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)

Obscene and Not Heard

Groucho Marx? Ethel Barrymore? Maurice Barrymore? Paul M. Potter? Gertrude Battles Lane? John Lennon? Joe E. Lewis? Robert Heinlein? Marilyn Manson? Augustus John? Oscar Wilde?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is well-known and often repeated admonition directed at young people who are making too much noise:

Children should be seen and not heard.

Wordplay has produced multiple quips which transform the phrase “seen and not heard” into other similar sounding statements:

Back in our day sex was obscene and not heard.
The writing was obscene but not absurd.
Graffiti should be obscene and not heard.
Women should be obscene but not heard.

Instances of these statements have been attributed to Groucho Marx, John Lennon, Ethel Barrymore, Robert Heinlein, and Oscar Wilde. Attitudes have changed over the years and some statements in this family grate on many modern ears. Would you please examine this family of adages?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an anecdote published in a New York newspaper in 1892. The quip was spoken by Maurice Barrymore who was the patriarch of the famous theater family that included his children John, Lionel, and Ethel. A large show had recently closed, and Barrymore discussed the production with a fellow actor. He defended the risqué performances of the lead actress while mentioning the poor acoustics of the capacious venue. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Here is the latest scintillation of Barrymore’s wit. Barrymore and Wilton Lackaye were discussing Mrs. Bernard-Beere’s unfortunate engagement at the Manhattan Opera-House. Lackaye having said something about the English actress’s failure, Barrymore replied: “My dear boy, you must remember that the size of the theatre was entirely against her; it is so large that it entirely destroyed the delicacy of her art. The stage of that theatre is intended only for broad effects.”

“Well,” said Lackaye, “judging from what I have heard, the broad effects in some of her plays were marked, especially certain scenes in ‘Ariane.'”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” declared Barrymore. “On that big stage anybody can be obscene and not heard.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Obscene and Not Heard

Notes:

  1. 1892 December 12, The Evening World, Stage News and Notes, Quote Page 5, Column 3, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

Lovers: They Sing a Song Only You Can Hear

Oscar Wilde? CosmoGIRL? L. G. McVean? William J. Locke? Elizabeth Cooper? Holiday Mathis? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about the intimate connection between people who are in love that has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. The closeness is expressed using an auditory metaphor:

You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.

Highlighting a “fancy car” in Wilde’s time period seems prochronistic. Did Wilde make this remark?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde spoke or wrote a statement of this type. It is not listed in the excellent compendium “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” which was compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest full match known to QI appeared relatively recently in the 2006 book “CosmoGirl!: Words to Live” from the editors of the now defunct magazine CosmoGIRL, and the attribution was anonymous. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.” —Anonymous

The notion of a song that is only audible to one’s lover has a long history, and QI has found citations beginning in 1888 although this trope is probably much older. Details are presented below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Lovers: They Sing a Song Only You Can Hear

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, Book Title: CosmoGirl!: Words to Live By from The Editors of CosmoGIRL, Chapter: Love Lines, Quote Page 52, Hearst Books: A Division of Sterling Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Preview)

I Spent All Morning Taking Out a Comma and All Afternoon Putting It Back

Oscar Wilde? Gustave Flaubert? Robert H. Sherard? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous writer who was punctilious about punctuation described an arduous day of work as follows:

I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.

In some versions of the anecdote the operations were reversed:

I spent all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in again.

This humorous remark has been attributed to the wit Oscar Wilde and the French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Would you please determine the correct ascription?

Quote Investigator: Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Gustave Flaubert made this remark. He died in 1880, and the first linkage of the tale to him that QI has located was published in 1919. Details are given further below.

The earliest instance of this anecdote known to QI appeared on May 8, 1884 in “The Daily Graphic: An Illustrated Evening Newspaper” of New York City under the title “The Casual Observer”. The story was quickly reprinted in several other newspapers including “The Syracuse Standard” of New York under the title “Oscar’s Morning Work”, 1 and “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts under the title “A Fateful Comma”. 2 Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Oscar Wilde, among his various stories told here of which he was always the aesthetic hero, related that once while on a visit to an English country house he was much annoyed by the pronounced Philistinism of a certain fellow guest, who loudly stated that all artistic employment was a melancholy waste of time.

