Hard Work Never Killed Anyone But Some of Us Don’t Like To Take Chances

Edgar Bergen? Charlie McCarthy? Florian ZaBach? Walter Winchell? Earl Wilson? George Gobel? Sam Levenson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During my younger years when I was slow to perform a boring task my parents sometimes scolded me by proclaiming a cliché about hard work. Eventually, I came across a funny riposte:

It might be true that hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance?

This joke has been credited to Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist dummy character Charlie McCarthy. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared as an anonymous filler item in a Plainfield, New Jersey newspaper in September 1936. The lengthy phrasing blunted the humor. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

They say hard work never killed anyone but some of us are just naturally apprehensive and timid and don’t like to take chances.

A 1979 book by television host Joe Franklin contained a brief transcript from a performance by Edgar Bergen during which his character Charlie McCarthy employed this type of punchline, but no date was specified. The duo performed for decades starting in the 1920s.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The core expression about the lack of fatalities from arduous work has a long history. This example from a speech given in 1844 by William Herepath indicated that the adage had already entered circulation: 2

It is an old saying that hard work never killed any body.

The statement has inspired variants, rejoinders, and complements. In 1879 a novel by popular author Helen Buckingham Mathers contained the following exchange. The phrase “drink its millions” means that the character believes alcohol has caused many deaths: 3

Work never killed a man yet, Gilly.”
But worry slays its thousands,” he mutters as he turns away, and, to myself, I add, “and drink its millions.

In 1894 prominent U.S. lawyer David Dudley Field condemned idleness: 4

“Hard work never killed anyone, idleness has slain its thousands,” he frequently said, and these words should be emblazoned upon his monument as an admonition to our epicurean youth who are growing old before their time in the enervating lap of luxury.

In 1921 a Weldon, North Carolina newspaper printed an anonymous instance centered on doctors with a comedic addendum: 5

Doctors say hard work never killed anyone. But some people don’t believe in doctors anyhow.

In 1929 James Douglas, the editor of “The Sunday Express” of London, contradicted the saying and suggested that author Charles Dickens had worked too hard: 6

. . . the deadly doctrine that work never killed anybody. Work does kill creative and constructive power. Take the case of Dickens. Does Mr. Bennett deny that work killed Dickens? It first killed his genius and then it killed him.

In 1931 a Clovis, New Mexico newspaper published the following humorous filler item: 7

A British author says work never killed anyone. But neither, unfortunately, did loafing.

In July 1936 the syndicated column “Office Cat” printed this comical instance: 8

They say that hard work never killed anyone, but it has scared a lot of people half to death.

In September 1936 the “Plainfield Courier-News” of New Jersey printed the earliest match located by QI as mentioned at the beginning of this article: 9

They say hard work never killed anyone but some of us are just naturally apprehensive and timid and don’t like to take chances.

In 1945 a De Kalb, Illinois newspaper printed a similar joke with a different phrasing: 10

They say positively that work never killed anyone but we know some guys who are too timid to take a chance.

Also in 1945 other variants evolved such as this from a Muncie, Indiana newspaper: 11

It is written that work never killed anyone but some fellows are too timid to take any chances.

In May 1956 columnist Hugh Allen in Knoxville, Tennessee published a variant: 12

Hard work never killed anybody, according to an old adage. But there’s no use taking a chance of being the first victim.

In June 1956 Walter Winchell printed a variant in his syndicated column while crediting a musician: 13

Florian ZaBach’s query: “Hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance on being the first victim?”

In January 1957 Earl Wilson published a different joke in his syndicated column: 14

It’s one man’s philosophy; “Hard work never killed anybody—but then again, resting is responsible for very few casualties.”

Wilson did not provide an attribution, but shortly afterwards a columnist in Salt Lake City, Utah ascribed the joke to television personality George Gobel: 15

As George Gobel says: “Hard work never killed anybody—but then, again, resting is responsible for very few casualties.”

In 1979 “Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians” published a segment of a comedy dialog between Edgar Bergen and his character Charlie McCarthy: 16

CHARLIE MCCARTHY: I can’t take this schoolwork any more, it’s driving me crazy.

EDGAR BERGEN: Well, Charlie, I’m sorry, but hard work never killed anybody.

CHARLIE: Still, there’s no use taking chances.

Also in 1979 an advertisement for the book “You Don’t Have to Be in Who’s Who to Know What’s What” by Sam Levenson appeared in the ‘Chicago Tribune” and other papers. The ad reprinted a gag from the book: 17

“They say hard work never killed anyone, but why take a chance on being the first casualty.”

In conclusion, the underlying adage about hard work was circulating by 1844. The earliest matching version of the joke appeared as an anonymous filler item in 1936. The phrasing of the gag evolved over time. Walter Winchell attributed an instance to Florian ZaBach in 1956, and Sam Levenson included an instance in his 1979 book.

Joe Franklin indicated in his 1979 book that Edgar Bergen employed this punchline via his dummy character Charlie McCarthy, but it is not clear when this occurred.

Image Notes: Illustration of three rolling dice from caro_oe92 at Pixabay.

(Thanks to Bill Mullins, Barry Popik, Fred Shapiro, Wilson Gray for their pioneering research and comments on this topic. Shapiro noted that Edgar Bergen’s character Charlie McCarthy had been credited with the joke in a 1984 book. Popik identified a 1956 instance of the joke, and Mullins found a 1945 instance. Also, Popik found an instance of the underlying adage in 1874.)

Notes:

  1. 1936 September 12, Plainfield Courier-News, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1844, The Late-hour System; A Verbatim Report of the Speeches Delivered at a Public Meeting of the Bristol Drapers’ Association; Held at the Victoria Rooms, Clifton, on Tuesday Evening, May 7, 1844; With the Report of the Committee, Quote Page 15, Published by the Authority of the Bristol Drapers’ Association; Printed by Henry & Alfred Hill, Bristol, England.(Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1879, My Lady Green Sleeves by Helen Buckingham Mathers, Volume 3 of 3, Quote Page 54, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1894 April 25, The Daily Herald, David Dudley Field, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1921 December 22, The Roanoke News (Weldon Roanoke News), Personals and Other Items Told In Brief Form, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Weldon, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1929 March 9, The Daily Gleaner, Section: Special Magazine Section, For Once, I Think, Mr. Bennett Is Wrong by James Douglas (Editor of The Sunday Express), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1931 January 7, Evening News-Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 3, Clovis, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1936 July 31, The Sheboygan Press, Office Cat, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1936 September 12, Plainfield Courier-News, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1945 October 6, The De Kalb Daily Chronicle, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1945 October 8, Muncie Evening Press, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1956 May 20, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Section: Sunday Magazine and Feature Section, Hugh Allen Says, Quote Page C1, Column 7, Knoxville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1956 June 21, Pottsville Republican, N.Y. Scene by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 23, Column 4, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1957 January 9, The Asheville Citizen, It Happened Last Night: Our Serious Drama Critics by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Asheville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1957 January 20, The Salt Lake Tribune, Senator From Sandpit by Ham Park, Quote Page 14A, Column 4, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1979, Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians by Joe Franklin, Section: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Quote Page 56, Column 2, The Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy)
  17. 1979 April 8, Chicago Tribune, Section 7: Book World, (Advertisement for the book “You Don’t Have to Be in Who’s Who to Know What’s What” by Sam Levenson from Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstores), Quote Page E2, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)