The honey badger of Hollywood

Or, W.C. Fields' subtle art of not giving an F

W.C. Fields was the least lovable, most loved comedian who ever lived. In the words of his fan Conan O’Brien:

Fields’ character operates without a single principle other than satisfying his own pleasure; he practically defies us to like him. His professed hatred of children and dogs, love of drink, unapologetic cowardice, steadfast determination to avoid an honest day’s work, his seeming absence of conscience — this was a comic who embodied political incorrectness long before the phrase would exist.

All of his most famous cracks reflect this attitude. “I am free of all prejudices,” he proclaimed. “I hate everyone equally.” He never voted for anyone, saying “I always vote against.” He sent back a martini served with a twist, saying that if he’d wanted lemonade he would have ordered lemonade. When a sozzled Winston Churchill said he’d be sober in the morning while his accuser would still be ugly, he was borrowing from Fields. He never gave a sucker an even break and started each day with a smile just to get it over with. His spirit animal was the honey badger.

His nihilist popularity may have been a reaction to the Depression. As one of his biographers noted, “part of his success in Hollywood was that plugging into a general sense of disillusionment and uncertainty.”

And Fields was the patron saint of disillusionment.  By his telling, he escaped an abusive home to live hand-to-mouth on the mean streets of Philadelphia. This was why, according to a sympathetic 1935 New Yorker profile by Alva Johnson, he just didn’t give a damn.

True nonchalance is one of the rarest of gifts. The quality was born in Fields. It was fostered by freedom from home and school. It was further cultivated by his suffering between the ages of 11 and 15, when he never slept in a bed and often was sick, cold, and hungry. This gave him the nonchalance of the man who has endured everything and who is used to catastrophes.

His bulbous nose, part of his comic persona, came from being consistently beaten during his life on the streets. When he got off the streets, he punched back.

The wrong lesson to take from his life: If you don’t care what people think about you, they’ll love you. This is only possibly true if you are a once-a-generation genius. Fields was just that, a man who taught himself first to be a world-class juggler and then to maintain that status while totally hammered. And he was one of those people who thought in pun lightning, as evidenced by the string of pseudonyms he used to write scripts, open bank accounts, and cause trouble:

  • Dr. Otis Guelpe

  • Larson E. Whipsnade

  • Ellsworth Boynton

  • Chester Snavely

  • Rollo La Rue

  • Augustus Winterbottom

  • Ambrose Wolfinger

  • T. Frothingill Bellows

  • Cuthbert J. Twillie, and

  • Egbert Sousè

To use modern tech-business parlance, W.C. Fields was a brilliant jerk, the Steve Jobs of the silver screen. And as horror stories out of Silicon Valley regularly remind us, the problem with the brilliant jerks theory is that plenty of people are conscious of their brilliance but very few are aware of their jerkdom. If their perceptions were reality, life would be one big Mensa meeting in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.


Quick quips; lightning

Calamities are of two kinds: misfortunes to ourselves, and good fortune to others.
— Ambrose Bierce

On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good and not quite all the time. George Orwell

The nature of men and women—their essential nature—is so vile and despicable that if you were to portray a person as he really is, no one would believe you.
W. Somerset Maugham 

I’ve got a double-tall oat-mylk latte here for Ambrose Wolfinger! And that was the 34rd issue of Get Wit Quick, a truly chalant weekly newsletter. When I Googled “brilliant assholes,” all the results were about “brilliant jerks.” 🤔 My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting discussed martinis at length. Give this sucker an even tap on the ❤️ below.

The Woo Slang Clan of witty lovers

Or, why you don't say that to all the girls

One of the most saleable things you can say about wit is that it’s a vital part of romantic love. By Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, a trait like wit persists because of its appeal to prospective mates. Demonstrating your cognitive flexibility and communication skills showcases how nimble you’ll be at dodging sabre-toothed tigers and feeding your family. 

Centuries of sonnets attest to the wooing power of wit. And the dynamic continues in online dating, as seen in this 2011 paper reporting that “men are inclined to produce humor in romantic contexts and that women are inclined to evaluate men’s humorous offerings” likely because humour “honestly signals the presence of fundamentally important traits, such as intelligence and warmth.” (Heteronormativism noted.)

Why, then, do so few of the great wits speak of love? There are plenty of insults, one-liners, epigrams, and innuendoes about art, politics, and great aunts, but where are the words of woo?

Their absence is explained by the You Don’t Say That To All The Girls Theory: Of course their public wit wasn’t about infatuation, because what use would that be? No one wants to hear how besotted you are. Sweet nothings are only for that sweet someone — or perhaps many sweet somebodies.

The wit for the ages and the pages is the public, visible, confrontational stuff. We’re not going to hear about the private verbal dexterity because of the age-old separation of streets and sheets.

