Sam Levenson? Oscar Levant? W. C. Fields? Helen Gorn Sutin? Dave Berg? Ann Landers? Erma Bombeck? Grace Kelly?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many parents concur with a very funny quip that reverses the traditional notion of inheritance:
Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your kids.
This joke has been attributed to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck, the television host Sam Levenson, and the comedian W. C. Fields. Would you please resolve this ambiguity?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published on April 6, 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper within a column containing a miscellaneous set of short comical items. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children.
During the same time period, the syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the jest with an identical attribution: 2
Sam Levenson’s merciless truth: “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children!”
During the following years: Oscar Levant employed the joke; Ann Landers and Erma Bombeck placed it in their respective newspaper columns; and Grace Kelly used a variant quip. Nevertheless, QI believes that Sam Levenson should receive credit for this witticism.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.