While Ginger Rogers introduced this George and Ira Gershwin number in the 1937 musical Shall We Dance, it was her onscreen song-and-dance partner Fred Astaire who would go on to record the song that same year. The lyrics begin with examples of great accomplishments and discoveries throughout history that exceeded people's expectations:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly
Why, they told Marconi wireless was a phoney - it's the same old cry
So it goes with the narrator's love life, but like all the others, he (or she) gets the last laugh:
Why they laughed at me, wanting you - said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through - and now they'll have to change their tune
They all said we'd never get together - they laughed at us and how
For oh, ho, ho - Who's got the last laugh now?
Michael Feinstein, a singer and pianist who once worked as an archivist for Ira Gershwin, explained the inspiration behind the song in NPR Fresh Air interview: "There used to be a famous magazine and newspaper ad that showed a drawing of a man sitting at the piano, and it said above it: They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano. And it was an advertisement for a quickie course in how to learn to play the piano. And that phrase, they all laughed, was something that stuck in Ira's head, and he later used that as the inspiration for a love song."
Not everybody loves a love song, especially renowned playwright George S. Kaufman, who was also a friend of Ira Gershwin. Feinstein explained: "When he played the song for George S. Kaufman, Kaufman hated love songs. And at first, Kaufman liked the idea that the lyric was something that was not in reference to romance. And then when they got to the bridge, they laughed at me wanting you, he said, 'Oh, don't tell me this is another romantic song.'
But that was Ira, who was always trying to find a way of expressing love without saying I love you. And that's why he was so proud of 'They All Laughed.'"
Shall We Dance was Fred and Ginger's seventh out of ten collaborations. This time around, Fred is a ballet dancer who falls for tap dancer Ginger, who isn't interested, especially when the two get caught up in a publicity stunt involving a pretend marriage.
Several artists have covered this, including Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Dick Van Dyke. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett performed it as a duet for their 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek.
Director Peter Bogdanovich borrowed the title for his 1981 romantic comedy They All Laughed, starring Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, and Dorothy Stratten. Frank Sinatra's rendition was used in the film.
Ira Gershwin also included a nod to Christopher Columbus in the 1928 song "How Long Has This Been Going On?" written for the musical Funny Face:
I know how Columbus felt
Finding another world
In 1945, he wrote "The Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria," referencing the three ships Columbus used on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, with Kurt Weill for the musical-comedy film Where Do We Go From Here?, starring Fred MacMurray, June Haver, and Joan Leslie.
Ira wasn't the only one with a fascination for the explorer. Cole Porter also referenced Columbus in his 1935 song "Just One of Those Things":
As Columbus announced
When he knew he was bounced
'It was swell, Isabelle, swell'