The stopped clock theory of wit

Or, the source of Tallulah Bankhead's accidental quips

Did Tallulah Bankhead actually exist, or was she some sort of Jazz Age fever dream? It’s hard to be sure because the actress made a career out of being the most outspoken, obscene, and outrageous woman of her day. 

Or as she put it: “I’ve been called a garrulous extrovert, a cello-voiced witch, a honey-haired holocaust, a heretic whose vitality if harnessed to the Sahara might transform that sandy waste into another Eden.”

She talked incessantly to make people notice her, and when that didn’t work she disrobed. Her appetites — for liquor (2 bottles bourbon per day), for lovers (5,000 self-reported, male and female), for cigarettes (150 a day), for life — were enormous. “I don’t care what they say about me after I’m dead,” she often said, “as long as they say something.” So, here’s something:

Tallulah Bankhead moved into New York’s Algonquin Hotel just as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and the rest of the era’s great talkers took their seats at the Algonquin Round Table. While attending a play with the critic Alexander Woolcott, she quipped “There’s less to this than meets the eye!” 

She later clarified that she’d meant to say more than this, but her inadvertent improvement of a cliche ended up in Woolcott’s column. “All of a sudden thousands of Americans were clamouring for ‘more of that Bankhead girl’s wit,’” one of her biographers wrote. 

But while she was chatty and charming, Tallulah Bankhead wasn’t really a wit. She qualified by the Stopped Clock Theory of Wit: If you keep talking, eventually disparate ideas will couple themselves. 

“Anyone who talks as much and as long as I do is sure to come up with some howlers,” she said. “More than one companion has quailed under the impact of ‘I never eat on an empty stomach,’ ‘I’ve had six juleps and I’m not even sober,’ and ‘We’re reminiscing about the future.’”

Are these clever or clumsy? They don’t sparkle on the page, so clearly Tallulah’s charisma helped seal the deal. Even so, one of her nonplussed co-stars rendered his verdict when he said “I’ve just spent an hour talking to Tallulah for a few minutes.”

The lesson here: Incessant blather is not the recommended route to wit. Talk less, listen more. No one wants to give up an hour for a few good minutes. But if you do accidentally say something witty, happily accept the plaudits you’re due.

Many years ago, my dear mother observed that New Englanders kept one hand under the table as they ate, a habit she viewed as illogical and vowed to change. 

“Are you going to do that singlehandedly?” I asked, walking backwards into a quip. Should you wish to applaud, boo, or merely shrug, you may do so by tapping the ❤️ at the bottom of this newsletter.

Quick quips; lightning

“When one has never heard a man’s name in the course of one’s life, it speaks volumes for him; he must be quite respectable.” — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Tallulah Bankhead’s name remains known, so she did succeed at her ultimate ambition.

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” — Fran Lebowitz (1950-)

Modern addendum: If someone looks at their phone while you’re talking, stop talking.

The only thing I regret about my life is the length of it. If I had to live my life over again, I’d make all the same mistakes – only sooner.”— Tallulah Bankhead (1903-1968)

And presumably, she’d have said all the clever things in the first few days.

That’s the sixteenth issue of Get Wit Quick, a field guide for garrulous introverts.  There’s exactly as much of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting as meets the eye. Forward this newsletter, friend! And enjoy some characteristic last words from Tallulah: “Let’s face it, my dears, I have been tight as a tick! Fried as a mink! Stiff as a goat! But I’m no toper. No tosspot, I. In all my years in the theatre I’ve never missed a performance because of alcoholic wounds. I have never skidded into the footlights through confused vision.”


Proof that wit makes you happy

Or, the case against turmeric lattes

If you’re reading (or writing) this, you’re already witty and wouldn’t mind becoming more so. Why? What advantages does wit bring? This seems like an open-ended question, along the lines of “Have you ever really looked at your hand?” It shouldn’t be. 

As someone who’s made a hobby out of researching wit, here’s my answer: Wit is surprising creativity. It’s good sense that sparkles. It’s the magpie mind at work. When you’ve amassed a nest’s worth of shiny bits of knowledge, wit is how you assemble them on the fly. It entertains, it engages, it delights.

But is it good for you? Does it lower blood pressure? Raise cardiovascular health? Improve liver function? Would you be better off reading a weekly newsletter on turmeric? Would I be better off writing one? What even is turmeric?

