Erma Bombeck? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Television is filled with athletic events during the winter holiday season. A hypnotized sports addict could stare at the tube for hours on end. A caustic remark about this behavior was apparently crafted by the humorist Erma Bombeck:
Anybody who watches three games of football in a row should be declared brain dead.
I haven’t been able to locate a solid citation. Is this quotation accurate?
Quote Investigator: Erma Bombeck visited this topic at least five times in her syndicated newspaper column, books, and speeches. None of her statements precisely matched the remark given above, but there was a semantic overlap.
In 1972 Bombeck discussed stressful situations during which individuals talked to themselves. Although this might be considered mentally anomalous conduct she felt that it was sometimes justified. Here were three acceptable scenarios she listed. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The woman standing in the middle of the kitchen asking herself, “If I were car keys, where would I hide?”
The man on the golf course who has just missed a two-inch putt and is the only one who wouldn’t be shocked by his X-rated dialogue.
The woman who is married to a man with a 23-televised-football-games-a-week habit. (It’s even permissible for her to dance with herself.)
In 1973 Bombeck published “I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression”. She began her book with a set of self-revelatory remarks: 2
Before you read this book, there are a few things you should know about me.
I consider ironed sheets a health hazard.
. . .
Renaissance women were beautiful and never heard of Weight Watchers.
. . .
Men who have a thirty-six-televised-football-games-a-week-habit should be declared legally dead and their estates probated.
The above statement provided a substantive match to the expression under examination, but Bombeck did not use the phrase “brain dead”. Also, the criticism was aimed at couch potatoes with more extensive viewing schedules.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In September 1973 a writer in “Florida Today” of Cocoa, Florida discussed Bombeck’s new book and reprinted several statements including the one about watching television. He then praised Bombeck: 3
She’s the funniest columnist alive today. (And dead columnists rarely say anything witty, so she’s got that group beaten, too.)
In March 1977 Bombeck visited Columbus, Indiana and spoke to a large appreciative group as part of a Distinguished Visitors Series. The local newspaper relayed a different version of the TV joke: 4
Parents-without-partners is a group of 200 women who discuss how we can compete with televised sports. Tonight was an important meeting. We are pressuring the heads of networks to either release our husbands from their grip or list them as legally dead so all of us will be free to probate the estates and remarry.”
In January 1978 the “Battle Creek Enquirer” of Battle Creek, Michigan published a variant quip and requested reactions from readers: 5
Columnist Erma Bombeck says that anyone who watches 16 consecutive quarters of football on television should be declared legally dead. Do you agree?
A few days later the paper printed a sampling of comments from people who disagreed: 6
“It he’s watching football, I know where he is” . . . “No worse than 16 hours of soap operas” . . . “Merely Erma’s opinion”
The paper also shared remarks that agreed with Bombeck:
“All things in moderation” . . . “A person has to have rocks in one end and lead in the other” . . . “Bombeck scores right on”
The statement continued to evolve. In 1979 “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Sydney, Australia printed this version: 7
Erma Bombeck says that any man who watches football on television for more than ten hours a week should be declared legally dead, and his estate probated.
In 1982 Bombeck revisited the evergreen issue in her syndicated column. This time she mentioned sleeping: 8
If a man sleeps during two consecutive innings or quarters, he should be declared legally dead and his estate probated.
Legalized Sunday dating for women married to sports nuts will not only be allowed, but enforced.
In 1989 Niki Scott, the author of the syndicated column “Working Women”, presented another variant that was close to the quotation being explored: 9
The experts agree that many males react to both stress and depression with obsessive television watching. Erma Bombeck, on the other hand, has said that any man who watches three football games in a row should be declared legally dead.
In 1995 another version of the saying appeared in a syndicated cryptogram puzzle called “Celebrity Cipher”. This instance used the phrase “brain dead”: 10
PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “Anybody who watches three games of football in a row should be declared brain dead” — Erma Bombeck
In conclusion, Bombeck composed many versions of this joke. In addition, other variants evolved from her statements. The 1995 version was concise and funny, but QI believes Bombeck probably did not employ the harsh phrase “brain dead” within her quip. QI suggests that an ascription to Bombeck should be based on direct evidence, e.g., from one of her columns or books.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Image Notes: Illustration of television watcher from Grand_Scient at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.
- 1972 May 17, The Daily Reporter, At Wit’s End by Erma Bombeck (Syndicated), Quote Page A16, Column 7, Dover, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1973, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression by Erma Bombeck, Chapter 1: Ironed Sheets Are a Health Hazard, Quote Page 7, Fawcett Crest Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1973 September 23, Florida Today, A Visit With Erma Bombeck: A Simple, Average Housewife? by Jerry Greene, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977 March 29, The Republic, Keep ‘Em Laughing: Columnist Erma Bombeck Pursues Family Vacation Theme in One of Last Lectures by Jean Prather, Start Page A1, Quote Page A12, Column 4, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
Mrs. Bombeck touched on many aspects of “family living” which delighted her audience. In the field of television she discussed the sports oriented “tube freak” husband, saying that after watching 168 football games it should be lawful for a man to be declared legally dead, and that her husband married her during a beer commercial while the world series games were being televised.
In June 1977 Bombeck constructed another variant of the joke for her syndicated column “At Wit’s End”: 11 1977 June 7, The Hays Daily News, At Wit’s End: Jealous of Football by Erma Bombeck, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Hays, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 January 9, Battle Creek Enquirer, Your Opinion, Quote Page A1, Column 5, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1978 January 11, Battle Creek Enquirer, Battle Creek Bulletin Board: Your Opinion, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1979 August 4, The Sydney Morning Herald, Paperbacks by Maggie MacPhee, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1982 September 3, Democrat and Chronicle, Please pass bill of rights for football widows by Erma Bombeck, Quote Page 3C, Column 1, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1989 February 12, The Pantagraph, Working Woman: Television sends good marriage down the tube by Niki Scott (Syndicated), Quote Page C9, Column 3, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1995 May 23, The Daily Chronicle, Celebrity Cipher by Luis Campos (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 4, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