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Everybody knows this quote, but nobody knows where it's from

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Here’s a quiz: without searching the internet, can you name the source of this quote?

One character asks: "What does it do?" Another replies: "It doesn’t do anything. That’s the beauty of it.”

I asked The Verge’s culture Slack room this question last week, and here are some of the answers I got.

  • The Big Lebowski
  • Bruce Almighty
  • Office Space
  • The Hudsucker Proxy
  • “Some corporate movie where they sell stuff”
  • “The movie with Reggie Watts”
  • “Doesn’t this quote not exist?”

As far as anyone knows, every single one of these guesses is wrong, including the last one.

The quote in question, or a variation that flips the last two sentences, has been appearing on message boards since at least 2003. If you ask where it’s from, people will often throw out answers immediately; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Simpsons are all popular answers. But when pressed, nobody can find it in the place they remember. It’s a maddeningly tantalizing cultural mystery, and it’s made even weirder by the fact that there are at least two plausible sources — but chances are, you’ve never encountered either.

The first, which seems to have been discovered around 2008, is probably the most widely accepted. It’s a TV series called Burke’s Law, which ran from 1963 to 1966. In the episode “Who Killed 711?,” a detective questions (according to the IMDb summary) a murder suspect played by character actor Burgess Meredith. The detective notes that the man is building a curious machine, which leads to the following exchange:

“What is it?”

“Well, it’s my therapy. I’m still perfecting it.”

“What does it do?”

“Do?”

“What’s it for?”

“Well, nothing — nothing. I mean, that’s the beauty of it. Every machine in the world does something, but not mine.”

The scene is a strong possible source. It gets across the meaning of the statement, and it fits a situation that’s often mentioned alongside it: an eccentric character building or explaining a useless machine. But as a quote, it’s far less elegant than the simple call-and-response people remember. The operative pieces are split up by two superfluous lines, and Meredith’s character delivers his answer with clumsy filler words. (He also, incidentally, says “nothing” instead of “doesn’t do anything.”) It’s easy to imagine dialogue from a little-known show mutating over 40 years. But a much closer version — in fact, an almost verbatim one — exists somewhere else.

That place is a 1987 play called Apocalyptic Butterflies, a comedy about the tense relationship of a couple named Hank and Muriel Tater. In the play, the pair’s troubles are complicated by Hank’s father Dick, an eccentric knickknack collector who dumps four thousand dollars’ worth of totem poles on their lawn. At one point, Dick shows up with a truckload of painted wooden butterflies, and Hank voices his confusion.

“What is it?”

“It’s a butterfly.”

“What does it DO?”

“Doesn’t do anything, that’s the beauty of it. You nail ‘em to your house, your mailbox, makes it distinctive.”

While there’s no mad scientist here, this is a direct match for the three iconic lines, with the exception of one missing “it.” For anyone who’s seen the play, it’s a very likely candidate. But that doesn’t address the biggest issue for both Burke’s Law and Apocalyptic Butterflies — how many people watched either one? Neither has broad mainstream popularity, especially for anyone born after they premiered. Nor is there a major cult following that could have turned the quote into a meme, spreading it to outsiders. There’s no flash of relief and recognition when they’re mentioned, only more questions.

One forum post suggests a radio DJ might have sampled the Burke’s Law clip and given it wide exposure, but there’s no evidence this happened. The Apocalyptic Butterflies exchange, meanwhile, wasn’t discovered by somebody recalling a long-forgotten memory. It seems to have been unearthed by a Reddit user with the handle gunbladezero, who says he found it by searching the quote on Google Books. “I'd never heard of the play in question before finding it,” he says. “I actually have no idea if or how often it's been performed/quoted — so it might not be a source as much as evidence that the phrase had already been in use.”

You can, in fact, find bits and pieces of the exchange elsewhere. But they’re even more loosely connected than the Burke’s Law scene. In Larry Niven and Edward Lerner’s novel Juggler of Worlds, for example, a character responds to “What does it do?” with “It’s beautiful! Why does it have to do anything?” A Simpsons episode has Homer asking Lisa “How does it work?” of a supposed tiger-repelling rock, with Lisa replying “It doesn’t work.” But none of them concisely evoke the absurdity of something’s very uselessness being beautiful, which is why the lines are so memorable in the first place.

Apocalyptic Butterflies author Wendy MacLeod learned of the quote’s significance a few years ago, courtesy of an arts professor who taught the phenomenon in a class. “I was interested that the only frame of reference for those posting seemed to be popular culture — movies, The Simpsons, Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” writes MacLeod. “The fact that it came from a play (or even a novel) never occurred to anybody!” (As for the alternate theory, MacLeod says she’s never seen Burke’s Law.)

MacLeod, who has written nearly a dozen plays since Apocalyptic Butterflies, has a theory about how her quote might have trickled into the collective unconscious. “The play premiered at Yale Repertory Theater when I was in my final year at Yale Drama School,” she recalls. “Many of my peers there now work in film and television, so maybe they remembered the play and quoted it accidentally or on purpose.”

The longer the quote gets debated, the likelier it is that people will hear it in something riffing on the original mystery. Web artist and musician Neil Stephen Cicierega based an entire song, “The Machine,” on it in 2008. “I probably first saw a thread about it circa 2004 or 2005 on the Something Awful forums,” says Cicierega. “It was definitely a little eerie how the quote seemed familiar to everybody yet nobody could place it. I thought there must be some special phonetic quality to it and wrote my song around it.” He ended up sampling the Burke’s Law clip, which he calls a “pretty close match.”

Some theories begin promisingly enough, only to collapse beneath the slightest inspection. A few forum posts claim that the phrase’s true source is unknown, but that it was popularized in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, well after it appeared online. The posts are remarkably confident, supposedly including direct transcripts of a very plausible exchange between two specific characters. I watched the entire film for this article — and at least in the official cut, it’s not there.

The whole mystery is reminiscent of the Mandela Effect: a mass misremembering of some story, quote, or event. (Or, depending on your perspective, evidence of travel between parallel universes.) Even the most extreme Mandela Effect cases, though, often have clear roots — like the nonexistent film Shazaam, which skeptics can explain as a portmanteau of Kazaam and its star Shaq.

“That’s the beauty of it” is tougher to pin down, and no explanation is really satisfying. Did people mangle an exchange between two characters in a largely forgotten detective show? Did they subconsciously remember someone else quoting a quip from a play? Did forum posters collaboratively weave it together from several different stories? Was it falsified as part of a social experiment, but generic enough to have really appeared in fiction?

“It still feels like there's an obvious answer out there that everyone's forgetting,” says Cicierega. But years of exhaustive searches have failed to do more than chip away at the mystery. Short of a major discovery, or someone coming forward and proving they created the whole thing as a joke, it may not ever be solved.

Personally, there’s no mystery behind where I first heard the exchange. I found it in 2006, quoted on my college boyfriend’s LiveJournal page.

Of course, at the time, I was totally sure it was from Hitchhiker’s Guide.