Mark Twain? W. C. Fields? Harris Dickson? Barracuda Pete? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I mentioned a joke credited to Mark Twain to a friend recently:
It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.
She said that the jest was actually created by the famous comedian W. C. Fields and not Twain. Also, she claimed the original version was about drinking and not smoking:
It’s easy to quit drinking. I’ve done it a thousand times.
The results of my internet searches were confusing. The phrasing of the comical remark varies; for example, here is another quotation attributed to Twain:
Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.
No one seems to know when or where these statements were made. Could you explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Mark Twain did write about quitting smoking, but there is no substantive evidence that he made this particular joke. W. C. Fields did deliver a version of the gag about stopping drinking in a comedy routine called “The Temperance Lecture” which was broadcast to radio listeners by 1938. However, the drinking joke was in circulation years earlier.
“Noel,” he said, “I thought you’d quit playing poker?”
Duke smiled back blandly. “I have; I’ve quit more’n a thousand times, every time the game breaks up. Shucks, boy, it’s dead easy to quit playing poker. But I must have a little sport when I go to town—that don’t count. I’ve got to tear down the gates and take the bridles off for a day or so; my system needs it.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Mark Twain visited Bermuda numerous times, and during one sojourn on the island he met and became friends with Elizabeth Wallace, a dean at the University of Chicago. In 1914 she wrote a short biographical portrait titled “Mark Twain and the Happy Island” which included an undated letter from Twain that discussed quitting smoking. The humor in Twain’s note differed from the quip being explored, but it is related: 3
I was warned to stop smoking, which I did, for two or three days, but it was too lonesome, and I have resumed — in a modified way — 4 smokes a day instead of 40. This will have a good effect. On the bank balance.
In 1929 while alcohol prohibition was still being enforced the Omaha World Herald in Nebraska printed a variant of the joke in the drinking domain 4
Harry says he has quit. That gives me a laugh, Joe. You know Harry. Not that I think a man can’t quit. I have quit at least a hundred times myself, so I ought to know if a man can quit or not.
In 1932 a railroad periodical “Norfolk and Western Magazine” published an instance of the smoking quip that was close to the modern version: 5
Operator S. W. Campbell claims that he has quit smoking. Stuart says, “It is easy to quit; I have quit at least a hundred times.”
In 1934 the London humor magazine Punch ran an article titled “On Giving Up Smoking” that was thematically related to the sayings under investigation. However, the primary punchline was different: 6
Of course it is perfectly easy to give up smoking. One would not like to think that one has become such a slave to tobacco that one cannot do without it—a drug which weakens the heart, damages the nerves, gives you cancer and catarrh and so on. Personally I have given up smoking repeatedly. I have just gone out without any cigarettes and when people have offered them to me I have just said quietly and firmly, “No thank you,” and lit my pipe.
In 1935 “The American Legion Monthly” printed a longer version of the joke in which a worker at a sawmill is fired by his foreman and asks for an explanation: 7
“What’s the matter—isn’t my work all right?”
“Sure your work is all right!”
“Well, then, why fire me when I’m delivering the goods?”
“It’s your drinking—you’re liable to kill somebody!”
“Oh, if that’s it I can quit drinking; in fact I’ve quit more’n a thousand times in the last ten years.”
In 1936 “The Southwestern Sheep & Goat Raiser” magazine printed an instance of the drinking joke that was similar to the modern version: 8
One of our good friends told us the other day that he knew it was possible to quit drinking liquor. “I have quit a thousand times,” he said.
W. C. Fields performed a classic monologue for the radio called “The Temperance Lecture”. The Yale Book of Quotations stated that the comedy routine was broadcast by 1938. Fields sometimes varied his delivery, and two examples are available on YouTube. The following quip was included: 9 10 11
Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking; it’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.
In October 1938 “Scribner’s Magazine” published an article titled “I Quit Smoking” that discussed strategies for halting smoking. The story began with the following jest using a folksy diction: 12
When the young fellow complained that the doctor had ordered him to stop smoking and he was scared to death of even trying to stop, the old Texan puffed at his pipe and answered:
“Why, son, swearing off smoking’s the easiest thing in the world. I musta done it a thousand times.”
