Quote Origin: The Pun Is the Lowest Form of Humor When You Don’t Think of It First

Mary Livingstone? Oscar Levant? John Dryden? Jonathan Swift? Edgar Allan Poe? Anonymous?

Pun: Deer to be different! Picture from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: The utterance of a pun is sometimes greeted with the assertion that puns are the lowest form of humor, but a humorist once explained the true reason behind this criticism. The complainer was unable to think of the pun first. This notion has been attributed to radio comedian Mary Livingstone and concert pianist Oscar Levant? Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “Liberty” magazine in 1942 within an article titled “How To Live With a Comic” by Mary Livingstone. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

This makes me realize there must be one in every family—a husband, a son, an uncle, or the handy man around the house . . . who thinks a pun is the lowest form of wit because he didn’t think of it first. That’s why I’m writing this piece—to relate my own experiences with a professional funny man so that you’ll better know how to handle your amateur funny man.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Criticizing puns as the lowest form of wit has a long history. In 1672 English playwright and literary critic John Dryden published “An Essay on the Dramatique Poetry of the Last Age”. Dryden rebuked his fellow English playwright Ben Jonson for using too many puns in his popular satirical play “Every Man in His Humour”. Dryden referred to puns as clenches which he described as the “lowest and most groveling kind of wit”:2

Nay, he was not free from the lowest and most groveling kind of wit, which we call clenches; of which, Every Man in his Humour, is infinitely full and, which is worse, the wittiest persons in the Drama speak them.

The notion that a person who condemns puns is motivated by an inability to utter puns can be traced back to the eighteenth century. A biographical sketch of the famous Irish satirist Jonathan Swift published in 1755 credited him with the following opinion:3

He greatly excelled in punning; a talent, which, he said, no man affected to despise, but those that were without it; and his conversation would have furnished a more excellent compendium of this species of wit, than was ever yet compiled, or, perhaps, ever will . . .

In 1845 the prominent U.S. horror writer Edgar Allan Poe published “Marginal Notes.—No. 1” in “Godey’s Lady’s Book”. Poe made a similar remark about the critics of puns although he disclaimed credit for crafting the remark:4

Of puns it has been said that those most dislike who are least able to utter them.

In 1942 Mary Livingstone wrote a version of the quip under examination in “Liberty” magazine as mentioned previously in this article:

This makes me realize there must be one in every family . . . who thinks a pun is the lowest form of wit because he didn’t think of it first.

In February 1945 “Quote” magazine printed an instance while acknowledging another periodical:5

A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless, of course, you happen to think of it first.—Nat’l Safety News.

In April 1945 “Reader’s Digest” attributed the joke to Oscar Levant although the magazine did not provide a precise citation:6

The Pun Is the Lowest Form of Humor—When You Don’t Think of It First.—Oscar Levant

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar included the following entry:7

LEVANT, Oscar, born 1906, American pianist, composer, and wit.
A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first.

In 1968 Oscar Levant published “The Unimportance of Being Oscar”, and he included the quip:8

Puns are the lowest form of wit—if you don’t happen to think of them first.

In conclusion, Mary Livingstone deserves credit for this jest based on the February 8, 1942 citation in “Liberty” magazine. Oscar Levant also employed this joke, but Livingstone has precedence based on currently available evidence.

The Quote Investigator website has other articles about germane sayings. Here are a few links:

He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket

“The Pun Is the Lowest Form of Wit” “Yes, That Means It Is the Foundation of All Wit”

Punning Is a Talent Which No Man Affects To Despise, But He That Is Without It

Those Who Most Dislike Puns Are Least Able To Utter Them

Image Notes:  Picture of a deer with impressive antlers from Laura College at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Eli Burnstein whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

  1. 1942 February 8, Liberty, How To Live With a Comic by Mary Livingstone, Start Page 56, Quote Page 56, Column 1, Macfadden Publications, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1672, Title: The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards In Two Parts: Acted at the Theatre-Royall, Author: John Dryden, Section: Defence of the EPILOGUE. Or, An Essay on the Dramatique Poetry of the Last Age, Start Page 160, Quote Page 170 and 171, Publication: Printed by T.N. for Henry Herringman In the Savoy, London. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  3. 1755, The Works of Jonathan Swift, Six Volumes, Edited by John Hawkesworth, An Account of the Life of the Reverend Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, Quote Page 32, Printed for C. Bathurst, C. Davis, C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1845 August, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Volume 31, Number 5, Marginal Notes.—No. 1 by Edgar A. Poe, Start Page 49, Quote Page 49, Column 2, Louis A. Godey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1945 February 18-24, Quote: The Weekly Digest, Volume 9, Issue 8, Wisecracks of the Week, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Droke House, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1945 April, Reader’s Digest, Volume 46, Number 276, (Untitled miscellaneous collection of quotations), Quote Page 63, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1949 Copyright, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Oscar Levant, Quote Page 130, Bramhall House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. 1968, The Unimportance of Being Oscar by Oscar Levant, Chapter 4, Quote Page 100, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