“Well, Mr. Wilde,” said Oscar’s bugbear one day at lunch, “and pray how have you been passing your morning?” “Oh! I have been immensely busy,” said Oscar with great gravity. “I have spent my whole time over the proof sheets of my book of poems.” The Philistine with a growl inquired the result of that.

“Well, it was very important,” said Oscar. “I took out a comma.” “Indeed,” returned the enemy of literature, “is that all you did?” Oscar, with a sweet smile, said, “By no means; on mature reflection I put back the comma.” This was too much for the Philistine, who took the next train to London.

Many thanks to scholar John Cooper who for three decades has been studying Oscar Wilde with particular emphasis on Wilde’s excursions in the United States. Cooper identified the widely-reprinted story given above, and found the earliest citation. 4

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Spent All Morning Taking Out a Comma and All Afternoon Putting It Back

Notes:

  1. 1884 May 21, The Syracuse Standard, Oscar’s Morning Work (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1884 May 25, The Boston Sunday Globe (Sunday Morning), A Fateful Comma (Acknowledgement to “New York Graphic”), Quote Page 9, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1884 May 8, The Daily Graphic (New York Graphic), The Casual Observer, Quote Page 506, Column 2, (Page 2 of May 8 Issue), New York, New York. (Old Fulton; Located by John Cooper)
  4. Website: Oscar Wilde in America, Article title: “QUOTATION: In the morning I took out a comma, but on mature reflection, I put it back again”, Author: John Cooper, Date on website: No date given, Website description: Information about Oscar Wilde’s visits to the United States assembled by John Cooper. (Accessed oscarwildeinamerica.org on October 25, 2015 and on January 1, 2015)link

Youth Is Wasted on the Young

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Irvin Cobb? Michel de Montaigne? John Brunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A very popular acerbic adage combines wisdom and wistfulness together with a modicum of jealousy:

Youth is wasted on the young.

These words have been attributed to two famous Irish wits: George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Oddly, I have not seen any precise citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a syndicated newspaper column called “Cook-Coos” by Ted Cook in February 1931. 1 The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, and the central meaning was congruent to modern instances; however, the phrasing was quite different Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Someone asked Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

QI has not yet identified an interview with Shaw containing the above remark; hence, the attribution was indirect. In the following months and years there was an efflorescence of similar statements linked to Shaw employing highly-variable phrasing. No closely matching written remark has been found in the corpus of Shaw; thus, residual uncertainty remains.

Attributions to Oscar Wilde were in circulation by 1963, but QI has found no substantive support for the linkage.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Youth Is Wasted on the Young

Notes:

  1. 1931 February 14, Rockford Register-Republic, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1931 February 14, Nevada State Journal, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

smith10Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Missionaries and Cannibals

Notes:

  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.

In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.

PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2

LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?

LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!

The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously

Notes:

  1. 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link
  2. 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link

A Gentleman Is a Man Who Never Gives Offense Unintentionally

Oscar Wilde? Margaret Butler? Geraldine Grove? Lord Chesterfield? John Wayne? Christopher Hitchens? John Cleese? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Books of etiquette once provided a definition of a gentleman that included the following assertion:

A gentleman never insults anyone intentionally.

The clever addition of a two-letter prefix humorously spun the definition:

A gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally.

This statement is often attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please examine this quip?

Quote Investigator: This joke is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Here is a sampling:

  • The well-bred man is never rude unintentionally.
  • A gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.
  • Only very ill-bred people are rude by accident.
  • A gentleman is never rude unintentionally or by accident.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Bedfordshire Mercury” of England in June 1899 within an article titled “Pleasant Paragraphs” which listed miscellaneous anonymous items of wit and humor. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The well-bred man is never rude unintentionally.

