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When was the idiom, "I've got some good news and some bad news" first used, or when did it become a common joke?

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'I have some good news and some bad news' in serious contexts

The formula of opening a statement or discussion with the phrase "I have some good news and some bad news" is considerably older than use of the phrasing in jokes. For example, from Herman Koerner, Beleaguered: A Story of the Uplands of Baden in the Seventeenth Century (1898):

"I have sent for you for two reasons, General. First, because I have some good news and some bad news ; and second, because I wish to make a personal explanation in reference to the bad news. Perhaps the simplest and best way will be for you to read the report of Carolus von Haisus from Rothweil."

And from Gustav Frensson, The Three Comrades (1907):

"Antje has come," he said, "and brought a letter from Heim."

"What does the dear good fellow say?"

"Some good news and some bad."

"Tell me the bad first."

"Six families from Eschenwinkel, thirty people in all, are going to emigrate to America next week."

They were both silent and went on quietly.

"You must get over that too, Andrees."


'I have some good news and some bad news' as a joke setup

The earliest Google Books match involving a good news/bad news setup for a joke appears in Proceedings of the Twenty-eighth Biennial and Sixty-ninth Convention of the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasterers International Union of America (Montreal, Canada, September 19–26, 1966) [combined snippets]:

MR. WOODWARD: Thank you, President Murphy.

I feel a little bit today like the Indian chief that called the tribal council late one fall and said, "Me got some good news and some bad news. First the bad news. The streams have all dried up and all the game has gone north and it is going to be a long cold winter, and we don't have any food, and all we have to eat is buffalo chips. "Now the good news. We got-um plenty buffalo chips." (Laughter.)

The same crude joke reappears three years later, with its excesses of fake dialect removed, presented at a government conference on Indian affairs. From Federal State Indian Affairs Conference: Stateline, Nevada (August 19–21, 1969):

The old chief called them all together and said, "Men, we have been recognized by the Federal government. We are going to get organized like the Federal government. I am going to appoint a Secretary for every Department." He appointed one brave secretary of the food situation. He said, "your job is to go out and look over this new land they have given us and see what the food will be for 1969." So he went out and made sure and he came back and said, "Chief, I have some good news and some bad news; which one do you want to hear first?" Then the Chief said, "Gosh, you'd better tell me the bad news first, what is it?" He said, "Looks like all we're going to have to eat this year is dried buffalo chips." And the Chief said, "Boy that is bad news, and what's the good news," and he said, "There's plenty of it."

Also from 1969 we have this item from Jerry Chiappetta, "Even Pros Have Problems," in Field & Stream (February 1969):

Our small float plane shuddered along, dodging fearsome black clouds, on our flight from Ottawa north to a fishing camp on O'Sullivan Lake in Quebec. Bill True, seated beside the pilot, shouted to Bruce Brubaker and me in the rear, "The man says he's got some good news and some bad news."

"What's the bad news?" Brubaker asked.

"We're lost," True said.

"Give us the good news," I said.

"We're making good time," he grinned.

From "Think and Grin," in Boys' Life (October 1970):

Lewis and Clark were on an expedition. Lewis made an announcement: "Men, I have some good news and some bad news. First, the good news: We covered more miles today than any other day on our entire trip, 50 miles. Now the bad news: We're lost." —Charles Ott, Willingboro, N.J.

From Insurance Accounting and Statistical Association, Proceedings (1971) [combined snippets]:

Once upon a time there was a Texas oil promoter who decided to give one of his young assistants the chance to close a deal of his own. He told the young man to make a first offer of five million dollars for the deal but to be sure and get the deal, regardless of cost. A few days later the young man called and said, "Boss, I've got some good news and some bad news." The boss said, "What is the good news?" The young man answered, "We got the deal for five and a half million dollars." "Well then," the boss asked, "what is the bad news?" "They want one hundred dollars cash."