Happily, there is some evidence that cultivating a sense of wit is good for your subjective well-being. An Austrian psychologist named Willibald Ruch went deep on this topic in a study published last year, starting with a grouping of eight Comic Style Markers: fun, humour, nonsense, wit, irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism. He devised a series of tests to group and associate each of these styles, integrating various personality models and statistical regressions. Like any good magpie, I went right for the shiny bits. Here they are:

  • All of the “light” styles — humour, fun, and wit — were associated with positive affect, extroversion, general life satisfaction, and satisfaction with oneself.

  • Sarcasm and cynicism, unsurprisingly, are not linked to happiness.

  • Older individuals tended to score higher in humour, nonsense, and wit but lower in irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and fun.

  • Wit had the highest correlation to openness to experience.

  • Wit, alone among the styles, is associated with high cognitive ability and levels of education.

So here’s my admittedly biased summation: If you’re witty, you’re more likely to be happy, open to the world, and eager to learn. And because wit increases with both age and education, getting older and wiser should only make you wittier.

The juxtaposition of lifelong learning and social openness reminded me of this line from Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me:

“An old friend of mine, a journalist, once said that paradise on earth was to work all day alone in anticipation of an evening in interesting company.”

In other news, a disturbing new study has found that “some turmeric, wellness potion of the moment, may owe its yellow colour to lead contamination.”  So if you are ever facing a choice between wit and turmeric, please pick wit.

Quick quips; lightning

“The man who sees the consistency in things is a wit; the man who sees the inconsistency in things is a humorist.” — G.K. Chesterton

Cut to a wall full of thumbtacks connected by red string. Don’t you see, Chesterton? It’s all connected!

Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.”— Mark Twain

This is about the best definition going, as it also tells you what not to do — because linking two related ideas is like marrying your sister.

As I looked out into the night sky, across all those infinite stars, it made me realize how unimportant they are.” — Peter Cook

In the end, it doesn’t matter — but it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.

Kudos for reading the 15th issue of Get Wit Quick, the weekly collection of magpie metaphors. When viewed in the right light, my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is relatively shiny. Turmeric is actually fine if unleaded, but not in a latte. Forward this newsletter, friend! And tap the heart below!

How to be crude and shrewd

Or, Redd Foxx’s many shades of blue

So you have a bunch of friends over, it gets late, and the conversation dies down. In a certain place and time, that would have been the cue to put on a party record. What was the party record?

By one telling, an album “people would play at night after the kids went to bed, records you weren’t supposed to have.” Why weren’t you supposed to have them? Ostensibly because they featured comedians telling dirty jokes — but really, because the comedians telling those jokes were black and the people who bought those records weren’t.

Originally, the records were for black audiences. Redd Foxx, the comedian who became the king of the party record, came by his material out of necessity. He couldn’t even get into the audience of most white comedy clubs, so he performed exclusively on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. “And they don’t want to hear no Christian Science Monitor stuff — they want nitty gritty,” he recalled. “So I gave it to them funky like they liked it. There was always a double standard for comics in nightclubs. Black comics didn’t get the big bookings, so they were allowed to be dirtier, expected to be.”

After one of these sets, Foxx was approached by a music producer about making a recording of his act. “It was a black thing, in a sense, so I said I’d go ahead and record for my black brother, because no one else had offered me anything.”

The result was 1956’s Laff of the Party, Vol. 1, and though it was kept behind the counter and sold in brown paper bags, it became a viral hit in black America. And by the age-old tradition of Columbusing, or discovering something that already exists, white America soon asked for Foxx by name.

How blue was Redd? Somewhere between periwinkle and azure. In the early days, he never uttered a profane word on stage. He aimed for naughty, not obscene. Like the chef who cooked his beans backwards, giving everyone hiccups. Or how cigarette ads of the day claimed that “of 446 doctors that switched to Camels, only two of  ’em went back to women.” At his best, he left more than half the joke to the imagination of his audience. 

If you listen to what Foxx was up against — and I can’t recommend that you do — you can see how he broke through. The average party record suggests that 1950s America was so starved of vulgarity that people would pay good money to hear a comedian mirthlessly recite four-letter words. As a record producer later told Billboard magazine, “spiciness alone doesn’t sell a suggestive type of record — it has to be funny in the first place.”

