Life Is What Happens While We're Not Checking Facts

Actress Gilda Radner.  (Photo by Ann Clifford/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Actress Gilda Radner. (Photo by Ann Clifford/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Fact-checking has never been more accessible to the average person, even though Google and other search engines are sometimes alarmingly wrong. But who wants to dig? Take for instance one of my favorite quotations, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," which is mistakenly and repeatedly attributed to the late John Lennon, who was killed on December 8, 1980.

It's true that Lennon worked the phrase into his lovely song "Beautiful Boy," but he didn't come up with it, despite what Google says -- over and over again. So who coined it? According to the Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro, the origin is attributed to writer and cartoonist Allen Saunders. A variation of the quote, "Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans," was published in Reader's Digest in January 1957, when Lennon was 17.

Here's another surprise. Sometimes our most trusted sources of accurate information get it wrong as well. Case in point: Brian Williams, who deserves a noogie. Even his NBC nightly news program didn't bother to mine through internet misinformation when, during a broadcast last week, he told America that Gilda's Club, the free cancer support and information centers, is changing name to Cancer Support Community.

But that's not quite true. Williams was referring to a network of some 50 affiliate centers, including one in New York City, that alternately go by the names Cancer Support Community, Gilda's Club and The Wellness Community.

The real story is that effective January 2013 one Gilda's Club affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin will change name to Cancer Support Community. Albeit, for a mind-numbingly stupid reason. Quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal, the club's executive director Lannia Syren Stenz explained the name change: "One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed, as we are seeing younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis." That the center is rebranding itself because young people don't know who Gilda Radner was deserves ire and outrage and even petitions. Rightly so.

She had me at "Cheddar Cheese." I was a restless adolescent in 1975 when, one humdrum weekend, while mindlessly flipping TV channels I came upon a group of adults dressed as bees. Gilda Radner, one of those first Not Ready for Prime Time Players, was an enchanting childlike-woman, charming and funny and I'd never seen anyone like her before. I couldn't wait for Monday mornings at I.S. 145 in Queens, when my friends and I could recap and mimic her zany characters, one of whom was the hard-of-hearing, frumpy Emily Litella, who referred to fake news anchor Chevy Chase as "Cheddar Cheese." After corrected by Chase for her typically misguided high-pitched on-air rants, she'd deliver a demure, "Nevermind," which became part of the national lexicon while I was growing up.

Her other characters were equally engaging and my friends and I became Radner groupies, hanging out on Saturdays at the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center, home of NBC, in the hopes that we'd spot her. Once we even sent a stuffed teddy bear up to her office. And we were rewarded beyond our wildest expectations when she sent a sweet thank you note down with a page.

That's who Gilda Radner was and while it's a true shame and somewhat shameful that the Wisconsin cancer center is detaching itself from her name, here's a fact: like Lucy, Frank Sinatra, John Belushi, John Lennon and so many others, ultimately it's really up to us, the fans, to keep the flame alive generation to generation. Of course, should that fail, there's always Google.