From Yachting, volume 131 (1972) [combined snippets]:

The good news and bad news business reminds me of a story that's been going the rounds lately about the exec of a Roman galley, who came to the rowers' compartment where the men sat chained to their oars and said "I've got some good news and some bad news, and first the good news: The captain has decided that you'll get a ten-minute break instead of five minutes every hour (Cheers from the crew). He's also decided that our whips will no longer have knots in them (More cheers). And, we're increasing the amount of rice in your daily broth (Cheers again). Now the bad news: the captain's taken up water skiing!"

A broader discussion of humorous use of the phrase appears in "Atty. Gen. Younger Discusses 'Good News, Bad News' of Federal Spending Programs in CJ, Law Enforcement," in [California Council on Criminal Justice] Bulletin (1972[?]):

EDITOR'S NOTE: Entitled "Good News and Bad News", the following speech was delivered by California Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger at the annual Installation Breakfast of the National Lawyers' Wives in San Francisco last month. It is printed with the permission from Atty. Gen. Younger. [Evelle Younger was Attorney General of California from 1971 to 1979.]

There is a whole series of jokes running around today called the good news and bad news stories. They all go something like this...I've got some good news and some bad news: the good news is that I have prepared a rather comprehensive lecture on the estate and gift tax consequences of the rule against perpetuities as applied to charitable trusts. The bad news is that I left the speech home on the piano when I came over here this afternoon.

Do the good news and bad news stories tell us something about America in the early 1970's? Presidential election years—such as this one—are the official times for Americans to take stock of their national situation and, with your permission, ...

But straightforward use of the formulation didn't disappear. For example, from University of California [San Francisco School of] Pharmacy Alumni Association, Newsletter (Summer 1970), we have this nonhumorous instance:

THE DEAN'S PAGE

As the saying goes, I have some good news and some bad news — we'll start with the bad news in order that I can slowly rouse myself from the depth of depression to the heights of euphoria! As I am sure all of you are aware, the Health Sciences Bond Issue, Proposition 1, was defeated at the last election in spite of the valiant efforts of a number of people here at U.C.S.F., many concerned alumni, the C.Ph.A., and undoubtedly the best-run campaign we have ever mounted for a bond issue. ...

And now for the good news — in early May the School of Pharmacy received word that we are the recipient of a federal grant of $175,504.00 for the 1970–71 school year for the purpose of "improving the quality of our educational program."

There are many examples of the phrase as a joke setup from 1972 onward. By the early 1980s, good news/bad news jokes seem to have achieved the status of a joke genre, like "what do you get when you cross A with B" and "how many X's does it take to do Y" and and "a guy walks into a bar." From Susan Judy & Stephen Judy, Introduction to Teaching Writing (1981):

The good news/bad news joke has become standard in the repertoire of many comedians. The good news is often deceptive, less good than it might appear superficially. The bad news is usually terrible.

Comedian: I've got some good news and some bad news.

Audience: What's the good news?

Comedian: The good news is that this summer you'll be able to buy all the gasoline you want, with no shortages.

Audience: {Cheers. Then ...} What's the bad news?

Comedian: The bad news is that you'll have to drive to Saudi Arabia to pick it up.


Conclusion

Given the many, many instances of the "good news/bad news" setup from about 1972, and the very small number that appear in Google Books results before 1970, I surmise that it caught on at some point in the late 1960s, and that similar approaches to joke telling in earlier decades did not use that particular wording.

  • 1
    You have hit the nail on the head, I think. 'Good news, bad news' joke narratives began in the 1960s. Man goes into operating theatre for leg amputation. When he comes round they tell him 'First the bad news - we cut the wrong leg off.' 'And the good news?' 'We think there was never anything wrong with the other leg anyway.' Jokes made on a production line (when did they start?) need a framework - the elephant jokes?. In Britain a long standing tradition has been the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman, the Irishman, and the Welshman. They confirm stereotypes. – WS2 Jul 12 '15 at 7:23
  • This answer rules and deserves more upvotes. Good question, too. – EleventhDoctor Aug 12 '15 at 8:37

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