Mae West? Aristophanes? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Screenwriter and sex symbol Mae West is usually credited with the following ribald line:
Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
But I have seen many variations of this comical remark:
- Is that your pipe in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?
- Is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?
- Are you packin’ a rod or are you just glad to see me?
- Is that your sword or are you just glad to see me?
Can you determine which joke is the original and when it was spoken or written?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was in a 1958 book about a New York theatre producer titled “The Nine Lives of Michael Todd” by Art Cohn. In 1944 the play “Catherine Was Great” which was produced by Todd and starred Mae West opened on Broadway. Cohn stated that West improvised the humorous line of dialog when she was interacting with her fellow star Gene Barry: 1
Barry, playing Lieutenant Bunin, was unaccustomed to carrying a sword, and in the second act, during an embrace, his scabbard came between him and his Empress.
A covert smile stole over Mae’s face. “Lieutenant,” she ad-libbed with a Westian leer, “is that your sword or are you just glad to see me?”
There is some confusion about whether a version of this quip was used by Mae West in a movie during the 1930s or 1940s. Top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro writing in The Yale Book of Quotations states that the line was not used by West in her early films: 2
Often ascribed to West’s film She Done Him Wrong, but the line does not appear in that or any of her other pre-1967 movies.
West claimed in remarks published in the 1980s that she employed the saying in the 1930s while speaking with a policeman. In addition, West did utter the saying in the 1978 film Sextette which was based on a play she wrote. Details for these citations are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A precursor to this expression appeared in the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. The main character Lysistrata concocted a radical plan to end the Peloponnesian War. She persuaded her fellow women to refuse carnal encounters with their husbands until peace was achieved. Comedic scenarios hinged on the prolonged state of arousal of the male characters. In the following text a “skytale” was a baton-shaped tool used to read secret messages: 3
Magistrate Are you a man or a Priapus?
Herald (with an effort at officiousness) Don’t be stupid! I am a herald, of course, I swear I am, and I come from Sparta about making peace.
Magistrate (pointing) But look, you are hiding a lance under your clothes, surely.
Herald (embarrassed) No, nothing of the sort.
Magistrate Then why do you turn away like that, and hold your cloak out from your body? Have you got swellings in the groin from your journey?
Herald By the twin brethren! the man’s an old maniac.
Magistrate But you’ve got an erection! You lewd fellow!
Herald I tell you no! but enough of this foolery.
Magistrate (pointing) Well, what is it you have there then?
Herald A Lacedaemonian ‘skytale.’
Magistrate Oh, indeed, a ‘skytale,’ is it? Well, well, speak out frankly; I know all about these matters. How are things going at Sparta now?
In 1958 the following statement was attributed to Mae West in the book “The Nine Lives of Michael Todd” as mentioned previously. Boldface has been added to excerpts:
Lieutenant, is that your sword or are you just glad to see me?
In the 1961 mystery “I Was Going Anyway” by Robert Switzer a character visited an exotic dancer who employed a version of the saying. The key object was a pipe instead of a lance or a sword, and no attribution was given: 4
…had to wait for her to finish her strip act which was no hardship and when she was finished she disappeared briefly to put on a gown and then she came over and sat beside him and said, “Is that your pipe in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
In 1966 an instance of the saying was printed in “The Detective” by Roderick Thorp. The key object was a gun, and the words were credited to Mae West: 5
…she leaned her hips into him during a fox trot, with the natural result—reminding him at once of the Mae West line, “Is that your gun, officer, or are you just glad to see me?”
In 1967 the compilation “The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West” was published, and a version of the quip was included. No citation was given, and the words were placed next to other miscellaneous quotations credited to West: 6
Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
In 1968 the film critic Andrew Sarris published a book about American cinema and printed an instance of the joke which he credited to Mae West: 7
No movie audience shared a stage audience’s delight over such a provocative query as “Are you packin’ a rod or are you just glad to see me?”
In 1978 Mae West incontrovertibly delivered the joke herself in the movie Sextette. She was speaking to the actor George Hamilton who played an armed gangster: 8
Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?
In 1982 a story in the Boston Globe described a radio DJ who employed an odd version in which the key object was a pencil: 9
Laquidara starts three songs on the wrong speed. He interrupts a commercial featuring Arnold Palmer and says on the air, “Arnold, is that a pencil in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
In 1983 the London periodical “Films and Filming” printed remarks from Mae West that were gathered before she died in 1980. West stated that in the 1930s she was given flowers and kissed by a policeman who was part of a group welcoming her when she returned to Hollywood. She then spoke a version of the now famous saying to the policeman: 10 11
“They were dressed nice; suits; ties; and the big one, the good-looking one had a bunch of flowers in his hand. ‘These are from the fellas down at the station’. Then he leant down and kissed me and said, ‘And that’s from me. It’s good to have you back with us Mae’. And I said ‘Oh yeah, and is that a gun you got in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?'”.
In 1989 an article in a Watertown, New York newspaper discussed messages on bumper stickers. Only the first half of the quip was described before the writer interrupted with a response from a fictitious commentator named Pop: 12
Is That A Banana in Your Pocket…
“Say no more,” Pop interjected. “That’s the work of a Mae West plagiarist.” Pop is prudish at times.
In conclusion, QI believes that this family of jokes originated with Mae West. Indeed, QI has found no support for rival claimants. The earliest published evidence appeared in 1958. Mae West claimed that she used the expression in the 1930s though this assertion was published decades afterwards in the 1980s. The 1958 book claimed that West employed an instance of the quip in 1944 during the performance of a play.
(Many thanks to top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik who explored this saying and located several important citations. His entry on this topic is here. Great thanks to Dennis Lien for obtaining scans of citations. Also, special thanks my local librarians in Florida for assistance. In addition, thanks to the discussion participants on the ADS mailing list.)
Image Notes: Mae West news photo in public domain accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Bananas image from Nemo at Pixabay. Pipe image from OpenClips at Pixabay.
Update History: On February 16, 2015 the 1983 citation was updated with additional text and a bibliographic note about verification. Also, the header image was updated.
- 1958, The Nine Lives of Michael Todd by Art Cohn, Quote Page 193, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Mae West, Page 809, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1996, The Classical Greek Reader, Edited by Kenneth J. Atchity, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Start Page 171, Quote Page 173 and 174, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1961, I Was Going Anyway by Robert Switzer, (Cock Robin Mystery), Quote Page 39, Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans; Great thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) ↩
- 1966, The Detective by Roderick Thorp, Quote Page 59, The Dial Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1967, The Wit and Wisdom of Mae West, Edited by Joseph Weintraub, Quote Page 59, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 by Andrew Sarris, Section: Mae West, Quote Page 248, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1978, Movie: Sextette, Total run time: 1 hour 28 minutes, Quote spoken by Mae West (Marlo Manners) to George Hamilton (Vance Norton), Location within movie: 24 minutes remaining, Video seen on Hulu streaming video service. (Accessed hulu.com on August 19, 2013) link ↩
- 1982 September 17, Boston Globe, Split Personality on the Radio by Mike Wilson (Contributing Reporter), (FIRST Edition), Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1983 September, Films and Filming, “Mae West” by John Kobal, Start Page 21, Quote Page 22, Hansom Books, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to local library and interlibrary loan) ↩
- 2009, “I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech” by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 235, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1989 June 25, Watertown Daily Times, Section: Lifestyles and Leisure, Honk If You Like Bumper Stickers: Sunday Morning, by John Golden (Times Staff Writer), Quote Page C1, Watertown, New York. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