The perfect example of this divide is fictional, kind of. Cyrano de Bergerac was a real Frenchman who wrote 17th-century science fiction and had a noticeable nose (as illustrated above). But the famous Cyrano is the poet and swordsman of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, who buckled swashes, slung rhymes and had a gigantic, life-limiting nose. “I want to depart this life with honorable steel piercing my heart and a piercing epigram on my lips,” he declares in the Anthony Burgess translation. Cyrano ghostwrites love letters for a handsome doofus, an awkward arrangement given his true feeling for the reader, Roxane. Only at the end of his life does she figure out that it was Cyrano she truly loved.

The Cyrano I remember is C.D. Bales, the character played by Steve Martin in Roxanne, his 1987 adaptation of Cyrano. His Roxanne is an astronomer, and via his proxy his Cyrano declares he is “in orbit around you, I am suspended weightless over you like the blue man in the Chagall, hanging over you in a delirious kiss.” But the best lines come when he responds to a crack about his nose with 20 better ones, grouped into categories like Inquiry (“When you stop to smell the flowers, are they afraid?”), Obscure (“I’d hate to see the grindstone”) and Paranoid (“Keep that guy away from my cocaine!”)

Cyrano gave us a word for what the witty lover and the witty fighter have in common: Panache. Hilton Als defined it as sumptuous impertinence, and it’s hard to do better than that. It originally meant the feather on a soldier’s helmet, and in the play it’s the last word Cyrano speaks: 

yet there is something still that will always be mine, and when I go to God’s presence, there I will doff it and sweep the heavenly pavement with a gesture: something I’ll take unstained out of this world . . . my panache.” 


Quick quips; lightning

“Every man is thoroughly happy twice in his life: just after he has met his first love, and just after he has left his last one.”
H.L. Mencken

“Oh life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.”
Dorothy Parker

“Nine-tenths of the letters in which people speak unreservedly of their inmost feelings are written after ten at night.”
Thomas Hardy

That was the 33rd issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly billet-doux to all of you. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was a medley of extemporanea largely written after 10 p.m. All this talk of love should make you want to tap the ❤️ below.

Malcolm X marks the thought

Or, how wit and humour do opposite things

We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Malcolm X told his audiences. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

It’s a great example of reverse-order repetition, or antimetabole. A more famous antimetabole came from another American leader in the 1960s: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  Malcolm X expresses the reverse sentiment of JFK, making his phrase a kind of meta-antimetabole, or maybe just a bole.

The man born Malcolm Little was a verbal bomb thrower, a master orator, and an eighth-grade dropout who “didn’t know a verb from a house” until he took correspondence courses in prison. When he learned how to debate, he described turning his mental fireworks into verbal fire in his posthumously published Autobiography of Malcolm X:

Standing up there, the faces looking up at me, things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling it right, then I had won the debate once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.

His 1964 Message to the Grassroots speech gives new meaning to the term “flat white” with one of the best coffee metaphors ever poured:

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. 

To do battle by any means necessary sometimes meant going into the whitest places imaginable — the Oxford Debating Union, for instance — with a disarming smile, a sharp tongue, and a winning wit. There, he won the crowd just as soon as his opponent asked about his name:

He’s right, X is not my real name. But if you study history, you’ll find why no Black man in the Western Hemisphere knows his real name. Some of his ancestors kidnapped our ancestors from Africa and took us into the Western Hemisphere and sold us there, and our names were stripped from us and so today we don’t know who we really are. I’m one of those who admit it, and so I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name. (Hear it at 1:14:30 here)

Malcolm X was often witty but rarely funny, and for good reason. Laughter defuses a situation; he wanted to light the fuse. He had something big to say and never missed an opportunity to say it. Take this jokey postcard he sent to his good friend Redd Foxx (the star of Get Wit Quick No. 14) in 1964:

Malcolm X was there to tell black audiences it was time to get out and white audiences not to get in the way. His wit was a tool to do that job. So when a black listener argued that he was an American because he was born in the United States, Malcolm X responded: “Now, brother, if a cat has kittens in the oven, does that make them biscuits?”


Quick quips; lightning

I waited at the counter of a white restaurant for eleven years. When they finally integrated, they didn't have what I wanted.
— Dick Gregory

Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.
— Oscar Wilde

Humor is laughing at what you haven't got when you ought to have it.
— Langston Hughes 

So, that makes 32 issues of Get Wit Quick. The top photo is from Malcolm X’s appearance as the surprise guest on CBC’s Front Page Challenge, which actually may trump the Oxford Union as the whitest place imaginable. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was published prehumously. Tap the ❤️below to feed kittens biscuits.

Speak snidely and carry a green snake

Or, the three lives of Alice Roosevelt Longworth

If you can’t say something good about someone, go sit by Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The Washington socialite, wit, and daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt had words to that effect printed on a throw pillow, which is as good a way as any of laying claim to a quip.

Mrs. L, as she liked to be called, was an aphorism snowball: A big personality who said some clever things to get things rolling and then picked up credit for all sorts of lines, even when she insisted they weren’t hers. Her particular specialty was the political putdown, and her insults helped her play three distinct roles on the Washington stage.

