That’s What She Said!

VaudevilleI’m going to veer off-topic today, and discuss jokes. Or rather, a joke that has swept through American pop culture for years, the allusive “that’s what she said” gag.

The premise is that by inserting “that’s what she said” after innocuous (but unfortunately worded) phrases, dirty associations arise. Here’s an example:

Person A: How was your exam?
Person B: Easy. I thought it was going to be much longer and harder.
Person A: That’s what she said!

TWSS is a fun game for linguistically-rich (if gutter-bound) minds. It requires one to be on the constant lookout for semantic ambiguity, of which our language has plenty when it comes to sex. We English-speakers eroticize the simplest words: hard, do, inside, bottom, top, come, take, in, have, job, make, blow, it, and many others. So there are infinite ways simple phrases can adopt lascivious interpretations.

The joke spiked in popularity after numerous appearances on the American version of The Office. Since I’d watched the original British version, I long assumed TWSS was an American translation of an old British music-hall-style gag employed by Ricky Gervais: “the Actress said to the Bishop.” (Same gist; the phrase makes preceding words sound filthy). Hence my interest: it seemed as if the joke crossed the Atlantic to be reworked in American English.

I was very wrong in this assumption. It slipped my mind that Mike Myers used the joke in Wayne’s World. This suggests another misleading etymology (uh, joke-ymology?). Myers is a Canadian comedian of British parentage with a nuanced understanding of English culture. Did he adapt this old joke for American audiences?

Apparently not. An astute Wikipedian notes that the American version is described accurately in a book from 1973. So it appears to have been around before Myers, Carrell or Gervais had anything to do with it. The question remaining is whether this is the same joke or two jokes that emerged independently.

I’m inclined toward the latter hypothesis. After searching pages upon pages of Google Books results, I have yet to find a single instance of “as the actress said to the Bishop” in American letters*. The wording is hopelessly British; we have bishops in the US, but their dominance within the Anglican ministry makes them a quintessentially English joke staple. I just don’t see much potential for a crossover, so I’d guess these are similar but independently concocted gags.

Furthermore, there are jokes with a similar premise to TWSS such as the “in bed” game played while reading fortune cookie predictions (“You will encounter lasting happiness and satisfaction … in bed!”). Along similar lines, Jimmy Kimmel has a recurring bit on his show in which he “bleeps” out words from various broadcasts, lending a vulgar connotation to everyday statements. There is a whole category of humor, then, involving the moral degradation of innocent language.

Man’s appetite for dirty puns is universal.

*With the exception of explicit references to “That’s what she said.”


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to That’s What She Said!

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Back in the late fifties, when I was in high school, and dinosaurs still roamed the earth, the “between the sheets” tag line was ubiquitous (at least in New Jersery).
    The goal was to take the title of a popular song, and append the tag line, as in: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” between the sheets.

  2. Bruno Rodrigues says:

    the video is no longer available. there’s this one:

  3. Amy Stoller says:

    Wikipedia says “As the actress said to the bishop” goes back at least as far as 1928, when Leslie Charteris used it in one of his “Saint” books. It’s Wikipedia, so take with as many grains of salt as you like. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases doesn’t date it earlier than the 40s. Partridge says “as the girl said to the sailor/soldier” is probably Edwardian.

    • I actually investigated the Charteris claim. He indeed seemed to be a big fan of the term, as it appears in at least four of his Saint books. His version of the joke, however, was so mild that it would be quite easy to miss the premise. Here are the Charteris quotes that I found:

      “You’re getting on–as the actress said to the bishop.”
      “How touching!–as the actress said to the bishop.”
      “I should be charmed to oblige you–as the actress said to the bishop.”

      Not quite as groan-inducing as later permutations of the joke!

  4. Steve says:

    From The Guardian’s Notes and Queries column:

    “. . . as the actress said to the bishop” – What’s the origin of this saying?

    This is what I was told. The Bishop of Worcester and Lillie Langtry, the actress, were at one of those country house weekend parties. On Sunday morning, before church, the bishop and the actress went for a stroll in the garden. The bishop cut his finger on the thorn of a rose. Over lunch, Miss Langtry asked the bishop, “How is your prick?” He replied, “Throbbing,” and the butler dropped the potatoes.

    Nick Brockway, Lucerne, Switzerland

    It just popped up out of nowhere, as the bishop said to the actress.

    Roy Grimwood, Market Drayton, Shrops

    The first uses I can find are spoken by the Saint, alias Simon Templar, the hero of numerous books by Leslie Charteris. Saint remarks include: “Isn’t it going to be fun? – as the bishop said to the actress;” “I should be charmed to oblige you – as the actress said to the bishop;” and “You’re getting on, as the actress said to the bishop.”

    Tony Augarde, Oxford

  5. Tom says:

    I remember hearing “That’s what she said” as far back as my freshman year at college (1982-83) from North Jersey dorm friends.

  6. Neal Whitman says:

    Jimmy Kimmel’s kind of humor has a more-or-less settled-upon name: “unnecessarily censored”. Search for this term in YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of videos of Sesame Street characters or Ariel the mermaid, singing with words like “count” or “play” bleeped out.

  7. Ngamudgi says:

    In Australia, the old saying is “as the barmaid said to the bishop”, or occasionally “as the bishop said to the barmaid”. To my own recollection, it has been around since the ’60s but it may go back further.

    You might be interested in a recent article in the “Canberra Times” about the language problems of a couple of Australian ex-pats living in San Francisco. The article is titled: “Stars and … Cripes! How to Talk to Americans”.

    Americans use of “That’s what she said” gets a mention in the article. Also the American tendency to double-up nouns, e.g. “tunafish” for tuna, or “tinfoil” for foil. There are also the perils of yod-dropping for the unititiated, such as “toona” and “Toosday” for tuna and Tuesday.

    Here’s that link:–cripes-how-to-talk-to-americans-20140311-34ivo.html

    • Mac says:

      This comment is really meant to be to the author of that piece, not you. That article annoyed me, but I’m easily annoyed I’ll admit 🙂 :

      I’m American and I’m pretty sure most people I know just say “tuna”. But I don’t see why “tunafish” would cause comprehension problems for someone who said “tuna”. The word “foil” has other meanings (even ignoring the verb, e.g., “to foil someone’s plot”). There’s the foil in literature and the foil used in fencing. And “grande” is an Italian word _and_ a Spanish word. I’m assuming Starbucks meant it to be Italian. I don’t know anyone who says “sodapop” non-facetiously or when they aren’t trying to be “cute”. We say “soda” where I’m from. But that variable is well known for…well…varying (regionally). Google “soda vs pop”. Actually “hamburger” can refer to both “minced meat” and the sandwich that’s made from it. The end 🙂

      • Ngamudgi says:

        Fair enough. To be fair to the author, when you are being hit with a lot of new words and pronunciations, it is hard to appreciate nuance. And I’m sure the article wasn’t meant to be annoying. More of a humourous heads-up for Aussies going to the US.