Joke Origin: “Give Me a Cup of Coffee Without Cream” “You’ll Have To Take It Without Milk. We Haven’t Any Cream”

Jean-Paul Sartre? George Carlin? Slavoj Žižek? O. O. McIntyre? Sewell Ford? Billy Wilder? Leo Rosten? Anonymous?

Picture of a coffee cup with coffee beans from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: Philosophers, linguists, and humorists enjoy the following joke about tacit knowledge: A person enters a café and requests coffee without cream. After a delay the waiter returns and says “I’m sorry. We’re out of cream. Would you like to have coffee without milk?”

This joke has been attributed to the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Slavoj Žižek. It also been linked to the humorists George Carlin and Leo Rosten. Would you please explore its provenance?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Mansfield News” of Mansfield, Ohio in January 1921. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

“Give me a cup of coffee without cream.”
“You’ll have to take it without milk. We haven’t any cream.”
That from Johnny Hines’ new Torchy comedy.

U.S. actor Johnny Hines was a star of the silent film era. He appeared in a series of short films about a redheaded office worker named “Torchy”. The film titles included “Torchy Comes Through” (1920), “Torchy in High” (1920), and “Torchy’s Millions” (1920). The films were based on a series of books by Sewell Ford which began with “Torchy”2 in 1911.

QI has not seen these films. Also, QI has not examined all these books; hence, QI has not verified the presence or absence of this joke. Thus, the creator of the gag remains anonymous, at this time.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1921 the widely syndicated New York columnist by O. O. McIntyre shared 3 an elaborate version of the gag with his readers:4

Boulevardiers claim that prohibition and the resultant small tip have driven all the good waiters out of New York hotels. They claim that the only requirement for the average cafe waiter these days is stupidity. This following story almost bears them out.

Jimmy Allison, the newspaper correspondent, went into a cafe near the Forties and said to the waiter: “Bring me coffee without cream.”

After a time the waiter returned. “You’ll have to take it without milk. We haven’t any cream.” Jimmy missed him with his plate.

Also, in September 1921 an instance appeared in a Bremen, Indiana newspaper:5

. . . a story about a man who asked the waiter for coffee without cream. After going to the kitchen the waiter returned to report: “I’ll have to give it to you without milk; we’re out of cream.”

In April 1922 “The Literary Digest” of New York printed an instance while acknowledging another periodical:6

Ins and Outs—“Tea or coffee?”
“Coffee without cream.”
“You’ll have to take it, sir, without milk, sir; we’re out of cream.”—Puppet.

In 1939 the joke appeared in the popular romantic comedy film “Ninotchka” with a screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch. The original story was written by  Melchior Lengyel. The joke was delivered by the character Léon (played by Melvyn Douglas) who was conversing with Ninotchka (played by Greta Garbo). Léon was attempting to get Ninotchka to laugh:7

When I first heard this joke, I laughed myself sick! Here goes. A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table. He says, ‘Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream.’

Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, ‘I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream. Can it be without milk?’

In 1945 “Esar’s Joke Dictionary” compiled by Evan Esar printed an instance:8

A motorist entered a little all-night restaurant late one night and ordered a cup of coffee. “Without cream,” he added, after the waitress had taken his order. In a short while the waitress was back smiling apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir, but we’re out of cream,” she said. “Do you mind taking it without milk?”

In 1968 the comedian George Carlin published a piece titled “My Favorite Jokes” in “Parade” magazine, a widely distributed Sunday newspaper supplement. Carlin included a version of the joke:9

A man sits at a lunch counter and orders coffee without cream. Five minutes later the waitress comes back and says, “You’ll have to take your coffee without milk. We’re all out of cream.”

In 1989 “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter” included a variant:10

Waitress: Any dessert?
Customer: Just coffee.
Waitress: With or without cream?
Customer: No cream. (waitress goes away; returns)
Waitress: I’m sorry, sir; we’re fresh out of cream.
Customer: Do you have any milk?
Waitress: Sure.
Customer: Okay. Then I’ll take my coffee without milk.

