Tag Archives: Woody Allen

The Most Beautiful Word in the English Language Is Benign

Erma Bombeck? Woody Allen? L. M. Boyd? Mark Hatfield? David B. Whitlock? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: If you or a loved one has faced cancer then the following assertion would be understandable:

The most beautiful word in the English language is ‘benign’.

This notion has been attributed to two well-known humorists Erma Bombeck and Woody Allen. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Erma Bombeck included this remark in a newspaper column she wrote in 1991. Woody Allen used this idea in a movie he wrote and directed in 1997. Details are presented further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated column of L. M. Boyd in 1968, but he credited a correspondent named Erna. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I have always maintained (and always will) that the most beautiful word in English is ‘benign’ and the ugliest word is ‘malignant,'” writes a San Francisco girl named Erna.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1968 November 12, The Robesonian, Checking Up by L. M. Boyd, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Lumberton, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)

Speed Reading: I Was Able To Go Through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 Minutes. It’s About Russia

Woody Allen? Rod Riggs? Anonymous?

peace08Dear Quote Investigator: The ability to read and comprehend text quickly is a valuable skill. Several decades ago courses were developed that attempted to teach “speed reading” or “quick reading” techniques. The well-known comedian Woody Allen created a joke about applying speed-reading strategies to Tolstoy’s massive tome “War and Peace”. Are you familiar with this joke? Did Allen really originate it?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence found by QI was printed in May 1967 in the “Ames Daily Tribune” of Ames, Iowa. A columnist named Rod Riggs presented the comical tale without attribution: Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Foolishness: The fellow took a speed reading course. “I learned to read straight down the middle of the page,” he reported. “I was able to go through ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”

The next earliest citation known to QI appeared in “Reader’s Digest” in October 1967. This mass-circulation periodical has historically been an important nexus for the distribution of quotations and anecdotes. The joke was credited to Woody Allen, and an acknowledgement was given to a popular columnist based in California: 2

Condensed Version. Woody Allen says, “I took a course in speed reading, learning to read straight down the middle of the page, and I was able to go through War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”
— Herb Caen in San Francisco Chronicle

QI believes that this humorous remark was crafted by Woody Allen who probably used it in one of his comedy routines in the 1960s. Caen was careful to credit Allen. Riggs may have heard someone repeat the joke, and he placed it in his column without ascription. A citation from 1972 stated that Allen told the joke on television. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1967 May 23, Ames Daily Tribune, From My Point of View by Rod Riggs, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Ames, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1967 October, Reader’s Digest, Volume 91, Condensed Version (filler item), Quote Page 120, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

Cloquet Hated Reality But Realized It Was Still the Only Place to Get a Good Steak

Woody Allen? Groucho Marx? Cloquet? Apocryphal?

meal08Dear Quote Investigator: The comedian and movie director Woody Allen sometimes constructs ontological jokes. For example, the following is attributed to Allen:

I hate reality, but it is still the only place where I can get a decent steak.

Oddly, the following very similar quip has been credited to Groucho Marx:

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

Did Allen engage in plagiarism? Would you please explore this question?

Quote Investigator: The first line above was similar to a line spoken by Woody Allen during an interview published in 1993. QI has found no substantive evidence that the second line was employed by Groucho. The initial citation located by QI for the second jest appeared in 2003, and yet Groucho died a quarter century before that date.

The earliest variant in this family known to QI was contained in a short story written by Allen called “The Condemned” that was published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1977. The tale hinged on the parodic existential dilemmas of a would-be assassin named Cloquet. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

He’s dreaming, Cloquet thought, as he stood over him, revolver in hand. He’s dreaming, and I exist in reality. Cloquet hated reality but realized it was still the only place to get a good steak. He had never taken a human life before. True, he had once shot a mad dog, but only after it had been certified as mad by a team of psychiatrists.

