H. L. Mencken? Woody Allen? Walter Winchell? Alfred Lunt? Sarah Bernhardt? E. V. Durling? Jim Bishop? Colonel Stoopnagle? Frederick Chase Taylor? Leo Rosten? Humphrey Bogart? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following declaration of high praise has been applied to love making:
The most fun you can have without laughing.
Influential commentator H. L. Mencken and popular comedian Woody Allen have both received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: H. L. Mencken did place a version of this saying into his massive 1942 compendium of quotations, but he did not take credit; instead, he asserted that the author was unidentified. More than three decades later Woody Allen employed an instance in his 1977 Oscar-winning movie “Annie Hall”.
The earliest match located by QI occurred in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in January 1938. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The latest definition of necking: How you can have the most fun without laughing.
QI hypothesizes that a comparable statement referring to sex was circulating at the time. Winchell or his informant bowdlerized the remark to yield the version about “necking”. Taboos of the period restricted depictions of carnality in newspapers.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In February 1939 “The Baltimore Sun” printed an article about the popular theatrical couple Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne titled “Lunt and Fontanne Do One-Nighters”. The piece described a lengthy multi-city tour during which the duo delivered a limited number of performances in each venue. The two were asked why they didn’t settle down and get some rest: 2
“Because this is so much fun,” Miss Fontanne says.
“It’s a mystery to me. It’s madness,” Lunt goes on, his facial expression changing to suggest a Noel Coward comedy state of agreeable insanity. The next moment he confesses, “Yes, it is fun. Really, it’s the most fun you can have without laughing.”
The above instance referred to an arduous activity conducted by a couple, but it did not refer to sex; nevertheless, QI conjectures that Lunt was humorously repurposing an existing expression about sex.
In 1942 “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” edited by H. L. Mencken included the following entry: 3
Love is the most fun you can have without laughing.
QI believes Mencken recorded a slightly garbled version of a circulating adage referring to “love making” or “sex”.
In June 1942 the syndicated columnist E. V. Durling credited the saying to a famous French stage actress who had died in 1923: 4
“Love is the most fun you can have without laughing,” said Sarah Bernhardt.
In 1948 Walter Winchell revisited the saying and presented an anonymous instance: 5
Anon: Love is the most fun you can have without laughing.
In 1964 the columnist Jim Bishop wrote a piece about golf. He ascribed an instance of the saying with a fractured syntax to Colonel Stoopnagle, the persona of comedian Frederick Chase Taylor who was popular on radio in the 1930s: 6
It is played by nervous nuts who tell each other how relaxing it is. Colonel Stoopnagle once referred to it as the most fun without laughing there is of.
In 1967 the author and humorist Leo Rosten delivered a speech at a “Book and Author Luncheon” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He employed an instance with the word “sex”: 7
Rosten said “the way to write best sellers is, first of all, to select a romantic title, such as ‘How to Avoid Probate,’ or ‘Sex Is the Most Fun You Can Have Without Laughing’, and to use a pseudonym like Dr. Spock.”
In 1968 the industrious collector Evan Esar included the saying in “20,000 Quips and Quotes”: 8
Sex is the most fun you can have without laughing.
In 1972 columnist Jim Bishop revisited the saying and credited a version about sex to Colonel Stoopnagle: 9
Colonel Stoopnagle once defined sex as “the most fun without laughing there is of.” He lost a little syntax, but spoke a truth. Few parents are willing to start the “birds and bees” lectures on the premise that sex can be ecstasy.
The screenplay of the 1977 film “Annie Hall” was co-written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. During one scene the character Alvy Singer played by Woody Allen makes love with the character Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton. Afterward he says: 10
That was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.
In 1983 the book “Was It Good for You, Too?: Quotations on Love and Sex” compiled by Bob Chieger credited a top movie star who had died in 1957: 11
Nothing beats making love. It’s the most fun you can have without laughing.
In conclusion, QI believes that an anonymous version of the saying referring to sex or making love was in use by 1938. A less risqué version appeared in Walter Winchell’s column in January 1938. Actor Alfred Lunt, commentator H. L. Mencken, and columnist E. V. Durling all helped to popularize versions of the expression. QI does not know whether Sarah Bernhardt employed an instance in French.
(Thanks to previous researchers Nigel Rees, Ralph Keyes, and Fred R. Shapiro who examined this topic and noted the key citations for H. L. Mencken and Woody Allen.)
- 1938 January 25, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, On Broadway Walter Winchell, Quote Page 24, Column 6, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 February 9, The Baltimore Sun, Lunt and Fontanne Do One-Nighters (From the Kansas City Star), Quote Page 10, Column 6, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Love: Its Joys, Quote Page 717, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1942 June 22, Shamokin News-Dispatch, “On the Side” by E. V. Durling, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Shamokin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1948 June 10, The Tampa Daily Times, On Broadway Walter Winchell, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Tampa, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964 July 1, Mansfield News Journal, The Answer To Psychiatry by Jim Bishop, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Mansfield, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1967 April 6, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Book and Author Luncheon: Rosten Gives Key to Success by Helen Rothbardt (The Inquirer Staff), Quote Page 35, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Sex, Quote Page 723, Column 2, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1972 June 16, The Brazosport Facts, There’s no truth to be found in age by Jim Bishop (Reporter), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Freeport, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations edited by Nigel Rees, Section Woody Allen, Quote Page 7, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1983, Was It Good for You, Too?: Quotations on Love and Sex, Compiled by Bob Chieger, Section 21: Movie Magic, Quote Page 155, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