February 11th, 2009
05:56 PM ET

Will it play in Peoria?

CNN's John King visits Peoria, Illinois where many people were laid-off from Caterpillar.
CNN's John King visits Peoria, Illinois where many people were laid-off from Caterpillar.

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

I want $1 for every time on Thursday a reporter, commentator or anchor wonders aloud how President Obama and his plan to stimulate the economy are “playing in Peoria.”

The President will go to that Illinois city and visit the Caterpillar Tractor Co. before traveling on to Springfield to commemorate the 200th bicentennial of President whose name adorns millions of license plates in the “Land of Lincoln.”

For those curious, the name Peoria came from an American Indian tribe in the Illinois confederacy of tribes. A commonly found translation of the name from the Miami-Illinois language is “he comes carrying a pack on his back.” Tribal websites recount how disease and wars forced the Peorias to relocate from Illinois westward to Kansas and finally into Oklahoma.

Have you wondered where that phrase, “Will it play in Peoria,” originated?

William Safire claimed, in his “On Language” column in the Sept. 29, 1985, Sunday New York Times, that he could “cite chapter and verse on its coinage.” According to Safire, “John D. Ehrlichman, who in 1968 was the chief of Nixon advance men, used the phrase to mean "go over well in a non-elitist environment" in a "school" he ran for the organizers of parades, hoopla and local welcome in cities to be visited by the candidate.”

Safire’s claim brought a rebuttal letter to the Times from David H. Remer, of Newport, Calif., who recalled hearing the question “Will it play in Peoria” decades earlier on the Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly radio programs. “When I asked about the origin of this expression, my grandmother explained that Peoria was known on the vaudeville circuit as one of the toughest towns in which to get a laugh, and consequently, if a new act or comic skit were likely to "play in Peoria" it would play, or be successful, anywhere,” Remer wrote.

Peoria likewise was a popular test market; if a new product would “play in Peoria,” it could be sold successfully to the rest of the nation.

References to playing in Peoria are cited in such diverse entertainment as the Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera;” the Bugs Bunny cartoon “What’s Up Doc?,” as Elmer Fudd’s vaudeville troop opens in Peoria and the television show “I Love Lucy,” as Fred and Ethel reminisce about opening their vaudeville act in Peoria. Peoria even got a mention in the current animated series “Futurama.”

A book titled “Place Names in the Midwestern United States” quoted Don Marine, who taught and directed theater in Peoria, as saying, “If one were to choose the city in the United States most victimized in jokes and anecdotes by theatrical personalities, the selection of Peoria, Illinois, would be a popular, if not likely choice. Two of the more popular quips are: "Say, I hear you got married. How did that ever happen?" "I was playing a split-bill in Peoria–and it rained!" and "Have you ever played Peoria?" "Peoria? Oh, yes—I spent four years there one night!" The widespread appeal of this verbal maligning by comics, actors and other performers suggests Peoria as a paramount example of the dull, banal and provincial theatrical road stop. But the popularity of the "put down" suggests as well that the city possesses a theatrical heritage of considerable longevity.”

“There is no such thing as Illinois humor,” declared an article written for the Illinois Humanities Council. “This is not to say that Illinoisans don't have a sense of humor. But there is no style of humor that is uniquely Illinoisan, no body of jokes directed at the state per se, no tradition of performance that owes to, and conveys, the peculiar placeness of Illinois. In humor as in so much else, Illinois is two places, each with its own style of humor. There is what might be called Downstate Illinois humor–bucolic in origins and reference, most naturally expressed in parable told over the cracker barrel or the stove–and Chicago humor, whose natural idiom is the wisecrack delivered across a bar in a saloon.

“No Illinoisan was more adept at Downstate humor than Abraham Lincoln. Humor was a crucial element in both the public and the private man; his law partner William Herndon reports reliably that Lincoln was known as a jokester and storyteller around central Illinois well before he was known as a lawyer or politician. He did not tell funny stories for the sake of fun but to make a point, and thus favored tales with what Herndon called "the necessary ingredients of mirth and moral," the article said.

President Obama may not be the jokester that Lincoln was, but at the recent Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington he made light of an irony reaching back to Lincoln’s time. “I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.”

