Friday, August 9, 2013

Attributed, but still humorous

Many of the funniest things ever said may have never been said at all, at least not by those who are supposed to have said them.

That's one of the conclusions to be drawn from reading through Ned Sherrin's Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. Sherrin offers hundreds of pages of amusing lines, followed by the names of the people who said or wrote them. Yet after a surprising number of these names one finds the word attributed. In other words, it can't be established that this is the person who actually originated the line.

It's usually easy to authenticate the words of writers like Shakespeare or Emerson. You simply turn to their published work, and either the line is there or it isn't. With people like Yogi Berra or Sam Goldwyn it's different. They may have said, whether intentionally or not, some very funny things, but they are also people who, because of their reputation for saying funny things, have probably been given credit for a lot of things they never said. Or some of their statements may have been paraphrased to make them funnier.

Here's something former Yankee catcher Berra may or may not have said: "If people don't want to come out to the ball park, nobody's going to stop them."

Goldwyn, a movie producer, is supposed to have said, "Let's have some new cliches," but nobody knows for sure.

Here are some other lines that Sherrin puts attributed after:

"No, I'm breaking it in for a friend," Groucho Marx, when asked if Groucho were his real name.

"Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics -- many times," Winston Churchill

"Rise early. Work late. Strike oil," John Paul Getty's formula for success

"Last week, I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed," W.C. Fields

"Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt," Mark Twain

"Enter the strumpet voluntary," Kenneth Tynan of a guest at a party

"I'd rather be Frank Capra than God. If there is a Frank Capra," Garson Kanin

"They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They're not laughing now," Bob Monkhouse

"Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there," Clare Booth Luce

Of course, a line need not be authentic to earn a legitimate place in Sherrin's book. It only needs to be humorous. In most cases, it also needs to be said by, or attributed to, somebody famous.

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