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'Jay Leno Hits the Nail on the Head'

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In its original form the article closed with a plea for Americans to count their blessings and included a quote from B.C. Forbes. The email version drops the Forbes quote, ending instead with this brief, oddly punctuated quotation attributed to Jay Leno:

"With hurricanes, tornados, fires out of control, mud slides, flooding, severe thunderstorms tearing up the country from one end to another, and with the threat of bird flu and terrorist attacks, "Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?"
The redundant quotation mark and upper-case "A" at the beginning of "Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?" suggest a bit of confusion about where the quote marks actually belong, and with good reason. The passage is actually a paraphrase of a joke Jay Leno told during his Tonight Show monologue on or about the night of September 20, 2005, the wording of which has been corrupted during endless rounds of repetition on the Internet.

Devolution of a joke

As best I can determine, the original joke went something like this:

"As you know, Hurricane Rita is headed toward Florida, Texas and Louisiana. Another hurricane! It’s like the ninth hurricane this season. Maybe this is not a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance."
Within a couple of weeks the joke could be found on the Internet, worded as follows:
With hurricanes, tornado's, flooding, and severe t-storms tearing up the country from one end to another, the quote of the month is Jay Leno: "Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?"
Note that the only sentence actually attributed to Leno is the last, and it is a rough paraphrase at that. A few weeks later, the wording of the introduction has changed to this:
With hurricanes, earthquakes, fires out of control, mud slides, tornados, flooding and severe t-storms tearing up the country from one end to another... with the threat of bird flu and terrorists attacks... the quote of the month is: Jay Leno: "Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?"
And by June 2006 the version we are now familiar with, redundant punctuation and all, is locked into place and circulating via email:
The quote of the month is by Jay Leno:

With hurricanes, tornados, fires out of control, mud slides, flooding, severe thunderstorms tearing up the country from one end to another, and with the threat of bird flu and terrorist attacks, "Are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?"

In April 2007, some unknown party appended that rendition of the joke to an emailed version of the Craig Smith op-ed piece, and in short order folks had convinced themselves, albeit mistakenly, that Jay Leno authored the entire article.

What can we learn from this? In the words of another victim of Internet misquoting, the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr., "I don't know what the point is except how gullible people are on the Internet."

And yes, Kurt Vonnegut really said that. If you don't believe me you can, er, look it up online.

Update: A new version of this text attributed to Jay Leno's rival talk show host David Letterman began circulating in July 2008.


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Sources and further reading:

Made in the USA: Spoiled brats
WorldNetDaily.com, original article by Craig R. Smith, 20 Nov. 2006

'Caned: Thoughts on Katrina
Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg), 25 September 2005


Last updated: 04/19/07

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