Humorist: Red Skelton? George Jessel? Goodman Ace? Groucho Marx? Bert Lahr? James Bacon?
Dear Quote Investigator: A show business platitude states that success at the box office is achievable by simply giving the people what they want.
A harsh comical anecdote about a funeral reinterpreted this saying. The memorial service of a powerful and disliked movie mogul was surprisingly well attended. One ambivalent mourner asked another to explain the existence of the large crowd of attendees. The acerbic response was:
Give the public what they want, and they’ll come to see it.
Would you please explore this tale? What was the name of the movie potentate who had died? Who was telling the joke?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in “The Washington Post” in 1941. A columnist relayed a quip made by the popular actor and comedian George Jessel: 1
And there was George Jessel’s box-office-ish remark about a funeral which was drawing enormous crowds of people into a church door as he passed—”Well, there you are, you see,” said Jessel. “Give ’em what they want.”
The text above was located by top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake. Jessel was presenting a joke, and he was not actually attending a funeral. The adage was recognizable to readers even when it was truncated. The memorialized individual was nameless in the quip.
In later years this comical remark was linked to other wits such as Red Skelton, Goodman Ace, and Groucho Marx. In addition, the barb was precisely aimed at the prominent movie producers Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In August 1955 the humorist and radio scriptwriter Goodman Ace mentioned the joke in his column in “The Saturday Review”. Ace credited George Jessel and stated that the funeral was for a “celebrity” though no specific name was given. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
They tell the story of George Jessel’s once passing a funeral home where a celebrity lay in state and the crowd waiting to file by for a last glimpse was four-deep.
“You see,” said the veteran showman, “you give the people what they want and they’ll come.”
Two weeks after Ace’s article appeared the joke was reprinted in “The Chicago Defender” newspaper of Chicago, Illinois. The writer acknowledged Goodman Ace and “The Saturday Review”. In addition, the ascription to Jessel was included. 3
Also in 1955 Goodman Ace released a book about television that included an instance of the jest. A newspaper book reviewer in Binghamton, New York presented the context: 4
Speaking of Goodman Ace, he has written a book entitled “The Book of Little Knowledge,” subtitled, “More Than You Want to Know About Television.” He is hard put to find a description for The $64,000 Question, but he finally makes out with an analogy. The Tuesday night TV giveaway show reminds him, he says, of the time a celebrity died and his body lay in state.
People waited four abreast, circling a city block, to get into the funeral home to see the departed celebrity, and George Jessel murmured: “You see, you give the people what they want, and they’ll come.”
Ace’s book was also reviewed in the “The Chicago Tribune” by the popular columnist Larry Wolters, and the same passage was highlighted. Hence, the joke with an ascription to Jessel was further disseminated. 5
In 1957 a columnist in the “Los Angeles Times” presented an elaborate version of the anecdote which he asserted was currently popular in Hollywood. The funeral was for an unnamed “real nogoodnik” who was loathed by everyone including family members. The article was not about Louis B. Mayer because it was published on October 28th and Mayer died on October 29th. The ellipsis below was in the original text: 6
Practically everyone he hired quit after a week in his office. The day he died a couple of employees who had stuck it out two weeks were discussing the funeral arrangements. They wondered who except the gravediggers would show up. Out of curiosity, they drove to the cemetery a couple of days later. More than 500 people clustered at the graveside. The two men looked at one another in amazement. “Oh, well,” said one, a producer, “it’s the same old story—give the public what they want …”
In 1958 the prominent theater critic Kenneth Tynan writing in the London newspaper “The Observer” ascribed an instance of the joke to the well-known funnyman Groucho Marx: 7
But that reminds me of Groucho Marx’s comment when 3,000 people turned up at the funeral of a commercially successful but universally detested Hollywood mogul. “You see what I mean?” he said. “Give the public what they want, and they’ll come to see it.”
In 1961 the joke appeared in the compilation “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor” by Jacob M. Braude. This was the first linkage seen by QI of the anecdote to the funeral of powerful studio chief Louis B. Mayer who had died in 1957: 8
Two Hollywood producers were present at the huge funeral gathering at Louis B. Mayer’s burial. One of them asked the other if he had ever seen so many people. The other nodded, “That’s what I’m always telling you. If you give the people what they want, they’ll go.”
In 1963 “LIFE” magazine printed a piece by the novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and he linked the quip to the funeral of movie mogul Harry Cohn who had died in 1958. The ellipsis below was in the original text: 9
Yes, deader than Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia Studios like a concentration camp and whose final rites, conducted on a sound stage and playing to a full house, inspired the classic obituary, “You see, when you give the people what they want …”
In 1965 television talk show host Jack Paar included the remark in his memoir “Three on a Toothbrush”: 10
Seeing this huge throng, day after day, waiting to gaze on the bodies of Lenin and Stalin, I was reminded of the line said when a huge crowd turned out for the funeral of a much-hated Hollywood tycoon: “Give the public what they want and they’ll come.”
