You May Humbug the Town for Some Time Longer as a Tragedian; But Comedy Is a Serious Thing

David Garrick? Thomas Campbell? George Colman? John Simon? Wesley Ruggles? W. C. Fields? Carlotta Monti? Penelope Keith? Rex Harrison? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comedy is often lighthearted; hence, it is counter-intuitive to view it as a serious business, yet the creators and participants of humorous works face a harsh and crowded entertainment market; they must energetically support their projects. Here are three versions of a Hollywood adage:

  • Comedy is a serious matter.
  • Comedy is a serious business.
  • Comedy is a serious thing.

An extended version has been employed by thespians:

Any fool can play tragedy; but comedy is a damned serious business.

The popular eighteenth-century English actor David Garrick has received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest semantic match to the full statement located by QI appeared in an 1834 biography of the prominent actress Sarah Siddons titled “Life of Mrs. Siddons” by Thomas Campbell. Siddons knew many fellow actors including David Garrick and John Bannister, and the book recounted a conversation between those two. Bannister had achieved success playing roles in tragedies, and he was contemplating broadening his repertoire to include comic characters. In the following passage the phrase “English Roscius” referred to Garrick who tried to dissuade Bannister. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At another interview, he ventured to tell the English Roscius that he had some thoughts of attempting comedy. “Eh, eh?” said Garrick, “why no, don’t think of that, you may humbug the town for some time longer as a tragedian; but comedy is a serious thing, so don’t try it yet.” Bannister, however, attempted comedy; and his Don Whiskerandos (as he himself says) laughed his tragedy out of fashion.

As indicated above Bannister disregarded Garrick’s advice and achieved additional fame by playing the comical character Don Whiskerandos in the satire “The Critic” by the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

This exchange between Bannister and Garrick was described by Campbell many years after the death of Garrick in 1779; hence, its credibility is reduced.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1775 the dramatist and essayist George Colman asserted within the pages of “The Universal Magazine” of London that writing a comedy was a “serious matter”. The magazine piece was signed “The Blackguard”. 2 The author’s identity was clarified when the article was reprinted in a collection titled “Prose on Several Occasions Accompanied with Some Pieces in Verse” by Colman: 3

From the days of Aeschylus to yesterday, few Writers have been equal to the execution of a good Tragedy; to write a Comedy is a serious matter; and even an excellent Farce-monger (says Diderot) is no ordinary character.

In 1776 the “Weekly Magazine, Or, Edinburgh Amusement” printed advice given by the head of a theatrical troupe. The guidance suggested that comic roles were easier to perform than tragic roles which was a reversal of the saying under examination: 4

“Young man, says she, you should by all means think of low comedy, you may make a figure in that, but, believe me, in tragedy you have no hopes at all.”

In July 1843 the book “Life of Mrs. Siddons” was reviewed in “The Bell’s New Weekly Messenger” of London. The excerpt given previously in this article caught the attention of the reviewer, and it was reprinted in the newspaper: 5

. . . “Eh? eh?” said Garrick, “why no, don’t think of that, you may humbug the town for sometime longer as a tragedian; but comedy is a serious thing, so don’t try it yet.”

Three decades later in 1867, “The Atlantic Monthly” printed the same passage from “Life of Mrs. Siddons”. 6

In 1872 the “Republican Banner” of Nashville, Tennessee printed the advice from Garrick using a different phrasing; “serious thing” became “serious business”: 7

Let him profit by the experience at that tragedian who, wishing to translate himself from tears into laughter, went to Garrick for advice, which was: “Stick to tragedy, my dear fellow; you can fool people a while longer in tragedy, but comedy’s a serious business; don’t attempt it.”

In 1890 “The Westminster Review” of London presented another phrasing for Garrick’s recommendation: 8

As Garrick said to Jack Bannister: “You may humbug the town well enough as a tragedian for a while; but comedy is a serious thing, my boy; so don’t try that just yet.”

In 1893 “The Montclair Times” of New Jersey discussed a painting of Garrick, and also attributed a remark to actor. To view the painting look at the cropped image at the beginning of this QI article: 9

In a famous picture of Garrick by Reynolds, the actor is represented as between tragedy and comedy, and while leaning against tragedy is slyly glancing toward comedy. When asked which he really preferred, he answered that he could always play tragedy; but comedy, well, comedy was a serious business.

In 1895 “The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts” of New York reported on a speech delivered at a college reunion that discussed Garrick and used the phrase “serious matter”: 10

Garrick was asked whether comedy or tragedy was the more difficult. “Whether I am ill or well,” he answered, “whether I am in low spirits or high spirits, I always feel equal to playing tragedy; but comedy is a serious matter.”

In 1938 “The Stage” periodical of London reported on a speech delivered by Sir John Simon honoring actress Julia Neilson which included the following: 11

One remembered the remark of Garrick when someone praised the tragic acting of his rival, Young: “Any fool can play tragedy, but comedy is serious business.”

