“There's only one thing worse than mailing it in, and that is not mailing it in”
Mailing it in has nothing to do with the mail and everything to do with delivery. The phrase refers to the act of performing a task or job with the minimal amount of effort required to satisfy the person who has hired you to do the work. But that's not all. To "mail it in," there has to be an understanding (express or implied) that the performer of the task is capable of better quality work than what is being delivered. Accordingly, mere hacks cannot "mail it in" the way an A-List Hollywood star or top-selling author can. Indeed, the strange thing about "mailing it in" is that a person has to earn the privilege through status or past, top-notch work.
History of "Mailing It In"
Postmaster General Slaquer Starts the Trend
Ironically enough, the first public official accused of "mailing it in" was U.S. Postmaster General Herbert T. Slaquer in 1913. Although technically in charge of the entire United States Postal System, Mr. Slaquer failed to pay America's new "income tax" that year. When visited by agents of the newly-created Internal Revenue Service, Postmaster Slaquer protested, "The check's in the mail, and I should know - I'm the goddamn Postmaster General." However, Mr. Slaquer was later determined to have sent the check via Third Class Mail, the postal equivalent of sending a package by express tortoise. When the IRS finally received the check seven months late during the next calendar year, the head of the IRS is said to have commented, "Mailed it in Third Class? More like mailed it in Half-Ass." The term stuck, was shortened to "mailing it in," and came to refer to any time a person of high stature does a minimal job.
World War II, the Post-War Era, and Beyond
The fact that the term spread beyond the Postal Service is proof of its historical proliferation. During World War II, any military officer who sent his wife or girlfriend at home a letter instead of giving her an expensive, international phone call was said to be "mailing it in." Later, by the 1960s', the term was being used to refer to established Hollywood writers who mailed their movie scripts to producers instead of hand-delivering them during glad-handing power lunches. Finally, by the 1980s', anybody could be "mailing it in" at any time, so long as they met the criteria for mailing it in, discussed below. Oddly enough, the criteria has nothing to do with the mail.
Famous Historical Mishaps Due to "Mailing It In"
Even before the phrase was coined, modern history contained examples of those who attempted to "mail it in," only to be caught with their proverbial pants down. Disaster ensued, and the rest is, as they say, history.
One prime example of such a case is Custer's Last Stand. General Custer believed he could take on the Great Plains Indians with only a small contingent of men in the 1870's, and he was wrong. Really wrong. Chief Singing Bull and his contingent of lyrical warriors from his Red Army Choir schooled the U.S. Military in a way not seen since the War of 1812. After Custer's Last Stand, the American Army realized it had to take the Indian threat seriously and did not allow any more half-ass military maneuvers on the Great Plains. The lesson learned was simple: in military operations, "mailing it in" is never a good idea.
A second example - equally horrific - was the sinking of the Titanic. It is a little-known fact that the chief designer of the Titanic believed he could "mail it in" by having the blueprints to his ship undergo a final check-over by his head engineers after the maiden voyage. He was wrong, as shown when the ship struck an iceberg with barely half enough lifeboats on board. Thousands of people froze to death and drowned in the northern Atlantic Ocean in 1912 as a result of the designer's half-ass work. History thus shows that "mailing it in" is never a good idea when it comes to developing large vehicles or mass transit.
A third example of mailing it in would be the Hindenburg disaster. The designer of the massive blimp "mailed it in" by choosing to use relatively inexpensive (and highy flammable) helium for his blimp, rather than heating normal air the way that was done for normal balloons. When the blimp went down in flames in New York City in 1937, the whole world saw that aviation and "mailing it in" do not mix.
Earning the Privilege of "Mailing It In" - and Abusing It
"Mailing it in" is a privilege, not a right. As such, it is not to be abused. This leads to two critical questions: (1) how does one earn the privilege, and (2) how does one abuse it? The answers follow.
Turning to the first question, you have to be a star performer to "mail it in." This means you need an established track record with your employer or client of exceeding expectations. If you work in an office, you have to meet or beat deadlines with a superior work product. If you work in the field, you have to arrive early or on-time and provide the results clients only dream of (for example, getting a construction project completed on time, under budget). You cannot be a new hire or a sub-par worker and "mail it in." Doing the minimum in such situations is called "being a slacker" and can put you on the road to professional ruin. You also cannot be a mere hack and "mail it in." Hacks do the minimum by definition. If you're a hack and you do the minimum, your are just "being a hack."
