This song alternates between spoken narration and the sung chorus. It's about a woman sunk in chronic boredom, perhaps depressed, to the point where she is not impressed with some of life's greatest spectacles. It's rather macabre.
First, she watches her house burn down and asks, "Is that all there is to a fire?"
Second, she goes to "The Greatest Show On Earth" and wonders, "Is that all there is to a circus?"
Third, she meets a boy, falls in love and they break up. "Is that all there is to love?" she wonders.
This was written by the mighty songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. However, it was not originally intended for Peggy Lee; first they tried English singer-actress Georgia Brown, then they offered it to Marlene Dietrich, who turned it down. Last they considered Barbara Streisand, who, even though they sent the song to her manager, complained years later that she'd been passed over for it. At last they thought of Peggy Lee.
The ending of this song refers to suicide, with Peggy Lee addressing the listener directly:
I know what you must be saying to yourselves
"If that's the way she feels about it why doesn't she just end it all?"
Oh, no, not me
I'm not ready for that final disappointment
This is not how the song was written. The line was supposed to be:
I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment
"Which is the joke," Jerry Leiber said in More Songwriters on Songwriting. "'I'm not ready for that final disappointment' is not a joke. But she insisted on singing 'ready' because I think she felt that it sounded more natural. And she missed the point."
The song is based on Thomas Mann's short fiction story Disillusionment. A quick read will reveal that much of the lyrics comes straight from the story, right down to a child watching a fire and the question "Is that all there is to it?"
Along with Mann and Kafka, there is yet a third German influence: Mike Stoller composed the music using the operas of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. You'll remember them as the satirists whose work influenced such pop hits as "Alabama Song
" and "Mack The Knife
Summarizing the above, how many accidents had to come together to make this song happen? First, a friend had to recommend the works of Mann to Jerry Leiber. Next, Georgia Brown had to suggest a chorus. When Leiber and Stoller agreed, they went to their separate homes that night and came together the next day to compare notes; Leiber's lyrics and Stoller's music went together perfectly, despite neither of them being aware what the other was doing. Then they sought and were rejected by Dietrich and Streisand (or her agent, anyway). Finally, they get Peggy Lee and together in the studio they did 36 takes - take #36 was the one they thought was perfect. Except the engineer forgot to hit the record button, so she had to sing it again. Take 37 is the one we have today.
We're not through counting accidents even then: Capitol refused to release the song. Peggy Lee had to use an appearance on Joey Bishop's late-night talk show as a bargaining chip to get the song released.
"Is that all there is?" enjoys perhaps its best cameo as part of the soundtrack of the 1985 Martin Scorsese film After Hours. Not only that, but it plays on a jukebox all by itself in an empty club with just three people present, listening in silence for at least a whole verse. After Hours is a Kafkaesque black comedy which even quotes a passage from a Kafka story as part of its dialog, so it fits.
This is Donald Trump's favorite song of all time. On tapes released by the New York Times, which contain interviews by journalist Michael D'Antonio for his 2014 biography The Truth About Trump, the billionaire explained:
"It's a great song. Because I've had these tremendous successes and then I'm off to the next one, because, it's like, 'Oh, is that all there is?' That's a great song actually. That's a very interesting song, especially sang by her, because she had such a troubled life."