Lily Tomlin? Jackie Gleason? Bill Cunningham? William Sloane Coffin? Russell Baker? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quip about the competitive daily grind of the working world. Here are two versions:
1) Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat
2) So you’ve won the rat race. You’re still a rat.
The influential comedian Lily Tomlin employed a version of this joke. Would you please explore its origin?
Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Lily Tomlin used this gag by the 1970s, and a citation is given further below. Yet, the earliest appearance known to QI occurred in a book about the life of another famous comedian.
In 1956 “The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason” by Jim Bishop was published. Gleason wrote a letter to his estranged wife Genevieve that was reprinted in the volume. He used a version of the witticism particularized to the television broadcasting industry. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Television is a rat race, and remember this, even if you win you are still a rat.
In August 1956 a sports columnist named Bill Cunningham writing in “The Boston Herald” employed an instance of the joke, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he credited an anonymous “fellow”. The topic of the column was the perennial baseball conflict between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees: 2
It’s still a job lot pitching staff—like the fellow said, “You can win the rat race, but you’re still a rat”—but, oooooh, that Yankee hitting, especially in the clutch!
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the two citations above and other valuable citations. 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In April 1965 “Life” magazine published an opinion piece by William Sloane Coffin Jr. who was the chaplain of Yale University and an energetic political activist. Coffin employed the saying, but he suggested that the phrase was something an archetypal questioning student of the 1960s would say: 4
To many of these students, their parents’ lives look pretty meaningless. “My old man’s in a rat race. And even if you win a rat race, you’re still a rat.”
In May 1965 the widely-syndicated humor columnist Russell Baker constructed a satiric scenario in which the children of Mr. and Mrs. Jasper rejected the life of compromise and sacrifice lived by their parents: 5
One of the sons, interviewed by Fortune magazine, said that be wanted a better world than his father offered because Jasper’s world was just a rat race, and even if you win a rat race, you’re still a rat. Mrs. Jasper tried to comfort her husband when she read it, but Jasper knew his duty. “I’d better take on another ulcer and increase my life insurance.” he said.
“If the boy won’t run the rat race,” he said, “it’s up to me to see that his kids are provided for.”
In 1968 a minister in a Presbyterian church used the expression in a newspaper column. Once again the writer placed the words into the mouth of an unhappy young person: 6
Too many parents today have no idea where their children are or what they are doing. When a successful business executive insisted that he had labored incessantly to provide for his family, his son responded, “Well, you’ve won the rat race, but you’re still a rat.”
In 1971 “Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing” was published, and an instance of the joke was included in the compilation as a graffito: 7
Remember, even if you win the rat race—you’re still a rat.
In 1977 “People” magazine printed a profile of the popular comedian Lily Tomlin who had a very busy schedule of engagements. The journalist noted that Tomlin was using the quip: 8
. . . she’s bringing her one-woman show home to the West Coast. It is a frantic schedule, yet Lily seems in no danger of losing her perspective. “The trouble with the rat race,” she likes to say, “is that even if you win you’re still a rat.”
In 1995 top quotation expert Nigel Rees contacted Coffin to ask him about the origin of the expression in the form: “Even if you win the rat-race, you’re still a rat”. Rees shared the response in the 2001 edition of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”: 9
When consulted at his home in Vermont (July 1995), the Revd Coffin said that to the best of his knowledge he did originate this statement in the above form. He thought up the quip ‘in the 1950s or 1960s’ when he was chaplain either at Williams College or at Yale University. He added the caveat that he originated the statement ‘as far as I know.’
In conclusion, this quip was in circulation by 1956. The television star Jackie Gleason used an instance in private correspondence, but it was not clear whether he used it in a comedy routine during the 1950s. The sports columnist Bill Cunningham placed it in an article, but he disclaimed credit. William Sloane Coffin thought he may have coined it, but the currently known evidence for this possibility is weak. Russell Baker, Lily Tomlin, and others used the jest after it had been disseminated. Tomlin was an important vector for its popularization.
Image Notes: Photograph of Lily Tomlin described as “1970 Laugh-In publicity shot”. Clipart composite image illustrating the rat race from Author: KVDP, Shokunin, Aungkarns. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Publicity photograph of Jackie Gleason in the film “The Hustler”. Images obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped.
- 1956, The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason by Jim Bishop, (Undated letter from Jackie Gleason to Gen (Genevieve, estranged wife Gleason)), Quote Page 258, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956 August 11, Boston Herald, Section: Sports, Bill Taking Off for Conventions: Leaves Sox, But He Saw Them Hit Second Place by Bill Cunningham, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat”, Date on website: November 05, 2012, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on October 1, 2014) link ↩
- 1965 April 30, LIFE, Volume 58, Number 17, “Don’t tell them to play it safe” by William Sloane Coffin Jr., Published by Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1965 May 4, Boston Herald, The Observer: No. 1 Unsung American Underdog by Russell Baker, Quote Page 25, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1968 October 6, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Parents Have Not Demonstrated Their Values by Harold Blake Walker (Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Evanston, Illinois), Quote Page 18A, Column 3, Corpus Christi, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1971, Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing by Robert Reisner, Quote Page 179, Cowles Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1977 December 26, People, Volume 8, Number 26, Lily Tomlin: ‘Is This the Country to Whom I’m Speaking?’, Time Inc., New York. (Online digital archive for People magazine) ↩
- 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Rats, Quote Page 167, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