How to be handsomely witty?
July 2, 2007 9:37 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to be scathingly witty? Most of the people in my life are bright intellectuals with sharp tongues. I wish to compete with them in repartee.

How do I learn "double entendres, repartee, paradoxes and plays on words" (Ridicule [1996])?

It's not so much a matter of vocabulary, but quickness of response. I often stumble upon the correct response thirty seconds later.

Ridicule notes, "The soul of wit is to know one's place." How do I learn my place and the proper place for banter?
posted by Galen to Society & Culture (68 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Read Oscar Wilds trial transcripts
posted by hortense at 9:49 PM on July 2, 2007

Read and emulate Oscar Wilde. Observe that you no longer have any friends. Move to another country; when asked by Customs if you have anything to declare, respond "I have nothing to declare but my genius." Become penniless and imprisoned.
posted by zachlipton at 9:51 PM on July 2, 2007 [25 favorites]

posted by hortense at 9:52 PM on July 2, 2007

Take an improv class and read "Truth in Comedy"
posted by drinkspiller at 9:54 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you could develop those skills by writing witty things on a daily basis. Perhaps you could take a few minutes each night to type up all the witty things you thought of 30 seconds too late. Then edit to make them wittier. Refine them. Make them elegant, cutting, whatever you're looking for. The more you do this, the more easily and quickly it will come. Practice makes perfect.

Personally, I find that I'm infinitely more witty and sharp in the right company. Typically it's with people who have a lot of the same background and interests as me, which means they'll catch my witty but semi-obscure references. With others, I'm always wasting time editing out the "they won't have any idea what I'm talking about" jokes. People who read the same kinds of books, watch the same kinds of movies, frequent the same websites, and (preferably) have years of shared friendly history with you work best.
posted by vytae at 10:06 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this myself. For what it's worth, I've noticed that my wittier friends often seem to respect (what they perceive as) my sincerity and lack of pretension. Keeping this in mind helps me maintain confidence when interacting with them.
posted by treepour at 10:10 PM on July 2, 2007

Rather than try to compete with them, keep your mouth shut and listen unless something occurs to you. Some of the funniest people I know don't speak much, but when they do open their mouths, it's genius -- and more likely to attract positive attention anyway, because they're not always yammering (like some people I, me.)

So, quality over quantity, then.

Also, you're not looking to be the wittiest, truly; you're looking to enjoy conversation and feel as if you're contributing to it. Insightful questions can serve this purpose just as well as witty responses, and contributing to the substance of a conversation can give the witty folk their opportunities to, well, be witty. So over time they come to realize they enjoy talking to you, and spend more time doing so.

Oh, and you're trying to develop confidence in your gut reactions. As mentioned above, improv training will help this a great deal; it's not that you'll learn to have good instincts, but that you'll learn to trust them.
posted by davejay at 10:12 PM on July 2, 2007

The "thinking of something 30 seconds later" thing is very common. As per usual with these kinds of things the French have a name for it: "l'esprit d'escalier," or "the spirit of the staircase." Thinking of something on the staircase that you should have said in the drawing room.
posted by pg at 10:12 PM on July 2, 2007 [15 favorites]

Read Shakespeare, learn the roots of language by reading the ancient classics. Studying French, if you're into languages is useful in that so much of their humor is rooted in double entendre (any wonder that the term is French?) Tonal emphasis can go a long way as well. Just tune into the twists of the language.

Speed is tough, perhaps that comes with confidence?
I would love to meet some of these people!
posted by solongxenon at 10:12 PM on July 2, 2007

Stumbling on the right response too late is a well-known syndrome. The French call it "l'esprit de l'escalier", the German term is "treppenwitz", both meaning 'staircase wit' - the rejoinder you devise when you're already on your way out.

As vytae suggests, your wit is best at your command when you are relaxed. Stop worrying about how wonderfully sharp your friends are. That said, read widely, especially authors of wit. But in the end I agree with treepour: an honest response is worth more than a witty one.
posted by londongeezer at 10:20 PM on July 2, 2007 [4 favorites]

oops pg got there first...
posted by londongeezer at 10:20 PM on July 2, 2007

learn the roots of language by reading the ancient classics.

