Humor Can Be Dissected, as a Frog Can, But the Thing Dies in the Process

Mark Twain? E. B. White? Katharine S. White? André Maurois? Marty Feldman?

frog07Dear Quote Investigator: A cogent simile about the cerebral examination of humor has been attributed to three clever individuals: humorist Mark Twain, children’s author E. B. White, and French author André Maurois. Here are four versions:

Analyzing humor is a bit like dissecting a frog: You learn how it works but you end up with a dead frog.

Studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You might learn a lot about it, but you wind up with a dead frog.

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.

Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.

Would you please explore this saying and determine who should receive credit?

Dear Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this amphibian simile. Citations show that both E. B. White and André Maurois did use this striking analogy, but the data indicated that E. B. White together with his wife Katharine S. White were the likely originators:

In October 1941 the Whites published an essay in “The Saturday Review of Literature” 1 that included the figurative language. The same text was also used in the preface of an influential 1941 collection titled “A Subtreasury of American Humor” 2 edited by the Whites. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1960 the popular syndicated gossip columnist Leonard Lyons reported on a visit by the prominent French author André Maurois to New York. During a talk delivered at a culture center Maurois employed the simile: 4

Andre Maurois, the French author, spoke last week at La Maison Francaise, NYU’s French cultural center. His subject was “French Wit and American Humor.” He began by stating that analyzing wit and humor is like dissecting a frog: “When you take it apart, you find out what it’s made up of, but unfortunately the subject is killed in the process.”

In 1967 columnist Lyons revisited the bon mot of Maurois. Lyons presented a slightly different self-contained version of the quotation using a tighter phrasing: 5

Andre Maurois, who wrote his masterwork at 80, always kept two dictionaries at his apartment, in his villa and in his traveling bag. He explained: “I’ve heard of a man misplacing one dictionary but never two.”

He said: “Analyzing wit is like dissecting a frog: when you take it apart you find out what it’s made of, but the subject is killed in the process.”

In 1976 a journalist at the “The New York Times” wrote a profile of English comedian Marty Feldman. When asked to explain his popularity Feldman balked and mentioned the frog analogy: 6

Would he care to define his novel appeal? “I hate descriptions and definitions. It’s like dissecting a frog. You can learn the parts and label them, but you kill the frog in the process. I suppose if I had to describe myself, I’d say I look like Dada on legs.”

In March 1985 a version of the joke was assigned to Mark Twain in the pages of “The Sacramento Bee” of Sacramento, California: 7

Mark Twain once observed that analyzing humor is a bit like dissecting a frog: You learn how it works but you end up with a dead frog.

The connection to E. B. White was not forgotten. In October 1985 a journalist at “The San Francisco Chronicle” ascribed a version of the saying to White though the phrasing was different: 8

E. B. White of The New Yorker advised writers: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested. And the frog dies of it.”

In 1987 “The Los Angeles Times” printed a UPI article with an epigraph that attributed an instance of the joke to Twain: 9

Studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You might learn a lot about it, but you end up with a dead frog. —Mark Twain

In 2013 a staff book reviewer at “Publishers Weekly” assigned another instance to Twain: 10

He examines many forms of conventional humor and why they are successful, and encourages readers to start pursuing comedy writing. However, to quote Mark Twain, “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.”

In conclusion, QI believes that E. B. White and Katharine S. White should be credited with the words they wrote together in 1941. QI hypothesizes that the other later statements using the frog simile were derived directly or indirectly from the 1941 text. André Maurois and Marty Feldman helped to disseminate the saying, but neither was the originator. The linkage to Twain appears to be spurious.

Image Notes: Tree frog from tpsdave at Pixabay. Smileys from OpenClips at Pixabay.

Update History: On November 9, 2014 the citation for “A Subtreasury of American Humor” was updated after the book accessed and examined.

(Great thanks to K who was suspicious of the Twain ascriptions and whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1941 October 18, The Saturday Review of Literature, The Preaching Humorist by E. B. White and Katharine S. White, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Published by The Saturday Review Company, Inc., New York. (Unz)
  2. 1941, A Subtreasury of American Humor, Edited by E. B. White and Katharine S. White, Section: Preface, Quote Page xvii, Coward-McCann, New York. (The text in this Preface differed slightly from the text in The Saturday Review of Literature; the Preface had “pure” instead of “purely”) (Verified on paper)
  3. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section Humor, Quote Page 139, Column 2 McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1960 December 7, Lawrence Daily Journal-World, The Lyons Den: Analyzing Humor Like Cutting A Frog—Dissect It, It’s Dead by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lawrence, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1967 October 16, Cedar Rapids Gazette, On Broadway by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 20, Column 2, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1976 July 23, New York Times, At the Movies: Marty Feldman Casts A Glance at Life, Hollywood and Himself by Guy Flatley, Quote Page 47, Column 1 and 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1985 March 29, Sacramento Bee, Good Humor Is Good Business by David Carpenter (Bee Staff Writer), Quote Page AA1, Sacramento, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 1985, October 25 1985, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Best of Storytellers by Stanton Delaplane, Quote Page 71, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. 1987 December 20, Los Angeles Times, Humor Is Serious Business to Those Who Want to Know What Tickles Us, (UPI News Service), (Quote is used as an epigraph for article), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  10. 2013 October 14, Publishers Weekly, Volume 260, Issue 41, Nonfiction Reviews, (Book Review by Staff of “The Joke’s on You: How to Write Comedy” by Stephen Hoover), Place of publication: New York, Copyright: PWxyz, LLC. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM)