Combining the Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Telescopes Still Won’t Be Enough

George S. Kaufman? Eddie Fisher? Clifton Fadiman? Dick Cavett?


Dear Quote Investigator: Many, many years ago I saw an old clip on TV of George S. Kaufman and he was replying to a question submitted by a listener/viewer/audience member. For the sake of example let’s say it was a woman complaining about her husband’s smoking habit. I don’t recall his exact words, but they went something like this:

In California, I believe on Mount Palomar, there is a powerful telescope that can see to the edges of our solar system. They are constructing a new one which will let us see far beyond our own system into other universes. [More details and punch line omitted.]

My question is: Do you know which program this was, what year and what the actual quote was?

Quote Investigator: The readily available and searchable records for early television programs are poor. But there is a report of a joke delivered by Kaufman during an episode of the television program “This is Show Business” shown on the CBS network that conforms to your outline. The earliest account QI has located appeared in a memoir by the talk-show host and television personality Dick Cavett.

George S. Kaufman was a panelist on “This is Show Business” at least twice during its initial run, and the Internet Movie Database indicates that the series was first televised between 1949 and 1954 [IMSB]. Guest stars visited the show and sang, danced, or performed in some way. In addition, they were supposed to present a personal problem for the panelists to discuss. The singing sensation Eddie Fisher stated that the difficulty he faced stemmed from girls that refused to go out with him because of his youth. The following elaborate response from Kaufman is in Cavett’s 1983 book [ECGK]:

Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope.

The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.

Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

Cavett indicated that he was using his memory to reconstruct the wording used by Kaufman decades earlier. Unsurprisingly, human memory is imperfect. In 2010 Cavett retold the anecdote in a New York Times online article, and the quotation attributed to Kaufman is quite similar; however, the wording differs in several places.

Unless a transcript is discovered QI thinks that the exact phrasing is probably lost. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In August of 1983 the memoir “Eye on Cavett” was discussed in the “Book Notes” column of the Los Angeles Times. The journalist enjoyed George S. Kaufman’s clever remark so much that he reproduced the long passage nearly verbatim [LAGK]. This, no doubt, helped to propagate the anecdote more widely.

The quick-witted intellectual Clifton Fadiman was the primary host of the television program “This is Show Business” on which Kaufman appeared and delivered his extended gibe. Fadiman was also the general editor of “The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes” published in 1985, and it contains an account of the event. The text given for the quotation is very close to the version given in Cavett’s 1983 book. The final sentence is slightly altered by a word substitution [LBGK]:

Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.

In 1990 the tale was told in the entertaining reference work “American Literary Anecdotes” by Robert Hendrickson [ALGK]. The quotation is presented in a slightly shortened form and uses the word “detect” in the last sentence.

In 2010 Dick Cavett’s memories were stirred by the death of the vocalist Eddie Fisher at 82. He retold the story, noting that “Though I’m working from memory, the thing is so indelible in my mind…” The new version located on the website of the New York Times is the same joke with the same form and the same punch line. But some numerical details and word choices are different [DCGK]:

Mr. Fisher, on Mt. Wilson there is a telescope. A powerful telescope that has made it possible to magnify the distant stars to approximately 12 times the magnification of any previous telescope. [pause]

And, Mr. Fisher, atop Mt. Palomar, sits a more recently perfected telescope. This magnificent instrument can magnify the stars up to six times the magnification of the Mt. Wilson telescope.

As improbable as it would doubtless be, if you could somehow contrive to place the Mt. Wilson telescope inside the Mt. Palomar telescope, Mr. Fisher . . . you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem.

In conclusion, QI believes Dick Cavett’s general account and thinks that he did watch George Kaufman on “This is Show Business” sometime around the early 1950s. The precise original wording of the quip is not clear, but it is not too important for someone who simply wants to enjoy the joke.

QI can assure the questioner that the interest he felt in this intriguing problem was readily visible without recourse to optical enhancement. Thanks.

(Many thanks to Ed Clancy whose question provided the motivation for this investigation.)

[IMSB] Internet Movie Database IMDB.com website, This Is Show Business (TV Series 1949–1954). (Accessed 2011 March 26) link

[ECGK] 1983, Eye on Cavett by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield, Chapter: The Cavett Album – IV, Page 204-205, Arbor House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[LAGK] 1983 August 7, Los Angeles Times, Book Notes by Dick Lochte, Page Q14, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[LBGK] 1985, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, General Editor Clifton Fadiman, Section: George Simon Kaufman, Page 323, Column 1, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)

[ALGK] 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: George S. Kaufman, Page 130, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper)

[DCGK] 2010 October 8, New York Times website, Opinionator: Online Commentary, “The Titan and the Pfc.” by Dick Cavett, New York. (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com accessed 2011 March 26) link