Samuel Goldwyn? William Cox? Cumberland’s Comedies? Mack Sennett? Johnny Grey? Christie Comedies? Abe Stern? Carl Laemmle? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A Hollywood movie producer had achieved great fame with opulent historical dramas. His company also released financially lucrative comedies which were embraced by audiences but lambasted by critics. While attending a lavish party the producer overheard a negative comment about the humor in his films, and he proclaimed loudly:
Our comedies are not to be laughed at.
He was confused by the uproarious laughter that greeted his remark. Samuel Goldwyn is usually identified as the perplexed speaker in this anecdote. Would you please examine the history of this inadvertent oxymoron-like jest?
Quote Investigator: This joke was assigned to Samuel Goldwyn by 1937, but it began to circulate more than one hundred years before that date.
The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the “New-York Mirror” in 1829 within a theatre profile written by a drama critic named William Cox. The profile by Cox discussed a popular performer named Mr. Richings. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
As a vocalist Mr. Richings is rather distinguished by force than sweetness; and as a comedian, many of his efforts, like Cumberland’s comedies, are not to be laughed at.
The phrase “Cumberland’s comedies” may have been referring to the prominent playwright Richard Cumberland who crafted many comedies. The context suggested that Cox was repeating an existing joke, but it was also possible that he constructed it.
In 1833 the newspaper profiles written William Cox were gathered together and published under the title “Crayon Sketches by An Amateur”. The portrait of Mr. Richings was included; thus, the quip was further disseminated. The author’s name was not specified in the pages of the work, but an article in the journal “American Literature” clearly identified Cox. 2 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1918 “Photoplay: The World’s Leading Moving Picture Magazine” printed an anecdote in which the unnamed head of a movie company traveled from New York to Los Angeles to encourage his underlings to improve the quality of the comedies being released. The comical remark appeared twice with different phrasings: 4
On an automobile trip with two of his executives the comedy subject came up, and the department heads were loud in their derision of the trash that passed as humor. The producer endured their guffaws for awhile, and then turned on them in sharp reproof:
“Boys, our comedies are no laughing matter!”
Still less did he comprehend their shouts at this sally, and when miles had been rolled in on the speedometer, and they were still chuckling, he exclaimed, with exasperated finality:
“Say—now quit it, will you! I tell you again, our comedies are not to be laughed at!”
In September 1919 a columnist in a Duluth, Minnesota newspaper who was clearly familiar with the joke decided to construct a funny variant: 5
L-Ko comedies are not to be laughed at in a few months, for we understand the name is to be changed to Century…
In November 1919 the trade journal “Motion Picture News” printed an instance ascribed to an unidentified “famous producer”: 6
We quote a famous producer: “My comedies are not to be laughed at.”
In February 1921 a columnist in the influential New York humor magazine “Judge” printed an instance attributed to an unnamed producer: 7
The other day I enjoyed the melancholy privilege of sitting through two reels of supposedly jaw-dislocating comedy. “My comedies,” the producer was reported to have said, “are not to be laughed at.” Perfectly right. No one laughed at ’em. The trouble was that the producer did intend them to be laughed at; patently so—unskilfully so.
In May 1921 an article in a Trenton, New Jersey newspaper recounted a short tale which ascribed the remark to an unidentified producer of slapstick comedies: 8
Lewis J. Selznick was chatting with a group of photoplay producers when the subject of conversation turned to film comedies. Various types of comedies were discussed in a perfunctory way until one special number was highly praised because it was not “rough stuff.”
After standing it as long as he could, a producer of “slapstick” works of “art” spoke up with great self-importance and said:
“Well, while you are talking about comedies, I want you to know that my comedies are not to be laughed at.”
In October 1921 a trade journal called “The Cotton Oil Press” published a filler item that assigned the jest to the studio owner of Christie Comedies who spoke with a heavy accent: 9
The owner of a studio where comedies are produced became much incensed because someone refused to buy a new story with which he was particularly pleased. “I tell you something you ton’t know alretty,” he said. “I tell Christie Comedies is not to be laughed at.”
In December 1923 a columnist in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper reported a fanciful tale of a speech at a convention of movie exhibitors. The speaker was Abe Stern who produced numerous movies together with his brother Julius Stern at Universal Studios: 10
. . .Abe came in all dressed up, and the toastmaster gave him a rousing send-off, and Abe took off his silk hat and got up on the platform and cleared his throat and opened his mouth and said:
“Ladies and gentlemens: In spite of offerything our enemies say, first off I want to tell you that our comedies are not to be laughed at!”
In September 1926 a Manitowoc, Wisconsin newspaper printed an item which implausibly asserted that Carl Laemmle made the humorous remark while speaking at a banquet. Laemmle was a prominent filmmaker who co-founded Universal Studios: 11
At a banquet at Chicago Carl Laemmle, noted picture maker, was talking earnestly about his production and he clinched his point with, “And boys, our comedies are not to be laughed at.” We think we have seen that kind ourselves.