The lesson of Redd Foxx’s breakthrough is that you can make much more trouble if you’re subtle. Be salty and be dry. You want the audience to have it, but it’s better if they come and get it. As usual, The Big Lebowski ties it together:

Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.
The Dude: On you, maybe.

Quick quips; lightning

“On that big stage anybody can be obscene and not heard.” — Maurice Barrymore 

This play on words originally coined by the patriarch of a legendary acting family (1849-1905) is close to being perfect — except for the fact that there are very few contexts in which it makes any sense.

I’m as pure as the driven slush.”— Tallulah Bankhead

The most scandalous wit of her day, Bankhead (1902-1968) was upfront about it.

If all the girls in attendance at the Yale Prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” — Dorothy Parker

Parker (1893-1967) was the undisputed master of dressing up a racy remark for cafe society, and it is only fitting to note here that she left her entire estate to the NAACP.

Thanks for reading the fourteenth issue of Get Wit Quick, a family-friendly newsletter featuring little to no Christian Science Monitor stuff.  My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting easily fits into a brown paper bag. Forward this newsletter, friend! And tap the heart below!

How to be sharp and sweet

Or, two lessons from the life of Robert Benchley

Imagine you are a profoundly unhappy man. You cheat on your wife and drink heavily, finding no solace in either vice. You see yourself as a failure, living proof that everyone becomes what they hate the most. By the end of your days, the sleeping pills you take keep you awake, the amphetamines you take put you to sleep, and ultimately you can’t think of any good reason not to be unconscious.

Bummer, huh? But here’s the twist: Imagine you are also known as “one of the world’s warmest wits” and “the most admired humorist of your generation.” Biographies written about you are subtitled Laughter’s Gentle Soul and His Life and Good Times. Not only do you light up every room you enter, but those rooms and their occupants stay lit well after you depart. Everyone loves you. 

Robert Benchley had it both ways, and there’s a good lesson in what he did wrong and a better lesson in what he did right. In short: Know when to stop trying and know when to stop talking.

As an editor of the Harvard Lampoon, founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, and drama critic for The New Yorker and Life magazine in the 1920s and ’30s, Benchley became famous for a special brand of light-hearted nonsense. His columns had titles like “Why Do We Laugh — Or Do We?” and “The Menace of Buttered Toast.” Upon visiting Venice, he sent his editor a telegram reading “STREETS FLOODED. PLEASE ADVISE.”  He shared a co-working space — think WeWork with bathtub gin instead of kombucha — with Dorothy Parker, of which he said “one cubic foot less space and it would have constituted adultery.” He churned out copy, joking that “the biggest obstacle to professional writing is the necessity for changing a typewriter ribbon” — until he worried he would run out of ideas. Then he moved out to Hollywood and became a celebrated comic actor and screenwriter. (You can watch his Oscar-winning 1935 short “How to Sleep” here.)

But succeeding in two competitive, high-profile careers was not enough. Like Parker, he excelled at light verse but longed to write something heavier — specifically, a scholarly history of the Queen Anne era. Benchley once joked that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing” — and an academic study that proved he could be a serious writer was the work he thought he’d been neglecting. That such an obscure goal should sink him is perhaps the darkest joke of his life. The lesson: Sooner or later, everyone needs to put a cork in their ambition. 

Now for the good news: Robert Benchley’s reputation for gentle wit was less about how he spoke and more about how he listened. “Most people feel there’s a lot more to them than the world ever sees,” wrote Babette Rosmond, his most amusingly named biographer. “Benchley was the man to bring it all out.” He could quip with the best of them, which only made him a better listener. He gave his companions his full attention, and they loved him for it. As his son Nathaniel explained:

“No two people remember him in exactly the same way, and the knack he had for making other people feel humorous now causes many of them, in reminiscing about him, to remember what they said and did, rather than what he said and did.”

Benchley’s contemporary Robert Sherwood said, “So formidable was his reputation as a merry-andrew that we started laughing at the very mention of his name.” How do you unlock that level of achievement? In Nathaniel Benchley’s words, the trick is to cultivate an “unerring knowledge of the precise word or action that would make a person feel at ease, or happy, or important, and it is these things that are remembered by people who couldn’t repeat to you one funny word he ever said.”

Quick quips; lightning

“We cherish our friends not for their ability to amuse us, but for ours to amuse them.” — Evelyn Waugh

Waugh (1903-1966) was reputed to be as cruel as Benchley was kind, but they both understood this essential fact.

