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. Now a Popeye's fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from January 19, 2009
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”

"I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” is one of the most famous of modern drinking quips. But who said it first?

The musician Tom Waits said the line on the August 1, 1977 episode of the television show Fernwood2night, a parody of The Tonight Show. Waits played a song, and then said the line in pre-scripted banter with the show’s host. it would appear that a television comedy writer should get credit for the line, but Waits said in a 2005 interview that he first read it on a bathroom wall.

“Dr. Rock” (Randy Hanzlick, M.D.) wrote a song titled “I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me (Than a Frontal Lobotomy).” The song is a favorite of the Dr. Demento radio show. Dr. Hanzlick also has claimed that he found the line from a bathroom wall, although his song was written in 1980 (three years after Waits said the line on television). 

The line is sometimes credited to writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), but there is no evidence at all to support this. Other authorship claims—also without evidence—have been given for actor W. C. Fields and radio wit Fred Allen.

Google Books has an interesting citation (see below) of the quotation from 1965. If properly verified, it is the earliest citation of the quip. There is also a 1976 citation (see below) from comedian Steve Allen, who possibly used the joke much earlier on a television show.

Wikiquote: Tom Waits
Thomas Alan Waits (born 7 December 1949) American composer, singer, songwriter, musician and actor.
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
TV show “Fernwood2Night”, 1977
(origin of above quote, I’d rather have a bottle...., Dorothy Parker, American short-story writer and poet, 1893-1967)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Main Entry: lo·bot·o·my
Pronunciation: \lō-ˈbä-tə-mē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural lo·bot·o·mies
Etymology: International Scientific Vocabulary
Date: 1936
: surgical severance of nerve fibers connecting the frontal lobes to the thalamus performed especially formerly for the relief of some mental disorders

Google Books
World Visions and the Image of Man:
Cosmologies as Reflections of Man

By Carlton W. Berenda
New York, NY: Vantage Press
Pg: 196:
And the male, confronted with this creature from day to day, may be driven to reflect upon three alternatives: “A bottle in front of me, a frontal lobotomy,...”

26 November 1976, Danville (VA) Bee, “Deep Down In His Heart Steve Allen Is Silly” by Dan Freeman (Copley News Service), pg. 19:
(Steve Allen is Dr. Mal Practice, being interviewed by Jayne Meadows—ed.)
Jayne: “I was thinking of a prefrontal lobotomy.”
Steve: “A free bottle in front of me? Listen, you need a prefrontal lobotomy like you need a hole in your head.”

Interviews 1977
Title: Fernwood2night, Sequel 21 (TV show)
Source: audio and video tape. TAT Communication & Co. Directed by: Marvin Kupfer. Created by: Norman Lear. Hosts: Barth Gimble (Martin Mull) and sidekick Jerry Hubard (Fred Willard). Transcription from tape by “Pieter from Holland” as published on the Tom Waits Library
Date: USA. August 1, 1977

Fernwood2Night, sequel 21
BG: My first guest, tonight actualli IS a star, and a big star in his own right. He comes to us quite by accident. Literally, his van broke down on a way to a concert in Toledo [laughter from the audience]. So we figured: “Hey!, no use in wasting a visit to Fernwood, why not give him a shot on television!?”
JH: Right!
BG: This is a big night for Fernwood2Night. It’s almost a thrill for me.
JH: Right. Of course he hasn’t any cover charge or minimum for this show either?
BG: No he’s not staying at the Apache either!
JH: Oh! Let’s not mention names, and say where they’re not staying.
BG: Just where they are
JH: That’s right.
BG: I haven’t even met this gentleman you know. But I know he sells a lot of albums and he makes about a half a million big ones in one year. That’s a lot!
JH: Yes it is!
BG: In my book that spells talent. Please welcome the talent of Mr. Tom Waits!
JH: Tom, where do you hail from professionally? Is it the Big Apple, as they call New York I think? Or is it Hollywood?
TW: I live at Bedlam and Squalor [points over his shoulder]. It’s thata way. [laughter]
BG: I think we all lived there at one time. It’s kind of strange to have a guy sitting here with a bottle in front of him… Ha, ha, ha…
TW: Well, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. [huge laughter] (...)

In the words of Waits
By Steve Packer
27mar ‘04
The line got the night’s biggest laugh and earned the show a footnote in television history. It was soon being scrawled on walls and repeated by, and credited to, other people. In Sphere’s 1984 Handbook of 20th-Century Quotations, it was “graffito quoted on BBC Radio 4” and expanded, nonsensically, to “I’d rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full-frontal lobotomy”. William Gaddis slipped the line into his 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic (now a Penguin 20th-century Classic) and it is on lists all over the the internet.

