Is Mae West a palindrome? On!

Or, Paisley Rekdal’s compounding entendres

Only a halfwit could miss the double entendres in Mae West’s one-liners.

The sultry starlet laid it on thick and on purpose — as a playwright, she carefully crafted her persona and never, ever broke character. She was the sexpot, both on and off screen, and if you didn’t read something suggestive into her every utterance, you weren’t paying attention.

And so her quips were like the Empress’ New Clothes: If you missed the meaning in “You’re never too old to get younger” or “She may be good for nothing, but she’s not bad for nothing,” it was on you.

This sort of wicked wordplay was what made Mae West a figure of fascination for the pawky poet Paisley Rekdal. She doesn’t recall her exact introduction to West’s work, but:

There are pictures of me as a child accompanying my mother to the grocery store, dressed in high heels and a feather boa, one arm raised while I nasally drawl at the produce clerk to peel me a grape.

Rekdal deeply internalized Westisms, and the results are some great poems. In her 2013 “Self-Portrait as Mae West One-Liner,” she writes:

I’m no moaning bluet, mountable
linnet, mumbling nun. I’m
tangible, I’m gin. Able to molt
in toto, to limn. I’m blame and angle, I’m
lumbago, an oblate mug gone notable,
not glum. ...

Every phrase is both smutty and silly — you can see her read it aloud here — and thus a perfect invocation of West. Any palindrome is a pal o’ mine, as she didn’t say. Better still is 2011’s “Mae West: Advice,” which turns a series of precociously prurient phrases into wisdom like:

Be colonel not cadet, concede nada to doc,
date a cad and canoodle, be eclat on a cot.

Did I mention that Rekdal is the poet laureate of Utah? Doesn’t that just make you want to move to Salt Lake City? The general aim of this newsletter is to find useful tips amid the quips, but in the case of Mae West, Paisley Rekdal got there first and made it rhyme. So please, take her glittering advice:

Be oded, caboodled, be beacon and lect.
Don’t be a noodle: be cool and collect.


Quick quips; lightning

Some more Mae West classics:

She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.

He who hesitates is a damn fool.

To err is human, but it feels divine.

He’s the kind of man a woman would have to marry to get rid of.

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.

That’s the 47th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly refusal to omit elan. In Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, Mae West was declared the queen of the trouble entendre. Another great Rekdal line: “Untangle me, tangelo.” Don’t be a noodle: There’s nothing unseemly about touching the ♥️ below — or is there?

Decline & fall for fun & profit

Or, Will Cuppy’s comic pessimism

When all this hullabaloo started, the headline to avoid was “Love in the time of corona” because (a) corona doesn’t sound like cholera, (b) most of the stories weren’t about love, and (c) did you even read that book?

Now, the headline everyone’s using is “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” which is much better because (a) it’s a direct reference (b) it’s likely true, and (c) REM is due for a revival.

The song captures a mood of sunny declinism, which seems spot on for the here and now. It’s the Second Great Depression and my sourdough is perfect!  And it gets even sunnier when you realize it was always thus. Which is the particular genius of Will Cuppy, an early 20th-century American humorist who wrote the kind of books that could only exist in a certain corner of early 20th-century America. As one critic noted,

His style of humor is unique and, like the taste of an avocado, a little hard to describe.

He wrote titles like How to be a Hermit (a neighbour cooked all his meals) and How to Become Extinct (a biological survey), but his real masterwork was The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. He spent 16 years researching the book, making hundreds of thousands of notes on 3x5 index cards. It was only in 1950, a year after his death, that his friend Fred Feldkamp pulled the whole thing together for publication.

The idea of The Decline was that the great figures of history needed to be nudged off their pedestals, and Cuppy did that by hurling his fact-filled 3x5 index cards at them, Letterman-style. It was said that this work of humor had been found  impeccable by historians, who couldn’t peck it at all. It was also said to have been the only item on Dwight Eisenhower’s desk at NATO headquarters. 

The book’s gags — a spotty list of which can be found here — are of two types. The first note how wrongheaded most of history was: 

He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds that any other man of his time. He did this in order to impress Greek culture upon them.

Whenever [Charlemagne] decided to help somebody's morals, people would bury their small change and hide in the swamps and forests.

The moral of the story of the Pilgrims is that if you work hard all your life and behave yourself every minute and take no time out for fun you will break practically even, if you can borrow enough money to pay your taxes.

And the second kind remind you that you’re no better:

Attila the Hun was an awful pest, but there are plenty of others. You mustn’t blame him for all your troubles, because most of them are your own fault, and the sooner you realize it the better.

All of Cuppy’s facts and asides add up to this: Everything’s always been a mess, and yet somehow we’ve muddled through. Or as the chief economist of the Bank of England observed this week:

“Apparently Spotify downloads of the REM song ‘It’s The End Of The World As We know It’ peaked two weeks after lockdown began and have been declining since. So perhaps, perhaps, we are seeing some stabilization.”