I second learning the ancient classics. Particularly the Ionian school. Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Anaximenes, it's all really funny stuff. oh, and *do not* forget Diogenes Apolloniates -- "the air which stirred within him not only prompted, but instructed. The air as the origin of all things is necessarily an eternal, imperishable substance, but as soul it is also necessarily endowed with consciousness.". Fart jokes have always and will always kill. Remember that. This stuff will make you a contender.
posted by stavrogin at 10:42 PM on July 2, 2007

Eh. You have to be willing to throw it out there. Just talk. Not everything is going to be comedy gold, but if you put all this pressure on yourself to speak only in epigrams you're going to be standing there with nothing to say most of the time. How is that fun?
posted by Methylviolet at 10:47 PM on July 2, 2007

Good advice so far.

I will add this: if being quick isn't your forte, then make the most of being slow. By this I mean, let everyone else's chatter subside, then toss in your casual, off-the-cuff witticism. In comedy, timing is everything. Think of some comedians you like. Often, the line that gets the biggest laugh, is the line after you think the joke is over. It's not necessarily any funnier than the earlier line, but the unexpectedness makes it funnier than it should be.

A running example of this is the character Jason in Brendon Small's animated series Home Movies. (Google it.) In one scene, the kids are making one of their movies, all dressed as pirates:

Melissa (dressed as a male pirate, talking very excitedly) Arrrrrr!!!! Let's punch out some scumsuckers, and get drunk, and pee out the window!!! And then, let's seduce women! LOTS of women!!!


Jason: What window?

This is just to encourage you that you don't have to be like them. You have your own personality, and your own take on things. Make the most of YOUR strengths. You CAN hone them and you can learn what works for you.

I agree with the above comments, though, that you have to be genuine. I know it can feel like a contest sometimes. That's the nature of the BS sessions; it's one-upmanship. If you try to be something you are not, you will look and feel foolish.

So, figure out who you are, and work from that. It's ok to have some ideas or jokes in mind, and wait for opportunities to use them. But at the end of the day (I hate that phrase) remember that your friends hang around you for who you are, not who you think you should be.
posted by The Deej at 10:51 PM on July 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Methyviolet makes an excellent point! Toss it out there. Quite often people will tell me (or say to others in front of me) how funny I am! I always think "Yeah, that's because you don't remember all the lame stuff I say between the few funny ones."

And it's true. Take a chance. Like any skill, you only get better with practice, and this isn't something you can practice alone.
posted by The Deej at 10:54 PM on July 2, 2007

And don't be afraid to occasionally sound like an ass. It's certainly not necessary, but if you think of something witty that's a little cutting, too, go for it. That witty back-and-forth lives on little well-meaning jabs like that.
posted by blacklite at 11:15 PM on July 2, 2007

I'm more or less a proponent of what Deej is talking about. You don't have to be the snappiest in the room. Timing is about the pauses, after all.

Also, just say what comes to mind. They remember the funniest, most scathing ones. As long as it's not actively bad, all other mildly funny/not-so-funny remarks are easily forgotten.

Also, MAKE FUN OF YOURSELF. Do it easily, laughingly, and often. If you're trying to think up a comeback, and you're completely blanking on what to say, try this: build it up with a series of very short, very heavy pauses. Make sure alot of people are waiting to hear what your perfect comeback is. Then throw out a "Yeah, I've got nothing. sorry." Verbal irony is saying what was not expected to be said. You will get at least a wry smile for that one, and no one will remember your terrible comeback, or the time you blanked. Additionally, self-deprecate often. Point out your own flaws. This will make people think you're not a dick, which is rather important.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 11:16 PM on July 2, 2007

Watch Black Adder, and go jogging. With a bunch of endorphins coursing through you, you'll be sharper and think you're witty which is half the battle. Unless you're completely un-witty in which case it's a nail in the cofin.
posted by conch soup at 11:16 PM on July 2, 2007

(Upon re-reading my comment)...Don't necessarily do both simultaneously.
posted by conch soup at 11:18 PM on July 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've always found when people are teasing each other, that instead of making a new joke, it's usually funnier to continue the old one another step. Make a sick joke one step more appalling. Even (especially) at your own expense. I think improv artists call it the "yes, and" concept.

