Humorist: Red Skelton? George Jessel? Goodman Ace? Groucho Marx? Bert Lahr? James Bacon?
Dear Quote Investigator: A show business platitude states that success at the box office is achievable by simply giving the people what they want.
A harsh comical anecdote about a funeral reinterpreted this saying. The memorial service of a powerful and disliked movie mogul was surprisingly well attended. One ambivalent mourner asked another to explain the existence of the large crowd of attendees. The acerbic response was:
Give the public what they want, and they’ll come to see it.
Would you please explore this tale? What was the name of the movie potentate who had died? Who was telling the joke?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in “The Washington Post” in 1941. A columnist relayed a quip made by the popular actor and comedian George Jessel: 1
And there was George Jessel’s box-office-ish remark about a funeral which was drawing enormous crowds of people into a church door as he passed—”Well, there you are, you see,” said Jessel. “Give ’em what they want.”
The text above was located by top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake. Jessel was presenting a joke, and he was not actually attending a funeral. The adage was recognizable to readers even when it was truncated. The memorialized individual was nameless in the quip.
In later years this comical remark was linked to other wits such as Red Skelton, Goodman Ace, and Groucho Marx. In addition, the barb was precisely aimed at the prominent movie producers Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1942 March 8, Washington Post, Strictly Screwball by Katharine Brush, Quote Page L1, Column 3 and 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