Sam Levenson? Oscar Levant? W. C. Fields? Helen Gorn Sutin? Dave Berg? Ann Landers? Erma Bombeck? Grace Kelly?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many parents concur with a very funny quip that reverses the traditional notion of inheritance:
Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids.
This joke has been attributed to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck, the television host Sam Levenson, and the comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please resolve this ambiguity?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published on April 6, 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper within a column containing a miscellaneous set of short comical items. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children.
During the same time period, the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the jest with an identical attribution: 2
Sam Levenson’s merciless truth: “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children!”
During the following years: Oscar Levant employed the joke; Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck placed it in their respective newspaper columns; and Grace Kelly used a variant quip. Nevertheless, QI believes that Sam Levenson should receive credit for this witticism.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On April 19, 1961 “The Times-Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana printed a version without an attribution that used the word “kids” instead of “children”: 3
PARTING SHOT—Insanity, we have been told, can be hereditary–you can get it from your kids.
In 1963 the prominent San Francisco columnist Herb Caen reported on the antics of the pianist-comedian Oscar Levant: 4
Oscar Levant was indeed in good form the other night. Concerning his physical prowess: “I just stumble around till I fall into a coma.” On family relationships: “Insanity is hereditary — we catch it from our children.”
In 1965 an instance was used without attribution in the syndicated feature “Today’s Chuckle”: 5
It has been established that insanity is hereditary, Parents get it from children.
In 1967 “The Rotarian” printed a variant joke about hair color in the form of a four line poem. These were the final two lines: 6
Our gray hair is hereditary:
We get it from our kids!
— Helen Gorn Sutin
In 1968 the cartoonist Dave Berg used a version of the jest about hair in a four panel cartoon in “Mad” magazine. In the first two panels a father complained about the behavior of his two children, and in the final two panels the following words were spoken: 7
Father: Between the both of you, my hair turned gray!
Son: Aw, come off it, Dad! You said yourself that gray hair was hereditary!
Father: It IS!! I got it from my CHILDREN!!
Also in 1968 a columnist in a Tucson, Arizona newspaper assigned the joke about insanity to the film star and comedian W. C. Fields, but QI has found no substantive support for this linkage: 8
Here’s an old W. C. Fields goodie that we’d not heard before:
“Of course, insanity is hereditary — you get it from your kids. . .”
The connection to Levenson was not forgotten, and in 1969 a puzzle feature called Cryptoquote gave credit to the humorist: 9
Yesterday’s Cryptoquote: INSANITY IS HEREDITARY: YOU CAN GET IT FROM YOUR CHILDREN.—SAM LEVENSON
In 1973 a memoir titled “In One Era and Out the Other” by Sam Levenson was published, and he described giving speeches at luncheons. The following line was part of an introduction for one of his talks: 10
“Mr. Levenson’s subject for today is: ‘Insanity is hereditary; you can get it from your children.'”
In 1978 the influential advice columnist Ann Landers was sent a collection of adages dubbed “Laws”, and she decided to print them. One law was implausible ascribed to Landers, herself: 11
Lippmann’s Law: When all think alike, no one is thinking — very much. — Walter Lippmann.
Landers’ Law: Insanity is hereditary — you can get it from your children. — Ann Landers.
In 1980 the popular columnist Erma Bombeck printed an instance, but she did not take credit; instead, she stated that she saw the line on a bumper sticker: 12
Like some bumper stickers aren’t funny, you know?
Like, “Insanity Is Hereditary. You Can Get It From Your Children.” You’ve all seen that one, right?
In 1981 “People” magazine published a short item about Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly Rainier) and her headstrong children. The hair color joke was included: 13
Fortunately, mother Grace, 52, hasn’t lost her sense of humor. “Premature graying of the hair,” she says, “is hereditary. Parents inherit it from their children.”
In conclusion, the quip was ascribed to Sam Levenson by April 1961. He also included it in his 1973 memoir, and QI believes he probably crafted it. Oscar Levant employed the jest by 1963, but it was already circulating. In the following years others helped to popularize the line.
Image Notes: Simplified diagram based on a Wikimedia Commons diagram for “X dominant affected father”. Publicity photo of Sam Levenson. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.
Update History: On September 12, 2015 the citations in “The Rotarian” of 1967 and the “Mad” magazine of 1968 were added.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Ralph Keyes who pointed to the Princess Grace quotation in “The Quote Verifier”. Thanks to Regina Lusca who remarked that the gray hair joke appeared in “Mad” magazine in the 1960s which prompted QI to find an instance in “The Rotarian” in 1967. Special thanks to Ben Zimmer who located the 1968 cartoon in “Mad” magazine.)
- 1961 April 6, The Ada Weekly News, Strayed From the Heard by Connie Nelson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ada, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1961 April 7, San Diego Union, Walter Winchell’s America, Quote Page A16, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1961 April 19, Times-Picayune, Section 2, Behind the Sports Scene by Bob Roesler, Quote Page 8, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1963 March 15, Houston Chronicle, Section 2, Oscar Levant Tells His View on Insanity by Herb Caen, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Houston, Texas. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1965 March 3, Traverse City Record-Eagle, Today’s Chuckle, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Traverse City, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1967 September, The Rotarian, Stripped Gears, Poem: Words Of Comfort To The Troubled, Quote Page 51, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1968 October, Mad (Magazine), Number 122, The Lighter Side of Hair by Dave Berg (Four panel cartoon), Quote Page 37, E.C. Pub, New York. (Page scans in DVD archive; verified by Ben Zimmer) ↩
- 1968 October 18, Tucson Daily Citizen, West Comes Alive At Tombstone by Don Schellie, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969 July 15, Evening Herald, Cryptoquote (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 6, Column 8, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1973 Copyright, In One Era and Out the Other by Sam Levenson, Quote Page 21, Pocket Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (First Simon and Schuster edition published in 1973; Pocket Book edition published in November 1974) (Verified with scans of Pocket Book edition) ↩
- 1978 March 26, The Sun Telegram (The San Bernardino County Sun), Everyone obeys this letter of the laws by Ann Landers, Quote Page C2, Column 1, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1980 January 29, The Daily Pantagraph, At Wit’s End: Erma’s kids carriers of creeping clichés by Erma Bombeck, Quote Page A9, Column 4, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1981 November 23, People, Volume 16 Number 21, Chatter, Times Inc. (Online archive of People magazine at people.com; accessed September 10, 2015) link ↩