First, she was the Wild Child, or more precisely “a young wild animal that had been put into good clothes.” Teenage Alice moved into the White House with her widowed father in 1901 and proceeded to smoke on the roof, sled down stairs on stolen tea trays, and wear pantalettes in public. She named her pet snake Emily Spinach, after a hated aunt. She became the first woman ever to be issued a speeding ticket. “I can be president of the United States, or I can control Alice,” her father said. “I cannot possibly do both.” 

As Teddy and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts gave way to their distant relations Franklin, Eleanor, and the Hyde Park Roosevelts, Alice assumed the role of Black Sheep, or as Time styled her, the “knife-tongued wit of the Old Guard.” No politician could ever live up to her father, and she felt no hesitation at pointing this out. William Howard Taft was “great in girth … but great in nothing else.” Calvin Coolidge looked “like he was weaned on a pickle.” Thomas Dewey looked like “the little man on a wedding cake.” Wendell Willkie “sprang from the grass roots of the country clubs of America.” She made a particular point of razzing Franklin (“a good little mother’s boy whose friends were dull”) and her “poor cousin Eleanor.” All the first lady’s do-gooding seemed to inspire Alice’s do-badding. When Rebecca West visited Washington in 1935, she noted that “intellectually, spiritually, the city is dominated by the last good thing said by Alice Roosevelt Longworth.”

And finally, Mrs. L became a Grand Dame, hosting dinner parties in her Dupont Circle mansion, bantering with LBJ and Nixon, giving freewheeling interviews, and bathing in the “delight of pouring out yourself to someone who listens with rapt attention and takes down every precious word.” 

The lesson from her long life: Figure out the part you’re expected to play and give it your all. Her Wild Child, Black Sheep, and Grand Dame roles inadvertently line up with her three-part summation of how she lived her 96 years: 

I have a simple philosophy. Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full. And scratch where it itches.


Quick quips; lightning

“All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.”
— Sean O’Casey

“It’s all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.”
— George Bernard Shaw 

“Prior to the Reagan era, the new rich aped the old rich. But that isn’t true any longer. Donald Trump is making no effort to behave like Eleanor Roosevelt as far as I can see.”
—  Fran Lebowitz

There’s the 31st issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly vinaigrette of pantalette vignettes. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting graphically details the many perils of pickle-weaning. Pour yourself out by tapping the ❤️below.

With great aunts come great responsibility

Or, the common enemy

“If Death were truly conquered, there would be / Too many great-great-great-great aunts to see.” L.E. Jones

What is it about great aunts?

Start with Oscar Wilde, and Lady Augusta Bracknell. “Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner,” notes Algernon when his overbearing aunt comes to call in The Importance of Being Earnest. As she haughtily advises Jack, “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Then there’s Saki (“Not to be confused with sake”— Wikipedia), the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), who satirized Edwardian society until a German sniper killed him in the First World War (last words: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”). After his mother was killed by a rampaging cow, Munro was raised by his strict aunts. The best of his short stories snap like mousetraps, and the most dastardly of his villains are aunts. 

In “The Lumber Room,” a boy’s happiness is threatened by “his cousins’ aunt, who insisted, by an unwarranted stretch of imagination, in styling herself his aunt.” This aunt keeps her real and imagined nephews in line via psychological torture:

 It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day.

And of course there’s P.G. Wodehouse, whose characters would live in a distant paradise of highballs and croquet if it weren’t for all those aunts. “It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts,” Bertie Wooster observes. “At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.

Christopher Hitchens had a theory that Wodehouse’s oeuvre was drawing from The Importance of Being Earnest: Fearsome aunts unleashing convoluted plots that are neatly resolved in country houses. But even if you take Saki’s personal history and credit P.G. to Oscar, we still haven’t found the ur-aunt who struck so much fear in so many hearts.

I posit that it was Queen Victoria. As disapproving great aunt to those she ruled, Her Majesty loomed large in the popular imagination. “We are not amused,” was her catchphrase, though like most catchphrases she probably never said it. 

Oscar Wilde was once put on the spot at a dinner party when another guest said he could come up with a witticism about any subject imaginable. 

“Queen Victoria!” another diner shouted. To which Wilde allegedly responded:

“Queen Victoria is not a subject.”


Quick quips; lightning

“Queen Victoria was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.”— H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

“Nowadays, a parlour maid as ignorant as Queen Victoria was when she came to the throne would be classified as mentally defective.” — George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

“To try and find out the reason for everything is very dangerous and leads to nothing but disappointment and dissatisfaction, unsettling your mind and in the end making you miserable.” — Queen Victoria (1819–1901)

That concludes the 30th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly newsletter of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was born in a handbag. We believe the royal family peaked with Her Majesty’s 1988 appearance in The Naked Gun, and we are perennially amused when readers tap the ❤️ below.

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