When comic legend Carl Reiner died recently at 98, one of the clips I saw replayed had him telling an old joke about reading obituaries.
For some people I know, reading obituaries is exactly how they begin their day. But there’s an old joke about that action dating back a long time.
A news report on the late Carl Reiner included a clip of him telling a variation of the joke about his morning routine:
“The first thing in the morning before I have coffee, I read the obits. Yes, if I’m not in it, I’ll have breakfast.”
The late George Burns also repeated the joke many times over the years.
The Speaker’s Book of Quotations attributed this version to him:
“When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is read the obituaries. If my name’s not in there, I shave.”
But sometimes Burns would vary it and even add an extra line:
“The first thing I do when I wake up is read the obituaries. If my name’s not in it, I’ll eat breakfast. The day my name is in there, I’ll still eat breakfast. I’d hate to go on an empty stomach.”
There are plenty of variations of this theme. Some don’t even mention reading obituaries. Back in 1983, Red Skelton, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, gave Johnny Carson this version:
“You know how I start the day off? If I open my eyes and I don’t see candles and smell flowers, I get up. Then I thumb my way through Playboy to get my heart started.”
So the notion of one waking up and searching for some verification that they did not die during the night is far from new.
But how old is it?
Barry Popik found the earliest reference to the joke coming from Bill Comte, a building contractor, in 1962.
His version went this way:
“When I get up in the morning I read the obituaries. if I don’t see my name there, I go to the office.”
He lists other instances of it as well.
It’s not clear who first said it. But it’s been around for at least half a century, if not longer.
And it’s still worth a laugh once in a while…as long as you don’t wake up to find your name in the obits!