The definition of wit arose in a discussion I had the other night over beer and hamburgers. As a general rule, I’m against wit when meat, cheese and hops are involved as the effort is rarely remembered the following day since the recipients of the wit are either still stewing in a cholesterol-induced brain swell or just plain hungover. I, personally, have yet to ponder someone’s clever retort from the night before while my head is dangling over the porcelain throne, so I’m assuming no one else does either.
Truth be told, I’m rarely witty whether or not beef and Budweiser is being consumed. Why, you ask? Clearly, I’m a mammoth of intellectual funny-isms or you wouldn’t be reading this blog. The problem is that I’m slow to wit. I come up with clever epigrams approximately three and a half minutes after the witty reply would have been appropriate. Granted, my observations are often much more adroit than the retorts made by my compatriots at the time, but they’re late. Way late. Running-out-to-the-24-hour-pharmacy-in-the-middle-of-the-night-to-buy-a-pregnancy-test late. This is fine if you’re writing a column or posting to Facebook or Twitter, but I suspect my friends may wonder if I’ve hired a ghost humorist exclusively for those purposes because in person, my comments sometimes invoke the nervous laughter uttered by those who feel obligated to do something other than stare. You know what I’m talking about. Pity laughter – the awkward chuckle often heard in funeral parlors as friends and loved ones discuss zany things the deceased used to do when they weren’t so…well, dead.
Until recently, however, I’d always thought I was witty. Like everyone, on occasion, I would have a particularly good evening. During these miraculous events, droll observations would drip off my lips like drool off a St. Bernard’s muzzle. Strangers would contemplate inviting me to future dinner parties. I basked in the glow of my sheer cleverness. My friends, on the other hand, would shrug and credit the alcohol. I know, I know, with friends like that, you need alcohol.
When I was having an off night (which, in reality, was a typical night), I consoled myself with the knowledge that I would write something incredibly astute and hilarious at a later date. Something that would be published. Something that would one day appear in quote books or, alternatively, quote websites or quote clouds – as physical books will probably be extinct by the time I’m dead – and everyone knows the most surefire way to be included in a collection of quotes is to be dead first.
But back to the other night. A typical night, I might add, made even more typical by the fact that I was dining with a woman who has more degrees than a thermometer and was educated in Great Britain, the Birthplace of Wit; a gay man (Oh, step off your PC soapbox – if a gay man could squeeze out a baby, he would also be the Birthplace of Wit!); and my husband, one of those sly, funny people who make laughter effortless. I didn’t have a chance in hell.
To make things worse, they were talking about France and things that are French. If I was Sarah Palin, I’d tell you that I’ve been to France. But the truth is that I had a two hour layover in the Charles de Gaulle airport on the way to London. I did buy a baguette with brie on it and some Loreal hair conditioner, but I don’t think that truly constitutes having experienced the City of Lights. Unless, as I pointed out, you’re Sarah Palin – and then you wouldn’t have to buy a sandwich or hair products. You’d just claim you could see the Eiffel Tower from your First Class seat and go back to reading your magazine, the name of which would escape you.
Our gay friend lived in Paris for several years and my uber-educated friend is one of those artsy-types with an obsession for obscure European facts. My husband back-packed through FranceMy sole comment during this portion of the conversation consisted of something like, “What do you expect? They’re French.” This is my go-to statement when chatter turns to things Francais because it applies universally. Doesn’t matter if you’re discussing the French’s attitude towards their politicians’ mistresses, their penchant for smoking from the time they can sit upright in a pram, or their insistence upon putting mushrooms in absolutely everything. The easiest response for one who can’t come up with something witty is to simply chime in, “What do you expect? They’re French.” Following said statement with a knowing chortle is completely optional.
Grateful as I was when the discussion turned away from French cinema, I was disturbed after it turned to the topic of wit, generating a lively debate surrounding the word’s definition. Now, I’ve always ascribed to what is generally considered to be the most common definition of the word – at least according to those silly books that collect such information, a.k.a. dictionaries – and one defined wit as “the natural ability to perceive and understand; intelligence.” As I have been perceiving and understanding things since I was knee-high to Tom Cruise, I was confident that I fit the bill. Hell, I possess a very expensive advanced degree and I’ve never failed a test in my life. Okay, that’s not completely true. I actually failed my first driver’s test, but I totally aced the written portion. As I was saying, arbitrary tests that don’t involve operating something with a carburetor concede that I qualify as an intelligent human being. Then again, poop-throwing in chimps is considered a sign of intelligence, so the bar can’t be all that high.
