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A phrase I've heard on various comedy programs regarding famous people is "[he or she] can't get arrested in this town." It often seems to be in reference to the person no longer being famous, however I've asked native English speakers and they claim it's the opposite, that the person is so famous they cannot get arrested.

Further searching online I've found very few places which define it, Collins Dictionary defines it as:

(informal) (of a performer) is unrecognized and unsuccessful ⇒ he can't get arrested here but is a megastar in the States

This makes no sense, as why would it be difficult for a non-famous person to get arrested? Seemingly popular perception is celebrities are more likely to get away with crimes, rather than actually be arrested.

An example of usage I know if is in the television series 30 Rock, but I've heard it other places:

Jenna: Thank you, but I am a selfless person who can't get arrested in this town!

So, what does it mean and why does it mean it? If it does mean they are no longer famous, what's the logic behind someone being so unfamous they cannot get arrested? If that's case it's rather strange that the phrase is so unclear that native English speakers don't seem even get the meaning.

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  • See also, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." May 29, 2016 at 8:18
  • @ToddWilcox true, also "Good publicity, bad publicity, just spell my name right" May 29, 2016 at 9:06
  • I've asked native English speakers... from where? I've heard the phrase several times (not often or recently, though), always in exactly the sense of CandiedOrange's answer. I think it's unlikely for this expression to actually be changing to a literal interpretation, because if anything celebrities get arrested more often now than in the past, and police are probably less likely to look the other way for celebs. May 29, 2016 at 16:09
  • usage citation from a 2009 American TV show: en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Castle_(TV_series): "You know, she hasn’t landed a role in months... Why do you think she’s moving back to New York? She can’t get arrested in LA!". Also: S2E7: "We made the reputation for the name Blue Pill [a rock band], but [...]. Hell, we can't even get arrested now" ... Castle: "Poor choice of words" (since at this point the guy is literally a murder suspect.) May 29, 2016 at 17:09
  • I'm going to say that I first heard the expression used on the old Dick Van Dyke show that ran 1961-1966.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 1, 2016 at 22:33

4 Answers 4

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The struggle to make it in entertainment is a struggle to be noticed. This hyperbolic complaint is that even committing a crime wouldn't be enough to get one noticed.

It's not about no longer being famous. Famous or not, it's about commanding attention.

Read some of the nonsense people get up to in the tabloids and you'll find many people coming very close to getting themselves arrested just to command any kind of attention.

When talent finally is recognized the recognition can be localized. Meaning the performer has to go through the whole promotional struggle again when they go somewhere else. Thus "in this town".

can't get arrested

(informal) (of a performer) is unrecognized and unsuccessful ⇒ he can't get arrested here but is a megastar in the States

Collins Dictionary

The sad truth is there are many talented people you've never heard of because talent alone isn't what makes people famous. What's behind the complaint is a frustration with this fact.

Failure to command any sort of attention anywhere can leave you homeless. You can see this expression used this way in song here. It's lyrics include:

I can't get arrested in this town
Lord I'm restless and running around
I've been rejected and kicked around
I'm being tested when I'm down

Got my mind on gravity
Another ride on another highway
Still my feet are on the ground
I can't get arrested in this town

I'm walkin' for miles as the sun fades away
Talkin' with t' strangers I meet along the way
Everybody got somethin' to say, alright
But nobody really looks me in the eye

Well, maybe I expected more from my sisters and brothers
Like, maybe we'd be hangin' on to one another
They all turn their heads when I look back
C'mon and cut me some slack! Cut me somethin!

Corus

Now I'm standing on the sidewalk with my bag in my hand
I've been in the wrong place when it all hit the fan
Now there's a cold wind blowing down these avenues

You'll tell me there's nothing that you can do
Well, maybe I expected more from my brothers and sisters
Take a look around you man, take a look around you mister
Too many walking around with a hole in their heart these days
We keep walking away, we keep walking

Corus

-- John Carpino

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  • So the "megastar" bit is a sarcastic turn of phrase? They are really on the D-list of fame, but act as if they were on the A-List? Any A-list celebrity will wheedle him/herself out of arrest (in a minor offence) because of their connections, and ultimately, their fame. Is that it? Or so-called "megastars" are more likely to be arrested because of who they are?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 29, 2016 at 17:33
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    @Mari-LouA As I said, it's not about what you can do when you're famous. It's about what you have to do to attain fame (self promotion) and that even when you do attain fame it can be localized. Even when it's not localized, you're just not famous anywhere, you can still make this complaint. It's just that, well since you aren't famous, few people hear you when you do this. : ) Was trying to illustrate that point with the frustration link. Wish I could find a definition that explicitly allowed for this usage but definitions of this expression seem to be scarce. May 29, 2016 at 17:39
  • @Mari-LouA point taken. I've updated the question. Any other notes? I'm tempted to remove the stuff after the arrow but it seems disingenuous and loses one, but not the only, example meaning. May 29, 2016 at 17:50
  • I've been listening to the song more carefully, it seems the song is about those down on their luck, the homeless, the down-and-outs, the ones without a break: I'm walkin' for miles as the sun fades away, Talkin' with t' strangers I meet along the way, Everybody got somethin' to say. Nobody really looks me in the eye, Well, maybe I expected more from my sisters and brothers .... C'mon and cut me some slack! ...
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 29, 2016 at 18:30
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As a supplement to Candied Orange's very useful answer, I offer these instances of the term. From Nancy Steinbeck, The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck (2001):