In 2002 the novelist John Dufresne published “Deep in the Shade of Paradise”. The appendix contained a comical fictional scenario featuring the philosopher Sartre:11

Jean-Paul Sartre walks into a café in the 2nd Arrondisement and settles into a quiet corner in the back. Simone is not in the café. He’s here to prepare a philosophy exam for his students. He’s not feeling all that well—a touch of nausea. The waitress is busy with the phenomenologists across the room.
. . .
Finally the waitress arrives. Sartre asks her for a coffee without cream.
She says, “Monsieur Sartre, I’m so sorry. We are out of cream today.”
“All right, then, I’ll have it without milk.”

In 2014 “Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism” by Slavoj Žižek contained the following passage:12

There is a wonderfully dialectical joke in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. The hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream, to which the waiter replies: ‘Sorry, but we have run out of cream. Can I bring you coffee without milk?’

In both cases, the customer gets coffee alone, but this One-coffee is each time accompanied by a different negation, first coffee-with-no-cream, then coffee-with-no-milk.

In conclusion, this joke was circulating by January 1921. It appeared in a silent movie according to an article in a Mansfield, Ohio newspaper; however, QI does not know the name of the movie. Thus, the identity of the creator remains uncertain.

There is no substantive evidence that Jean-Paul Sartre employed the joke. Slavoj Žižek used the joke, but he disclaimed credit while pointing to the 1939 movie “Ninotchka”. George Carlin included the joke in a 1968 article listing his favorites.

Image Notes: Picture of a coffee cup with coffee beans from Mike Kenneally at Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Laurence Horn whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Jeff Prucher who pointed to the “Torchy” series of books and films.

Update History: On June 2, 2024 a description of the “Torchy” series of books and films was added to the article.

  1. 1921 January 30, The Mansfield News, Might Be Different In Real Restaurant, Section: Social, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Mansfield, Ohio. (The word “cream” was misspelled as “ercam” in the original text) (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1911, Torchy by Sewell Ford, (The word “coffee” appeared in the book, but none of the matches was relevant), Edward J. Clode, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1921 September 8, St. Joseph Gazette, The Talk of N’Yawk by O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 4, Column 3, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1921 September 8, The Atlanta Constitution, Bits of New York Life by O. O. M’Intyre, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1921 September 22, The Bremen Enquirer, Wise & Otherwise: A Combination of Fun, Facts and Foolosophy, Conducted by J. K. G., Quote Page 3, Column 1, Bremen, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1922 April 1, The Literary Digest, Volume 73, Number 1, The Spice of Life, Start Page 70, Quote Page 71, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. YouTube video, Title: NINOTCHKA desktop, Uploaded on July 5, 2011, Uploaded by: semiophiliac, Description: Clip from the 1939 movie Ninotchka; the scene shows Léon (Melvyn Douglas) speaking to Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), Quotation starts at the beginning of the 29 second clip. (Accessed on on May 31, 2024) link ↩︎
  8. 1945, Esar’s Joke Dictionary by Evan Esar, Topic: Restaurant, Quote Page 373, Harvest House Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  9. 1968 November 3, The Washington Post, Section: Parade Magazine, My Favorite Jokes by George Carlin, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  10. 1989, Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter: The greatest jokes, one-liners, bloopers, and stories for everyone who loves to laugh by Leo Rosten (Leo Calvin Rosten), Topic: Shaggy Dogs, Quote Page 482, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 2002, Deep in the Shade of Paradise by John Dufresne, Section: Appendix, Notes for Page 116, Quote Page 342, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  12. 2015 (2014 Copyright), Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism by Slavoj Žižek, Chapter 1: Diagnosis Hors d’oeuvre?, Quote Page 24, Penguin Books: Penguin Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