In 1940 U.S. film director Wesley Ruggles used an instance of the concise adage: 12

“Comedy is a serious business,” he maintained. “It’s harder to get a laugh than a tear, any day.

Comedian W. C. Fields died in 1946, and during his final 14 years his companion was Carlotta Monti. She released a volume titled “W. C. Fields & Me” in 1971. A columnist discussing the book presented the following quotation attributed to Fields. QI has not yet verified whether this quotation appeared in the book: 13

I found Fields comments on comedy interesting and revealing.

“Comedy,” he said, “is a business, a serious business with only one purpose — to make people laugh.”

“It isn’t easy, but pity the poor book and magazine writers, for it’s much easier to get a laugh from physical action than from the printed word. Laughs from physical action come from the belly.”

In 1982 English actress Penelope Keith attributed a statement similar to the version in the 1938 citation to Garrick: 14

She is still a great lover of comedy, and regards it as her forte. “I believe in the words of David Garrick,” she said. “Any fool can play tragedy. It’s serious business playing comedy.”

In 1991 English actor Rex Harrison based the title of his autobiography “A Damned Serious Business” on the quotation which he included as an epigraph: 15

Any fool can play Tragedy, but Comedy, Sir, is a damned serious business
DAVID GARRICK

The Quote Investigator website has a separate article about the thematically related saying “Dying is easy; comedy is hard”.

In conclusion, George Colman asserted in 1775 that “to write a Comedy is a serious matter”. The phrase “comedy is a serious thing” was attributed to actor David Garrick in 1834 by writer Thomas Campbell within a biography of an actress. Garrick had died in 1779, so this evidence was not strong. The variant “comedy is a serious business” emerged over time.

Also, the longer statement attributed to Garrick “you may humbug the town for some time longer as a tragedian; but comedy is a serious thing” evolved over time into “stick to tragedy, my dear fellow; you can fool people a while longer in tragedy, but comedy’s a serious business” and evolved further into “any fool can play tragedy, but comedy is serious business.”

Image Notes: Painting by Joshua Reynolds of “Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy” circa 1760. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Many thanks to previous researchers Nigel Rees and Barry Popik. Popik presented citations beginning in 1894. Rees in his 2001 reference work “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” gave a 1906 citation which employed a phrasing that led to the discovery of the 1834 citation given above.)

Notes:

  1. 1834, Life of Mrs. Siddons by Thomas Campbell, Volume 2, Chapter 4, (Footnote), Quote Page 113, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1775 December, The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Volume 56, Letter Number 6, To: The Gentleman, From: The Blackguard (George Colman), Quote Page 287, Published Monthly by John Hinton, at the King’s Arms in Paternoster Row, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1787, Title: Prose on Several Occasions: Accompanied with Some Pieces in Verse, Author: George Colman (1732-1794), Volume 1, Letter Number 6, To: The Gentleman, From: The Blackguard, Date: December 4, 1775, Start Page 204, Quote Page 207, Publication: Printed for T. Cadel, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1776 February 15, Weekly Magazine, Or, Edinburgh Amusement, Review of “Memoirs of That Celebrated Comedian, and Very Singular Genius, Mr. Thomas Weston”, Start Page 238, Quote Page 240, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1834 July 20, The Bell’s New Weekly Messenger, Section; The Reviewer, Varieties, Quote Page 58 (2), Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1867 April, The Atlantic Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art and Politics, Volume 19, Adelaide Ristori by Kate Field, Start Page 493, Quote Page 499, Column 2, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1872 December 12, Republican Banner (The Tennessean), (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1890 February, The Westminster Review, Volume 133, Number 2, A Theory of Laughter by John O’Neill, Start Page 201, Quote Page 208, Edward Arnold, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1893 April 1, The Montclair Times, Joseph Jefferson: How the Great Actor Lectured on “The Drama” Before the Outlook Club, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Montclair, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1895 November 2, The Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature and the Arts, Mr. Jefferson at the Normal College, (The New York Tribune, Oct 26), Start Page 284, Quote Page 284, Column 2, New York, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1938 March 24, The Stage, Julia Neilson Tribute: Fifty Years On the Stage, Quote Page 9, Column 5,London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  12. 1940 April 5, Shamokin News-Dispatch, Capitol: All-Star Cast (Review of “Too Many Husbands”), Quote Page 8, Column 3, Shamokin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1971 August 28, The Star-Phoenix, Pat O’Dwyer and W. C. Fields (Discussion of Carlotta Monti’s “W. C. Fields and Me”), Quote Page 23, Column 5, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1982 December 24, The Aberdeen Press and Journal, Section: Christmas Journal, Penny shines, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  15. 1991, A Damned Serious Business by Rex Harrison, (Epigraph), Unnumbered page at beginning of book, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)