Robert Benchley? James G. Berrien? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some regions of garments develop a shiny appearance when fibers are repeatedly compressed. Hence, the seats of pants sometimes become shiny. A few fabrics are particularly susceptible to this problem; in the past, blue serge suits were well-known for becoming undesirably shiny. The verb ‘to shine’ also has an alternative meaning: ‘to excel’. The popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley crafted a clever apposite joke:
I do most of my writing sitting down. That’s where I shine.
Should Benchley really receive credit?
Quote Investigator: In October 1942 the widely-distributed Sunday newspaper supplement “This Week Magazine” published a profile with the title “He Works Sitting Down” and the subtititle “And that’s where Robert Benchley shines” by Irving Wallace. Thus, Benchley’s quip was built into the header of the article. It was also repeated in the article body. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
But Benchley won’t forget his gags, either. He can’t stay away from humor.
“I shouldn’t complain,” he says with one of these apologetic chuckles. “After all, I do most of my work sitting down. That’s where I shine.”
QI believes that Benchley should receive credit for this formulation using sharp wordplay; however, amusing precursors were circulating by the 1920s.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1922 James G. Berrien published an article about advertising in the New York periodical “Printers’ Ink”. He employed a similar quip when referring to a type of man he disliked, but the phrasing did not achieve the full humor of Benchley’s self-effacing version: 2
. . . the man whose most shining quality is the shine on the seat of his pants from too much sitting at his desk . . .
In 1925 the “Bluefield Daily Telegraph” of Bluefield, West Virginia printed a version of the joke as a filler item: 3
Many a man never shines anywhere except in the seat of his pants.
In 1928 the widely-syndicated humor column “Office Cat” by Junius printed an instance that named a specific fabric: 4
“That’s where I shine,” he said, as he showed his blue serge suit to the tailor.
In 1941 a newspaper in Lancashire, England printed a one-panel comic called “To-night’s Smile” that showed a man and woman conversing: 5
She: I might love you if it weren’t for those awful blue serge suits you wear.
He: But, darling, that’s where I shine!
In 1942 Benchley employed the joke in a profile published in “This Week Magazine” as noted previously in this article. In 1943 the jest was printed as a filler item in an Omaha, Nebraska; the phrasing was the same and Benchley received credit: 6
“I do most of my work sitting down,” says Robert Benchley. “That’s where I shine.”
In 1946 a columnist in “The San Diego Union” in California attributed the words to an anonymous writer: 7
And there was the author who was asked whether he spent more time in preparing his material or in writing it.
“I have to do some traveling to get my information,” he replied, “but I do most of my work sitting down. That’s where I shine.”
In 1960 the industrious quotation collector Bennett Cerf presented in his syndicated column a variant using the word “writing” instead of “work”: 8
ROBERT BENCHLEY: —I do most of my writing sitting down—because that’s where I shine.
In 1985 the eclectic collector Robert Byrne included an instance in “The Other 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 9
I do most of my writing sitting down. That’s where I shine. Robert Benchley (1889-1945)
In conclusion, Robert Benchley should receive credit for the quip in the 1942 profile article. James G. Berrien may be credited with the 1922 jest. QI believes Benchley’s version was distinct and funnier although the two remarks were similar.
(Great thanks to K whose interest in Robert Benchley quotations led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1942 October 4, The Los Angeles Times, Section: This Week Magazine, He Works Sitting Down And that’s where Robert Benchley shines by Irving Wallace, Start Page 10, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1922 February 16, Printers’ Ink, Volume 18, Number 7, More Advertising Would Make the Nation Prosperous by James G. Berrien, Start Page 130, Quote Page 130, Printers’ Ink Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1925 November 8, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Bluefield, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1928 February 2, The Cambridge City Tribune, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Cambridge City, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1941 June 20, The Lancashire Daily Post, To-night’s Smile (Cartoon caption), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1943 November 26, Evening World Herald (Omaha World Herald), A Shining Example (Acknowledgement: Answers, London), (Filler item), Quote Page 12, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1946 January 29, The San Diego Union, Northeast Corner by Nor’easter, Quote Page 2B, Column 7, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1960 January 3, Los Angeles Times, Bennett Cerf’s Cerfboard: Cheerful earfuls, Start Page M14, Quote Page M15, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1985, The Other 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 379, Fawcett Crest Book: Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