Our dinner companions – my husband excluded as he does have to live with me – insisted that wit involves a timing component, and argued that if brilliance doesn’t strike as swiftly as lightning, it might as well not bother to strike at all. Granted, some dictionaries list “quickness of perception” or an ability for repartee or banter in their definitions of wit. But it’s never the first definition. It’s not the primary definition. Heck, on one website, it was subsection (d) of the third definition. Regardless, it was the meaning of choice for my friends. (And may I point out here and now that my gay friend is the same friend who once erroneously claimed that The Osmonds outsold Sonny and Cher in their heyday, so his perception is clearly warped).
But, as former employer of mine used to say ad nauseum, “Perception is everything.” You can’t be witty in a vacuum. Wit requires an audience. In my case, I thought an audience of people with nothing better to do than read my meanderings was sufficient, but that evening I was informed that it was not the same. Apparently, in the Aesop fable, wit is the rabbit and the old adage of “slow and steady wins the race” doesn’t apply. My humor is the turtle and muddling along at a consistent pace just doesn’t cut it. Wit isn’t a marathon; it’s a sprint. If I can’t swiftly enunciate a zinger or amuse dinner guests with banter worthy of a Nora Ephron film, I might as well don a dunce cap and resign myself to eating Taco Bell in dark room by myself – maybe with with Carrot Top if I’m lucky. Actually, I think I’d rather eat alone. At least I’m funny on paper.
For days, I wallowed in this pit of dullard despair until someone recognized by millions as being remarkably witty – in fact, he’s paid quite a lot of money for this gift – appeared to take up my case. In a recent HBO special, comedian Ricky Gervais suggested that Oscar Wilde, the Godfather of Wit, also suffered from Dilatory Epigram Syndrome. Once, when asked by a customs official if he had anything to declare, Wilde famously stated, “Only my intelligence.” Gervais suggested that the retort had probably occurred to Wilde sometime after an earlier encounter with a customs official.
You know, one of those, “Damn! I should have said this!” moments. I know those moments well. Really well. Not on a first name basis well, but on a secret-birthmarks-that-no-one-else-knows-about well. According to Gervais, once Wilde had that moment, he stored it up and waited. Waited. Please ask me if I’ve something to declare, he would think to himself. And finally, someone did. Wilde declared his genius. Then he died. Now he’s got entire books of quotes devoted entirely to things he allegedly said or wrote.
This may shatter many people’s perception of Wilde as the erudite dinner guest who spit out impromptu witticisms the way Americans spit out haggis into their napkins in a Scottish pub. If his initiation of a clever comment was machine gun rapid, I’ve always fantasized Wilde’s voice as luxuriously slow and languid. When he opened his mouth to speak, I imagine the guests’ forks would hover inches below their mouths because whatever choice bite was to emerge from Wilde’s lips was certainly tastier than anything on their plates.
However, Gervais’ view suggests that the playwright and poet may have practiced his quips religiously in his state room, pacing the short length of the carpet reciting the verbal gems he would deliver should the appropriate question be offered. Perhaps he scribbled down all the things he wished he’d said at the previous evening’s dinner party into a little notebook, then rattled them off as soon as the opportunity arose again later in the week.
During the Victorian era, the issues of politics, English society, literature and the arts, and religion were popular topics in dining and drawing rooms all over Britain. It would have been easy for Wilde to anticipate future conversations and arm himself accordingly, loading his quips like bullets into a pistol and pulling the trigger whenever appropriate. When the subject of the Americas or politics was broached, he could rattle off, “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people,” a statement which would have signaled uproarious laughter and tittering at any aesthete’s table. If the topic turned to fellow playwright, critic and frequent dinner guest, George Bernard Shaw, Wilde may have been well-prepped when he slung this backhanded compliment: “Bernard Shaw is an excellent man; he has not an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him.” In a closed society, self-described by Wilde as one in which one only “has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people…” in order to be admitted, amusing the cream of London society would have been a priority in order to ensure his continued success, both socially and financially.
So to those friends of mine whose synapses fire away quickly over appetizers, leaving the rest of us behind in a haze of smoke and clever diatribes, I say,” Erm…hold on second. It’s right on the tip of my tongue. Just give me a second. No, really. This is going to be hilarious.” Forget it, I’ll get back to you in about three and a half minutes and when I do, prepare to ROFL for real. Or maybe you’ll just blush or giggle or get a little embarrassed because I did it in print. Online. And everyone who knows me also knows who you are, so it kinda sucks for you, really. But I will do it. I’ll be witty and you’ll rue the day you ever said I wasn’t. The slow and steady spirit of Oscar Wilde inhabits me. Can I say that it’s a little uncomfortable because he was a large man? An awfully large man.
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29 thoughts on “Why I Hate Witty People”
Damnit! That’s exactly what I was going to say! I swear, it on the tip of my tongue. Damn you! 🙂
Sounds like you need to be exactly one minute wittier, Lance!