Quick quips; lightning

“Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between the news value of a bicycle accident in Clapham and the collapse of civilization.”
George Bernard Shaw

“The world would not be in such a snarl
Had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl.”
Irving Berlin

“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Orson Welles

That’s the 46th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly recline into decline. No index cards were harmed in the writing of Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. When my readers tap the ♥️ below, I feel fine.

The mask of Moms Mabley

Or, sneaking past barriers instead of breaking them

If you’re the first person to accomplish something, you should get the credit. Unless of course you do it so early that no one’s paying attention. Or you do it in disguise.

Moms Mabley was the first woman to reach the heights of standup comedy, playing both the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. She was among the first African-American comedians to play to white audiences. And she was certainly the first openly (if quietly) gay performer to break those barriers. But she did it all in character, so no one really noticed.

Born in the 1890s to freed slaves in North Carolina, the early details of Loretta Mary Aiken’s life are horrific. Her father was killed by an explosion, and that her mother was hit by a car on Christmas Day. She was raped at age 11 and age 14, giving children up for adoption each time. Soon after, she joined a minstrel show and moved to Ohio. Some accounts have her entering into a forced marriage with an abusive older man, purportedly the source of her abundant material about having no use for old men. As one of her lines went,

“They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!”

By her mid-twenties, Aiken had changed her name to Jackie “Moms” Mabley and found the persona she would inhabit for the rest of her life. She put on a frumpy hat and housedress, jutted out her chin in a toothless grimace, and made acid comments as though she were sitting on her porch watching the world go by. She wore this costume for half a century, from the vaudeville era to her death in 1975.

As Ebony magazine wrote in 1962:

“Offstage Moms Mabley is a striking figure in tailored slacks, matching sports shirt, Italian shoes, horn-rimmed glasses — and teeth. She looks utterly sophisticated. Onstage, however, is a different story. She creates the impression that the theater cleaning woman has somehow wandered into the spotlight.”

The costume was a disguise that let Mabley find exceptions to all the rules of prejudice. Audiences are threatened by a woman telling jokes? It’s OK, she’s old and wears a ridiculous hat. Audiences are afraid of black comics? She can’t hurt you; she’s actually toothless! Audiences don’t want to feel old and out-of-touch? No matter your age, Moms Mabley plays older. 

In this way, Mabley didn’t so much break barriers as sneak around them. True wit requires surprise, and that was something Moms Mabley designed her whole act to provide. How did she keep it fresh over half a century of performance? Vaudeville helped. On the chitlin circuit, where Moms came up, a comedian who could dance was interchangeable with a dancer who could comedify. If her act was a bust, she could bust a move.

There was also her choice of audiences. She went from small stages to The Apollo Theatre, where she was at the peak of black entertainment. And then she introduced herself to white America, who had no idea what to expect from this little old lady.

And she changed with the times. Her quips in the 1930s and 1940s were about her lust for young men and frustration with older men. “Being married to that old man,” she drawled, “was like trying to push a car up a hill — with a rope.” By the time the civil rights movement began in earnest, Moms had updated her act. She recounted being pulled over in South Carolina: “I seen all you white folks going on the green light,” she told the police officers. “I thought the red light was for us!”

Moms Mabley was on the edge of social change but used her persona to take the edge off. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves because her disguise was just that good.

Quick quips; lightning

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. But give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Oscar Wilde

“Did St. Francis preach to the birds? Whatever for? If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.” Rebecca West

“In a world where everything is ridiculous, nothing can be ridiculed. You cannot unmask a mask.” G.K. Chesterton

That’s issue No. 45 of Get Wit Quick, a Mother’s Day edition in deep disguise. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting missed Moms, but that’s why this email exists. Don’t forget your mom; why, she might even like this newsletter. For the record, my mother’s favourite issue was No. 16 on Tallulah Bankhead.  Tap the ♥️on your way out!

The housewife as housewit

Or, Phyllis McGinley on the wrong side of history

It’s hell to be trapped at home, isn’t it? Six weeks in, domesticity is getting a bit wild. 

No sane and self-aware person could truly enjoy this time — sorta like how we now think of 1950s American suburban life. To conjure up the meticulous lawns, nuclear families, and smiling white faces is to think of The Stepford Wives, Bettys Friedan and Draper, Revolution Road. And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same. Orderly surfaces covered inner torment, or worse, nothingness.

Phyllis McGinley (1905-78) really, really enjoyed it. 