Although often credited to Anonymous, its lineage seems secure enough to ensure Waits’s name is attached when it appears in future editions of quotation dictionaries, with other great drinking quips such as “I always keep a supply of stimulant handy in case I see a snake - which I also keep handy” (W.C. Fields) and “You are not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on” (Dean Martin).

8 February 1978, Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) Free Press, “Crowd enjoys Mardi Gras but bartenders are unhappy,” pg. 38, cols. 1-2:
NEW ORLEANS (UPI)—(...) The young lady cupped her hands in front of her face, thus covering more than any other part of her, and shouted: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy!”

The Yale Book of Quotations
Edited by Fred R. Shapiro
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Pg. 794:
Tom Waits
U.S. singer and songwriter, 1949-
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
Quoted in Creem Magazine, Mar. 1978

Google News Archive
6 May 1978, St. Petersburg (FL) Times, “It’s called tragic, magic...country music” by Paula Schwed, pg. 7B, col. 3:
(Quoting lyrics in country songs—ed.)
And more often than not, they feel guilty about drinking:
There’s a devil in the bottle and he wants to see me dead.
I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
I’m going to put a bar in my car, so I can drive myself to drink.

The Mad Music Archive
I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me (Than a Frontal Lobotomy)
By: Dr. Rock (Randy Hanzlick, M.D.)
Duration:  3:40
Release Date:  1980 (peterpuck9)
Lyrics By:  Randy Hanzlick (peterpuck9)
Music By:  Randy Hanzlick (peterpuck9)
Produced By: 
Released By:  Kand Hanz (peterpuck9)
Published By: 
Licensing:  ASCAP #390370035

OCLC WorldCat record
Dementia 2000! Dr. Demento’s 30th anniversary collection
by Dr. Demento
Type:  Musical CD : Songs; English
Publisher: Santa Monica, CA : Rhino, 2000.
Material Type: Music
Document Type: Sound Recording
Notes: Novelty recordings compiled from the Dr. Demento show. Title from container. Selections originally released 1950-1997; includes 3 previously unreleased tracks. Compact disc. Program notes by Barry Hansen (27 p. : ill.) inserted in container.
Description: 2 sound discs : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
Contents: (...) I’d rather have a bottle in front of me (than a frontal lobotomy) (Randy Hanzlick, M.D. (Dr. Rock))

Frontal Lobotomy
(thing) by Zach Sat Nov 20 2004 at 17:14:41
Also sometimes cumbersomely titled “I’d Rather Have a Bottle In Front of Me (Then Have To Have A Frontal Lobotomy),” the song Frontal Lobotomy was featured on the Doctor Demento Show on May 28th, 1989, during a special presentation of alcohol related novelty music. It’s also played on Dr. D’s program many times before and since, including October 9th, 1983, October 24th, 1993, March 27th, 1998, and Novemver 3rd, 1991. It was also a prominent addition to Doctor Demento’s 30th Anniversary Collection audio product. It was recorded by “Dr. Rock” who was, and so far as I can tell from sketchy information on the Web still IS, actually Randy Hanzlick, M.D. and this song is the only known novelty hit that he had. Doctor Randy Hanzlick is an Atlanta, Georgia physician, whose expertise is in forensic medicine. He’s often called in to court proceedings as a witness, to testify and explain evidence to the jury. I shit you not. This modern day Quincy used to write crazy songs. Unlike Dr. D, Dr. Rock is an actual doctor.

As Dr. Rock explains it, his inspiration for the song was graffitti on a public restroom stall in a VA hospital. The actual quote from the graffitti was “I’d rather have a free bottle in front of me than a pre-frontal lobotomy.” He played around with the phrase in his head until he came up with this song. The quote is often attributed to Tom Waits incorrectly, because Waits took it from Hanzlick who took it from writing on the wall. 

The Substantially Similar Weblog
Rather have a bottle in front of me
Filed under Music by adam | February 19, 2005
Tom Waits is featured on this week’s American Routes public radio music show (archived here — real audio link). There’s a great interchange where you can’t tell if Waits is totally screwing around with the host, or just being himself. Here’s the clip (10 second ogg):

Q: I don’t want to misquote you, but I think I saw you once said something like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
A: Oh right right right…
Q: Very succinct and poetic line.

A: Mmm… Um, I read that on a bathroom wall.
Q: Oh — did you really?
A: Uh huh. Yeah.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (5) Comments • Monday, January 19, 2009 • Permalink