W. C. Fields? Great Lester? Fred Allen? Anonymous Vaudevillian?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to trace the following gag:
I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.
This line is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields who played cantankerous and henpecked characters in movies. Would you please explore its provenance? I recognize that today some would label the joke sexist and ageist.
Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields did sing this line while taking a shower in the 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man”. 1 However, the joke was already well-known to humorists before this film was shot.
The earliest strong match located by QI was printed in “The Seattle Daily Times” of Seattle, Washington in 1915. An advertisement for “The Pantages” theater mentioned a vaudeville performer named Great Lester and described his act as follows: 2
World’s Foremost Ventriloquist in His Cleverest and Funniest Exhibition! (He’s a Riot, Folks.)
The same newspaper page featured a section titled “Lines From Current Vaudeville” which recounted jokes that were being used in local venues. Here were two examples. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3
“An optimist is a person who doesn’t give a whoop what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to him.”
—Howard & McCane, Orpheum.
“I would rather have two girls at 17 than one at 34.”
The number of years specified in the quip was variable, e.g., 16, 17, 18, and 21. QI believes that the line was used by multiple comedians. QI does not know whether Great Lester crafted the statement or lifted it from a fellow performer.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- Subzin; Movie Subtitle Search, Movie: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Year of Movie: 1939, Time stamp for quotation: 00:17:15, Quotation Line 01: I’d rather have two girls at 21 each, Quotation Line 02: Than one girl at 42. (Accessed on Subzin on April, 28 2015) ↩
- 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, (Advertisement for the Pantages theater), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1915 February 23, The Seattle Daily Times, Lines From Current Vaudeville, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