Every Night, Which Explains Why a Democracy Can Never Be a Success

Robert Benchley? Apocryphal?

rose09Dear Quote Investigator: The Broadway play “Abie’s Irish Rose” opened in 1922 and ran for more than five years which was a record-breaking achievement at the time. The writer and future actor Robert Benchley was the drama critic at “Life” magazine, and apparently he detested the production. Every week he crafted a new insult and printed it in the play guide that appeared in the periodical. Would you please list some of these barbs?

Quote Investigator: In June 1922 “Life” reviewed “Abie’s Irish Rose” and decried the hackneyed quality of its script. The humor was unfavorably compared to the contents of a discontinued humor magazine: 1

Any further information, if such could possibly be necessary, will be furnished at the old offices of “Puck,” the comic weekly which flourished in the ’90’s. Although that paper is no longer in existence, there must be some old retainer still about the premises who could tell you everything that is in “Abie’s Irish Rose.”

On August 10, 1922 “Life” magazine published a two word capsule review of the play in the weekly “Confidential Guide”. The production was housed at the Republic Theater. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Abie’s Irish Rose. Republic.—Something awful.

Below is a sampling of other remarks crafted by Benchley. On August 17, 1922 “Life” printed the following: 3

Abie’s Irish Rose. Republic—Couldn’t be much worse.

On September 14, 1922 Robert Benchley’s critique comically questioned the wisdom of the demos: 4

Abie’s Irish Rose. Republic.—People laugh at this every night, which explains why a democracy can never be a success.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1922 June 8, Life, Volume 79, Drama: A Pair of Little Rascals (by Robert Benchley), Quote Page 18, Column 2, Published at Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1922 August 10, Life, Confidential Guide: Comedy and Things Life That, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Published at Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1922 August 17, Life, Confidential Guide: Comedy and Things Life That, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Published at Life Office, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1922 September 14, Life, Confidential Guide: Comedy and Things Life That, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Published at Life Office, New York. (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 the 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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Notes:

  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)

There Are Two Classes of People in the World; Those Who Divide People into Two Classes and Those Who Do Not

Neil deGrasse Tyson? Robert Benchley? Kenneth Boulding? Ross F. Papprill? Groucho Marx? Jeremy Bentham? Anonymous?

benchley06Dear Quote Investigator: I enjoy humor based on clever self-referential statements, and a great example is the following:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

The version of the joke given above appeared in a tweet by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. 1 Do you know who originated this quip?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke located by QI was published in “Vanity Fair” magazine in February 1920. The humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote “an extremely literary review” of an unlikely book, a massive tome with densely printed type: The New York City Telephone Directory. Benchley was unhappy with the “plot” and said, “It lacks coherence. It lacks stability.” His article included the following memorable remark. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

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Notes:

  1. Tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson, Tweet date: December 13, 2013, Tweet time: 11:25 AM, Retweets: 3,845, Favorites: 2,847, Tweet text: There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. (Accessed twitter.com on February 7, 2014) link
  2. 1920 February, Vanity Fair, “The Most Popular Book of the Month: An Extremely Literary Review of the Latest Edition of the New York City Telephone Directory” by Vanity Fair’s Book Reviewer (Robert Benchley), Start Page 69, Quote Page 69, Conde Nast, New York. (HathiTrust) link link

Drawing on My Fine Command of Language, I Said Nothing

Robert Benchley? Lon Robinson? Joseph Charles Salak? Bruce Caldwell? H. M. Stansifer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people never know when to stop talking. I wish more people knew about the following quotation. Here are two versions:

Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.

I have seen this attributed to the humorist and movie actor Robert Benchley. I have also seen it credited to Mark Twain. Would you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: A comical statement related to this theme was printed in 1900: 1

“He has a fine command of language,” says Mr. Dooley; “he seldom lets any escape.”

The important precursor statement given below was in circulation by 1920. The expression was printed without attribution along with several other quips and adages in an article titled “Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then”. During the ensuing decades the phrase was reprinted many times: 2

It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.

In 1921 the saying was printed in a Kansas City, Missouri newspaper which gave an acknowledgement to another periodical: 3

“It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing,” observes the Jameson Gem.

Also in 1921 a rephrased and more elaborate version of the statement was printed in a Miami, Florida newspaper: 4

After all, nothing so much testifies to a fine command of language as an ability to say nothing at the right time.

In 1926 another version of the saying was printed in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania newspaper: 5

At times it requires a fine command of language to keep silent.

QI hypothesizes that the quotation under investigation evolved from these precursors.

Mark Twain died in 1910, and there is no substantive evidence that he made this remark. Robert Benchley died in 1945. The first ascription to Benchley located by QI appeared in 1949. The ascription to Benchley has weak support based on current knowledge.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1900 August 11, New York Times, A “Practical” View of Mr. Coler, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New York. (The original printed text used the spelling “anny” instead of “any”) (ProQuest)
  2. 1920 December 6, The Indicator, Volume XLVI, Number 23, Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then, Page 360, Column 1, Indicator Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1921 April 14, Kansas City Times (Morning edition of Kansas City Star), Missouri Notes, Page 16, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1921 April 19, Miami Herald, The Galley, (Short item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Miami, Florida. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1926 September 10, Gettysburg Times, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

“It Took Me Fifteen Years to Discover That I Had No Talent for Writing.” “Did You Quit?”

