Wit is to life what salt is to food: The spice that makes it not only tolerable but delicious. You can buy salt in a box at the corner store, but where do you find wit? It's in just about every work of art that's worth your time: the plays of Tom Stoppard, the poems of Patricia Lockwood, the songs of Jay-Z, the persona of Fran Lebowitz and the essays of Christopher Hitchens, for starters.
But what is wit, exactly? An ineffable quality, perhaps, one that's easy to spot but impossible to define? Nah. In my very effable new book Elements of Wit: Mastering the Art of Being Interesting, I define it quite simply as Spontaneous Creativity. Wit is the phrase you turn on the fly, the ready reference that's ever so slightly askew and the point that wins the game. And to find out more about what wit is, I take a close look at who wit is and was. Here are a few of the Great Wits paired with insights on what made their zingers zing.
Steal Like A Great British Prime Minister
It's not enough that Winston Churchill saved Western civilization; he also delivered countless brilliant ripostes that were handed down through the ages. While he clearly had the mind to issue impromptu wisecracks, that same mind was certainly always saving the best lines it came across for later deployment. When he was called out for being drunk and responded that he'd be sober in the morning while his accuser would still be ugly, he was borrowing a line from a W.C. Fields movie that had been in joke columns for decades prior.
But the right person used the right line at the right time, and that's what we remember.
Start Carrying a Notebook -- and Then Stop
As a young man, Shawn Carter was always carrying a spiral-bound notebook, writing down rhymes whenever they popped into his head. He'd bust them out in rap battles on the streets of Brooklyn, honing the persona later known as Jay Z. Eventually, he didn't need the notebook; he could rely on what he calls his inner rainman to spit the verses as required. As legendary producer Rick Rubin exclaims in the documentary 'Fade To Black': "The way he writes, I've never seen anything like it. Because he doesn't write it down."
Do Something Original With Life's Lemons
It's not easy. But Nora Ephron's entire career was a testimonial to the restorative power of deep wit. She was taught by her writing parents that everything was copy, and she used that ethos to build a brilliant career in the man's world of New York newspapering. When she caught her husband cheating on her and used the divorce to write the bestselling-book-turned-hit-movie Heartburn -- "Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from," as she later summarized it -- it became eternally clear that said copy (which was everything) came from her typewriter.
When in doubt, prebreak a prefix.
Hey, remember the ineffable/effable line from way back at the beginning of this article? That was solid, no? It's a classic bit of grammatical wit used best by P.G. Wodehouse in the following sentence from The Code of the Woosters in 1938: "He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."
Is it a shortcut? Sure. Will it always work? No. Is it useful next time you need to dismantle an inept or uncouth character? Indubitably!
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