Phrase Origin: Other than that Mrs Lincoln..

I’ve heard and used the expression “Otther than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play”
Does anyone know the origin of this phrase? Surely this in an invention, correct, know one could be that tactless, no?

I believe this was the caption for a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker many, many years ago.

It’s also attributed to Tom Lehrer, but I think he lifted it from The New Yorker.

Yes, there’s no suggestion anyone actually said that to her.

I first heard this as an example of a form of wordplay called Gruesomes, IIRC in a reader competition in the New Statesman newspaper, but I can’t find any reference to it on their site - you probably have to subscribe to get older stuff like that.

I first heard it in a Bob Newhart comedy routine.
This’d be roughly 1960, when his core comedy was released on LP’s, but he could have been using it well before then.
What is the date of these other sources?

I think you win the prize. The first newspaper cite I could find was from 1961, a story discussing “sick humor.” And one of the comedians who was mentioned was Bob Newhart. My wager is that he invented it.

I agree with Askance. I think it comes from the New Statesman (British weekly current affairs paper). The NS is famed for its ingenious weekly competitions, which are intended to allow its readers to flash their creativity and sharp satirical wits. The ‘Mrs Lincoln’ remark comes from a competition in which readers were invited to suggest especially tactless remarks with an historical bent. Another memorable example was, ‘Salome, dear, not in the fridge’.

It’s impossible for me to imagine straitlaced Bob Newhart uttering that phrase. I’m somewhat surprised that he would be mentioned in an article about sick humor at all, except that way too many articles are written by people who know nothing about their subjects and just toss any random famous name into the pot.

The only real candidate is his routine, Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue, from his first album. It purports to be a conversation between Lincoln and his press agent just before Gettysburg. I don’t have the album, but I heard it recently and the humor came from the press agent trying to give his speech more pop and oomph. There’s probably a reference at the end to the play, but the line “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” would make absolutely no sense in context.

A British competition would be far more likely. In short, cite!

Many sites attribute the quote to Tom Lehrer (who would be the right era and perhaps a better candidate in terms of attitude than Newhart), but I haven’t yet been able to find specifically where he might have said it.

Crud, I think you’re right. I recall now that this is the routine I was thinking of, and it does end with the agent suggesting to a depressed and dispirited Lincoln “Say, Abe, why don’t you take in a play?”. Same idea, but not the line we were looking for. I retract my 1960-ish Bob Newhart mis-recollection.

Thanks guys.

Just to confirm, yes, in the Newhart ‘dialogue’, a character whom we would these days refer to as Lincoln’s “spin doctor” is on the phone to Abe just before Abe is due at Gettysburg. Lincoln is complaining that he’s bored with these “small Pennsylvania towns”, and at the end of the piece he tries to invite the spin doctor and his wife out for dinner. The spin doctor makes some excuses and then offers a suggestion, “Hey, Abe, why don’t you take in a play?”.

I just found an October, 1958 story in the New York Times about jokes, and it mentions that the “sick jokes” developed about five years before that. They specifically mentioned a British show which was never made, called “The Bad Taste Revue.” It suggest that this was the origin of the popularity of such jokes. That doesn’t mean that the Lincoln one came from then, but in the 1958 Times story they mentioned as an example:


So, now we have it existing probably before Newhart.

The final line of the routine was the press agent, after hearing Lincoln was feeling a bit stressed, saying, “Tell you what, Abe. Why don’t you take in a play?”

Um, I don’t get it.

The Biblical story of Salome and the head of John the Baptist.

Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy, how was your trip to Dallas?
Other than that, Yoko, how did the recording session go?
Other than that, Rory Kennedy, how was your wedding?

This is one sick game.

OK, I have my reference, but it’s not decisive. In 1983 the NS published a collection from their weekly competitions Salome Dear, Not with a Porcupine. The contents come from the years 1955-1978, and are a compilation of two earlier books Salome Dear, Not in the Fridge (1968) and Never Rub Bottoms With a Porcupine (1982). As you’ll see the sample at hand clearly comes from the first book, so the origin is before 1968 for sure.

The competition in question was indeed called Gruesomes, and the full text is:

"The invention of ‘Gruesomes’ has been a popular activity in the US. The classic example was: ‘Yes, yes, Mrs Lincoln, but, apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?’
Competitors supplied more.

Salome, dear, *not *in the fridge!
How would you like your steak, Joan?
Life goes at such a rush, doesn’t it, Mrs Huskisson?
Mind my toga, Brutus; you splashed.
A pity, in fact, Mr Lot, that you have rather a sweet tooth.
Bottoms up, Clarence! "

So as the first entry is the title of the 1968 book it pre-dates that, possibly as early as 1955. But at the time it was clearly thought by the English to be a US pastime, so over to you …

The newpaper articles that I’ve found would indicate that, yes, the “sick joke” became popular among the masses in the US about 1956-59. But it existed before that, probably in a more limited circle, literary types, both British and American.

Here’s where it comes from

Since no publication date is given on Amazon, and the line/cartoon in question isn’t shown, how did you determine this was the “original” source? Do you have a copy of the book with the cartoon?