In 1967 a biography of Harry Cohn titled “King Cohn” by Bob Thomas was released, and it included an instance of the saying. The book review in “The Chicago Tribune” reprinted the quip together with the assertion that the comedian Red Skelton spoke it during a TV broadcast shortly after Cohn’s funeral in 1958: 11
Nearly all Hollywood turned out for the memorial services, causing Red Skelton to remark on television a few nights later: “It only proves what they always say—give the public something they want to see, and they’ll come out for it.” It may sound cruel, but such are the emotions Harry Cohn inspired in the motion picture community. No one did more to promote his image as an ogre than Harry Cohn himself.
In 1969 “Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr” was published by the actor’s son John Lahr. A passage about Louis B. Mayer’s funeral included two humorous remarks. One saying attributed to Samuel Goldwyn will be explored by QI in a separate entry. The other saying was an instance of the expression under investigation, and the words were attributed to Bert Lahr. The book lists the year 1956; however, Mayer actually died in 1957: 12 13
Explaining why so many people had come to the funeral in 1956, Samuel Goldwyn, who knew the bitter in-fighting, quipped, “The reason so many people turned up for his funeral is that they wanted to make sure he was dead.” Lahr, a victim of Mayer’s philosophy of entertainment, said, “If you want a full house, you give the public what it wants.”
In 1976 “Hollywood is a Four Letter Town” by James Bacon was published, and the author asserted that he had delivered the comical line after the funeral of Harry Cohn while speaking with producer Jerry Wald: 14
Years ago, when Harry Cohn, the tyrannical boss of Columbia Pictures, died, he had one of the biggest funerals in Hollywood history. I left the funeral with Producer Jerry Wald, who commented on the huge turnout. I said, not with any pride—because I liked Harry: “You give the public what it wants, and it will show up.”
The next day the line was in a Hollywood trade paper column, with Wald saying it. A couple of nights later, Red Skelton had picked it up and used it on his TV show. Today Skelton is generally credited with the line. It just proves a point—that every joke is in the public domain.
In conclusion, QI suggests that George Jessel should be credited with this quip. The joke may have been retold when Harry Cohn died and when Louis B. Mayer died, but the remark was already in circulation.
Image Notes: Cropped image of the 1899 oil painting “Funeral” by the artist Andre Derain via wikiart.org. Cropped image of George Jessel from the movie “Stage Door Canteen” via Wikimedia Commons.
(Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for her crucial research on this topic. Great thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the 1958 citation in The Observer. Many thanks to John Markham who notified QI that a previous version of this article contained some text in which the first and last names of Goodman Ace were reversed.)
Update History: On November 9, 2016 some incorrectly ordered instances of “Ace Goodman” were changed to the “Goodman Ace”.
- 1942 March 8, Washington Post, Strictly Screwball by Katharine Brush, Quote Page L1, Column 3 and 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955 August 13, The Saturday Review, TV and Radio: The $64,00 Answer by Goodman Ace, Start Page 23, Quote Page 23, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 27 Aug 1955 August 27, The Chicago Defender, DOPE and DATA by Louis E. Martin, Quote Page 9, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1955 October 25, Binghamton Press, As We See It, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Binghamton, New York. (The original page image displayed the spelling “murmered” for “murmured”) (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1955 October 23, Chicago Daily Tribune, His Life’s No Bed of Neuroses by Larry Wolters, Start Page B6, Quote Page B7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1957 October 28, Los Angeles Times, CITYSIDE with Gene Sherman, Quote Page 2, Column 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 May 11, The Observer, At The Theatre: Musing Out Loud by Kenneth Tynan, Quote Page 15, Column 2, London, UK. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1961, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor, Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Salesmanship, Quote Page 211, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1963 December 20, LIFE, Volume 55, Number 25, How Are Things in Panicsville? by Budd Schulberg, Start Page 79, Quote Page 82, Column 3, Published by Time-Life, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1965, Three on a Toothbrush by Jack Paar, Quote Page 12, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1967 March 12, Chicago Tribune, Promoting the image of an ogre by Wayne Warga, (Book Review of “King Cohn” by Bob Thomas), Quote Page K10, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr by John Lahr, Chapter: Other Edens, Quote Page 182, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 198, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1976, Hollywood is a Four Letter Town by James Bacon, Quote Page 44, Publisher Henry Regnery, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