Where Did “That’s What She Said” Originate From?

Michael Scott

If you’re a fan of The Office, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the phrase “That’s What She Said,” humorously uttered by Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott whenever innocent statements take on a lewd or sexual connotation when taken out of context.

But have you ever wondered where this phrase originated? Its roots can be traced back to the United States in the 1970s, specifically to the first season of Saturday Night Live. However, if we venture further back in time and across the pond to England, we find its origins at the turn of the 20th century.

The English Origin: “Said The Actress To The Bishop”

The phrase’s English origin can be attributed to a Wellerism called “Said The Actress To The Bishop.” It originated in stage plays between 1901 and 1910 but didn’t appear in print until 1928 in a novel titled “Meet The Tiger” by Leslie Charteris. This novel was the third installment featuring his James Bond-esque character, The Saint.

During those days, English actresses who performed on stage often supplemented their income by engaging in prostitution. Their presence on the stage inadvertently served as advertising for their other occupation to the male audience members. Young women working as servers in the theaters, known as “Orange Girls” due to their role of serving fruit, would help arrange meetings between the actresses and audience members.

Because English actresses were perceived to have loose morals, members of the clergy would frequently spend time with them, attempting to encourage confessions of their sins. This practice became so well-known that the phrase “Said The Actress to the Bishop” became a popular quip whenever something was said that could be interpreted with sexual innuendo.

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“That’s What She Said”

The translation of the phrase to the United States is unclear, but it is believed to have been introduced by Alfred Hitchcock. He used a variation of the phrase in a test reel for his 1929 film “Blackmail.” The line “It will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier” is often cited as the first instance of the “That’s What She Said” joke.

By the 1970s, “Said the Actress to the Bishop” had largely disappeared from popular language. The American interpretation of the phrase, “That’s What She Said,” appeared in print in the 1973 book “EgoSpeak” by Edmond Addeo and Robert Burger. The book describes it as “the cheapest shot of all” and a tired one-liner that can be used in response to any remark, no matter how innocent, by summoning a hint of double-entendre. Essentially, the authors dismiss the phrase as old and hackneyed.

Saturday Night Live

In 1975, Chevy Chase is credited with being the first to utter the phrase “That’s What She Said” during a “Weekend Update” sketch on Saturday Night Live. The phrase remained primarily within the Saturday Night Live circles until it resurfaced in the “Wayne’s World” sketches featuring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey. In the 1992 Wayne’s World movie, during a scene where Garth is holding a photo of model Claudia Schiffer and expresses his fatigue, Wayne responds with the iconic line, “Yeah, that’s what she said.” If you grew up in the 90s, quoting lines from Wayne’s World was practically a rite of passage.

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The Office

While the phrase gained popularity in the 90s through Wayne’s World, its connection to The Office may not be tied to Saturday Night Live. Instead, we can trace its origin back to England when Ricky Gervais created the British sitcom in 2001. Gervais’s character, David Brent, frequently used the Wellerism “Said The Actress To The Bishop.” When the series was adapted for the US, Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, adopted the American equivalent, “That’s What She Said.” This led to the phrase reaching its peak influence in pop culture.

And thus, the phrase “That’s What She Said” has become ingrained in our cultural lexicon. Its journey from the stages of England to the screens of America is a testament to the enduring power of humor and the interconnectedness of comedy across time and borders.

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