This item appeared in several newspapers in England during the ensuing months and years. For example, in December 1900 the item appeared in “The Widnes Examiner”, 2 and in February 1901 it appeared in the “St. Helens Examiner” 3

Oscar Wilde died in in 1900, and he was linked to the quip by 1929, but that was very late. QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that Wilde created or used this joke.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Gentleman Is a Man Who Never Gives Offense Unintentionally

Notes:

  1. 1899 June 16, The Bedfordshire Mercury, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bedfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1900 December 14, The Widnes Examiner, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1901 February 15, St. Helens Examiner, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Niagara Falls: The First Great Disappointment in Married Life

Oscar Wilde? Ann Landers? Gershon Legman? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1882 the coruscating wit Oscar Wilde came to the United States to see the country and to conduct a series of lectures. When he visited the Niagara Falls, a classic honeymoon destination, he was unimpressed. Here are two variants of a saying that has been attributed to him:

Niagara Falls is the first great disappointment in American married life.

Niagara Falls is the second great disappointment of the American bride.

I am having trouble finding a contemporaneous citation for either of these remarks. Are these really the words of Oscar Wilde?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde saw the Niagara Falls in February 1882 and made a collection of serious and comical pronouncements about the hydrological wonder. The earliest evidence of a strongly matching statement located by QI appeared in an August 1883 interview printed in “The New York World” and reprinted in other newspapers. Wilde had returned to the U.S. to superintend the production of his play “Vera” in New York, and he spoke to a journalist from the periodical. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When the reporter hinted that American patriotism had been grievously wounded by Mr. Wilde’s criticism upon Niagara, the poet laughed and said modestly:

Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say this, however, that it is the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoon there.”

Wilde employed this quip about the waterfall in lectures that he later delivered in England and Ireland though the precise wording varied.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Wilde employed the variant joke with the phrase “second great disappointment”. It was in circulation by 1927, but this was many years after the death of Wilde in 1900. The variant was initially anonymous and then it was reassigned to Wilde probably because of confusion between the two similar jokes. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Niagara Falls: The First Great Disappointment in Married Life

Notes:

  1. 1883 August 13, The Daily Patriot, Oscar Wilde Returns: In Commonplace Clothing and Shorn of His Glorious Locks, (Acknowledgement: “From Yesterday’s New York World”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)

Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Orson Welles? Oscar Wilde? James Aswell? Richard Lederer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The influence of William Shakespeare’s works on the English language has been enormous; consider the following phrases:

To thine own self be true
It was Greek to me
Brevity is the soul of wit
To be, or not to be
Not a mouse stirring

The cultural ubiquity of the Bard’s words inspired the following humorous remark:

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

This statement has been attributed to two very different people who share the same initials: Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1936 by a syndicated columnist named James Aswell who was based in New York. Several Shakespearean productions were being staged in the city, and one featured the actor John Gielgud. Aswell presented the remark of a “debbie” which was a slang term for “debutante”; he then appended his own comment. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2

A pert debbie, attending the Gielgud interpretation the other night, quipped in the lobby: “But how can anyone listen to all those old saws and ancient wisecracks they’ve been hearing all their lives?” . . . Well, a lot of people go to Shakespeare to recognize the quotations.

In 1945 the tireless anecdote collector Bennett Cerf included a thematic joke in his compilation titled “Laughing Stock”, and Cerf also reprinted the jest in his syndicated newspaper column: 3 4

Guy Williams, of the Omaha World Herald, had his ears pinned back by a nice old lady to whom he had urgently recommended a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. “I can’t understand why you all make such a fuss over that man,” she told him after she had looked over the book. “All he’s done is string together a whole lot of very old, well-known quotations.”

In 1949, Evan Esar published the collection “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, and he assigned an instance of the quip in Aswell’s 1936 column to the prominent auteur Orson Welles: 5

WELLES, Orson, born 1915, American actor, director, and producer of motion pictures, radio, and stage.

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Notes:

  1. 1936 October 17, Ballston Spa Daily Journal, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Ballston Spa, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 October 19, The Morning Herald, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 130 and 131, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  4. 1946 March 15, Greensboro Record, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 6A, Column 4 and 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Orson Welles, Quote Page 212, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)