A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from January 18, 2013
“What do you call 500 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? A good start.” (joke)

One of the most popular of all lawyer jokes is:

“What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”
“A good start.”


The joke became famous when it was spoken by actor Danny DeVito in the film The War of the Roses (1989). “What do you call 2,000 attorneys chained together at the bottom of the sea? A good beginning” was cited in print in 1988.

However, forms of the joke had appeared earlier.  “What do you call 100,000 Texans at the bottom of the ocean?” was an Okie joke from at least May 1985. “What do you have when you’ve got 10,000 blacks at the bottom of the ocean?” was published in Totally Tasteless (1987), a collection of tasteless jokes.

Other popular lawyer jokes include “An utter waste is defined as a busload of lawyers going over a cliff with three empty seats” and “What’s the difference between a dead armadillo and a dead lawyer in the road? The armadillo has skids marks in front” and “The problem with lawyer jokes is that lawyers don’t think they’re funny and others don’t think they’re jokes.”


Google Books
May 1985, Texas Monthly, pg. 140, col. 1:
The refs made about ten totally conspiratorial calls in the fourth quarter, and for weeks afterward law-abiding Christian grandmothers all over Oklahoma were approaching strangers and telling this joke: 

“What do you call a hundred thousand Texans at the bottom of the ocean?”

“A good start.”

10 May 1985, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), “Swapping shots with the Texans” by Angus Lind, pg. D3, col. 1:
The Oklahoman’s tirade could be summed up in this joke: “What do you call 100,000 Texans at the bottom of the ocean?”

“A good start.” Okies are resentful.

Google Books
Totally Tasteless:
The Collected Works (So Far)

By Blanche Knott
New York, NY: Ballantine
1987
Pg. 235:
What do you have when you’ve got 10,000 blacks at the bottom of the ocean?
A good start.

5 January 1990, Mobile (AL) Register, “A wilting look at marriage, divorce” by Dave Helms, pg. B1, cols. 4-5:
“War of the Roses” isn’t satisfied merely to satirize bad marriages, by the way. It pokes grief at the institutions that profit from these human car crashes. DeVito, who plays Oliver’s best friend and, coincidentally, the lawyer who represents him in the divorce, poses the question: “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?”

“A good start,” he says, answering his own question. “I used to resent these jokes, but now I see them as simple truths.”

Google News Archive
16 September 1990, Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal, “The Stroller” by Lou Parris, pg. B1, col. 1:
What do you call 500 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? A good start.

22 May 1990, Anderson (IN) Herald-Bulletin, “Lawyer-bashing fun; it won’t stop” by Paul Harvey, pg. A-6, col. 2:
What do you call a dozen lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

Answer: “A good start.”

Google Books
Lawyers & Other Reptiles
By Jess M. Brallier
Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books
1992
Pg. 57:
Question: What do you call a hundred lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? Answer: A good start.

Amazon.com
The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
1993
Pg. 265:
What do you call 2,000 attorneys chained together at the bottom of the sea?
A good beginning.
Michael Rafferty, Skid Marks, 14-15 (1988)

Google Books
First, Kill All the Lawyers:
Legal Proverbs, Epitaphs, Jokes, and Anecdotes

By Bill Adler
New York, NY: Carol Pub. Group
1994
Pg. 137:
What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.

Google Books
The Hidden Jury:
And Other Secret Tactics Lawyers Use to Win

By Paul Michael Lisnek
Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
2003
Pg. XIII:
As a lawyer and a jury consultant, I live with jokes, insults, and questions. I have lost track of how many times I heard someone try to wow me with: “What do you call a hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

Google Books
The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners:
Over 10,000 Gems of Wit, Wisdom, One-liners and Wisecracks

By Geoff Tibballs
New York, NY: Carroll & Graff
2004
Pg. 303:
What do you call 500 lawyers lying at the bottom of the ocean?—A good start.
GAVIN D’AMATO (DANNY DEVITO), The War of the Roses

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • Friday, January 18, 2013 • Permalink