Example: I had sex with your mother.
Not funny: Did not.
Not very funny: Oh yeah, well something about your mother.
Funnier: She told me. She said you weren't as good as me.

Maybe you were talking about more highbrow comedy, though. I work on a submarine.
posted by ctmf at 11:23 PM on July 2, 2007 [6 favorites]

I'm sure I've heard Churchill being quoted as saying something along the lines of his best off the cuff remarks having been worked on for days.

Also, don't be afraid to highjack someone elses amusing sidenote by adding something else to it. Be sure to laugh heartily at the original joke though. And remember that not everyone is always the comedian. Someone has to be the audience too.
posted by kjs4 at 11:44 PM on July 2, 2007

davejay said: Some of the funniest people I know don't speak much, but when they do open their mouths, it's genius -- and more likely to attract positive attention anyway...

I think this is worth repeating and it suggests that you're falling victim to confirmation bias. I bet if you had a transcript of everything said during an evening when everyone was particularly witty, you'd find that your sharp-tongued friends only had one or two snappy lines each. But you remember them and overtime it begins to seem like your friends have an endless supply of witty retorts.

That's not to say your friends aren't witty, or that you can't improve your ability in this area--it just means you should pick your spots and avoid putting too much pressure on yourself.
posted by mullacc at 11:51 PM on July 2, 2007

Mate, you've made 8 comments on AskMe, & nothing anywhere else on this site, in over a year! Do you even read MetaFilter & MetaTalk?

There are heaps of very witty people here. Get involved, get in amongst it all. At the very least, some of the humour might rub off on you. If you feel you need to, write down or memorise some of the quips you find funniest. Also, a fair few threads are related to current affairs etc, so when these pop up in conversation, you might be able to recycle a line or two without anybody knowing any better.

I don't actually consciously do that kind of memorising thing, but I think that constantly trying to whore myself for favourites based on quick quips on this site has made my mind a bit more supple, for when I want to do similar in real life. Often, it's all about the timing, riffing off what has gone on before, and that applies online as much as it does in meatspace.

Also, what davejay said: Rather than try to compete with them, keep your mouth shut and listen unless something occurs to you. Some of the funniest people I know don't speak much, but when they do open their mouths, it's genius -- and more likely to attract positive attention anyway, because they're not always yammering

Yes. Again, I don't think I deliberately do this as a strategy, but it usually happens that some loudmouthed, banal extrovert in social situations will be holding the floor with a bunch of pointless blather, whereupon all you need do is lie in wait & pounce when an opportunity presents itself. If you want to try to be calculating about it, you could pay maybe only half-attention to what they're saying, and use the rest of your mind plotting out possible jokes.

To give a rather pathetic example, 'bush', in Australia, is colloquial for either the outback/forest, or a woman's pubic area. If the conversation is about American politics, scan for opportunities for a double-entendre, eg playing on Bush = cunt. I find that puns like that usually present themselves, but that doesn't mean you can't also look out ahead for them, related to the subject matter, & lie in wait for a chance to deploy them.

As for the Wildean epigrams, idunno, they're clever & all, but I think they sound too forced in real conversation.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:02 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

location, location, delivery
posted by white light at 1:15 AM on July 3, 2007

Talk back to the people on your TV. Turn your inner censor off. Over time, you'll get better at coming up with quips on the fly. And you'll develop your comic style as well as inner trust, so that you don't make an ass of yourself in public. Then go try it on real people.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:22 AM on July 3, 2007 [4 favorites]

Don't try to rehearse or come up with stuff beforehand because it will just sound forced. Actually don't try at all-what your really need are the lines to just come to you, to just be there. if I were you I wouldn't study anything per se but I would watch a few funny movies and shows and try find a role model. I used to watch a lot of Late Night with Conan and I'd sometimes use his self-deprecating style. Don't imitate exactly though-you want to own your stuff.