This leads to the next question, i.e., how does one abuse the privilege of "mailing it in," assuming it has been rightfully earned? There are two ways. The first is to "mail it in" too often. This has been the death of many an A-List actor or a top professor. The second is to perform so horribly that you fall far short of the minimum expectations. This is called "fucking up big time" and is a gross abuse of the hard-earned privilege of "mailing it in." Many star athletes make this mistake when they shout obscenities on the court or playing field, or flagrantly foul an opponent, thus being ejected from games and racking up six-figure fines.
To Mail It In, or Not To Mail It In - That is the Question
A person should think long and hard before "mailing it in." What follows is an informal guide that may be of some assistance when making the decision.
What Can Be Mailed In without Ruining One's Career (Usually)
There are a number of items of work product that can be mailed in without ruining careers, assuming that the mailing process has been rightfully earned and is not abused. These include television sitcom scripts, legal trial court briefs, pulp fiction novel manuscripts, local newspaper articles, B-list movie performances, professional sports performances (team sports only), and Uncyclopedia articles.
What Cannot Be Mailed In without Ruining One's Career (Usually)
There are other items of work product that can almost never be mailed in successfully. These include doctoral dissertations, Broadway musical scores, oral arguments before the Supreme Court, open-heart surgeries, prime-time television investigative journalism segments, taking the Bar Exam, professional sports performances in solo sports, and Wikipedia articles.
Professionals Who Can Often "Mail It In" (assuming they are not mere hacks)
Some types of professional are routinely accused of mailing it in, and the accusations are often justified. Such people include lawyers, actors, authors, journalists, bloggers, pop musicians, team sports players, and Uncyclopedia writers.
Professionals Who Usually Cannot "Mail It In" (it being a given they are not mere hacks)
Other professionals face virtual instant death if they even try to mail it in while on the job. These include brain surgeons, Ivy League professors, Supreme Court Justices, solo sports players, Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, and Wikipedia article authors. Of course, there are some famous exceptions. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been known to go years without authoring a legal opinion or asking a lawyer a question in open court, and many Ivy League professors are known to treat their lectures to first year students as a joke.
Famous People Who Have "Mailed It In" and Lived To Tell About It
As alluded to above, "mailing it in" is a privilege that can be earned by famous people as well as everyday professionals. Movie critics widely agree that Jack Nicholson mailed it in with his performance in the film, "Anger Management," and music critics are almost unanimous on the point with respect to Billy Joel's album, "River of Dreams." (Note: While these people have technically lived to tell about their experience, many argue that "mailing it in" has crippled - or at least stunted - their careers).
All of this being said, here is a partial list of famous people who have been known to "mail it in":
- Stephen King (The movie "Pet Sematary" yes, for an author you would think he can spell "Cemetery" but he "mailed it in.")
- Al Pacino (In Meet the Focker's...I mean City Hall)
- Clarence Thomas (The whole Anita Hill incident...he was a Supreme Court Justice... you could have done better)
- Sean Connery (In The Avengers...and First Knight)
- Billy Joel (Anything from Oliver and Company)
- Bill Murray (In Garfield)
Controversy over "Phoning It In" versus "Mailing It In"
Since the 1990's, sociologists have argued over whether to draw any distinction between "phoning it in" and "mailing it in." Those in favor of a distinction argue that the phone represents a higher form of communication than mail, and that "phoning it in" should be applied as a term only to more high-profile work that is performed to a minimal standard. Most experts agree, however, that the two terms developed largely simultaneously, and that there is no practical difference in saying that a person "phoned it in" rather than "mailed it in."
There is an equally divergent group of social networking youth who feel "e-mailing it in" is the wave of the future. Scholars have only recently begun to study the impact of this new-age movement. Until further studies can be conducted, there can be no definitive proof that “e-mailing it in" carries the same negative connotation as the sinking of the Titanic.
In a shocking move, Brett Favre has emerged as the leading proponent of "texting it in." The NFL has not seemed to jump on board with his methods of "promotion." To date these varying viewpoints have created controversy as to the future of "mailing it in."