Florence Kerns? Ray Hallinan? Herb Caen? Pauline Tymon? Larry Pickard? David Crosby? Joe Bob Briggs? Al Franken? Stuart Smalley? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Saturday Night Live television program once featured skits with a character named Stuart Smalley who was played by the comedian and former senator Al Franken. Smalley was enamored with self-help programs and often used the following catch phrase:
Denial is not a river in Egypt.
I have also heard a very similar phrase credited to Mark Twain:
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Could you explore the origin of this quotation?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain used this expression. Al Franken, in the persona of Stuart Smalley, did use this saying, but his satirical character was introduced to the television audience in 1991. Franken was employing a phrase that was already in circulation in the domain of self-help and addiction counseling.
The underlying pun has a long history. The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the “Reading Times” of Reading, Pennsylvania in April 1931. Eighth grade student Florence Kerns won a contest by submitting the following wordplay joke which fit a question-answer template: 1
Question: Do you know how to use “denial” in a sentence?
Answer: Denial river runs through Egypt.
Thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation above and shared it with QI. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1931 April 11, Reading Times, Section: Junior Times, Florence Takes Prize for Joke, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