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An Ode to Wit

One of the most morbid achievements of popular culture is the imposition of a tedious “sameness” upon everyone. It seems we have become less able to laugh while we think. We seem to have to stop thinking in order to laugh, and to me that may do for “comedy”, but it doesn’t do at all for true humor or wit.

The non-trivial firebrand P.J. O’Rourke, ablaze with wit and iconoclastic brio, once observed in outrage that “Humor sits at the Children’s Table of Literature.” Yet humor was far from trivial, and far from easy. He suggested once, in an outbreak of mock gloom that you could gather a crowd by shouting you had cancer, and chase one away trying to do 40 minutes of stand-up. Later, he actually got cancer, and one of his humorist pals, called saying, “Trying to draw crowds, are we?” It may read as insensitive, but they both allegedly chortled, and cancer is not usually responsive to deep, pensive gloom anyway. The cancer left him, and given P.J.’s outlandish wit, the crowds never have.

Mark Twain is one of my great heroes, a master of the English language, who was mercilessly funny. He once observed when someone was trying to scold him to drink less, and have fewer cigars and who knows what else, that “temperate temperance” was best and he did not subscribe to “intemperate temperance” which “injures the cause of temperance.” Amen!

Robert Benchley was one of the great practitioners of literary wit and humor and could render virtually anything interesting. He is known to have seductively suggested to a young lady, “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”

And then, quite vividly, displaying his capacity to encapsulate just about any aspect of life,

“I am pretty sure that, if you will be quite honest, you will admit that a good rousing sneeze, one that tears open your collar and throws your hair into your eyes, is really one of life’s sensational pleasures.”

In today’s pandemic times, alas that would potentially come with gendarmes pouncing on you and a potential invitation to several weeks of “sensational” quarantine.

Benchley was already a contrarian when at Harvard. Sitting for a final exam that asked him to “discuss the arbitration of the international fisheries problem in respect to hatcheries, protocol, and dragnet and travel procedure as it affects a) the point of view of the United States and b) the point of view of Great Britain,” he was briefly flummoxed. He then picked up his pencil and wrote,

“I know nothing about the point of view of Great Britain in the arbitration of the international fisheries problem and nothing about the point of view of the United States. Therefore, I shall discuss the question from the point of view of the fish.”

Well, he probably did not net an A, but we can hope, this somehow helped propel him forward to his future prominence which was a boon to so much of the reading public (which in his day, actually WAS a “public”).

Someone once asked if humorists ever truly wear “the mantle of greatness.” I think it was Christopher Buckley who suggested that the garment was nothing that grand, more likely just a negligee.

“Satirists” far more often donned this mantle than humorists, or at least a similar cloak. “Satirist” would make for a nice entry on a business card, or as an epitaph on a tombstone even. Latinists will call this the old saeva indignatio, “fierce indignation.” It actually is on the gravestone of the world’s most celebrated satirist Jonathan Swift (he of Gulliver’s Travels among other gems), though it must be admitted, Swift actually made his living as a preacher!

Wits bemoan being introduced. The whole flow of something fluid and enchanting can be compromised by a stodgy, rote intro. And why do you really need introducing, unless people don’t know where they are, and why they are there? Is it a flash mob? Did a stray tweet, inspire them to flood the room on a dare? Most likely these are not looters looking for a statue to topple. They are well aware you are not celebrity ‘x’ or banality ‘y,’ they surely have some sense of why they either chose to be there or had the obligation to be there inflicted upon them. And surely no one said, “Go to an unknown talk by an unknowable person, and we’ll remove all the mystery when you arrive!” The ideal intro, should be at best a reminder, or an addition to the “official” bio. And no matter what, while most of the crowd may well welcome you genially, be you a wit or otherwise, there will be the inevitable sphinx, the “we are not amused” Queen Victoria club badge holder, usually sitting impassively in the front row, practicing his signature grimace. The pro tip is, play to the genial, the warm, the welcoming… they deserve it, stop trying to get animation from the “unamused.” After all, the constipated looking grimacer may surprise you, that “look” could be the countenance they wear when they are wildly rejoicing inside. Extreme I know, but it will keep us all amused to think so!

Speaking about wits and self-perception, in addressing book tours, the aforementioned Christopher Buckley described them as a “narcissist’s wet dream.” Asked about narcissism, that great man of letters, who could drip venom with such aplomb, Gore Vidal, defined it as “Someone better looking than you are.”