Remember though, the most important thing is to never force what you say.
posted by thelongcon at 2:07 AM on July 3, 2007

If speed of delivery is your problem, hang out with dumber people.
posted by bangalla at 2:09 AM on July 3, 2007

Quicker is not always funnier. You can always change the topic to say something funny, it doesn't always have to be repartee. If you do want to learn faster repartee, commit a lot of responses to memory, read Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, and go with what ctmf said about always taking it to the next level.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:48 AM on July 3, 2007

Throw yourself into training re: language play.

-- read tons of books by authors who are smart but also playful with language: Lewis Carol, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Wilde, Nabokov, Deadwood Transcripts, Dr. Suess...

-- take an improv class. Not just a one-day workshop, but an ongoing class. You need regular exercise.

-- play "Just a Minute" with a couple of friends. Again, try to do this regularly.

-- buy "The Ode Less Traveled" and do all the exercises.

-- Crossword Puzzles

-- Watch "Top Hat" (Fred Astaire), "Bringing Up Baby" (Hepburn & Cary Grant), and almost anything by Billy Wilder (a.k.a. "Double Indemnity", "The Big Carnival", "Some Like It Hot", "Sunset Boulevard")

-- Improve your vocabulary by learning "middleweight" words. Ignore totally obscure words. People won't have any idea what you're talking about when you use them. Instead, practice with words that you probably already vaguely know but aren't in your common-use vocabulary: verbose, martinet, ductile, truncate...

Don't just memorize these words. There's nothing worse than hearing someone use a word that they've obviously memorized but aren't comfortable with. So when learning these words, really play with them. Spend at least an entire day with each one, coming up with all sorts of ways to use it. Entrench it in your working vocabulary. You've "learned" it when you played with it so much that it just naturally occurs to you.

-- Study Rhetoric. I can't urge this strongly enough. The "ancients" had a huge advantage over us, when it comes to wit, because they learned Rhetoric in school. (If you learn it and then read Shakespeare's plays, you can see each rhetorical figure slotted into into place, over and over.) It's not very hard to learn. It's just not studied any more, which is too bad. Here are some resources.
posted by grumblebee at 3:34 AM on July 3, 2007 [16 favorites]

How do I learn my place and the proper place for banter?

I wouldn't imitate others or prepare supposedly spontaneous remarks. Be yourself. Friends want to talk to you, not a guy spouting stuff memorized from Reader's Digest.

Remember that funny folk often do pretty simple tricks to make the funny on the fly. They might, for instance, put two simple but incongruous ideas together, find a way to shift the direction of a story 180 degrees from the expected direction. They might take a situation or character from an earlier conversational topic and insert it into a later part of the conversation. Now everyone has the background to understand the joke but no one, you hope, expects this combination now. You catch them off guard and they laugh, maybe.

Just don't turn strategies into shtick. You don't want your friends to start calling you Henny behind your back. And don't try too hard. You might not be witty. You might not be quick enough. If that's the case, be better at what you're already good at. If you're good, if you're honest, if you're kind, now be darn near saintly. If you're pretty good-looking and trim, now be absolutely muscular and hot. If you're a good listener, now grow gigantic ears and huge shoulders. No, don't. But play the cards you've got.
posted by pracowity at 3:55 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I second vytae.

The other advantage to actually writing your own material is that if you do it for long enough, you end up with a huge amount of considered and fine-tuned wit which you won't have to work to memorise because you've already been through the mental process of writing it. It'll just mentally turn up when appropriate, plus it will be in crafted phrases so you'll sound eloquent as well. You'll just be quoting yourself.

