What Did Groucho Marx Do When Someone Switched On a Television?

Groucho Marx? Apocryphal?

grouchobook01Dear Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx became famous on Broadway before moving on to starring roles in Hollywood. His comical skills and adaptability also allowed him to master radio and television. Yet, reportedly one of his sharpest remarks playfully disparaged TV:

I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on, I go into the other room and read a book.

I have been unable to confirm this quotation with a solid source. Would you please tell me if these were the words of Groucho?

Quote Investigator: Two distinct versions of this remark appeared in 1950. One version was included in a short essay written by Groucho Marx for the periodical “Tele-Views” which was similar to “TV Guide”. The main purpose of the article was to convince readers to tune in to a new television program to be hosted by Groucho commencing October 1950. The program was a televised adaption of the comedian’s already popular radio quiz show “You Bet Your Life”. The piece “King Leer” was reprinted in the collection “The Essential Groucho: Writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx”: 1

I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.

That’s a pretty cynical attitude for “the leer”—that’s me, Groucho—and now that I’m a part of television, or “TV” as we say out here on the Coast, I don’t mean a word of it.

The text ended with the following suggestion:

All I can say is this: Walk, don’t run, to your nearest television set in October, tune to KNBH, and join us for our first TV session of You Bet Your Life. I think you’ll like it.

QI has not yet identified the precise issue of “Tele-Views” that contained the essay though the final sentence above clearly indicated that it ran sometime shortly before October 1950. In addition, the book “Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales” asserted that the piece ran in September: 2

A September 1950 piece called “King Leer” appeared in television listings around the country to promote the impending debut of the television version of “You Bet Your Life.”

The second version of the quotation was published in the August 1950 issue of the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” as a freestanding short item: 3

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book. —Groucho Marx

It is possible that the editors of “Reader’s Digest” had access to a draft of Groucho’s essay in advance, or they may have been sent the quote by a publicist.

Interestingly, the common modern wording of the quotation combined elements of the two early versions above from 1950. Version one used “educational”, and version two used “educating”. Version one referred to “the library”, and version two referred to “the other room”. The modern instance used “educational” and “the other room”.

QI believes that the first version which was written by Groucho has the most support and should be given preference.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On August 3, 1950 the “Christian Science Monitor” printed an instance of the expression and acknowledged the “Reader’s Digest”. Magazines such as “Reader’s Digest” were usually available for part of the month before the date specified on the cover: 4

Marx on TV

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.—Groucho Marx in Reader’s Digest.

On September 14, 1950 “The Patriot and Free Press” of Cuba, New York printed an instance that matched the version in “Reader’s Digest” while acknowledging the periodical. 5

In November 1950 a book reviewer in the “Washington Post” printed the quip: 6

SELDES’ LOW OPINION of television (so far) is reminiscent of a recent wisecrack by Groucho Marx: “I find television very educating. Everytime somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.”

Groucho’s reaction seems to be far from typical.

Also in November 1950 the publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf included an instance of quotation in his weekly column in “The Saturday Review”. Cerf asserted that Groucho made the comical remark to Kenneth McCormick who was a book editor at Doubleday & Co: 7

Groucho Marx told Ken McCormick, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.”

In January 1951 the columnist Larry Wolters reviewed a book about television, and he included another version of the joke ascribed to Groucho. This instance used the word “educational” and the phrase “into another room”: 8

Groucho Marx recently observed: “Television is very educational. Every time someone turns on the set, I go into another room and read a book.”

In March 1951 Larry Wolters revisited the quotation in his syndicated column. He presented a slightly different wording with the phrase “the other room”: 9

Groucho Marx reports that television is very educational: Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.

In 1958 the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor” was released, and the editors reiterated the version printed in their magazine issue of August 1950: 10

“I find television very educating,” says Groucho, “Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.

In 2000 “The Essential Groucho” was published and it included a reprint of Groucho’s 1950 piece “King Leer” which included the quip. In 2003 “King Leer” was also reprinted in the compilation “A Patriot’s Handbook” selected by Caroline Kennedy. The note on permission mentioned the Estate of Groucho Marx and indicated that the text was from “The Essential Groucho”. 11

In conclusion, this quip should be credited to Groucho Marx, but there are multiple versions. QI believes that the instance written by Groucho in “King Leer” has the most transparent provenance. The origin of the attributed version in the “Reader’s Digest” is less certain though that version may have appeared earlier. Perhaps it was relayed to the periodical by Ken McCormick. Other versions are composite statements. Of course, it is possible that Groucho used more than one version.

Image Notes: Books and television from OpenClips at Pixabay. Promotional postcard for “You Bet Your Life” from Wikimedia Commons. This postcard image is in the public domain.

(Great thanks to writer Michael Harris whose email query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to PW members Kathy Harper and Anne Tomlin for their comments. Special thanks to Donna Halper for locating the November 1950 cite in “The Saturday Review”.)

Update History: On February 11, 2014 the November 1950 cite in “The Saturday Review” was added.

Notes:

  1. 2000, The Essential Groucho: Writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx, Selected and edited by Stefan Kanfer, (“King Leer” by Groucho Marx; reprinted from “Tele-Views”; the precise date of appearance is not given), Start Page 207, Quote Page 207, A Vintage Original: Vintage Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1993, Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx, Edited by Robert S. Bader, Section: Introduction, (Introduction by Robert S. Bader is dated April 1993), Quote Page xxix, Faber and Faber, New York. (Verified with images of 1999 paperback reprint edition of 1993 first edition) (Amazon Look Inside)
  3. 1950 August, Reader’s Digest, Volume 57, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 80, The Reader’s Digest Association.(Verified on paper)
  4. 1950 August 3, Christian Science Monitor, In Lighter Vein: Marx on TV, Quote Page 17, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  5. 1950 September 14, The Patriot and Free Press, Marx on TV, Quote Page 2, Column 8, Cuba, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1950 November 5, Washington Post, Seldes is Disillusioned: On Improving the Popular ‘Arts’ by Sterling North, (Book Review of “The Great Audience” by Gilbert Seldes), Quote Page B7, Washington, D.C. (In the original image the typo “Groucho Mark” appeared instead of “Groucho Marx”)(ProQuest)
  7. 1950 November 25, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  8. 1951 January 28, Chicago Daily Tribune, Part 4, Page Title: Magazine of Books, It’s Planned Confusion at TV Station by Larry Wolters, (Book Review of “Tessie, The Hound of Channel One” by Shepherd Mead), Quote Page H6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  9. 1951 March 4, Chicago Daily Tribune, Radio-TV Gag Bag: Culled by Larry Wolters, Quote Page B10, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  10. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, “This Is Groucho…”, Start Page 455, Quote Page 456, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2003, A Patriot’s Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories, and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love, Selected and Introduced by Caroline Kennedy, “King Leer” by Groucho Marx, Start Page 540, Quote Page 540, (Permission Note on Page 652), Hyperion Books, New York. (Verified on paper)