Why Don’t You Carry a Wrist Watch Like Everyone Else?

Herbert Beerbohm Tree?  Frederick Henry Townsend? George du Maurier? Yogi Berra? Mutt and Jeff? An inebriate? A woman carrying packages?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have read several instances of a popular comical anecdote. Two different versions featured baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra. One night he was presented with a grandfather clock at a banquet dinner. Yogi was struggling to carry the clock down the street when a drunken individual bumped into him.

“Excuse me,” said Yogi.
The drunk looked at him unhappily and demanded, “Why don’t you carry a wrist watch like everybody else?”

In another version of the story Yogi was inebriated. He collided with a person carrying a large clock, and Yogi delivered the final humorous line.

In a third version of the tale a famous actor and theater manager in England was the protagonist. Herbert Beerbohm Tree observed a man staggering down the street under the weight of a grandfather clock and remarked: “My poor fellow, why not carry a watch?”

Can you clarify the origin of this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this basic jest known to QI appeared in a cartoon drawn by Frederick Henry Townsend in the London humor magazine Punch in March 1907. Here is the image and the caption:[ref] 1907 March 27, Punch or The London Charivari, [Cartoon by F. H. Townsend with caption: ‘Funny Man. “Pardon Me…”‘], Page 223, Published at the Punch Office, London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]


Funny Man. “Pardon me, Sir, but wouldn’t you find it more convenient to carry a watch?”

Top quotation expert and BBC broadcaster Nigel Rees included this key citation in his compilation “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”.[ref] 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Advice, Quote Page 24, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref] The joke was noticed across the ocean, and the cartoon was reprinted in The Washington Post in April [ref] 1907 April 14, Washington Post, [Reprint of cartoon from Punch magazine], Quote Page 12 (NArch Page 42), Washington, D. C. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref] and a Pennsylvanian newspaper in October.[ref] 1907 October 7, The Altoona Mirror, [Reprint of cartoon from Punch magazine], Quote Page 9, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1911 the Chicago Tribune printed a version of the tale recounted as fact with a setting of London:[ref] 1911 May 7, Chicago Daily Tribune, Harry Woodruff Doubts Public Taste, (Untitled short anecdote), Quote Page B2, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

“Here’s a funny story,” said Harry Stubbs of “The Stranger,” destined for the storage house. “I was in London last summer, and I saw an inebriated Englishman intently watching a lot of furniture being taken out of a house and placed in a van. Presently the man walked up to one of the moving men who was carrying a grandfather’s clock on his back and said: “Beg pardon, old chap, for speaking to you without the formality of an introduction, but wouldn’t it be more convenient to carry a watch?”

In 1912 a version of the anecdote reappeared in the Chicago Tribune. This instance was told at a banquet in the city:[ref] 1912 June 2, Chicago Daily Tribune, Good Stories Told at Recent Banquets by Bon Vivant, Quote Page A7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Ed M. Allen, a manufacturer of Chicago, told the following story at the last dinner of the Forty club, held at the La Salle hotel:
“An Irishman owned a grandfather’s clock which needed repairing, and to save the expressman’s charges he decided to carry it on his back to the jeweler’s. While staggering along the street with his heavy burden, he met a drunken man, who stopped him and asked:
“Shay, my friend, wouldn’t it be more convenient for you to carry a watch?'”

In 1913 “The Evening Post” newspaper of New York City printed two variants of the joke. The first variant was credited to Punch magazine and the illustrator “Du Maurier”. George du Maurier was a prominent cartoonist whose works regularly appeared in Punch and who died in 1896. Oddly, the 1907 cartoon shown above was created by Frederick Henry Townsend and not by Du Maurier. Also, the description in 1913 differed from the contents of the illustration in 1907. It is possible that an earlier Punch cartoon exists by QI has not located it.