The earliest connection to Mark Twain that QI has located appeared in December 1938 in the “Journal of the American Medical Association”. Since Twain died in 1910 this is very late and provides very weak evidence: 13
Mark Twain is reputed to have remarked that to stop smoking was the easiest thing he ever did, and he said he ought to know for he had done it a thousand times. Most patients who have thrombo-angiitis obliterans have had the same good intentions but have continued to smoke.
In 1941 a California newspaper columnist printed an extended version of the gag in which a character named Barracuda Pete was fired from his job and demanded to know why: 14
“Yes, but it’s your drinking,” said the boss. “You’re liable to get hurt or kill someone when you come on the job drunk.
“That’s easy, boss.” said Pete, turning away to resume work. “I’ll quit drinking. I can do it easy. In fact I’ve quit at least a thousand times in the last few years.”
In 1945 another version of the saying was ascribed to Mark Twain in the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest: 15
To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I’ve done it a thousand times. —Mark Twain, quoted in Coronet
In conclusion, this joke template has been used in the domains of drinking, smoking, and playing poker. The earliest instance located by QI that reasonably conformed to the template was in the novel “Duke of Devil-May-Care” by Harris Dickson, but earlier examples may certainly exist. W. C. Fields employed the quip multiple times as part of “The Temperance Lecture”, but he did not coin it.
- 1905, Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson, Quote Page 14 and 15, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1906 August 27, Racine Daily Journal, Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson, Page 7, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1913, Mark Twain and the Happy Island by Elizabeth Wallace, Quote Page 130, A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1929 November 29, Omaha World Herald, Putting It Mildly, Page 24, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1932 March, Norfolk and Western Magazine, Page 144, Column 2, Norfolk and Western Railway Company, Roanoke, Virginia. (Google snippet with publication title, date, page number, and quotation all visible; Not verified on paper, but the snippet provides strong evidence) link ↩
- 1934 November 7, Punch or The London Charivari, On Giving Up Smoking, Quote Page 506, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1935 July, The American Legion Monthly, Bursts and Duds, Conducted by Dan Sowers, Quote Page 35, Column 2, Published by American Legion, Chicago. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1936 August 1, The Southwestern Sheep & Goat Raiser, Volume 6, Issue Number 21, Prickly Pear by J. Travelstead, [Collection of short humorous items], Quote Page 21, Column 2, Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers’ Association, San Angelo, Texas. (Verified on paper visually; Great thanks to the librarians of Sterling C. Evans Library of Texas A&M University) link ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section W. C. Fields (William Claude Dukenfield), Page 256, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- YouTube audio, “Command Performance – Christmas 1944 11/14”, [Uploader claims: Recorded: 25-12-1944], [Joke is spoken at 6:14 of 7:50 minutes], Uploaded by OTRNut on Apr 16, 2009, (Accessed youtube.com September 19, 2012) link ↩
- YouTube audio, “W.C. Fields Temperance Lecture”, [Uploader claims: “Here is the 1946 classic recording of W.C. Fields, on 4 sides. On Variety V 101. (3 record set)”], [Joke is spoken at 6:26 of 10:56 minutes], Uploaded by records45ful on Oct 19, 2011, (Accessed youtube.com September 19, 2012) link ↩
- 1938 October, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 104, Number 4, I Quit Smoking by J. C. Furnas, Start Page 13, Quote Page 13, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1938 December 10, JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association], Volume 111, Number 24, The Outlook in Thrombo-Angiitis Obliterans by Bayard T. Horton, Start Page 2184, Quote Page 2188, Column 2, American Medical Association, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1941 June 29, San Diego Union, Northeast Corner by Nor’easter, Page Six-C, Column 6 and 7, [GNB Page 38], San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1945 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 47, [Freestanding quotation with acknowledgement to Coronet], Page 26, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