With humor, I can sometimes be quick on my feet, but with anything requiring actual thought? Forget about it. I need time for my brain to make the proper connection to my mouth, which is usually well after the fact. So I feel your pain. I do not struggle with this same fate with the written word, which is probably why I enjoy social media.
“knee-high to Tom Cruise”—Haha. You must have been really short then!
It was just after birth. By the time I was on solid food, I was using his head as an armrest.
BTW, were your ears burning? I’m at a writing conference and I was telling someone about you the other day. You have no problems with with, my friend. In fact, I think you’re one clever gal!
Are you back or just haunting us?
Back, but at a writing conference. As far as haunting goes, I’ve encountered a number of spirits at the hotel bar, but they were, erm, contained. I’m pretty sure they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.
Don’t despair that you are slow to wit. You are merely an introvert, aka a writer. By definition, we can’t talk and think at the same time.
Introvert? Now there’s a word I’ve never heard applied to me. 😉 I think the PC term is “socially-inept.”
I was at a writing conference. I wanted to post something new, but I was pretty darn busy. How are you doing?
I’m fine. Doing an internship and trying to work on my thesis. And not writing. I feel awful about that though.
That’s because you are a true writer at heart. We always feel like crap when we’re not doing the thing we love. You’re also a terrific editor, by the way. Have you thought about pursuing that as a career. I was so grateful for and impressed by your suggestions on that single chapter of mine. Tell me about your internship. 🙂
You’re right. I should start writing again. As for editing professionally…someday! I really enjoyed editing that chapter though. Hope your novel gets published soon.
I’m working in the pharmaceutical R&D department at company in New Jersey. It’s nice but hectic.
You must write. A thesis will drain the marrow from your soul. Writing a little each day – for yourself – will give you the balance you need to survive your thesis.
Check back on this post in about a week – for my witty comment.
I’m like you in that my snappy come-backs pop in my brain hours later. I like the idea of saving witty comments for later for when the occasion merits them. The only problem with saving up the comments for later is that I have to remember them. I can’t remember what color socks I put on this morning let alone a witty comeback to a comment that was made three months ago. So I guess I’m sunk. Sigh.
I type all my brilliant (ahem!) ideas and witty retorts into a notepad function on my cellphone the moment they finally pop into my head. Of course, if my cellphone is lost, stolen or suffers a technological death, I’m screwed…which is why I regularly input those ideas into my computer and back them up. Right now, I’m high on ideas and low on time. If I ever meet whatever supreme being that controls this universe, I’m going to ask him/her for a 36 hour day so I have more time to get things done! Good to hear from you again, Miss Holly!
Oh surely it can’t be that bad?!
With new people (and when you are living in a new country almost every year, most of the people you meet with for the first six months will be new acquaintances), I’m not witty. At all. I’m too nervous/shy/neurotic to be. At least you can write wit though. I generally have an issue with this as well. I’ve got too many other things to worry about.
Haha. This is amazing (a testament to your wit). I too have always considered myself a witty person and I’m pretty quick with a retort. But, most of my best ones come to me about 7 hours later when I’m alone. I think we should still count it. Better late than never. Though I have a constant habit of waiting to say something (like Oscar Wilde) and then when I do finally blurt it out, it’s no longer funny, at least it keeps me highly entertained when I laugh to myself at my computer with only my cat to enjoy it (she’s grumpy as hell and definitely doesn’t enjoy it).
Don’t worry, the NSA is probably listening and I’m sure they find it extremely entertaining. When it comes to serving wit chilled as opposed to piping hot, I like to remember a favorite platitude: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Nah, it doesn’t really apply. Crap. I guess we’re screwed. Welcome to the Dilatory Epigram Syndrome Society.
Great post, it made me think of this scene and the valuable lessons learned on the dangers of the witty retort.
OMG! Thank you for sharing that. I totally forgot about that episode. That’s hilarious!!!!!!
I’m glad you liked it, one of my favorite moments in the show’s run. Originally I was going to try and write something witty in response, but then I started thinking about it too much. So when in doubt, youtube links.
Wit is hard. YouTube is always a good go-to.
“Sarah Palin’s View from Her Seat on the Plane”
Huh, it looks like her view is… very low OH GOD PULL UP!
Or, in light of the fact that she doesn’t seem to believe in birth control or abortion, maybe it’s more like: OH GOD, PULL OUT!
I too am slow to wit and found many bits of enjoyment out of your post. I’ll be back to read some of your earlier posts. I’m new to blogging, so stop by and shoot me down a few pegs if you see fit. Blessings!
Can I drop by and shoot down a few pints of cider instead? Glad you enjoyed the post. Please come back and visit again. xo MSP