No zingers here
June 3, 2008 6:52 PM   Subscribe

How can I cultivate a quicker wit?

I have a decent sense of humor. I can make jokes and people will laugh. When I regale people with my (prepared) bon mots at parties, there are hearty chuckles.

However, when someone snaps on me, I have a hard time coming up with a retort or a comeback. I'll inevitably come up with something lame and make myself look as lame as they allege I am. I'll usually come up with something later, but it's too late to go back and say anything at point (think George Costanza and the jerk store).

So my question is this: Are there any techniques or methods I might employ to become quicker witted?
posted by reenum to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Your answer is in the question. When you can't think of anything, just say, "Yeah, well the jerk store called and they're out of you!" (or take improv classes)
posted by Frank Grimes at 7:01 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do you know any notably quick-witted people? I have a couple of very clever friends, and after chatting with them for a bit I'm razor-sharp myself. The effect gradually wears off, but I imagine I could cultivate ways for it to stay around. Maybe by re-reading Thurber or some such?
posted by kmennie at 7:02 PM on June 3, 2008

Play improv/association games! Anything where you're forced to think on your feet and come up with a relevant, humorous, and quick response (for fun) will get you better used to doing this in the real world.
posted by phunniemee at 7:03 PM on June 3, 2008

Lots of answers in this old question.
posted by Durin's Bane at 7:07 PM on June 3, 2008

It's also good to fill up your retort toolbox, like the costanza jerk store retort, so you can just pull one of those. At worst people recognize a reference and always appreciate that :)
posted by wangarific at 7:08 PM on June 3, 2008

You could say: " Give me your number and I'll give you a call in 3 hours and I'll have a withering response THEN". In my opinion, a sharp comeback is funniest when I'm honest, even if my honesty is deprecating. Actually, it's usually self-deprecating.

Improv classes are great. Super fun, and very good for one's quickness.
posted by asavage at 7:08 PM on June 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Are we talking about retorts for rude/disparaging comments? In that case, I think a cool, brief response comes off better than any witty phrase (as satisfying as they may be.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:09 PM on June 3, 2008

When I was in elementary school a friend of mine and I banded together because we were picked on so mercilessly. Along with working on our vocabularies and literary references, we would get together and practice insulting each other. The goal of the game was to leave the opponent with absolutely no comeback. It helped a lot, even though to this day it's not 100% - sometimes I'm just caught off guard by someone's pure meanness, and all I can do is take it down to "That's not fair," and "That's downright mean-spirited of you."
posted by medea42 at 7:10 PM on June 3, 2008

Bond movie marathon?
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:13 PM on June 3, 2008

Comedy writing classes tend to teach the writing of "two liners":

get the newspaper (or the net) and find 10 stories. A two liner is just a set-up and a punchline. Kind of like what they do on "Weekend Update" on SNL, only funny. So you read a story, for example today:

"Hillary Clinton today conceded that Barack Obama would be the democratic nominee for president."

then the 2nd line is the joke:

"Clinton also conceded that the sky is blue and puppies are cute."

that's a horrendous joke, but you get the basic idea- playing on the humor inherent in the story- that Hillary finally admitted something everyone knew months ago.

After a while you'll develop a technique for making just about anything into a joke. It really works to build the comedy "muscle." A lot better than improv imo, because improv is about spontaneously telling a story. You want to develop your skill for spontaneously writing comedy- it's close to the same thing, but not exactly.

Anyone who tells you being funny is natural and can't be learned is wrong- sort of. I suppose some people just can't be funny no matter what. But even for those with natural ability, it's a skill you have to build up.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:18 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @medea42: These are just fun, joking around types of snaps. If they were mean, then I'd take the person outside and let my guns do the talking.

Yes, I refer to my biceps as guns.
posted by reenum at 7:27 PM on June 3, 2008

As others have said, the key is surrounding yourself with quick witted people that up your game.

It's like playing tennis. If you're playing with the average 9 year old kid down the street, you won't need to master your backhand so much. But if you're hanging out and volleying with Roger Federer, you'll be on your toes. You automatically up your game and try to rise to the level of your partner because in order to play the game you HAVE to.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:44 PM on June 3, 2008

Good advice already, but also remember that delivery counts. The best comeback won't make a bit of difference if it's delivered off-time. I've found that it's always good to wait a beat longer before delivering a comeback. Improve would also be a good way to develop that all-important timing, as well.
posted by Kronoss at 7:55 PM on June 3, 2008

I mean improv, not improve. But improv may improve things is what I'm saying.
posted by Kronoss at 7:56 PM on June 3, 2008

Yes, I refer to my biceps as guns.

