Sharp wit needn’t be nasty. If wit is simply surprising creativity, why must it default to unkindness? I’ve been wrestling with this one for a while. In my 2014 book Elements of Wit, I wrote
To say wit is mean is like saying the sun is mean for burning you: The giant ball of hot plasma at the center of our solar system is bigger than that, and why weren't you wearing sunscreen in the first place?
And yet. I really want that to be true, but it was always an uphill battle to find an exemplar of kind wit. I’ve held up Robert Benchley as a clever man who made all those around him shine, glossing over his philandering, depression, and alcoholism. And the bookshelf full of quotations I’ve amassed doesn’t help: They have titles like Put Downs: A Collection of Acid Wit, a book that alleges to prove that “while nice is all well and good, nasty is far more fun.”
My crusade to combine kind and clever continued in 2017 in the book Elements of Taste. There I mapped cultural tastes to physical tastes, with sweet aligning with gentle, feel-good entertainment while bitter was more challenging, thought-provoking art. Still, I insisted, a writer like George Saunders was big of mind and heart and proved that sweet could be be smart.
Enter Ted Lasso, pursued by critical and popular acclaim. Jason Sudeikis’s series following a Kansas football coach who leads a London soccer club has launched a thousand chin-scratching essays on how the title character is the end of the anti-hero, the evolution of David Brent, the antithesis of Tony Soprano, the redemption of the moustache.
And maybe it is, but I’m just happy to see kind wit in action. Turns of phrase that don’t turn on anyone are possible! In other words:
“I feel like I just fell out of the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down, and ended up in a pool of cash and sour patch kids.”
Even the occasional sharp edge is there as contrast:
“You beating yourself up is like Woody Allen playing the clarinet. I don’t want to hear it!”
“Our goal is to go out like Willie Nelson — on a high!”
These lines underline the genius of kind wit, the verbal equivalent of beating swords into ploughshares. He’s quick enough to be vicious, but quicker still to see a higher goal.
It’s odd that we instinctively equate kindness with dumbness and default to thinking a frown is smarter than a smile. That’s strike one against Ted, with strike two being that he’s an American in England, the country that invented the profoundly unappetizing phrase “taking the piss,” and strike three being that he happily admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“Come on, now! Explain to me how that’s offside,” he yells at the referee. “No, I’m serious. How is that offside? I don’t understand that yet.”
Despite all that, Lasso’s speedy quips leave no doubt that he’s quite smart — despite being gentle and sincere. It’s no wonder Trent Crimm, The Independent, the archetypal cynic, is floored by him. If someone can know what’s up and still keep his chin up, what does he know that I don’t?
Ted Lasso is of course a fictional character, but his cultural resonance is a fact. (People really, really want Jason Sudeikis to be him.) Personally, I find it all a relief. Kind wit works! And so I join the masses in saying: More Mr. Nice Guy.
Quick quips; lightning
“Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”
— Abraham Lincoln
“If there was nothing wrong in the world, there wouldn’t be anything for us to do.”
— George Bernard Shaw
“ The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; a state like that in the regions above the moon, always clear and calm.”
— Michel de Montaigne
Get Wit Quick No. 108 is life, as is football. GWQ aficionados (they call themselves parrotheads for some reason) will note that this is Jason Sudeikis’s second appearance, the first being for his role as the principal in Booksmart. Also, it’s totally on brand that @TedLasso retweets shower thoughts. Every week I mention Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting but maybe this week it’s time for Elements of Taste: Understanding What We Like And Why to take a penalty kick. I appreciate all of you, and if there were a way I could tap your ❤️ for a change, I would.