While in Peoria, President Obama is unlikely to reference the comedy of Peoria’s native son, Richard Pryor, who did his own rendition of an African-American as President more than 30 years ago on his television show (clips available on the Internet; likely not considered “politically correct”).

It remains to be seen Thursday how President Obama plays in Peoria, but at $1 a mention I would expect to stuff my wallet.

Filed under: David Schechter • Economy • Unemployment
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Hilda

    I don't know about Peoria, but with all the political debts being paid with this spending bill, little money is going to actually go to stimulate the economy.

    I bet you that if Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Schumer, Barney Frank, et al were spending their own wealth, they would have been more careful as to what programs they were going to fund. But, hey, it is not their money, it is the people's money.

    If President Obama would take a closer look at all Government Departments –the mismanagement, the corruption, the waste, the high number of unproductive personnel– he could reorganize them and find a lot of money to invest in our economy. He should demand no more and no less than he is demanding from private companies.

    February 12, 2009 at 7:45 pm |
  2. Moman

    California prison system is out of control, what is your opinon on life sentcenting with prole broads. Do you think that an inmates should still have to stay in prison after the actually sentencing has been completed or but the inmates on a control device to limited the money spent on inmates in our california prison system? your feed back will be appriciated

    February 12, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  3. mariel b

    Hi everyone,

    Am not familiar with blogging- my first time- so please excuse me.

    first I wanted to say THANK YOU Anderson and your staff especially David G. because I got involved with the election through you. You guys were AMAZING !!!

    next – the reason for this message:
    I am OUTRAGED about the mother of the octuplets.. I can't understand how this woman receives government help when she had PLENTY of money to pay for all these procedure?
    From my understanding, if you are in public assistance you are not allowed to have too much money in the bank – SO DID SHE SCAMMED THE SYSTEM???
    Also, -for a woman that is receiving public assistance, her nails were nicely done. Here I am struggling financially – with school and a full time job and I don't have the money to get MY nails done and SHE DOES? - who is paying for this? is it us – the tax payers? SERIOUSLY I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT PEOPLE THAT REALLY NEED HELP – CAN'T GET IT-BUT A WOMAN LIKE THIS DOES!!!!!

    February 12, 2009 at 6:07 pm |
  4. Joe

    It isn't even playing in Los Angeles!!! Look at the first time housing tax credit. It phases out for people making over $75K. In a high cost area like Los Angeles it is impossible to become a first time home buyer and make only 75K. They need to lift the imcome cap so all American (not just the citizens living in the less expensive parts of the country )can get help.

    February 12, 2009 at 5:05 pm |
  5. terik ororke

    Peoria should know that it gets what it pays for. Pelosi-ism will ruin the stimulus and benefit things that are not going to be "stimulated" in any way. So much for "yes we can."

    February 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm |
  6. Yvette Sorenson

    Why doesn't someone check out Chase bank they are raising credit card minimum payments and adding service charges if you don't accept their 7.99 interest rate. I had a 3.9 for the life of the loan agreement how can they change it and nearly double your payment just because they want to. My payment is now $450 and that is a $200 raise. I don't make much money right around 25,000. I have good credit and never miss a payment so I didn't do anything for them to treat me this way. I guess I will not be stimulating the economy, as after my house payment and this card not much is left. Eating less in South Carolina. I hope some of these banks get as hungrey as I have been a couple of times in the last 3 years.
    Please do not use my last name on TV if you put this on. Thanks

    February 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm |
  7. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    You should be able to retire very early with that speculation.

    February 12, 2009 at 12:21 pm |
  8. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    You are going to be able to retire at a very young age with that speculation.

    February 12, 2009 at 11:46 am |
  9. earle,florida

    Believe it or not, through-out the past century regarding America's recessions, (excluding the great depression) the State of Illinois,especially Peoria was virtually,"Recession Proof". Why,because of it's airports,railroads(cattle,and grain,etc.) and distribution centralized geographically in the midwest! This (recession/unemployment) is all new to the folks of the mid-west,and yes, it will play well in Peoria, under President Obama's leadership,...Thanks, Great Read (: PS, I forgot,I owe you a dollar!

    February 11, 2009 at 8:55 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    I always wondered where the saying originated and what was behind it. Thanks for telling us. I hope you get a lot of dollars!

    February 11, 2009 at 6:06 pm |