When asked about his father's attitude toward the Monterey Peninsula, John [Steinbeck, Junior] said, "He wasn't the town's [Salinas's] favorite son. They didn't like him. His works were not well received. People were outraged that his characters were loosely based on real people. He'd be confused and amused by the homage now being paid to him. There was a long time when he couldn't even get arrested in this town. Even after winning the Nobel and the Pulitzer, many local people refused to acknowledge him as an important writer. Now he's an institution.

From Todd Snider, I Never met a Story I Didn't Like (2014):

One of us said, "We can't even get arrested in this town," which is an old showbiz expression meaning, "I am not popular here."

The expression may be old in show business, but the earliest Google Books matches for the phrase are from 1986. From The Washingtonian, volume 21 (1986):

He couldn't get arrested in this town, as he likes to say. But then, in 1980, he started movie reviews. Arch-at-Large was born. [page 135]

...

"But to get to be known, you have to have a reason to be out there, and you have to have a place where people can find you—where they know you'll always be. I know that. How well I know that. Ah ha ha ha HA! For the first six years here, I didn't have a role, and I couldn't get arrested in this town. [page 182]

And from Douglas Cohen, No Way to Treat a Lady: Based Upon the Novel by William Goldman (1986):

ALEXANDRA. How dare you compare yourself to me! HOW DARE YOU! I am famous because of my work on the legitimate stage. But you ... you practice murder and pretend it's art.

KIT. It is art! THE TIMES calls me a "master of disguises."

ALEXANDRA. Poor Christopher. Whether you're a successful killer or an unsuccessful actor, you still can't get arrested in this town!

(Her light laughter reverberates in KIT's head as she disappears.)

The point of the expression is to indicate that the person is such a nobody or such a pariah that even something that anybody can do (like getting arrested) is beyond them because it would involve someone else's acknowledging their existence and humanity. An expression sometimes used to similar effect in indicating a person's unpopularity is, "He [or she] couldn't be elected dog catcher"—an implied insult because dog catching is a very low-prestige municipal job.


Update (June 18, 2023): Early newsppaer instances of the expression

A search of the Elephind newspaper database finds three examples of the expression from before 1986 (the earliest Google Books match noted in my original answer.

One very early instance involves someone actually asking a sheriff how to get arrested. From "Tries to Crash Jail: But Youth Meets with No Success," in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (May 12, 1938):

An 18-year-old transient was going to break into San Bernardino county's prison camp yesterday, even if he had to violate the law to do it.

He violated the law twice, once in sight of a police officer, and still remained free last night—much to his dismay.

...

Sheriff Shay explained that only men who had been convicted of a crime were placed in the camp.

The youth walked away with an optimistic look in his eyes.

Returning shortly afterward, he demanded of Sheriff Shay: "Say, just how does a fellow get arrested in this town anyway?"

Then he told of his futile attempt to be arrested. ...

From James Bacon, "Contradictory Is the Word for Sinatra," in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (January 15, 1961):

Most of Sinatra's feuds go back a few years before "From Here to Eternity," the movie that catapulted Sinatra from a career abyss to the multi-million property he is today.

Before that movie, Frank couldn't get arrested in this town. His vocal cords had hemorrhaged; the government had slapped him with a $250,000 lien on taxes that he thought had been paid; he had separated from his wife and family and got involved in a hectic romance and marriage with Ava Gardner. A roofful of other troubles fell in on him.

And from John Bogert, "Success Made a Return Engagement," in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (August 3, 1979):

The biggest part of the pain of those years was, however, her exclusion from the business.

"Here I was, the first white R and B singer to come along in years and I couldn't get arrested in this town."

The first of these three instances is, in effect, the setup question for the type of complaining statements that appear in the next two examples, although the question seems to be a sincere one. In the 1932 example, the speaker wants to get arrested and asks how to make that happen. In the 1961 and 1979 examples, the speakers are emphasizing their public invisibility by exaggerating their inability to attract notice by any means.

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The phrase is an old (U.S.?) show business term that refers to someone whose career has hit a dry spell and they can't get a break. Things are going so bad for them that they can't even get arrested. Think about it, how ineffectual would a person have to be that they couldn't do something (e.g. throw a brick through a random window) that would get them noticed by the police?

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  • Hello, Richard. This doesn't add to the answers already given. Aug 14, 2017 at 17:44
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To be plain, the Collins citation is correct in my experience and that of others apparently. It's a commonplace expression among comedians, whom I'm sure coined the phrase. However, I've heard it used by non-celebrities to mean, "I'm getting nowhere here. No one recognizes me or cares what I do." It implies a need to move on and find a more appreciative community."

Some news sources (The Daily Beast, St. Petersburg Times) have used "can't get arrested" literally to refer to criminals or purported criminals, who seem to escape arrest no matter what.

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