Because you get them out when loaded?

But back to the topic...I see from your profile that you don't contribute on MetaTalk much. A lot of what goes on there is just joking & riffing, even in serious threads (if you wait until people have gotten through the unofficial quota of three or four serious answers before starting to throw the shit around). It won't necessarily translate directly into real-life conversation (eg in terms of timing / delivery) but there are some very funny people here, and hopefully some of it can rub off.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:13 PM on June 3, 2008

Best answer: First of all, you're not lame for not having hitherto devoted copious personal resources to developing your Snaps game. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Storytelling is a far more important talent!

Attitude makes the largest difference in how anyone responds to verbal judo. If you feel defensive and lame, you are going to come across as defensive and lame. But you know you can come up with the zingers... eventually. As several people have suggested, improving the timing of your response is a matter of increased practice. Just accept that most of your barbs are going to miss, and shoot them anyway... with the right attitude, they'll be funny even if they're terrible!

Personally, I like asavage's approach above. Simple truths are the heaviest ammo.
posted by zennie at 8:23 PM on June 3, 2008

Watch a bunch of Woody Allen flicks.

Timeless, hilarious, brilliant, and Woody has always been one of my main social inspiriations because of his quick tongue and self-depreciation.
posted by Detuned Radio at 8:25 PM on June 3, 2008

This is a really interesting read. My brother and his best friend are both very witty and I never thought of it as something that could be learned.
posted by allthingsbright at 8:44 PM on June 3, 2008

" Give me your number and I'll give you a call in 3 hours and I'll have a withering response THEN."
That's brilliant and I must use that.

I say it's trial and error. Being teased a lot when you're growing up offers ample time. But like any joke, you win some and you lose some. I give a dramatic scowl when I can't come up with anything good, or I say "I'll think of the perfect comeback when I'm doing laundry tomorrow."

As a last resort, you could always be childish and give them the raspberry.
posted by deinemutti at 8:55 PM on June 3, 2008

Read more to broaden your vocabulary and references, be more cynical, have a stronger ego and sense of superiority. That combination might work in terms of 'comebacks'.
posted by jak68 at 9:45 PM on June 3, 2008

My default gag when I don't know what else to say is always: "How appropriate. You fight like a cow."
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:55 PM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're not good at comebacks, just change your tactics. Be the one to initiate.

I'm decently witty, but if I can't come up with something right away, I try to defuse the expectation that I will respond. Laughing and saying "good one", patting them on the shoulder, works.

Then I can insult them later. That takes off the pressure and I can spend hours waiting for the perfect moment. Then...zing.

I also go for the third party insult, which defuses the mano a mano element inherent in that type of competitive humor--turn to a third party and say something quietly about the insulter. You're still participating, but you have a smaller audience and, if they laugh at your taunt, an psychological ally.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:03 PM on June 3, 2008

Hmmm, rather than posting some God-awful, forced-sounding comebacks for you to crowbar into conversation like a particularly leaden balloon, I would suggest that you read lots of clever books by clever authors that feature, among other things, wordplay, puns, etc. Build up your learning/vocabulary and things will begin to flow; seemingly incongrous connections will instantly form in your mind. Confidently blab these out mid-conversation and you are halfway there. Watch Stewart Lee's frankly brilliant stand up on youtube too.

I think spontaneity, a sense of perspective and self-deprecation are the things I appreciate most about the chats with my coruscating chums. If you make a dick of yourself, don't worry. Try and pick it up before someone else does, but, if you don't, laugh at yourself with everyone else.

I go through long periods of being thick with sporadic periods of being fresh'n'quick. I think the times that I have been entertaining company to others are when I have spent a lot of time reading and have been spending time in the company of quick-wits.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 4:09 AM on June 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't know how old you are or what the nature of these exchanges is, but it sounds like you might be dealing with AMOGs. The techniques described in that link particularly relate to cockblockers, but they're more generally applicable.

RULE #1: always be the friendly guy. if someone is a jerk, your first response should always be to make a sincere, friendly gesture towards him. shows that you have higher social value.

RULE #2: do not react negatively to anything he says. everything he says is funny. if he says sarcastically, "hey, nice shirt", smile and say something like "thanks man, i'm just trying to impress you."