So just start an anonymous blog on blogspot or whatever and type a couple of paragraphs every day on a random subject from TV or the news or the Green/Blue/Grey. You may even be discovered and have 15 seconds of internet fame! You do have to keep it up regularly, though, or the advantages start to fade.
posted by Sparx at 4:50 AM on July 3, 2007

French: "l'esprit de l'escalier"
German: "treppenwitz"
American: "Jerk Store".

nthing continue the previous joke. Also, people will remember it as being funnier if its not just something mean about the other person. Take at least part of the shot yourself.
posted by softlord at 4:57 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I used to hang out with a bunch of kids at school who were really mean. They spent their whole time ripping it out of anyone who went by, including each other. I got witty really fast as a means of self-defense. Rules to remember:

  • faster is better than wittier;

  • self-deprecating and dry is usually more effective than assaulting others or delivering lines like a joke;

  • topical and pop references are good but only if you're sure that your audience will get it; and

  • build on other people's jokes, they usually won't mind.

  • posted by TrashyRambo at 5:30 AM on July 3, 2007

    Trying to play catch-up to compete with them on an equal basis may be a losing proposition. It could take years of practice. I say don't even try.

    Find your own strengths and build on those. Let your own sense of humor shine through. I grew up on the comedy of Monty Python with a sprinkling of Benny Hill. It wasn't all highbrow wit but most people appreciate Monty Python and can catch it's references.
    posted by JJ86 at 5:57 AM on July 3, 2007

    Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of equating wit with sarcasm, putdowns and general meanness. Learn to look at life sideways instead.

    If you want a role model, start with Steven Wright.

    Two weeks later, nobody is going to remember a cheap shot.
    posted by flabdablet at 6:09 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

    You referenced Ridicule. I think that early peeing scene illustrates that the game of repartee isn't necessarily a game you can win, ultimately. I also agree with flabdablet, there's a difference between being funny or clever and just being mean. Remember, the root of the word "sarcasm" means "to cut a piece of flesh (from the targeted person)".
    posted by fuse theorem at 6:22 AM on July 3, 2007

    There's a real difference between being witty and having a sharp tongue.

    Witty means coming up with funny or whimsical things almost by nature. Its a mindset. Like being confident. Or observant. Start with puns and work your way up. Practice, practice, practice. and if it turns out you are not a naturally funny person, I'm sure you have many other strengths.

    Having a sharp tongue is very different and doesnt have to be funny. It's at best insult comedy about superficial things like dress, weight, income, etc. I'm pretty sure this is learnable, but how this makes you a better person is beyond me. The people I know like this are more snobs than wits and I like to spend as little time with them as possible.
    posted by damn dirty ape at 7:14 AM on July 3, 2007

    Stumbling on the right response too late is a well-known syndrome. The French call it "l'esprit de l'escalier", the German term is "treppenwitz", both meaning 'staircase wit' - the rejoinder you devise when you're already on your way out.

    My dad called it "cab wit". Like when you're riding home in the cab...
    posted by wafaa at 7:25 AM on July 3, 2007

    I think it's really about having a set type of situation from which you can construct a witty situation. As soon as the situation comes up, you automatically know how to spin it into a witticism. Be a wit specialist, is what I'm saying.
    posted by markesh at 7:26 AM on July 3, 2007

    Several people have suggested reading witty authors -- but I would suggest memorizing them. Pick a passage you find witty, write it on a card, and stick it on your bathroom mirror -- then read it out loud over and over again until you remember it.

    This is not to suggest that you actually quote your favorite authors in conversations (although you may occasionally get an opportunity to do so). Rather, by getting deeply immersed in someone's work -- reading it every day, memorizing it, reciting it, etc. -- some of their verbal style will pass to you by osmosis. To put it another way: you'll be getting daily, personal lessons from some of the wittiest people in the world.

    Some suggestions: Wilde and Shakespeare (of course), but also Blake, Milton, Pope, Shaw, and Mamet (to name a few). You'll probably find that playwrights and poets have the best zingers.
    posted by ourobouros at 7:33 AM on July 3, 2007

    How to be handsomely witty?

    Get the jokes that the lady you are attempting to impress is making.
    posted by yohko at 8:42 AM on July 3, 2007

    Several people have suggested reading witty authors -- but I would suggest memorizing them. Pick a passage you find witty, write it on a card, and stick it on your bathroom mirror -- then read it out loud over and over again until you remember it.

    The ability to regurgitate the witty remarks of others is not wit. Most of the advice I've read in this thread seems to be about "how to be witty on the internet."

