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Brevity, the Soul of Twit

Claim:   Student aces essay exam by combining all required elements into one short paragraph.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

A university creative writing class was asked to write a concise essay containing the following elements:

1. Religion
2. Royalty
3. Sex
4. Mystery

The prize-winning essay read:

'My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant. I wonder who did it!"
 

[Bronner, 1990]

The prof coldly announces, "It'll take quite some time to write an essay of this nature and smoothly incorporate all subjects, so please begin."

About fifteen minutes later, a boy raised his hand and announced that he was finished. The startled prof says, "I don't see how you can be finished with an essay of that nature in that short a time."

"Well, I have," said the smiling student.

"If you think so, read it aloud."

The student read, "'My God,' said the queen, 'I'm pregnant. I wonder whose it is?'"
 

Origins:  The "brief essay" legend has been documented as far back as 1935. It has since surfaced in a number of humor books and folklore collections, and now the Internet is breathing new life into it by circulating it as a
"true story." (No one is quite sure why identifying it as such would be deemed to increase the enjoyment factor, but this has become a common enough claim to make about various bits of ancient lore now being shunted about in cyberspace.)

The phrasing of the second example showcased above provides clues as to how we're supposed to view this particular chapter in the eternal struggle between student and professor — we're supposed to applaud the brilliance of the essay the "smiling" student used to put into his place the snooty professor who by addressing his charges "coldly" had implied the assigned task was at the limit of their capabilities. College lore is replete with wish fulfillment legends in which clever students one-up their instructors by taking advantage of semantic ambiguities in the instructions given to them. (Our "Prime Choice" page details another legend that invokes this theme.) In real life, an "essay" such as the smiling student had taken such pride in would likely earn him nothing other than a kick in the pants: Grades aren't awarded for cleverness; they're earned by performing the required task well.

The legend appears in non-academic settings as well:
[Mahoney, 1956]

Another writer who leaves very little unsaid in his books is the Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre. The Left Bank of Paris is usually buzzing with stories about this witty writer. It is said that he sent a scenario manuscript to a Hollywood film studio, and in due course he received back the script accompanied by a rejection slip.

Evidently it was thought that he had talent for this type of writing, because he was advised that the studio would like to see something else, but that his present submission did not measure up to the prerequisites of a good film story. For his information these were: religious sentiment, dramatic surprise, human interest, brevity, and, last but not least, sex appeal.

Sartre took this well-meant counsel under advisement and penned a reply to the studio secretary.

"How would this do?" he queried. "'My God!' cried the Duchess, 'let go my leg!'"

If one thinks about it, this sentence contains all the ingredients for the so-called> model film story, but it sounds more like a line out of an Oscar Wilde play!
Admittedly, the veracity of this anecdote founders on its Sartre-chasm; it's been told about others, as well:
[Cerf, 1946]

Charles Morton of the Atlantic Monthly revives the story of the group of writers who were discussing the ideal opening for a commercially successful piece of fiction. They agreed that the first paragraph should contain (1) sex, (2) high life and big money, and (3) an unconventional situation. On that basis, one of them contrived this unbeatable beginning, "Damn it," said the Duchess to the King, "take your hand off my leg."
Barbara "unleg me, sir!" Mikkelson

Sightings:   During his 8 November 1997 radio broadcast, Garrison Keillor was heard to expound on the five required elements of humor (religion, money, family relationships, sex, mystery), saying there was one twelve-word joke that contained all of these elements: "God," said the Banker's daughter, "I'm pregnant! I wonder who it was?"

Last updated:   22 June 2011

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Sources:

    Berle, Milton.   Milton Berle's Private Joke File.
    New York: Crown Pub., 1989.   ISBN 0-517-58716-5   (p. 240).

    Bronner, Simon J.   Piled Higher and Deeper.
    Little Rock: August House, 1990.   ISBN 0-87483-154-7   (pp. 56-57).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Anything for a Laugh.
    New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946.   (p. 183).

    Mahoney, Patrick.   Barbed Wit & Malicious Humor.
    New York: Citadel Press, 1956.   (p. 24).