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
Rollo La Rue
T. Frothingill Bellows
Cuthbert J. Twillie, and
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.