There's a sentence that I keep reading over and over, and I can't quite grasp what's so funny about it. Perhaps, it isn't funny. Or perhaps, there's a meaning of a word in the sentence that I don't understand. The pun is:

She’s afraid that if she leaves, she’ll become the life of the party.
~Groucho Marx

I'm not quite sure what the punchline is here. Perhaps it's a concept I don't get or don't know. Can someone please enlighten me?

  • 2
    That's funny! Coming from Groucho Marx, I suppose, makes it even funnier, as it is all in the delivery. It's meant as an insult to the person that he is referring to. I wouldn't consider it a pun, though.
    – Bill
    Sep 17, 2011 at 11:03

7 Answers 7


What does this phrase mean? Is it funny? ? Don’t you have to be at the party in order to be the life of it? Why would someone be afraid to be the life of a party? Is she shy? Are parties living beings? Of course, being the life of the party means that you are the center of attention. So, if you are the center of attention when not present, that means that people are talking about you. From our lived experiences, we know that gossiping – people talking about you when you are not there – is generally a bad thing. Just like Sherlock Holmes, we can deduce meaning (and humor) by making these connections.


Resource (and the whole article): The genius of Watson


By Groucho's normal standards, this one doesn't strike me as particularly funny, anyway. But that nstablog entry linked to by @Mehper is just about IBM's latest AI program called Watson. It doesn't say anything about where the humor comes from in this one-liner, so I'll say what I think.

I think all he means is she's frightened that if she leaves, everyone will start talking (probably negatively) about her. So by not being present, she'd become the centre of attention in a way she wouldn't like. By implication it's a boring party, where no-one has much to say about anything.

Here's a much earlier instance, from 1825,...

[He] was the life and soul of the party; bowed to everybody, danced with every lady...

...of the way "life [and soul] of the party" is more often used - someone who actively contributes to making the party go with a swing, rather than someone that everyone talks about in their absence. Groucho's one-liner turns that standard usage on its head for comic effect.


I think the answer is in the inversion of the italics, in leaving she would improve things but doesn't want to do so. The phrase "life of the party" historically seems to refer to someone that is talked about/with while there, and in leaving would become the someone talked about who is not there, ergo becoming the death of same.

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    The life [and soul] of the party doesn't mean someone who's talked about. It means a vivacious/convivial/chatty person that everyone notices, and finds interesting/amusing to listen to/watch. A subject of attention, rather than discussion. Sep 18, 2011 at 14:13

Although there's already an accepted answer. Here's an alternate interpretation I thought was worth a mention:

That by leaving she would breathe life into the party, so to speak or bring the party back to life.

It's an uncommon use of the word though because, we see death used in this context more often i.e. You'll be the death of me. Quite interesting I'd say but by Groucho's high standards, not hilarious.


The pun is on the word "leaves." If she LEAVES she'll be the "life" (LEAF) of the party. It's a play on words, using a different pronunciation for "life" to make the punster's point that the woman is a bore, and no one will miss her.


It makes no sense except as a pun, which is LEAVES (as in a tree that is shedding leaves) and LIFE (pronounced LEAF). This is the obvious answer. All the other answers are fanciful speculations that have nothing to do with the simple pun Groucho intended to make.

Generally, a good comedian is not going to leave a joke so open to interpretation; no, they must go for the immediate laugh, which requires immediate comprehension of the joke. In this case, the only way to get an immediate laugh (use your practical rather than philosophical or psychological imaginations here, please) is to make the pronunciation of LIFE as LEAF obvious to the audience. You have to recognize that this was originally a spoken pun, not a written down quotation for the ages.

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    Have you actually seen this in context? Does he pronounce it "leaf"? Or are you speculating too? Jun 9, 2014 at 8:45
  • Punning isn't just saying a word that sounds like another word. There has to be something funny about the double meaning. Understanding the actual joke (she'll be the "life of the party" but only in her absence) is much simpler than trying to work out what's funny about imagining she's thinking about leaves on a tree. The first bit wouldn't even work grammatically (you're substituting a noun for a verb, how are we supposed to interpret that?)
    – Rupe
    Jun 9, 2014 at 9:51

I'm just throwing this around in my head right now so here's what I have so far:

When he says "...if she leaves..." it is referring to her dying. In that case, "Becoming the life of the party" is an insult to the person he is referring to, meaning that she was making the party worse.

Okay now I'm thinking "...if she leaves..." is just referring to her leaving the party. (It kinda threw me off, mentioning the word 'life' in the quote, AND putting it in italics) So "Becoming the life of the party" would just be an insult saying she makes the party worse.

Remember, I'm just guessing here. Hope this helps you figure it out.

  • I'm not sure, but I suspect this was only really a spoken one-liner. Also, there are plenty of references to it on the Net, but scanning through a few I didn't come across any that italicised "life" (apart from OP's question here). So I'm not sure you can read too much into the italics, given that they only seem to be used by the one person who freely admits he doesn't understand the humour anyway. Anyway, the fact that there's uncertainty about exactly why it's funny is the reason I don't think it's one of Groucho's better ones. Sep 18, 2011 at 14:22

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