Assuming you're dealing with an adult, the most effective technique is to call them out or label their behavior. An example given in the link is "whoa. dude, you remind me so much of the most popular guy from my high school. like the captain of the football team guy, who beats up all the nerds." Or, if they're using sarcasm, a simple way to disarm it is to say with a big smile "oh, wait, are you being sarcastic? i get it. that's awesome!" Then give him a high five, except pull your hand away at the last second. :)

Importantly, your use of these AMOG tactics should only be in direct response to something the AMOG says. Once you've pulled your hand away from high the five, go back to rule #1.
posted by mpls2 at 5:10 AM on June 4, 2008

> How can I cultivate a quicker wit?

Walk faster! ;-)

Seriously, you've got to immerse yourself with it. Try joking around with friends and let them know what's up. The hardest part is putting the brakes on. My brain just follows a logical path but I'll stray into tasteless jokes sometimes. That's why safe practice is important. It's ok to think of the tasteless ones just don't speak them!

re my quip above, the temptation is to respond logically, but that wouldn't earn "points" in the game you'd play with friends. Instead you'd respond with "Easy, rain man" (bordering on tasteless, hard to get movie reference), "Slow it down speed walker" (pretty neutral), "Grab your walker, speedy" (in your face, but clearly just for sarcasm's sake) or "Always the physical, isn't it?" (mean, but appreciated by the right people). Of course, there's endless more responses that are better, aren't there?
posted by jwells at 5:22 AM on June 4, 2008

Response by poster: @clanvid horse: I know Thurber's been mentioned. I suspect Oscar Wilde is another good one to read. Any other authors?

@mpls2: Sadly, I'm dealing with one of the female receptionists. I know, I'm sad.

Thanks for the great advice so far. Keep it comin' like Keith Sweat.
posted by reenum at 6:33 AM on June 4, 2008

Steal from everybody.
Do it long enough and you'll make it your own.
posted by Dizzy at 6:33 AM on June 4, 2008

One thing I like to do when I can't think of an immediate comeback is act like the jibe personally effected me. I'll act really injured and upset, and say something like, "Dude... that was really over the line," or, "That's not cool... that's a really sore subject for me."

When they apologize (and they always do, at least for me), I throw it in their face. Kind of a "gothca!" Do the Wayne Campbell "reeled in" bit... all that.
posted by vertigo25 at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2008

reenum- I like writers like Martin Amis, Jim Dodge and Kurt Vonnegut in that they all have IMO a tremendous facility with language. However, I suppose I am also getting at reading more broadly whatever the genre. I think one of the ways that someone is witty is when they relate two things that on the surface appear absurdly different but there is some link and logical reasoning behind the link. No one wants to be some factoid-pumping machine but making connections in your mind is habit-forming and encourages a fluidity of thought that helps with being witty.

If you think of a lot of observational stand-up comedy that's how it works. (Although stand up is a highly polished form of this conflation of ideas- no matter how apparently shambolic the delivery may be).

Or that could just be my way-off-the-mark tuppence worth.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 8:14 AM on June 4, 2008

@reenum thanks for the warning that you're heavily armed.

Good reading that may help with developing a witty outlook:
Mark Twain
H.L. Mencken
Robert Asprin
Neil Gaiman

Also, lateral thinking and puzzles/exercises related to it can also sharpen up the wits nicely.
posted by medea42 at 8:42 AM on June 4, 2008

I give a dramatic scowl when I can't come up with anything good

This is actually a pretty good tactic: it's something you have to make a call on pretty quickly, but some form of "conceding the point" is usually seen as a better response than a lame comeback. Take your hits winningly.

I'm also fond of alluding to something totally irrelevant, but it's a wash.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2008

Until I read that you're dealing with someone at work, I was going to suggest listening to the Opie and Anthony radio show on XM (or some FM stations). Definitely not safe for work, but very very funny and the digs between comedians are constant and sharp. I've listened regularly for over a year, and I find that I am much quicker with retorts and comebacks - not just copying what was said, but learning the format of what makes a line funny or unfunny. They regularly point out their own and each others bombs.

The downside, though, is that you must self-edit constantly because the hilarious line you just thought of will get you slapped and/or fired.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:07 PM on June 4, 2008

Excellent final point, shiny!
The true art of all of this is not only the WHAT but the WHEN.
You can't really teach comedy, but you can hone instincts that may already be there.
But WAITING for the most APPROPRIATE second or situation or audience--- that is a whole 'nother science lesson...
posted by Dizzy at 2:10 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're not reading William Hazlitt, you're not reading English. You're reading the arse-vomit of pigs.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:51 PM on June 4, 2008

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