Cloquet Hated Reality But Realized It Was Still the Only Place to Get a Good Steak

Woody Allen? Groucho Marx? Cloquet? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The comedian and movie director Woody Allen sometimes constructs ontological jokes. For example, the following is attributed to Allen:

I hate reality, but it is still the only place where I can get a decent steak.

Oddly, the following very similar quip has been credited to Groucho Marx:

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

Did Allen engage in plagiarism? Would you please explore this question?

Quote Investigator: The first line above was similar to a line spoken by Woody Allen during an interview published in 1993. QI has found no substantive evidence that the second line was employed by Groucho. The initial citation located by QI for the second jest appeared in 2003, and yet Groucho died a quarter century before that date.

The earliest variant in this family known to QI was contained in a short story written by Allen called “The Condemned” that was published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1977. The tale hinged on the parodic existential dilemmas of a would-be assassin named Cloquet. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1977 November 21, The New Yorker, The Condemned by Woody Allen, Start Page 57, Quote Page 57, Published by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Accessed Online Archive of Page Scans at on October 15, 2015) link [/ref]

He’s dreaming, Cloquet thought, as he stood over him, revolver in hand. He’s dreaming, and I exist in reality. Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak. He had never taken a human life before. True, he had once shot a mad dog, but only after it had been certified as mad by a team of psychiatrists.

Thus, Allen was willing to recycle the joke in 1993, but QI does not believe that he lifted it from Groucho.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1980 “The Christian Science Monitor” printed a profile of Alan Coren who was the editor of the London humor magazine “Punch”. Allen’s quip was mentioned by Coren while he was comparing humor in England and the United States. The transcription of his spoken remarks must have been challenging for the newspaper; two different misspellings were used for the name “Cloquet”. Also, Coren’s phrasing diverged slightly from the original:[ref] 1980 April 7, Christian Science Monitor, Section: British Isles, How American humor got translated into English by Richard Kepler Brunner (Special to The Christian Science Monitor), Start Page B10, Quote Page B11, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

“An Englishman would never write a line like this from a Woody Allen New Yorker story. He’s writing about a philosopher called Chalcot. Woody says: ‘Chalot hated reality but he recognized it was the only place he would still get a good steak.'”

In 1987 the “Dallas Morning News” published an article about Allen and presented the same comical statement:[ref] 1987 April 19, Dallas Morning News, Section: Arts & Entertainment, Woody Allen’s Balancing Act by Tom Shales (North America Syndicate Inc.), Quote Page 1C, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

An essential part of Allen’s wit is the way it shoots down pretentiousness, often by juxtaposing the metaphysical with the mundane. In his long, brilliant monologue at the end of Love and Death, Woody, addressing the camera, notes, “There are worse things in life than death. If you’ve ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know exactly what I mean.” In his elegant existentialist parody The Condemned, one of his best short stories, Allen wrote, “Cloquet hated reality, but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak.”

In 1989 the quotation collector Jon Winokur released “Zen to Go” which included an entry for the remark:[ref] 1989, Zen to Go, Compiled and Edited by Jon Winokur, Section: Reality, Quote Page 85, Published by New American Library: A Division of Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak.

In 1991 a writer in the “New Haven Register” newspaper in Connecticut attempted to recall Allen’s quip and produced an interesting approximation without Cloquet:[ref] 1991 August 18, New Haven Register, Section: Arts & Travel, Computer artists ponder reality by D. Hayne Bayless Quote Page d1, New Haven, Connecticut. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

I’m not a big fan of reality, but it’s the only place I can get a good steak. —paraphrasing Woody Allen

The one-liner was absurd enough—and true enough—to set the tone for a public forum last week on computers and art.

The Swedish film critic and director Stig Björkman interviewed Allen extensively and released a volume containing the conversations in 1993 in Sweden. Editions were also released in England in 1994 and the U.S. in 1995 with the title “Woody Allen on Woody Allen”. Björkman inquired about daydreams, and Allen responded by contrasting the realms of fantasy and reality while deploying a rephrased instance of the steak joke:[ref] 1995 Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Björkman, Chapter 4: Play it Again, Sam, Start Page 48, Quote Page 50, Published by Grove Press, New York. (Originally published in Sweden in 1993 as Woody om Allen, Alfabeta Bokförlag; first published in England in 1994 by Faber and Faber, Limited, London) (Verified on paper)[/ref]

SB: The theme of Play It Again, Sam is daydreaming, which takes up a great part of our lives. What importance do you give to films regarding this? The character in the play — and movie — tries to turn films or filmic situations into his own contemporary life.