The second variant tale had a New York setting, and the large object being moved was not a clock. Instead, a janitor was carrying a chiffonier, a tall chest of drawers. The humorous remark was presented using dialect-based spelling:[ref] 1913 May 24, The Evening Post, Section: Saturday Magazine, “The Spirit, Sir, Is One of Mockery”: Old Jokes Made Over, Quote Page 12, Column 1, New York, New York. (Old Fulton) [/ref] [ref] 1913 July 5, Burlington Hawk Eye, East Side Version, (Reprint of story from The Evening Post, New York), Quote Page 5, Column 4, Burlington, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

If you invent a really good joke, it stands a fair chance of coming true. One of the best Du Maurier ever did, that of the small boy, the porter, and the grandfather’s clock, had itself almost repeated on Stuyvesant Square the other day.
In Du Maurier’s joke, the porter is staggering along under the weight of a huge grandfather’s clock which he had been employed to deliver. A small guttersnipe hails him.
“I say, mister,” he asks, “wouldn’t you find it more convenient to carry a watch?”
So Punch had it. The scene is now in Stuyvesant Square. A janitor is making small headway under the burden of a chiffonier, which he is carrying on his back. A boy on roller skates goes by.
“Say, bonehead,” he yells, “hire a room and then youse won’t have to pack your clo’es aroun’ wid youse!”

In 1914 the joke was again credited to the cartoonist George du Maurier. It was also grandly proclaimed the “world’s best joke”:[ref] 1914 March 6, Trenton Evening Times, “Du Maurier, Author of ‘Trilby’, Was Born in Paris 80 Years Ago Today”, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Trenton, New Jersey. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref] [ref] 1914 March 10, Mason City Globe Gazette, Best Joker a Frenchman, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Mason City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) (“Palmella” is incorrectly written as “Parmella” in the newspaper text) [/ref]

Not long ago a company of distinguished English literary men and women attempted to discover the world’s best joke, and, after a vote, they awarded the palm to Du Maurier’s sketch dealing with the urchin, the porter and the grand father’s clock. George Louis Palmella Busson Du Maurier, who was born in Paris eighty years ago today, is thus immortalized as the father of the supreme joke of the century, as well as the author of the celebrated “Trilby.”

In 1921 another version of the story was told in “The American Blacksmith”. A newlywed husband named Jack discovered that movers had left behind a family heirloom grandfather clock. He had to move it himself, and during his journey he encountered a “pre-Volstead man”. The Volstead Act was the key legislation implementing Prohibition in the U.S.:[ref] 1921 April, The American Blacksmith Auto & Tractor Shop, Volume 20, Number 7, High Spots, Quote Page 188, Column 1, American Blacksmith Company, Buffalo, New York.  (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

He stumbled along, the perspiration streaming from his face. He had to put down the clock and rest at frequent intervals. He had put it down for the tenth time when a pre-Volstead man came along. The latter wavered against the fence watched Jack mop his face, then sympathetically remarked:
“Shay, old scout, wouldn’t you find it easier to carry a watch?”

In 1928 a newspaper in Indiana printed this concise version of the jest:[ref] 1928 May 8, Linton Daily Citizen, A Big Timepiece, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Linton, Indiana (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

A man was carrying home a big hall clock on his shoulders when he met an intoxicated man, “Say, Mister, don’t you think it would be easier to carry a watch?”

In 1940 the Seattle Daily Times of Washington reported on a story told by the City Treasurer named Herbert L. Collier:[ref] 1940 September 26, Seattle Daily Times,  Strolling Around the Town, Quote Page 19, Column 2 and 3, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

“It reminded me of the man who was carrying a grandfather clock down the street to the repair shop,” said Collier, “and the intoxicated man across the street hollered:
‘Hey, mister, wouldn’t it be easier to carry a watch?'”