In December 1926 a newspaper in California reprinted a piece from the “New York Evening World” which contained a satirical interview with a fictional movie star named Roy Pommert: 12
“I got my first chance in two-reel comedies. I know that people sneer at things like that, but our two-reel comedies were not to be laughed at.”
In 1934 a biography titled “Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett” by Gene Fowler was published. Sennett was an important pioneer in comedies as a director, actor, and studio head. The book attributed the joke to Johnny Grey who worked for Sennett: 13
When da Vinci Griffith’s press department made the modest claim that Intolerance was the “epochal, soul-edifying sun play of the ages,” Sennett applied to his gag-men for an emergency slogan. He saw the futility of this mandate when Johnny Grey suggested the shibboleth: “Our comedies are not to be laughed at!”
In 1937 a short biography titled “The Great Goldwyn” was published by the journalist Alva Johnston. The jest was included, but Johnson argued that the ascription to Goldwyn was an apocryphal reassignment:: 14
Before Sam arrived in Hollywood, the official unconscious humorists were two brothers who made short comic pictures. The brothers became obscure; Sam became famous. The old anecdotes deserted the brothers and attached themselves to Goldwyn. “Our comedies are not to be laughed at” is one of the lines that abandoned the original author and joined the Goldwyn legend.
In April 1937 “The New York Times” attributed the comment to “one of the Stern brothers” and suggested that it had been spoken two decades earlier: 15
The making of comedies is a serious business. From that day twenty years ago when one of the Stern brothers told a scoffing competitor, “Our comedies ain’t to be laughed at,” down through the ages the pursuit of the screen’s humor has been a pretty somber affair.
In conclusion, the earliest instance located by QI was written by William Cox in 1829, and QI would tentatively credit Cox though he may have been repeating an existing joke. The later ascriptions to Samuel Goldwyn, Abe Stern, and other movie people were not well supported. The remark was initially linked to unnamed movie producers, and QI hypothesizes that the 20th century attributions were made to entertain readers.
Image Notes: Cropped image from page 33 of “Photoplay” magazine in December 1917. The caption says: “director Rex Ingram, with checkered cap and extended finger, tells the technical staff what to do next.” This image was used at the top of this article to illustrate the notion of movie making and is not directly related to the quotation.
(Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the May 8, 1921 citation and the September 15, 1926 citation. His entry on the topic is here.)
- 1829 August 29, New-York Mirror and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, Volume 7, Number 8, The Drama: Theatrical Portraits: Richings (by William Cox) Quote Page 61, Column 3, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1833, Crayon Sketches by An Amateur (William Cox), Edited by Theodore S. Fay, Volume 2 of 2, Richings, Start Page 196, Quote Page 198, Published by Conner and Cooke, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1944 March, American Literature, Volume 16, Number 1, William Cox: Author of Crayon Sketches by Kendall B. Taft, Start Page 11, End Page 18, Published by Duke University Press. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1918 September, Photoplay: The World’s Leading Moving Picture Magazine, Volume 14, Number 4, Close-Ups: Editorial Expression and Timely Comment, Twice in the Same Place, Quote Page 67, Column 2, Photoplay Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1919 September 07, The Duluth Sunday News-Tribune (Duluth News-Tribune), Mary Pickford Returns in New Vehicle; Mary ‘Mac’ at Lyric; Film Glimpses by Marie Canel, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1919 November 15, Motion Picture News, Volumes 20, Number 21, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 3584, Published by Motion Picture News, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 February 19, Judge (The Judge), New Moves in the Movies: The Unkiddable Kid by Myron M. Stearns (“Lenso”), Start Page 24, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Published Weekly by Leslie-Judge Company. New York. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1921 May 08, Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser (Trenton Evening Times), Film Smiles, Part 2, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1921 October, The Cotton Oil Press, Volume 5, Number 6, (Filler item), Quote Page 24, Column 1, Published by Interstate Oil Press, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1923 December 13, Rockford Republic, Real and Unreal Stories about William Faversham by Don H. Eddy, Quote Page 17, Column 7, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1926 September 15, Manitowoc Herald-Times, Main Street And Its Highways and By-ways as Viewed Thru the Amber Glasses of the Editorial Force, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1926 December 14, Evening Tribune, Telling the World by Neal O’Hara (Acknowledgement New York Evening World), Quote Page 19, Column 5, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1934, Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett by Gene Fowler, Chapter 22: The Birds and the Beasts Were There, Quote Page 355, Published by Covici, Friede, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1937, The Great Goldwyn by Alva Johnston, Quote Page 27, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper in 1978 Arno Press, New York Times reprint edition) ↩
- 1937 April 25, New York Times, Gay Echoes of a Hollywood Last Laugh: Mr. Goldwyn’s ‘Woman Chases Man’ Wins Preview Plaudits Despite No-Men by Douglas W. Churchill, Quote Page X3, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