The art of being witty
Have you ever thought about the uncanny connection between fame and wit? The famous — or the notorious, and often it’s the same person — are frequently credited with a pleasing though perplexing sense of humour. Not of the ha-ha variety, but more literary. They turn their phrases with such cleverness their aphorisms are remembered long after they are themselves forgotten. In fact, often it’s what they’ve said that is cause for their fame.
With the help of my cousin Ranjit Sahgal and my colleague Amita Khurana, I have compiled a collection of witticisms that could be usefully purloined and passed on. I recommend them and if you use them they’re bound to impress.
The best often came from Winston Churchill. He had a style of saying things none of us can improve on. Consider this as a way of putting someone down: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” Or, better still: “A modest little person with much to be modest about.”
Equally pithy and apposite was Oscar Wilde. Of an acquaintance he did not regard highly, he said: “He has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Of himself, he’s alleged to have commented: “Falling in love with oneself is the start of a life long romance.” Of those he disliked: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”
By and large, it’s the British who have this wonderful knack for tongue-in-cheek humour. George Bernard Shaw once sent Churchill two tickets for the opening night of a new play with a note which read: “For you and a friend — if you have one.” Churchill replied: “I can’t make the first night but I’ll be there for the second — if there is one.”
It may surprise you to discover that Americans can be equally clever with their wit. Amongst the best is Mark Twain. Consider this: “I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” Or, “Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without an address on it?” But my favourite is this description of a friend by Forrest Tucker: “He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.”
Now here are a few you could bandy about at a party or cast in the direction of those you want to snub. Believe it or not, they were dreamt
up by politicians. Talleyrand, Napoleon’s foreign minister, once said of a woman: “In order to avoid being called a flirt, she always yields easily.” Paul Keating, who was Prime Minister of Australia in the 1990s, said of an opponent: “He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up.”
Occasionally actors can drum up enough wit to say something memorable. Thus Robert Redford: “He has the attention span of a lightening bolt”. Or Mae West: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me”? And William Kerr, on a playwright who never cast him: “He had delusions of adequacy.”
Even under-graduates can score points with their repartee. The Union Societies at Cambridge and Oxford are full of delightful examples. One of my favourites is this gentle dig which I recommend to our politicians. We would say of a particularly frivolous opponent: “He’s a very well balanced man with a chip on both shoulders.” Or borrow from the good Rev. Spooner and call him “a shining wit”!
Ultimately, of course, one has to return to Oscar Wilde. The sheer
pithyness and the incredible expanse of his wit is hard to beat. Just look at the sweep and twists of this random collection: “There’s only one thing in the world that is worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” ; “I have nothing to declare except my genius”; “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”; “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”.
Even incarcerated in Reading Jail, he said of his condition: “If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts she doesn’t deserve to
have any.” And of a rué whose suspiciously deliberate indiscretions got on his nerves: “I hope you have not been leading a double life —
pretending to be wicked but being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”