Robert Benchley? Mark Twain? Walter Winchell? Groucho Marx? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the funniest quotations about writing is usually credited to the brilliant wit Robert Benchley:

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

I was very surprised to find the same joke attributed to Twain in the comprehensive collection “Everyone’s Mark Twain”:

After writing for fifteen years it struck me I had no talent for writing. I couldn’t give it up. By that time I was already famous!

Was this quip created by Robert Benchley, Mark Twain, or somebody else?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this comical remark was crafted by neither Twain nor Benchley. The earliest version of the joke located by QI was about writing poetry. It was published in the humor magazine Puck in February 1912 under the title “COULDN’T AFFORD TO THEN”. The generic names SCRIBBLER and FRIEND were used to designate the speakers in a dialog: 1

SCRIBBLER.—It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write poetry.
FRIEND.—Gave it up then, did you?
SCRIBBLER.—Oh, no. By that time I had a reputation.

In March 1912 the same joke was reprinted in other periodicals with an acknowledgement to Puck, e.g., Springfield Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, 2 Seattle Daily Times of Seattle, Washington, 3 and The Jersey Journal of Jersey City, New Jersey. 4

In September 1912 The Independent, a weekly magazine based in New York City, printed a variant that referred to writing stories instead of poetry: 5

“It took me nearly ten years to learn that I couldn’t write stories.”
“I suppose you gave it up, then?”
“No, no. By that time I had a reputation.”
—New York American.

The quip was retold, and the phrasing evolved for decades, but the creator was left unnamed. The earliest connection to Mark Twain located by QI appeared in the popular newspaper column of Walter Winchell in 1946. The first known attachment of the joke to Benchley occurred in an issue of Reader’s Digest in 1949. Also, Nathaniel Benchley, the son of Robert, attributed the joke to his father in a biography he wrote in 1955. The details are provided further below.

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Notes:

  1. 1912 February 28, Puck, Volume 71, Couldn’t Afford To Then, Unnumbered Page [Page 5 by count], Column 3, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (HathiTrust)
  2. 1912 March 02, Springfield Republican, Had a Reputation, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 17, Column 7, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1912 March 05, Seattle Daily Times, “Couldn’t Afford to Then”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 7, Column 2, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank))
  4. 1912 March 23, Jersey Journal, “Scissorettes: Too Late.”, [Acknowledgement to Puck], Page 16, Column 4, Jersey City, New Jersey (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1912 September 19, The Independent, [Weekly Magazine], Pebbles, [Acknowledgement to New York American], Page 679, Column 2, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Whenever I Feel the Urge to Exercise I Lie Down Until It Goes Away

Jimmy Durante? Edna Mae Oliver? Robert M. Hutchins? Chauncey Depew? Mark Twain? Paul Terry? Robert Benchley? Max Beerbohm? J. P. McEvoy?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest quotation about exercise is usually credited to Mark Twain:

Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.

But this statement is also attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins who was the President of the University of Chicago and to a passel of other people. The idea can be expressed in several ways but the basic quip is the same. Can you determine who was responsible for this valuable guidance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a syndicated gossip column based in New York on June 13, 1937. The statement was ascribed to Paul Terry who was the founder of the Terrytoons animation studio. The ellipsis in the following is in the original text [PTPD]:

GOTHAM GOINGS ON: Paul Terry, who does the animated cartoons, shares Chauncey M. Depew’s contempt for exercise … “When I feel like exercising,” he says, “I just lie down until the feeling goes away.”

Two weeks later on June 28, 1937 another gossip columnist based in New York credited the joke to the film and stage actress Edna Mae Oliver. In the following passage “Mori’s” referred to a popular restaurant in Greenwich Village [EOLL]:

“Being away from home gives me a great urge to exercise,” Edna Mae Oliver admits at Mori’s. But whenever I feel that way, I just lie down until the foolish notion goes away.”

A few months later in October 1937 an induction ceremony was held for the new president of Williams College in Massachusetts. The President of the Society of Alumni gave a speech, and he ascribed the saying to the luminary Mark Twain.  This the earliest connection to Twain located by QI; however, Twain died in 1910, so this is a late ascription, and it provides weak evidence [WCJJ]:

Mr. President: Mark Twain once remarked that whenever he felt an irresistible urge coming over him to take exercise, he always lay down until the feeling went away.

The number of people credited with this saying has grown over the decades to include: humorist J. P. McEvoy, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins, politician Chauncey Depew, comedian Jimmy Durante, and others.

