The NL:W punchline

The lead-in tag to my recent posting on marmots:

That’s no beaver, that’s my marmot!

A take-off on a punchline to a vaudeville joke from long ago, a line that’s been played with many thousands of times in the last century. The No Lady: Wife (NL:W) formula, in two common instantiations in a two-man exchange:

1 A: Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
B: She was no lady. She was my wife.

2 A: Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
B: That was no lady; that was my wife.

A male put-down of wives. Speaker A uses lady as a generic female reference: ‘a woman (used as a polite or old-fashioned form of reference)’ (NOAD2). But speaker B takes lady to be a respectful reference — ‘a courteous, decorous, or genteel woman’ — and denies that his wife deserves respect: she’s just his wife, his old lady, his ball and chain, a controlling and constraining figure in his life, the stereotypical nagging harridan.

In Alan Jay Lerner’s longer and much more elegant (but also self-incriminating) version, Henry Higgins’s song “I’m an Ordinary Man”, from My Fair Lady:

Let a woman in your life
… And your serenity is through
… And you’re up against a wall
… And you invite eternal strife
… And patience hasn’t got a chance
… And you’re plunging in a knife

Back to NL:W. All the reputable sources I’ve found trace the joke back to vaudevilleans Weber & Fields, but none with an actual report of a Weber & Fields performance. (Garson O’Toole’s Quote Investigator site has not yet taken it up.)

About the performers, from Wikipedia:

(#1) Weber left, Fields right

Joe Weber (11 August 1867 – 10 May 1942), born Joseph Morris Weber, was a vaudevillian who, along with Lew Fields, formed the comedy team of Weber and Fields. [Lew Fields (January 1867 – July 20, 1941), born Moses Schoenfeld]

Fields and Weber formed their partnership while still children. The two appeared at Bowery saloons, museums, circuses, and in 1885 made their first stage appearance at Miner’s Bowery Theater, New York. Their slapstick, rough-house, English-garbling antics soon caught on and they were a sensation in San Francisco where they appeared for 10 weeks for $250 per week, an unusually high salary at that time. The young men had a “Dutch act” in which both portrayed German immigrants [with Yiddish accents]. They returned to New York, appearing at Tony Pastor’s theater on 14th Street, and in 1894 made their Broadway debut in Hammerstein’s Olympia. They had three companines on the road and in 1895, the partners opened the Weber and Fields Broadway Music Hall where they produced very successful burlesques of popular Broadway shows. In the music hall’s casts were some of the greatest performers and comics on the American stage at that time including Lillian Russell, Fay Templeton, Ross and Fenton and DeWolf Hopper, David Warfield, Peter F. Daily, Mabel Fenton, Marie Dressler, Willie Collier and Sam Bernard.

From an IMDb user review (by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre) of their 1925 silent movie Friendly Enemies, which gives some feel for their comedy (though NL:W doesn’t occur in the film):

Although they spoke onstage in broad ‘Dutch’ accents, in some ways the stage act of Weber & Fields prefigured Abbott & Costello. Lew Fields, the nominal straight man, was tall and dapper whilst Joe Weber was the podgy little fall-guy who submitted to the straight man’s physical and verbal abuse. Onstage, Weber wore a false belly that made him look almost spherical. Typically, they made their entrance with Fields pushing Weber onto the stage while Weber uttered his plaintive catchphrase: “Don’t poosh me, Meyer!” Throughout their stage act, tall Fields would mercilessly slap and pummel fat little Weber.

Also like Abbott & Costello, Weber & Fields relied heavily on lowbrow cross-talk humour. Allegedly, Weber & Fields were the creators of that moss-covered wheeze: “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” “That was no lady; that was my wife.” [version 2 above]

… Weber & Fields made very few films: their stardom peaked well before talking pictures, and their humour relied largely on verbal punchlines spoken in funny accents. Despite this, in 1925 most cinema audiences would have been familiar with their act. The plot of this movie is interrupted by two comedy set-pieces in which Carl and Henry, lunching in a German restaurant, discuss military strategy whilst using the tableware and plates as props for troops. (Almost a precognitive parody of C. Aubrey Smith’s tabletop manoeuvres in ‘The Four Feathers’.) These two sequences are quite funny, with smashed crockery resulting.

In the versions of the joke above, speaker A is Weber, speaker B Fields. Yet another version, from Art, Glitter, and Glitz: Mainstream Playwrights and Popular Theatre in 1920s America, ed. Arthur Gewirtz & James J. Kolb (Greenwood Publishing, 2004), p. 217:

(#2) 3 Fields: That ain’t no lady, that is my wife.

Then two cites that try to represent Weber & Fields’s pronunciations.

From The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, ed. by Gerald Bordman & Thomas S. Hischak (OUP, 2004 ed.), p. 225:

(#3) 4 Fields: Dat vas no lady. Dat vas my wife.

And from Musical Theatre: A History by John Kenrick (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), p. 60:

(#4) 5 Fields: Dat vass no lady! Dat vass mine wife!.

Allegedly, reputedly, some sources credit. Maybe genuine quote detectives can track it down. (Quite likely Weber & Fields did the routine differently on different occasions.)

3 Responses to “The NL:W punchline”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I am amused by the fact that in the list of designations for the wife who is no lady, you include “his old lady”.

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