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet had a hardscrabble childhood in the American West. She was the daughter of a land speculator who died when she was 12. When she made it to the New York City suburb of Larchmont and married a mind-mannered employee of the telephone company, it felt like victory. She began to submit her writing to The New Yorker, where editor Katherine White set her course with this advice:

We are buying your poem, but why do you sing the same sad songs all lady poets sing? … Yours have always had till now a detachment that was refreshing and that set you apart from the average woebegone lady poet.

And so McGinley wrote poems as detached as the houses they described. Light verse was her style, one that critics disdained but audiences lapped up. If you wanted your poems to rhyme and be clever about it, you wanted McGinley.

As she wrote in Attention: Book-of-the-Month Club,

But every now and then
I want
A plot that thickens —
Something like Christie,
Something like Dickens,
Something like Trollope at his most methodical,
Something like something
From a ladies’ periodical.

Her subjects were drawn from life, including her happy marriage —

We could not swap our virtues, John,
So this was our design:
All your bad habits I took on,
While you adopted mine.
from Recipe for a Happy Marriage

— her children —

For little boys are rancorous
When robbed of any myth,
And spiteful and cantankerous
To all their kin and kith.
But little girls who draw conclusions
Make profit of their lost illusions.
from What Every Woman Knows

— and her voluminous cultural intake.

Englishmen of the upper classes
Are more amusing than the masses.
from The Absolute Law of Evelyn Waugh*
(*see GWQ No. 19)

Just as one editor persuaded McGinley to keep it light, a publisher convinced her that being the anti-Betty Friedan was brilliant marketing. And it was: Sixpence in My Shoe, her response to The Feminine Mystique, was a bestseller. Sample line, per this excellent reappraisal by Ginia Bellafante: 

Surely the ability to enjoy Heine’s exquisite melancholy in the original German will not cripple a girl’s talent for making chocolate brownies.

Commercial success put Phyllis McGinley on the wrong side of history. Her poetry wasn’t anthologized; The Paris Review never deigned mention her. She knew she wasn’t writing about The Big Issues of The Day. But as she said of her work,

I try to do it with wit. And by doing this, I hope to illuminate a social pattern and a larger world.

She looked for something important in her manicured surroundings, and aimed to make it amusing. If she were alive today, she’d make hilarious TikToks. There are worse things.


Quick quips; lightning

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”Rebecca West

“Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?” Phyllis Diller

“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the buckets.” — Alan Bennett

This marks the 44th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly sampling of Heinrich Heine’s quarantine baking. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was semi-detached. If you give the ♥️ below a gentle boost / this newsletter’s reach will be lightly juiced.

The memeification of Dr. Johnson

Or, resurrecting history’s most quotable man

When a man is tired of memes, he is tired of life.

Samuel Johnson’s original observation pertained to his hometown of London, the streets of which he knew better than most. As a man of letters and author of a best-selling dictionary, he wrote volumes. But nowadays, in the words of one English professor, “Samuel Johnson is one of those figures whom everyone quotes and no one reads.” (The use of “whom” is how you know an English professor wrote that.) 

That’s perhaps as it should be: As the subject of the first modern biography, Johnson (1709-84) was known as the best social talker who ever lived. And 228 years after his death, referencing Johnson’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds became a universally recognized expression of this profane sentiment: 

Samuel Johnson Reaction. reaction image OC i just made.. DAFUQ DID I JUST READ?. I saved that one. Kudos to you.

First used in 2012, according to the scholars at Know Your Meme, the captioned pics of Dr. J “circulated online, typically used as reaction images to express disgust or bewilderment.” In some variations, the paper reading material is replaced with a monitor, which is frankly too literal. The best version is animated, mashing up two of Reynolds’ paintings to bring Johnson flickering back to life:

Why did Dr. Johnson become, for a few years in the mid-2010s, the avatar of message-board befuddlement? Was he chosen for the meta-cleverness of wordlessly quoting and thus rendering speechless a great talker? Or was the simple genius of Sir Joshua’s painting all that mattered? Let’s assume that his digital resurrection was purposeful, as Johnson did say:

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

Which could well work as a more polite caption for that image. Of those who post reaction gifs rather than respond with an original retort, though, he might have said:

“I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl; let him come out as I do and bark.”

And in a letter to the painter Reynolds, Johnson remarked that: 

Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place.”

He appears considerable in this Imgur post, wherein a young couple is delighted to find that old guy from the memes hanging in a museum. In a way, Samuel Johnson continues to be quoted. And that seems as it should be.

Quick quips; lightning

Like Shakespeare, many of Johnson’s observations are so well known it’s easy to forget someone originally said them. A few chart-topping hits and some deep cuts:

Hell is paved with good intentions.

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

(Though Ambrose Bierce later corrected him: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”)

No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.

Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable. 

Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.

I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.

A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.

So I guess that was the 43rd issue of Get Wit Quick, the Internet’s leading source of cucumber recipes. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is a scheme of merriment. What the ♥️ did you just read?

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