James Kirkwood Jr.? Ronald Reagan? Ken Kesey? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous joke about a child who wakes up on Christmas morning and is surprised to find a heap of horse manure under the tree instead of a collection of presents. Yet, the child is not discouraged because he has an extraordinarily optimistic outlook on life. His parents discover him enthusiastically shoveling the manure as he exclaims, “With all this manure, there must be a pony somewhere!”
New York Times language maven William Safire stated that the entire joke would be brought to mind for many readers by simply mentioning the punchline: 1
There must be a pony in here somewhere.
Safire connected the tale to Ronald Reagan who enjoyed telling a version, but I know that the Broadway playwright James Kirkwood Jr. also wrote a semi-autobiographical 1960 novel referencing the tale with the title:
There Must Be A Pony!
Would you please trace this comical anecdote?
Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this joke, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. The telltale sign of a pony seen by the expectant child has varied, e.g., horse dung, a horse shoe, horsehair, and a bale of hay. Sometimes one child was featured, and sometimes the divergent behaviors of an optimistic child and a pessimistic child were contrasted. This high variability makes the story difficult to trace. Also, the earliest instances located by QI used a different punchline.
In 1902 a state senator in Illinois addressed a banquet of business people in the advertising industry and presented the following narrative: 2
Three little children were hanging up their stockings. They were Rebecca and Rachel and Ikey. The old man had licked Ikey the night before and told him that Santa Claus was no good and wouldn’t bring him anything.
“Oh, yes,” said Ikey, “Santa Claus will; my father is an old friend of his; Santa Claus is a nice fellow; he will bring me something.”
By the way, I should tell you what a mean daddy the father was. He went out into the street and got a piece of frozen earth that hadn’t been left there by an automobile [laughter], and he put that—deliberately took and put it in poor little Ikey’s stocking. In the morning the three children were up early to find out what Santa Claus had left them. “What you got?” was the first question as each examined the contents of the stockings. Rachel had a little diamond ring and Rebecca had a gold watch. “And you, Ikey. What did you get?”
But Ikey was faithful.
“Well, Santa Claus is all right,” he said. “I think he brought me a pony, but he must have got away.” [Laughter and applause.]
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1984 March 11, New York Times, On Language: Punch-line English by William Safire, Quote Page A28, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1902 January, Advertising Experience, Volume 14, Number 3, Agate Club Banquet of December 20th, (Speaker: William E. Mason, Illinois State Senator), Start Page 3, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published and Edited by W.G. Souther, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