05/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Long, Hard Probe Finds 'She' Behind 'That's What She Said'

During the last few weeks, I've sat in front of my television consuming mounds of cheese curls and take-out wondering how I can get me some of that Huffington Post Investigative Fund money. Surely there had to be something out there worth looking into, but the news networks sounded especially loud with a hangover and the BBC coverage on PBS was all "blah, blah, blah, accent, blah, blah, blah, foreign people." If I was going to find a topical, relevant subject for my investigation, I would have to cull my information from the source of most Americans' knowledge of current events: Entertainment programming.

It was only after emerging from a Twizzler-induced state of suspended animation during Hour Five of an Office marathon on TBS that an emerging pattern snapped me into a moment of journalistic clarity:

That's a whole lot of double entendre for one person, which led me to an essential question: Who is "she?" Is this person just a naive rube who keeps spewing awkward phrases without taking time to ease the brain-to-voice transition? Is she a bawdy saloon or cathouse owner who knows exactly what she's saying and is playing it for lewd laughs? The question gnawed at me like a sofa sore.

I began my investigation as the great journalistic minds of our time always have, with a trip to Wikipedia. Surprisingly, "That's What She Said" didn't warrant an entry of its own alongside such landmark cultural memes as "Your mother," "Pwn" or "Where's the Beef." It seems to have a shared etymology with the British phrase "Said the actress to the bishop," but various sources left the origins of that phrase as much in doubt as those of its stateside companion. While Chaucer and Shakespeare were early fathers of the English double entendre, their times were dominated more by bishops than by actresses (whose gigs were being taken by young boys). Sorry, Brits, but you cheeky bastards are on your own.

I can't help thinking that life would be so much easier if our litigious society came through and about 3,000 stand-up comics filed lawsuits claiming authorship of this phrase. With millions in novelty T-shirt revenue and an untold treasure trove of "That's What She Said Day" royalties at stake, you'd think somebody would jump on it (we know that's what she said, we're getting there).

Sadly, our trail of entendre was leading back the surly Scottish dad from So I Married An Axe Murderer, the hot mom from Love Actually and a bunch of other people who aren't necessarily short on cash. An informal poll of thirtysomethings pointed to this scene from Wayne's World as the first "That's What She Said" for the masses:

You could credit Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Claudia Schiffer or a member of the writing staff for giving the entire world pause when the word "hard" is used in passing conversation, but none of that really answers who "she" is. Schiffer never actually appears in the film, and while someone who once dated David Copperfield likely had myriad opportunities to uncork a "That's What She Said" (his Vegas show is called "An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion", the entry button on his home page is marked "Enter Full Force," and his bio suggests that he "made audience members disappear and reappear in places they'd never expect"), her quotes are usually fairly mild. Her biggest slip, while talking about models in a 1995 Time Magazine article, was this little nugget: "We work harder -- at night and on weekends." That is what she said, but as double entendres go, just barely.

The leads were drying up. I turned to Wayne's World co-star Tia Carrere, but her Grammy-winning Hawaiian music album Ikena is short on entendre unless Spam turns you on. I thought of every great double entendre in history, but kept coming up with Bond girls and AC/DC songs. Surely there had to be one "she" who said at least some of these things. Suddenly, after sifting through a sea of "long" and "hard" wordplay and other juvenalia, an old, grainy image hit me in the face like dual-side airbags:

Yes, she's been dead since 1980, but Mae West was most certainly the "she" behind much of what she said. This was a woman working at a time when Donna Reed was considered a vixen and Two and a Half Men would have been tantamount to pornography. With the Hays Code (the movie biz's version of the Patriot Act): in effect, West basically invented the "That's What She Said" approach to double entendre out of necessity. Even under heavy scrutiny, West was able to slip these past the suits at the studios:

"I do all my writing in bed; everybody knows I do my best work there."

"A hard man is good to find."

"When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better."

and, in what may have been a precursor to the falafel culture at a certain news network:

"I'm the kinda girl who works for Paramount by day, and Fox all night."

Nearly every comedian since has made made West's quips look like Bible verse, but thanks to Mae you can't so much as Twitter under the table without eliciting a slight chuckle. This investigation ended at Mae's family plot in Brooklyn's Cypress Hills Cemetery (and my mailbox, where I'll be expecting that check from HuffPo any day now), but West's take on her sassy stand against the censors still resonates at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company and in dirty minds everywhere:

"I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it."

That's what she said.

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