In 1945 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed a version of the joke in which a man carried a grandfather clock down a street:[ref] 1945 October, Reader’s Digest, Volume 47, Clock-Eyed, Contributed by Robert W. Ensley, Quote Page 88, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

As the clock limited his vision, he unintentionally collided with a woman, knocking her down. After collecting her composure and packages, the woman struggled to her feet and scathingly inquired: “Why don’t you carry a wrist watch like everybody else?” — Contributed by Robert W. Ensley

In 1946 a variant of the joke was presented in the syndicated comic strip “Mutt and Jeff”. In the first panel Mutt was shown carrying a recently purchased sundial on a pedestal, and Jeff asked what it was. In the second panel Jeff set down the sundial and explained its principles. Next Jeff resumed carrying the sundial:[ref] 1946 September 11, The News, Mutt and Jeff Syndicated Comic Strip, Quote Page 8, Frederick, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]

Jeff: My! — What will they be thinking up next?
Jeff: But what’s it for, Mutt?
Mutt: I just told you! It’s for telling the time of day!
Jeff: Wouldn’t it be easier to carry a watch?

In 1956 a biography of the prominent actor and theater manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree was released titled “Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter” by Hesketh Pearson. The quip was credited to Tree who died in 1917:[ref] 1971, Beerbohm Tree: His Life and Laughter by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 110, (Reprint of 1956 edition from Harper & Brothers, New York), Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. (Verified on paper) [/ref] [ref] 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Advice, Quote Page 24, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref] [ref] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category: Time, Quote Page 326, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

To a man who was staggering in the street under the weight of a grandfather clock: ‘My poor fellow, why not carry a watch?’

In 1960 a version of the story in which the large clock was carried by the baseball player Yogi Berra was recounted in a book by fellow player Joe Garagiola:[ref] 1960 September 2, Boston Globe, Globe Man’s Daily Story, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

One night at a banquet, New York Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra was presented with a big clock, relates Joe Garagiola in “Baseball Is a Funny Game”.
Later, when he left the restaurant, he was carrying the clock. A drunk bumped into him.
“‘Excuse me,’ Yogi said.
The drunk looked at him indignantly.
“‘Why can’t you wear a wrist watch like everybody else?’ he demanded.

In 1961 an autobiography of Yogi Berra was published, and he denied an alternative version of the story in which he supposedly delivered the humorous line:[ref] 1961, Yogi: The Autobiography of a Professional Baseball Player by Yogi Berra and Ed Fitzgerald, Quote Page 13, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Then there’s the story they told on television last year about me bumping into a guy who was carrying a great big grandfather clock, and when I bounced away from him, rubbing my shoulder, I complained, “For cryin’ out loud, why can’t you wear a wrist watch like everybody else?” I never said that, either. If I could think of funny things like that, I would be working for Bob Hope.

In 1969 an anecdote featuring Yogi continued to circulate. According to Washington state sportswriter Harry Missildine Yogi won a “Sportsman of the Year” award for the New York area and was given a large clock:[ref] 1969 February 19, Spokesman-Review, Twice Over Lightly by Harry Missildine: Time for a Retort, Page 14, Column 1, Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive) [/ref]

“When it was over, Yogi put his arms around the big grandfather clock and went out in the street, carrying it to his car. Along comes a drunk and walks into Yogi, who almost drops the clock.
“‘Why don’t you look where you’re goin’,’ Yogi says.
“‘Why don’t you wear a wrist watch like everyone else?’ says the drunk.”

In conclusion, the earliest evidence of this type of joke appeared in a cartoon by F. H. Townsend in Punch magazine in 1907. By 1913 an instance of the jest was credited to the cartoonist George du Maurier, but QI has not yet located direct evidence for this variant cartoon.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree was credited with a version of the gag in a biography in 1956. But Tree died in 1917 so this evidence is weak. Two versions of the comical anecdote featured Yogi Berra, but Yogi directly denied one version, and the evidence for the second version is weak.

Update history: On February 11, 2013 the citation to the 1971 reprint of the 1956 biography of Beerbohm Tree was added.

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