In the Beginning, There Was Nothing. The Lord Said, ‘Let There Be Light.’ Then There Was Still Nothing, But You Could See It Much Better

Ellen DeGeneres? Woody Allen? Joe Doyle? The Flying Karamazov Brothers? George Burns? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a joke based on the biblical creation story that contains the famous line “Let there be light”. The punch line of the gag is:

There was still nothing. But you could see it a whole lot better.

Two prominent comedians have received credit for this humor: Ellen DeGeneres and Woody Allen. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Ellen DeGeneres began performing as a comedian in 1980 according to the biography “Ellen: The Real Story of Ellen DeGeneres” by Kathleen Tracy. This joke was included in her stand-up act circa 1983. Yet, interestingly, the jest was circulating during the previous decade.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1978 newspaper article about a touring company of the “The Second City” improvisational comedy organization. The company was visiting Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan to perform and give a workshop. Joe Doyle was a member of the comedy troupe, and he delivered a version of the joke: 1

Now Joe Doyle was an Irish priest, using rich brogue to read from First Chrysanthemums:

“In the beginning, there was nothing. The Lord said, ‘Let there be light.’ Then there was still nothing. But you could see it.”

This jest can be phrased in many different ways which makes it difficult to trace; hence, future researchers may uncover earlier instances. Nevertheless, based on current evidence QI tentatively gives credit to Joe Doyle.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The story presented in the Bible’s Book of Genesis differed somewhat from the comical setup employed in the joke. God created the heaven and the earth before he ignited the light. The King James Bible translation stated this: 2

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

In 1964 a columnist in Phoenix, Arizona wrote disapprovingly about a locally available comic book which included a satirical version of the creation story. The God figure had a goatee and carried three bolts of lightning. His first attempt to create light failed, but he eventually succeeded by rubbing sticks together: 3

“In the beginning there, was nothing.
Nothing, nothing, nothing” the text said.
“And then God said, ‘Let there be light!’
And there still was nothing.
And then God took two sticks and rubbed them together.
Look at God rub.
Rub, God, rub.
And God made light and he looked at it and said, ‘This is good.’

In 1978 Joe Doyle employed the gag during a performance with a touring company of the “The Second City” as mentioned previously.

The biography “Ellen: The Real Story of Ellen DeGeneres” by Kathleen Tracy presented the memories of DeGeneres concerning her first stand-up performance. She said “This was probably 1980, and I think it was someplace in the French Quarter” of New Orleans. 4

In 1983 DeGeneres purchased a van and relocated to San Francisco, California which was an important comedy mecca at that time: 5

“Things just clicked and people started paying attention to me.”

Ellen quickly won over club owners and audiences alike with her increased confidence and improved material.

In the beginning there was nothing. God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.

In 1984 “The Berkshire Eagle” of Pittsfield, Massachusetts published a theater review of “The Flying Karamazov Brothers” who performed an act that combined juggling with vaudevillian humor. A member of the group delivered an instance of the joke: 6

Put into their immortal words: “In the beginning there was nothing. Then I created light. There was still nothing. But at least we could see.”

In 1998 a poster to the newsgroup alt.atheism ascribed the gag to Woody Allen: 7

“In the beginning, there was nothing. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.”
—Woody Allen

In 2000 the collection “Joke Stew: 1,349 More Hilarious Servings from Today’s Hottest Comedians” credited DeGeneres: 8

In the beginning there was nothing. God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.
—Ellen DeGeneres

In 2008 “Blind Faith” by Morné Du Toit printed the gag and credited Woody Allen: 9

“In the beginning, there was nothing. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a lot better.” [Woody Allen]

In 2011 the well-known comedian and actor George Burns received credit in a letter written to the editor of a Santa Clarita, California newspaper. Burns had died in 1996: 10

I’m reminded of what the late George Burns said about daylight: “In the beginning, there was nothing. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better.”

In conclusion, QI cautiously gives credit to Joe Doyle for this gag based on the 1978 citation. Ellen DeGeneres and The Flying Karamazov Brothers also used the joke, but evidence indicates that it was circulating beforehand. The linkages to Woody Allen and George Burns are weak.

Image Notes: Illustration of light with projecting rays from Clandestino at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Andrew Lin whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1978 October 19, Lansing State Journal, Second City troupe: patient wait for stardom by Mike Hughes (Staff Writer), Quote Page C3, Column 2, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  2. Website: Bible Hub, Genesis 1 to 4, Translation: King James Bible, Website description: Online Bible Study Suite; Bible Hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed BibleHub.com on August 7, 2019) link
  3. 1964 January 11, The Arizona Republic, Disrespect to God Is Hardly ‘Comic’ by Orien Fifer Jr., Quote Page 19, Column 1, Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1999, Ellen: The Real Story of Ellen DeGeneres by Kathleen Tracy, Chapter 3: “Is That All There Is, My Dear?”, Quote Page 35, A Birch Lane Press Book: Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1999, Ellen: The Real Story of Ellen DeGeneres by Kathleen Tracy, Chapter 5: Johnny Carson: The Big Leap to Fame, Quote Page 52, A Birch Lane Press Book: Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1984 August 29, The Berkshire Eagle, Family fun at the Pillow by Stephanie Johnson, Quote Page 18, Column 6, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1998 November 3, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.atheism, From: tetrahydrocannabinol @hempseed.com, Subject: Re: If Religion was a Drug. (Google Groups Search; Accessed August 7, 2019) link
  8. 2000 Copyright, Joke Stew: 1,349 More Hilarious Servings from Today’s Hottest Comedians, Edited by Judy Brown, Topic: God, Quote Page 117, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, Missouri. (Verified with scans)
  9. 2008, Blind Faith by Morné Du Toit, Chapter: Quotes, Quote Page 265, Published by Lulu Press Inc., Morrisville, North Carolina.(Google Books Preview)
  10. 2011 November 9, The Signal, Section: Letters to the Editor, (Letter to the editor titled “Let’s end daylight saving time” from Richard Myers, Valencia), Quote Page A4, Column 3, Santa Clarita, California. (Newspapers_com)