    There is a huge difference between making clever comments on a message board and being witty in face to face conversations. All the research in the world is not going to make you witty, it's just going to make you well read.
    posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:55 AM on July 3, 2007

    Memorizing antediluvian quips? Douchebag.

    Look, what's going on here is either one of two things— your friends are loudmouth boors, and you're trying to hone that rapier to get a thin rejoinder, or you're trying to be more active in a conversation that sparkles in your eyes.

    For the first situation, it ain't worth it. Dicks is dicks, and I got my current girlfriend by being quiet and beatific in the face of 'em. Even if they're just folks that know each other better than you, playing catch-up will make you that guy who tries too hard. And when you finally slot in your multi-layered Kurtzman chickenfat riff, no one's gonna get it anyway.

    But, assuming the second situation, there are a couple of things that have helped me (and I casually assume that I'm respectibly witty): First off, I took improv classes at Second City in high school. I was a theater nerd and it was the only cool thing I got to do over a summer ever. Thinking fast and rolling with any situation are the main skills there, and they're handy all over life. The second thing is to be self-deprecating, because that helps you mitigate the kind of overwhelming egoism of considering yourself witty. No one wants to listen to someone who thinks they're the sole soul of the party. It helps to show sympathy in a funny way to someone who's being skewered— that people remember far better than being the third guy to dig in.

    Aside from that, what aphorism does this comment violate? Brevity is the soul of wit. Be casually pithy, instead of competitively comedic. Everyone around you will thank you for it.
    posted by klangklangston at 11:11 AM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

    I don't know if this will help you, but I have a habit of watching the reruns of my favorite TV shows over and over (and over) again. As a result, a lot of the quips and jokes have stuck with me, and surprisingly, I've been in real-life situations where the dialog has inadvertantly "set up" one of those TV jokes. For example, I was in a business meeting once, and one exec happened to say, "Can I ask a stupid question?" Before I could stop myself, I responded, "Better than anyone I know." (A Golden Girls quote, BTW). Roseanne lines come in handy quite often, too; recently at small after-work gathering, someone asked me how my doctor's appointment earlier in the day had gone. Only she phrased it: "So, what did the doctor say?" so I was able to reply, "He said "I'd done, you can put your clothes on now." pause "Just like any other man."

    I think learning quips and such from TV also helps you get the proper timing and the intonation to really "sell" the joke.
    posted by Oriole Adams at 2:22 PM on July 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

    ("I'm done," even.) Preview is my friend....
    posted by Oriole Adams at 2:24 PM on July 3, 2007

    solipsophistocracy: All the research in the world is not going to make you witty, it's just going to make you well read.


    pay heed, because that was a crash course in perfectly weighted, understated irony.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 2:37 PM on July 3, 2007

    and have you thought of studying "...not!" jokes?
    posted by UbuRoivas at 2:47 PM on July 3, 2007

    be self-effacing. also, when you make fun of yourself, everyone can laugh. when you make fun of someone else, it's usually n-1, and those who do laugh may do just be uncomfortable.
    posted by prophetsearcher at 3:06 PM on July 3, 2007

    Always leave them wanting more.

    And as stated above, don't be afraid to try, but know your audience. I've made what I thought are stupid offhand comments on the blue, and immediately had comment regret, only to come back the next day to see it favorited 20 times. I have also written and re-written a paragraph that I thought was perfect and would slay them all only to hear the distant sound of crickets.

    Also, it is important to find le mot juste when tossing around bon mots.
    posted by vronsky at 4:21 PM on July 3, 2007

    Get new 'friends'.
    posted by sgt.serenity at 5:42 PM on July 3, 2007

    Handsomely witty? I'd rather be unwittingly handsome. Little help?
    posted by The Deej at 9:31 PM on July 3, 2007

    Handsomely witty? More like gruesomely twitty. High five!

    See how easy that was Galen? Now you try.

    Use your words.
    posted by vronsky at 9:39 PM on July 3, 2007

    Handsomely witty? I'd rather be unwittingly handsome. Little help?