Thus, Allen was willing to recycle the joke in 1993, but QI does not believe that he lifted it from Groucho.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1977 November 21, The New Yorker, The Condemned by Woody Allen, Start Page 57, Quote Page 57, Published by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Accessed Online Archive of Page Scans at archives.newyorker.com on October 15, 2015) link

Comedy Is Tragedy Plus Time

Carol Burnett? Woody Allen? Tig Notaro? Steve Allen? Lenny Bruce? Bob Newhart? Anonymous?

burnett03Dear Quote Investigator: Some humorists are able to transform disastrous or mortifying episodes in their own lives into hilarious comedy routines. Usually some time must pass before a painful memory is distant enough that it can be transmuted into something funny. The popular performer Carol Burnett once said:

I got my sense of humor from my mother. I’d tell her my tragedies. She’d make me laugh. She said comedy is tragedy plus time.

I have heard this formula attributed to other comics such as Woody Allen and Tig Notaro. It seems to apply to general events and not just personal incidents. Do you know who first crafted this formula?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this saying located by QI was published in Cosmopolitan magazine in February 1957. The television personality, actor, and polymath Steve Allen presented his viewpoint on the genesis of comedy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, “Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment? The answer is “No, but they will be pretty soon.”

Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits till a certain amount of time has passed. It must have been a tragedy when Judge Crater disappeared, but everybody jokes about it now. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

Joseph Crater was a judge in New York City who puzzlingly disappeared in 1930. Newspaper reports on the never-solved case mentioned: a secret blond mistress, missing money, corrupt politicians, and purloined papers. Eventually the event became grist for comedy and even graffiti scrawls such as: 2 3

Judge Crater—Call Your Office

In June 1958 The New Yorker magazine reviewed a recent television program entitled “The Sound of Laughter” which was part of a series called “Wide Wide World”. The show explored humor by presenting multiple samples together with general remarks on the theme. Steve Allen further disseminated the formula he gave in Cosmopolitan: 4

… Harry Hershfield said “Humor is the great common denominator;” Al Capp said “The comic strip is the world’s most popular literary form;” Neil Schaffner, operator of a tent show, said “Ours is a folk theatre, one that springs from the soil, almost self-creative;” Steve Allen said “Tragedy plus time equals comedy;” and Bob Hope said “Laughter is our most precious commodity.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1957 February, Cosmopolitan, Volume 142, Steve Allen’s Almanac by Steve Allen, (This column was part of a series published between 1956 and 1957), Start Page 12, Hearst Corp., New York. (Verified with scans from the Browne Popular Culture Library of Bowling Green State University; great thanks to the librarians at BGSU who provided a digital image of a document in the “Steve Allen Collection”)
  2. 1980 August 5, Chicago Tribune, “Column 1: Judge Crater case slips into history Police file is closed on ‘missingest’ person” by Janet Cawley, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1966 September 12, Springfield Union, New York Scene: A Rash of Graffiti by Norton Mockridge, Quote Page 6, Column 8, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1958 June 7, The New Yorker, Volume 34, “The Air: What Humor Means, with Samples” by John Lardner, Start Page 78, Quote Page 78, F-R Pub. Corp., New York. (Verified on paper)

Showing Up Is 80 Percent of Life

Woody Allen? Marshall Brickman? Donkey Hotey? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

woody02Dear Quote Investigator: I am trying to track down the origin of a quotation about success in life that has divaricated into many versions. Here are some examples:

Ninety percent of success is just showing up.
Showing up is 80 percent of life.
Eighty percent of success is showing up.
Seventy-five percent of life is showing up.
In life, 50% of it is showing up.

Some of these expressions are credited to the famous comedian and director Woody Allen, but I have not located a solid citation. Could you explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI was printed in the New York Times in August 1977. Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman co-wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for the 1977 movie Annie Hall, and they were interviewed together by the journalist Susan Braudy. The following words were spoken by Marshall Brickman, but he attributed the adage to Woody Allen. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I have learned one thing. As Woody says, ‘Showing up is 80 percent of life.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hide home in bed. I’ve done both.

This citation is given in two key reference works: The Yale Book of Quotations 2 and The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs 3 both from Yale University Press.

In 1989 Woody Allen was asked about this saying by William Safire, the language columnist for the New York Times, and Allen replied with a letter in which he asserted: “I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.” Hence, Allen accepted credit for a common variant of the expression using the word “success” instead of “life”. The details of this interesting cite are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1977 August 21, New York Times, Section 2: Arts and Leisure, He’s Woody Allen’s Not-So-Silent Partner by Susan Braudy, Page 11 (ProQuest Page 83), New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Woody Allen, Page 17, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Page 140, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)