For a taste of that bespoke venom, so often wisdom-laced, here is Gore Vidal inveighing against the Iraq War:

“Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It’s like having a war on dandruff, it’s endless and it’s pointless.”


Humorists, wits, who evolve into actual writers, admit to being fragile in fact, and with that comes a level of immersion in their own emotional ecosystem that can be infuriating to lesser mortals. W.H. Auden was described by his fellow poet Stephen Spender as possessing “…utter self-confidence untainted by jealousy.” There is a difference between arrogance and authenticity, being unconcerned as Auden seemingly was by the acclaim of others… it is a tightrope walk, and talent, genuine talent, is the only deliverance there. When Joseph Heller who wrote the remarkable Catch 22 was told by a fellow writer that he lamented that he himself would never write a book of that caliber, Heller replied, “Who has?” You laugh, and you think. But then Heller could send gracious thank you notes even to those who wrote unflattering reviews of his work if he felt it was an interesting assessment, and not just a hatchet job. Complicated souls for sure. A tad different from Noel Coward who wrote he was open to all criticism as long as it was unqualified praise. We suspect, his tongue was ever so slightly in his proverbial cheek.

By contrast people speak of the zest-filled Ray Bradbury, a storyteller who brought joy to the business of writing. He could dismiss his ego or jam it, so that his love of writing was infectious in his personal interactions. He even exulted in the success of fellow writers, especially younger ones.

There is of course the incandescent P.G. Wodehouse. Pilloried for his wartime broadcasts from Berlin, where he was pooh-poohed by Pooh creator A.A. Milne, Wodehouse managed to make friends with those who had suggested he forfeit his head, literally, for treason, for his scribblings of that era.

Wodehouse created realms of insight, impertinence and rollicking abandon (and not just Jeeves). Evelyn Waugh’s praise (a rare commodity from the acerbic Waugh) of Wodehouse, offered for a BBC broadcast, in 1961, got the matter exactly right:

“Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

Occasionally—rarely—we come across a writer who comes bracingly clean about motivation. Balzac once gleefully conceded what he hoped fame would bring:

“I should like one of these days to be so well known, so popular, so celebrated, so famous, that it would permit me . . . to break wind in society, and society would think it a most natural thing.”

How refreshing it would be to hear a writer of our own age put it thus. Henry Kissinger, very much a writer as well as a controversial statesman, was surely expressing an allied sentiment when he said,

“The nice thing about being a celebrity is that if you bore people they think it’s their fault.”

Not primarily esteemed for his humor, George Orwell though presented four great motivations for writing, satirically or otherwise:

  • Sheer egoism, the need to express the inner muse in outward expressiveness.

  • Aesthetic enthusiasm, the ability to weave beauty and graciousness by wielding words in the right arrangement.

  • Historical insight, parlaying things as they are, to stoke facts, and store them up for posterity.

  • Political or idealistic imperative, the desire to nudge the world along in a certain direction. More than one wit, from Shaw to Orwell, was driven by the obtuse preoccupation of their sponsoring society to becoming a pamphleteer, provocateur and a social and moral catalyst.

The great wits while generating self-effacing laughter, the type that has us recognizing our own absurdities, are unified by a clear evangel: an overarching dedication to the truth. But the whimsy still is what lingers. As Shaw wrote,

“I would love to take you seriously, but to do so would be an affront to your intelligence.”

And I cannot but wish Mark Twain hadn’t been so right:

“The two things you need to succeed in life are ignorance and confidence.”

Our popular culture literally embodies and encapsulates that. Vainglory, absent wit, is just arrogance. It is a corrosive nemesis to our burgeoning humanity.

Humans, as a species, uniquely laugh. We laugh to let off steam, to diminish pressure, we do it to express or showcase originality, or we use it to encapsulate truth amusingly. Dorothy Parker once said,

“Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

We must reclaim “wit” from its mischaracterization as cattiness or snark. We hate inconvenient truths. Wit seasons and sweetens the medicine, allowing us to laugh instead of just wailing. The old English term from which it hails actually means “to know.”

Perhaps we can dab life’s incongruities and leaven its injustices with enough wit, to create the space to see more clearly, and create more imaginatively and perhaps even lead with less arrogance and more of a wry sense of the very human condition we seek to influence, challenge, or contribute to. Wits see the “cracks” in the firmament “out there”, and they recognize the same “cracks” or imperfections in themselves.

And it may be for that reason, that the prayer is so apt,

“Blessed be the cracked, for they let in the light.”
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