Never Be the Brightest Person in the Room; Then You Can’t Learn Anything

James Watson? Holly Hunter? James L. Brooks? Steven R. Craig? Michael Dell? Ed Burns? Orlando Taylor? Selena Gomez? Taylor Swift? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The molecular biologist James Watson earned a Nobel Prize as a member of the team that elucidated the helical structure of DNA. He did not claim to be uniquely brilliant; instead, he offered the following self-effacing guidance. Here are three versions:

  • Never be the brightest person in the room; then you can’t learn anything.
  • If you’re the brightest person in the room, you’re in trouble.
  • If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

Would you please help me to find a citation and determine which version is correct?

Quote Investigator: James Watson did communicate this notion several times using different expressions over the years. For example, in February 2003 an article about Watson appeared in the periodical “Seed” which was reprinted in “The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004”. The journalist Jennet Conant presented this remark from the scientist: 1

“Generally, it pays to talk,” says Watson. “Oh, and another rule: Never be the brightest person in the room; then you can’t learn anything.”

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Be the Brightest Person in the Room; Then You Can’t Learn Anything

Notes:

  1. 2004, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, Edited by Steven Pinker, The New Celebrity by Jennet Conant, (First published in Seed, February 2003), Start Page 38, Quote Page 39, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)

If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Cecile Starr? Billy Wilder? Richard Pryor? James L. Brooks? Dustin Hoffman? Charles Ludlam?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dramatists have discovered that challenging material often elicits hostility or boredom. This is dangerous for creators because jobs in the entertainment industry are precarious. Yet, a provocative production leavened with humor is often embraced by audiences. The following adage now circulates on Broadway and in Hollywood:

1) If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.
2) If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

The playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Ludlam have all been credited with this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1951 article in “The Saturday Review” by critic and film historian Cecile Starr discussing a documentary film festival. When Starr commented on the works of one filmmaker she mentioned the adage and ascribed it to George Bernard Shaw who had died a year earlier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

QI has found no substantive support for crediting Oscar Wilde with the saying. He died in 1900 and the expression appeared decades afterwards. There is some good evidence that the well-known director Billy Wilder employed the saying, but the linkage occurred after it was attributed to Shaw. There was also some indirect evidence Charles Ludlam used the expression. The comedian Richard Pryor, actor Dustin Hoffman, and screenwriter James L. Brooks all delivered the line during interviews, but they spoke when it was already in circulation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

Notes:

  1. 1951 October 13, The Saturday Review, Ideas on Film: Edinburgh’s Documentary Festival by Cecile Starr, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)