Robert Benchley? Arthur Loeb Mayer? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The popular humorist and actor Robert Benchley has been credited with the following response to a colleague who desired company during exercise:
Go jogging? What, and get hit by a meteor?
Benchley died in 1945; hence, this scenario appears anachronistic. Would you please help determine what Benchley said?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that Robert Benchley made a comical remark about jogging. Instead, QI conjectures that the quip was derived from an anecdote published in 1952 which is listed further below.
A meteor is a piece of matter then enters earth’s atmosphere from space and produces a streak of light in the sky when it incandesces via friction. A mass of stone or metal that reaches the earth is called a meteorite. The two closely related terms are often confused, and in 1935 Robert Benchley joked about them in his syndicated newspaper column: 1
Next month will be a bad one for those people who bruise easily, as meteor showers are predicted. It will be well for everyone to travel by subway as much as possible, or, at any rate, to hug up close to the buildings while walking along the street. Those meteors can hurt!
To forestall indignant letters from astronomers and ex-meteors let me say that I know the difference between meteors and meteorites, and that meteorites are the only one that could hurt if they hit you.
In 1953 Arthur Loeb Mayer, a prominent motion-picture distributor, published “Merely Colossal” which included a tale about Benchley: 2
I called on Benchley once in Hollywood at his bungalow at the sun-drenched Garden of Allah and found him in his shorts sitting inside under a sun lamp. I pointed out that with a few steps he could be out of doors and under nature’s sun. “I don’t trust nature,” he shuddered. “Out there things can fall on you. Like meteors. Or manna.”
The story above caught the eye of a newspaper columnist in Minnesota who saw a pre-publication copy of the book and reprinted the anecdote in December 1952 before the official publication date. 3
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1957 a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada published a version about sunbathing that contained a negative response that matched the repudiation of jogging: 4
One beautiful afternoon in Hollywood, a friend called on him and found him sunning himself under a lamp. “What are you doing under that?” demanded the friend. He pointed to the sun-drenched patio on the other side of the window. “Why don’t you sit out there?”
“What, and get hit with a meteor?” retorted Benchley.
In 1968 “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan included a slightly shortened instance of the episode: 5
In Hollywood on a warm, bright day Benchley was found by a friend sitting under a sun-lamp in his room. When the friend asked why he didn’t go outside to get his sun, Benchley exclaimed, “And get hit by a meteor?”
By 2000 a compressed modernized version of the quip aimed at jogging was circulating. “Dick Enberg’s Humorous Quotes for All Occasions” included the following: 6
Go jogging? And get hit by a meteor?
In 2006 a version with a slightly different phrasing appeared in a message on the Usenet discussion system: 7
Go jogging? What, and get hit by a meteor?
~ Robert Benchley 1889-1945
In conclusion, Robert Benchley published a humorous piece about the dangers of meteor showers in 1935. In 1952 Arthur Loeb Mayer recounted in a book an episode during which Benchley joked that he did not want to sunbathe because a meteor might fall on him. This anecdote evolved over time, and eventually the apocryphal jogging quip was constructed.
(Great thanks to Geoffrey Nunberg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to top researcher Peter Reitan who found the 1952 citation which pointed to the book “Merely Colossal”.)
Update History: On April 8, 2018 the citation for the book “Merely Colossal” was added.
- 1935 February 11, Cumberland Evening Times, Duck, Brothers! by Robert Benchley (King Feature Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3 and 4, Cumberland, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1953, Merely Colossal: The Story of the Movies from the Long Chase to the Chaise Longue by Arthur Mayer, Chapter 8, Quote Page 124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1952 December 3, Minneapolis Morning Tribune (Star Tribune), After Last Night: ‘Annnnnnd…’ Is a TV Crutch, by Will Jones, Quote Page 31, Column 2 and 3, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1957 May 25, The Ottawa Journal, An Attic Salt Shaker, Quote Page 44, Column 6, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Quote Page 54, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2000, Dick Enberg’s Humorous Quotes for All Occasions by Dick Enberg with Brian Morgan and Wendy Morgan, Topic: Sports, Quote Page 203, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, Missouri. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2006 August 2, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: Winsome P.E.Jones @XCAPSbigpond.net.au, Subject: Re: Running. (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 24, 2018) link ↩