From "The Running Man" (1987)

The TV Show has a big success and the producer says to his team.

Listen up, everybody. I want you to all to consider yourselves picked up for the rest of the season, okay?

*people look at him remaining silence although he obviously expected they'd be glad. Producer continues:

What are you, my people or an oil painting? We're up nine points!

I don't know what does "an oil painting" mean in that context. I know that "not an oil painting" means unattractive person, but I got something different here, right?

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    It refers to being motionless, not to attractiveness and it is most definitely not an idiom, just creative language. An oil painting is also something that other people look at. So, he also means: are you just objects of admiration. Of the gaze.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 13:53
  • 2
    And also silent. The producer may have been expecting cheers. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:13
  • You can see examples of people intentionally imitating oil paintings in old "Family Feud" intros, like this Very Brady episode. The first one in this clip starts at about 32 seconds, the second at about 54 seconds.
    – 1006a
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 19:20

2 Answers 2


This is certainly not the normal usage of the expression an oil painting which, as you say, is normally only used in the negative- "she's no oil painting"- about somebody who is not particularly attractive.

Note that the idiom must be used in the negative. If you say it in the positive- "she's an oil painting"- it does not match the pattern for that idiom: that's why the producer is able to use it in the positive sense with a very different meaning.

What I think the producer means is that the people are sitting or standing perfectly still, like the people in this oil painting:

enter image description here

  • 1
    Yeah, that may be, beacuse they're freeze and staring at him. Thanks Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 12:11
  • 11
    I'm sorry but I don't know how you come up with the idea of being unattractive. An oil painting implies stopped in time, a state of not moving. And it is not an expression just the way whoever that person is expressed him or herself. It also implies something that is gazed at by viewers. The object of the gaze.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 13:55
  • 9
    I think there's confusion about how the dictionary link is using the phrase. In particular, the dictionary link has the phrase "be no oil painting" and defines it as someone who is unattractive. This is because a painting is (generally) regarded as attractive, "pretty as a picture". You can't leave out the negation and keep the same meaning. Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 14:00
  • @Lambie, I have updated my answer to make it clear that the idiom "she's no oil painting" is only used in the negative.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 16:56
  • 1
    @user30031: This expression is widely used in the UK: that's why it's documented in the Oxford dictionary (see the link above), the Cambridge Dictionary dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/oil-painting and various other dictionaries... and even here books.google.com.eg/…. I am not suggesting that one should use this expression, merely explaining why it's not valid in this situation.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 17:11

This is a cliche remark of a stand-up comedian facing an unresponsive audience. The idea is that from his point of view on stage an audience sitting motionless and silent in the dark are hard to distinguish from an oil painting.

What is this, an audience or an oil painting? -- Milton Berle

Just One-Liners

Bruce Forsyth (concerned): You don't want to lose your audience.

Fozzie Bear: You — you call that an audience? It looks more like an oil painting. (rimshot) Aah!

The Muppet Show

Comedians have what is known as “save” lines. These are either self-deprecating or audience-insulting lines that acknowledge that things aren’t going so well. Lines like: “Is this an audience or an oil painting?” “Did I mention I have videotape of ALL these jokes working?” “Was there an ether leak in here?” “I’ve got a brand new handgun, and I can’t wait to get home and use it.” (These lines are a combination of my own, one is from Lord Carrett, and the first is older than Abraham.)

How To Deal With Rough Crowds

I don't think it's relevant that the expression is used with (or without) the word "no," as another answer suggests; or that it relates to whether the people in the audience are good-looking.

  • 3
    Yes, this answer is spot on.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 19:33

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