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Anyone Can Do Any Amount of Work, Provided It Isn’t the Work He Is Supposed To Be Doing At That Moment

Robert Benchley? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the most insightful and humorous quotations about accomplishing tasks is:

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

All the websites and reference books I could find agree that this should be credited to Robert Benchley. But I have never seen a reference that says when and where he wrote it. Benchley died in 1945, and oddly I cannot find any reference while he was still alive. Did someone else create this clever remark?

Quote Investigator:  Benchley did write these words in a column titled “How to Get Things Done: One Week in the Life of a Writing Man” that was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 2, 1930 [RBTD]:

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is, “Don’t you wish you knew?” …

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it deliberately on a well known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. …

The psychological principle is this: Any one can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Benchley explains that he creates an ordered list of tasks where the highest-priority items are supposed to be at the top. However, he deliberately subverts the list by putting important tasks at the bottom and unimportant tasks at the top, i.e., he engages in self-deception. Benchley then uses an internal monologue to rally himself to pursue the top task. Naturally, he decides to ignore the top task and work on tasks at the bottom of the list instead.

The psychological principle given above describes this curious but common behavior. Using this strategy Benchley accomplishes many important jobs. Comically, the task at the top of the list (the unimportant task) was to write an article for his newspaper column.

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Venice: Streets Full of Water. Advise.

Robert Benchley? Mattie Barwick? David Niven?


Dear Quote Investigator: You might enjoy looking into this confusing question. I have been searching newspaper databases for a project involving the Venice canals. The following humorous note appeared in a newspaper called the Miami News on October 30, 1958 [MNGB]:

Word comes from European traveler, Mattie (Mrs. George) Barwick who is abroad with Mrs. William H. Walker, Jr.

Says she. “Just arrived in Venice. Find all streets flooded. Please advise.”

I recognized this as a restatement of a memorable joke telegram sent by Robert Benchley. Nowadays with the water problems in Venice the quip is less amusing.

I checked some quotation references to find out when Benchley came up with this clever comment. My puzzlement stems from the fact that Benchley is first credited with the joke in 1968, and this is ten years after the Miami News article. Benchley died in 1945. Do you think he is being given credit for something he never said?

Quote Investigator: A version of this message is attributed to Benchley in the Yale Book of Quotations [YBRB], the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [ODRB], the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations [PMRB] and many other references. The YBQ contains the best citation information, and it refers to the 1968 book “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan [AWRB]:

On a summer vacation trip Benchley arrived in Venice and immediately wired a friend:

“STREETS FLOODED. PLEASE ADVISE.”

QI has located a version of the anecdote and the telegram text under the title “Bulletin from Benchley” in the October 1958 issue of The Reader’s Digest, and this should help to resolve the riddle [RDRB]:

David Niven tells about the time he and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., planned a European itinerary for humorist Robert Benchley: “I made arrangements for him to visit some friends of mine in Venice. The day Benchley got there he sent us a cable which read:

STREETS FULL OF WATER. ADVISE.

—As told to Dean Jennings in The Saturday Evening Post

The Reader’s Digest was typically released before the date on its cover, and the issue of the Saturday Evening Post containing the words attributed to Benchley must have been available before that time. Hence the joke was widely disseminated before it appeared in the Miami News at the end of October in 1958.

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“It’s too caustic.” “To hell with the cost.”

Who Said It? Samuel Goldwyn? Robert Benchley? Gracie Allen? Alva Johnston? Anonymous?

foxes07Who or What Was Caustic? The Little Foxes? Jim Tully? An Unnamed Actor? Mr. Rosenblatt? An Unnamed Script? An Unnamed Writer? Sidney Howard? Moss Hart?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining legend about the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn has been amusing people for decades. “The Little Foxes” was a major Broadway hit in 1939 and Goldwyn was considering purchasing the rights to create a film based on the story. He asked his top advisor to see the play and report to him. Here is what the aide supposedly told Goldwyn together with his reply:

“Sam, it’s a great drama, but it might be a little too caustic.”
“I don’t care what it costs, I want it.”

This is my favorite anecdote about Goldwyn, and it is supported by the fact that he did buy the rights and made a classic movie starring Bette Davis. Could you research this quotation?

Quote Investigator:Thanks for sending in this fun story. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the timeline that makes this tale unlikely. In January 1930 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell reported a version of the joke based on the misconstrual of the word “caustic” that was being disseminated by the popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley. Thus, the core joke was in circulation about nine years before the premiere of “The Little Foxes”.

The tale centered on two movie magnates who began their careers in the garment business. This biographical detail matched Samuel Goldwyn who was a glove salesman before moving to Hollywood. The maladroit line was spoken by one of the magnates. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

They were in conference trying to save a new picture that lacked, what critics usually call, “a wallop.”
“If we could only get someone to fix it up,” said one.
“Why don’t you get Jim Tully?” suggested an executive.
“Jim Tully is too caustic!”
“Oh,” thundered one of the magnates, “the hell with the cost, get him!”

The writer Robert Benchley constructed many humorous stories, and it was possible that he simply invented this anecdote to entertain friends. Alternatively, he may have been present at a meeting when the line was spoken. Special thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation given above.

Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1930 January 9, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)