I Thought the Brain Was the Most Important Organ Until I Realized What Was Telling Me That

Emo Philips? George Carlin? Richard Saul Wurman? Dale Dauten? Daniel C. Dennett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A prominent philosopher of consciousness and the brain included a hilarious joke in a recent book. Here are three versions:

I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, ‘look what’s telling me that’.

I used to think that my brain was the most important organ in my body, but then I thought: look who’s telling me that.

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.

This quip has been attributed to the U.S. stand-up comedians Emo Philips and George Carlin. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a comedy special starring Emo Philips broadcast in 1987 on the cable channel Home Box Office (HBO). Philips told an anecdote during which he was arrested and sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Do you like psychology? I don’t. I used to think that the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I realized, whoa, ‘look what’s telling me that’.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Journalists wrote reviews of the HBO program and shared Emo’s jokes with readers; however, fallible human memory generated variant phrasings. For example, in March 1987 columnist Richard K. Shull of “The Indianapolis News” in Indiana printed an instance using “who’s” instead of “what’s”: 2

As for Emo’s philosophy, he says, “I used to think the brain was the most fascinating part of the body. Then I thought, ‘Look who’s telling me that.'”

One day later, the entertainment reporter Larry Kart of the “Chicago Tribune” published a very close match to Emo’s words: 3

Very strange and very funny, provided one has a taste for Emo’s off-the-wall sense of humor [“I used to think the human brain was the most fascinating part of the body,” he says, “and then I realized, ‘Look what’s telling me that’”]

In 1992 the architect Richard Saul Wurman who later co-founded the TED conferences published the book “Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Learning To Give, Take, and Use Instructions” which included a variant of the quotation using the phrase “most important organ”. The name “Philips” was misspelled as “Phillips”: 4

I used to think that my brain was the most important organ in my body, but then I thought: look who’s telling me that.—Paraphrased from comedian Emo Phillips

In 1999 syndicated business columnist Dale Dauten shared a version with the phrase “most wonderful organ” while crediting Emo and misspelling ‘Philips”: 5

THE JOKE: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” — Emo Phillips

In 2007 Winston-Salem Journal of North Carolina printed an instance somewhat close to the original: 6

“I used to think that the brain was the most fascinating part of the body,” comedian Emo Phillips once said. “Then I realized, ‘look who’s telling me that.'”

In 2010 Richard Saul Wurman delivered a keynote address at the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit, and a transcript was posted on the website “Boxes and Arrows”. Wurman concluded his speech by presenting a version of the joke which he attributed to Emo Philips: 7

For years and years and years, I thought my brain was the most important organ of my body, until one day I thought, hmm. Look who’s telling me that!

In 2017 prominent philosopher Daniel C. Dennett published “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”, and he included an instance of the joke which was the same as the version shared by Wurman in 2010; however, Dennett credited comedian George Carlin: 8

. . . one of my favorite George Carlin one-liners:
For years and years and years, I thought my brain was the most important organ of my body, until one day I thought, hmm. Look who’s telling me that!

In conclusion, Emo Philips delivered this line during an HBO comedy special in 1987, and he deserves credit for it. Variant phrasings have proliferated over time, and it is conceivable that Philips presented the quip in more than one way. The linkage to George Carlin is currently unsupported. QI suggests employing the 1987 instance while crediting Emo Philips.

Image Notes: Abstract illustration of neurons and brain from geralt (Gerd Altmann) at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. YouTube video, Title: Emo Phillips HBO Comedy Special 1987, (“Philips” is misspelled as “Phillips” in the title), Uploaded on January 1, 2020, Uploaded by: Groovy Flicks, (Quotation starts at 35 minutes 30 seconds of 51 minutes 47 seconds), Description: Comedy special starring Emo Philips broadcast in 1987 on Home Box Office cable network), (Accessed on youtube.com on January 10, 2021)
  2. 1987 March 26, The Indianapolis News, Strange comedy: ‘Image’ and Emo by Richard K. Shull, Quote Page 15, Column 5, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1987 March 27, Chicago Tribune, Emo Phillips’ HBO debut a delight by Larry Kart (Entertainment writer), Quote Page D5, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  4. 1992, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Learning To Give, Take, and Use Instructions by Richard Saul Wurman with Loring Leifer, Chapter: Mission Impossible: The Techno-Humanist, Quote Page 124, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1999 July 7, Albuquerque Journal, Management By Joking Around by Dale Dauten (Syndicated by King Features), Quote Page D4, Column 1, Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 2007 March 12, Winston-Salem Journal, About the Brain… – Week’s Topics Will Range from Ailments to Aptitude by Tim Clodfelter (Journal Reporter), Quote Page 1D, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. Website: Boxes and Arrows, Article title: IA Summit 10 – Richard Saul Wurman Keynote, Article author: Jeff Parks, Article description: Transcript of keynote speech given by Richard Saul Wurman at the 11th annual Information Architecture Summit in 2010, Date on website: April 12, 2010, Website description: “Boxes and Arrows is devoted to the practice, innovation, and discussion of design—including graphic design, interaction design, information architecture, and the design of business.” (Accessed boxesandarrows.com on January 10, 2021) (Excerpt is present in snapshot dated November 20, 2012 in Internet Archive Wayback Machine) link
  8. 2017, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett, Chapter 15: The Age of Post-Intelligent Design, Unnumbered Page in Preview, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)