WA: It has been said, that if I have any one big theme in my movies, it’s got to do with the difference between reality and fantasy. It comes up very frequently in my films. I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately it’s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner. I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into the cinema.

In 1997 the jest was placed into a collection titled “Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy”. This version was a streamlined and simplified instance that was printed in a book by the German astrophysicist Gerhard Börner. It was probably derived from the Björkman interview or from the 1977 short story. The word “good” was replaced by “decent”:[ref] 1997, Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy, Selected and Arranged by C. C. Gaither and A. E. Cavazos-Gaither, Section: Reality, Quote Page 255, Publisher by Informa: Taylor & Francis Group, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

Allen, Woody
I hate reality, but it is still the only place where I can get a decent steak.
Quoted by G. Borner in The Early Universe (p. 26)

In 1998 an attendee at the Adelaide Writers’ Week in Australia entertained fellow scribblers with a restated instance of the witticism:[ref] 1998 March 7, The Advertiser, Edition: 2 – Metro, Adelaide & Fringe Festival Saturday; between the lines AT – WRITERS’ WEEK by Chris Brice, Quote Page: 071, Adelaide, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

Arnon Grunberg quoting Woody Allen, “Although the world is miserable, it’s still the only place you can get a decent steak, and that’s the best case there is against suicide, even for a vegetarian”.

In 1999 the cosmologist and science popularizer John D. Barrow published “Between Inner Space and Outer Space: Essays on Science, Art, and Philosophy”. He employed an instance as a chapter epigraph:[ref] 1999, Between Inner Space and Outer Space: Essays on Science, Art, and Philosophy by John D. Barrow, Part 8: Quantum Reality, (Epigraph of Part 8), Quote Page 183, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

I hate reality, but it is still the only place where I can get a decent steak.
Woody Allen

By 2003 a reformulated version of the joke was implausibly being ascribed to the famous comedian Groucho Marx. This variant used the phrase “decent meal” instead of “good steak” or “decent steak”. The statement was distributed via the Usenet discussion system within the alt.smokers.pipes newsgroup:[ref] 2003 January 6, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.smokers.pipes, From: “Michael” <mtsc…>, Subject: Early Mornnig Pipe, (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 15, 2015) link [/ref]

” I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal. “
Groucho Marx

In 2005 an inspirational work called “Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Live Beyond Our Fears” placed another version of Allen’s quip into a final section titled: “Epilogue: Commandments for the Long Haul”:[ref] 2005, Forgotten Among the Lilies: Learning to Live Beyond Our Fears by Ronald Rolheiser, Section: Epilogue, Quote Page 307, Published by Doubleday: A Division of Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

Reality might not be all it’s cracked up to be, but it’s still the only place you can get a decent steak. (WOODY ALLEN)

In 2008 a version was shared on the website goodreads which is a very popular hub for the dissemination of quotations and misquotations. The words were attributed to Groucho:[ref] Website: Goodreads, Article title: Groucho Marx > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Timestamp on first ‘Like’: July 24, 2008 07:18PM, Website description: Goodreads is a large community for readers that provides book recommendations; the site is owned by Amazon. (Accessed on October 19, 2015) link [/ref]

Groucho Marx
“I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”

In 2020 Woody Allen published his autobiography “Apropos of Nothing”, and he included another instance of the joke:[ref] 2020, Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen, Unnumbered Page, Arcade Publishing: An Imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, New York. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

It seems to me the only hope for mankind lies in magic. I have always hated reality, but it’s the only place you can get good chicken wings.

In conclusion, QI believes that this joke should be credited to Woody Allen. There are two versions with solid support: the expression written by Allen in “The New Yorker” in 1977, and the statement spoken by Allen during an interview published in 1993. Based on current evidence the instance attributed to Groucho appears to be spurious.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Caws-Elwitt who pointed to a discussion about the quotations attributed to Groucho and Allen. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Alianza Editorial, Nadie, and Ezra Silver who participated in a twitter thread discussing the citation in “Apropos of Nothing”.)

Update History: On May 27, 2020 the “Apropos of Nothing” citation was added.

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