A good joke turns life inside out.”— Terry Jones

And most people welcome the change in scenery.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” — W.C. Fields

Persistence beats resistance, yes, but sometimes you need distance.

Thanks for reading the thirteenth issue of Get Wit Quick, the weekly Venetian traffic report.  It goes with my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting like butter on toast. Those looking for a witty summary of the Queen Anne era could do worse thanThe Favorite. Those looking for another email roundup of clever odds and ends should try Curio, from which I recently learned about Marchetti’s Constant. Know any fellow merry-andrews who’d appreciate this newsletter? Forward away, friend! And tap the heart below!

Why I am never, ever sick at sea

Or, the Aaron Sorkin way to end a resumé

What is the mark of a truly superior human? Courage? Kindness? Being prepared to do the right thing, no matter the cost? Or is it possessing the intestinal fortitude to never, ever be sick at sea?

In two classic film scenes by the writer Aaron Sorkin, the imperviousness to nausea is the pièce de résistance. It’s well documented that Sorkin has a thing for tropes, and one of his favourites is the indignant recital of one’s resumé. Avoiding seasickness is the cherry atop the sundae of your impressive credentials.

Here’s Philip Seymour Hoffman as brilliant CIA officer Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007):

I’ve advised and armed the Hellenic Army. I've neutralized champions of communism. I've spent the past three years learning Finnish, which would come in handy here in Virginia, and I’m never ever sick at sea. 

And here’s Alec Baldwin as oleaginous surgeon Dr. Jed Hill in Malice (1993):

I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board-certified in cardiothoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea.

Who was the original never-sick hero? It was of course Captain Corcoran in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore — though this nautical hero’s defining trait withers under scrutiny:

CAPTAIN: And I’m never, never sick at sea.
CHORUS: What, never?
CAPTAIN: No, never.
CAPTAIN: Well, hardly ever! 

(Note the slight misquote, which we can chalk up to modern usage.)

Playwright Sir W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) cranked out a winning series of comic operas in the Victorian era, and they too have an extensive page over at G&S fandom is not rare: They were hugely popular in their day and their works have consistently been performed since around the world. Still, Sorkin takes it to the next level. In both The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, he contrived ways to have his whole cast perform sections from their operas on network television.

Which brings us to the classic question: Is this wit? There’s no doubt that William Schwenck Gilbert himself was a great wit, a fact engraved in bronze on London’s Embankment:

Does simply quoting Gilbert at length suffice as surprising creativity? Not quite. A gift for quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit, as W. Somerset Maugham wrote, but serviceable does not equal surprising. Clever quotes only do the job if they’re cleverly quoted. 

There are parrots and there are magpies. Parrots can quote long tracts verbatim, while magpies pick the shiniest pieces and use them to build something new. You don’t need to be an ornithologist to guess which bird can soar to greater heights.

And that’s why the short, somewhat contradictory use of “never ever sick at sea” works. It’s an inside joke (as per Issue 8 of this newsletter) that makes fun of both resumé puffery — the Captain is, after all, occasionally sick at sea — and the need to end a needlessly long list with a great closer. 

When you talk about the challenges you’ve mastered and the masters you’ve challenged, the multinational aluminium companies you’ve merged and the KPIs you’ve KO’d, the dunks you’ve slammed and the slams you’ve ducked, you need to finish strong. You need to leave them breathless. You, my friend, are never, ever sick at sea. 

I suggest we all add this line to our LinkedIn profiles, as I have done here.

Quick quips; lightning

“The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone
All centuries but this, and every country but his own.”

— W.S. Gilbert

This one from The Mikado is timeless takedown of toxic nostalgists.

“I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all
— W.S. Gilbert

From HMS Pinafore, the pinnacle of parliamentary discipline.

“Darwinian Man, though well-behav’d,
At best is only a monkey shav’d.”
— W.S. Gilbert

Is he even that well-behav’d, though?

Thanks for boarding the twelfth issue of Get Wit Quick, the very model of a modern Substack newsletter.  A copy of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting may be used in lieu of a life preserver. Thanks to Sharon for the picture of the Gilbert monument and James for introducing me to the Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt version of Pirates of Penzance. To thwart seasickness and help this newsletter, please tap the ❤️ below.

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