    * sings: I'm so witty, you're so pretty...pretty VACANT!
    posted by UbuRoivas at 10:02 PM on July 3, 2007

    Handsomely witty? I'd rather be unwittingly handsome. Little help?

    * sings: I'm so witty, you're so pretty...pretty VACANT!
    posted by UbuRoivas

    LOL!!! Wooohoooo!!! High fi-- Heyyy wait a minute!!!!!
    posted by The Deej at 12:05 AM on July 4, 2007

    * shines fingernails on jacket lapel
    posted by UbuRoivas at 12:35 AM on July 4, 2007

    "How can I learn to be scathingly witty?"

    Why bother? Most "scathingly witty" people are pretentious and shallow showoffs, most of whose "ideas" aren't even their own. I think you should concentrate on depth of understanding and clarity of expression instead.

    As for the a lot of the "advice" in this thread, if you have to copy or quote someone else you're not being witty anyway, just another derivative parrot.
    posted by davy at 8:30 AM on July 4, 2007

    "As for the a lot of the "advice" in this thread..."

    What was that I said about "clarity of expression"? Being able to proofread better than I do is definitely a good thing.
    posted by davy at 8:32 AM on July 4, 2007

    If it helps, of the people I know who are genuinely witty, most are fairly well read. However, what I think is more important is that they see through bullshit and are often the first person in a conversation to draw attention to the Emperor's lack of new clothes, either by directly addressing the issue or by wilfully playing around with it.

    I would also suggest that the wittiest people concentrate on the conversation at hand rather than trying to crowbar in rehearsed bon mots. If you just relax and enjoy the conversation (rather than thinking it's my turn soon! Say something funny!) you might find you get on better than you would otherwise.

    My two bob: be yourself; be honest; be quick.
    posted by ClanvidHorse at 9:17 AM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Why bother? Most "scathingly witty" people are pretentious and shallow showoffs, most of whose "ideas" aren't even their own. I think you should concentrate on depth of understanding and clarity of expression instead.

    Follow davy's advice.

    He's clearly the life of every party.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 12:47 PM on July 4, 2007

    Beautiful plumage!
    posted by flabdablet at 5:19 PM on July 4, 2007

    N'thing continuing an old joke (i.e. previously thrown out in the same conversation), and/or hijacking someone else's joke or building on it or what have you.

    The idea here is that the joke already has gained traction in the room and you're just jumping on board with its momentum, and adding more, if you do it right. Even if you do it not-very-well, you are reminding the group of something they already found funny (assuming you're picking up on the funny ones, not the bad ones), and you'll at least get a chuckle out of that. I'm not sure if there's an actual term for this methodology, but I see the best comedians do it all the time, and I do my best to imitate this style.

    For example:

    Yesterday I went with a group of friends to see Transformers. Coming out of the theater we were joking about what kind of Transformer we would be if we could, etc.. I left to get on the bus, then I text a couple of buddies: Bus driver looks like a holographic rendering, I think I'm on a Decepticon. More texting hilarity follows, back and forth.

    Later in the day many of us are back together with a larger group for a potluck dinner before the fireworks. Some in the larger group had seen the movie, some hadn't, but here's the kicker - that didn't matter. I kept building on the transformer jokes at random points in the conversation, and there were 3 distinctly different yet similar responses:

    A) The group of us that had seen the movie together, we all thought it was hilarious. Stupid stuff like - hey see that helicopter over the river there - looks like a transformer...

    B) Those who had seen the movie but not with us - they got some of the inside jokes, and started to assimilate with the theme of the humor - i.e. someone was talking about how some of us had good usable last names that could be used as easily in conversation as our first names, while others had more difficult last names. I said one word: Whitwiki. If you've seen the movie recently, you get it.

    C) Those who hadn't seen the movie recently. This was the interesting part - nobody wants to be left out on the joke in a large group, so when everybody finds something funny, its quite easy to just join in on the laughter, with a lesser chuckle. Unless there's an ass in the room, nobody's going to ask these people what they're laughing about, because they haven't seen the movie, etc.. Most times people get on with the line of joking and pretty soon everyone's "in" on it.

