Lily Tomlin? Jackie Gleason? Bill Cunningham? William Sloane Coffin? Russell Baker? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quip about the competitive daily grind of the working world. Here are two versions:
1) Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat
2) So you’ve won the rat race. You’re still a rat.
The influential comedian Lily Tomlin employed a version of this joke. Would you please explore its origin?
Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Lily Tomlin used this gag by the 1970s, and a citation is given further below. Yet, the earliest appearance known to QI occurred in a book about the life of another famous comedian.
In 1956 “The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason” by Jim Bishop was published. Gleason wrote a letter to his estranged wife Genevieve that was reprinted in the volume. He used a version of the witticism particularized to the television broadcasting industry. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Television is a rat race, and remember this, even if you win you are still a rat.
In August 1956 a sports columnist named Bill Cunningham writing in “The Boston Herald” employed an instance of the joke, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he credited an anonymous “fellow”. The topic of the column was the perennial baseball conflict between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees: 2
It’s still a job lot pitching staff—like the fellow said, “You can win the rat race, but you’re still a rat”—but, oooooh, that Yankee hitting, especially in the clutch!
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the two citations above and other valuable citations. 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1956, The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason by Jim Bishop, (Undated letter from Jackie Gleason to Gen (Genevieve, estranged wife Gleason)), Quote Page 258, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956 August 11, Boston Herald, Section: Sports, Bill Taking Off for Conventions: Leaves Sox, But He Saw Them Hit Second Place by Bill Cunningham, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat”, Date on website: November 05, 2012, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on October 1, 2014) link ↩