    Until I hear some defined terminology for this approach, I like to call it the "mileage technique." You're using either your own or someone else's mileage to build more of your own. Note that my example above was just one of the themes I was working on last night - there were other jokes being tossed around that I resurrected as the moment displayed opportunity for use - jokes about fireworks, jokes about dancing, jokes about a specific person. Once you get the style down it starts to become something you do without really thinking about it, and I think that's kind of the heart of what you're getting at - how to be witty without having to wait for your brain to let you be...
    posted by allkindsoftime at 8:57 AM on July 5, 2007

    Another great example of this I just thought of - I was at a dinner event for a large non-profit organization I volunteer with. The emcee was a comedian/actor - same guy who's behind the mask in those weird Burger King commercials. He was obviously able to get some traction out of that by returning to jokes about being the king, etc.. But more to the point - he made one joke at the expense of one of the like-able fellows in the organization's leadership that many of us know, and it got a lot of laughs. He then showed his cards, in a sense - he said, "Hey, all right, now I know where to go when I'm losing you guys - John Smith." Everyone laughed at that too, but it was dead on. Multiple times later in the evening, he'd try a line of joking that the audience wasn't following him on. His response wasn't to make another joke about John Smith, he simply would say "John Smith, ladies and gentlemen" and smile, and the audience would howl.
    posted by allkindsoftime at 9:03 AM on July 5, 2007

    Response by poster: A vast audience at watches, amused by such preceding hilarity. Their whispers regard the impending quip -- 50 comments later, is Galen funny yet?

    The curtain flies to the rafters and there he is, his hands lifted to greet the crowd. "Be funny now!" they chant. He draws Dick Cheney from a hat. No one laughs.

    "Sorry... sorry. I thought jokes were funny."

    Thanks for the education. I'm quite blown-back by the gust of replies. It'll take me days to absorb. Right now I'm thinking such weighty treasure will sink this pirate ship.

    No need to mark any as best answers. It's all excellent advice.
    posted by Galen at 11:13 PM on July 5, 2007

    He draws Dick Cheney from a hat. No one laughs.

    Surprised by this development, but curious as to where Galen is going with it, they watch in expectation.

    Galen shares the audience's surprise: "What the fuck is he doing in my hat again?" Exasperated, he exclaims to the audience, "That's it. I've had it with this guy. Enough is enough" He tosses Cheney high in the air, reaches into the hat & quickly pulls out a shotgun and fires at the VP, who splatters into a thousand tiny pieces of gore.

    "Sorry, Dick" says Galen, "I mistook you for a quail"
    posted by UbuRoivas at 11:40 PM on July 5, 2007

    This thread can't be over until It's Raining Florence Henderson chimes in.
    posted by Rictic at 11:18 AM on July 6, 2007

    Importantly: very few people are genuinely funny.

    Most people are only sort of funny within their clique of friends. Figure out which one you want to target.

    As a fun exercise, figure out which people in this thread are which type.
    posted by blacklite at 3:37 AM on July 7, 2007

    challenged by blacklite's exercise, i scrolled back through the thread to try and work out who was genuinely funny, and who was funny only in their own circle of -


    ~ 46 users marked this as a favorite

    That's like, 23 pairs of those grumpy old men who heckled the muppets all the time...
    posted by UbuRoivas at 3:59 AM on July 7, 2007

    I have a very funny boyfriend (fiance now!). His brother and dad are also a laugh riot, but also able to be witty in a wry way about things that aren't suitable for guffaws.

    So my advice is, hang out and keep talking.

    The brother and dad were visiting from out of town, so the sights were unfamiliar and we passed a gallery whose name, in the dark, appeared to be Anus. Brother pointed it out and the cracks commenced. I kept walking up the block with them. Someone said "have a look inside." Nick said, "Polyp a chair," and then I added, "grab a stool." I think they liked it. I can't recall if I said anything in the joking before that gem, but there it was. I am still pleased with myself over it.
    posted by bilabial at 5:25 PM on July 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

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