It is an age-old question haunting some of us: What exactly is wit and what humor? Though hard to define individually, the difference between them is worth consideration and identifiable. Because whereas humor is generally appreciated, wit is unwelcome in many quarters, and probably should be avoided by those seeking universal approbation.
Representatives of humor are easy to find. They are all those safe, mostly self-mocking comics who, for my generation were exemplified by Jack Benny and Bob Hope. But even then, there were unsafe comics, such as Mort Sahl and, especially, Lenny Bruce. Basically, then, humor is cozy and is water off a duck’s back, whereas wit is coldly cutting and smarts.
It is, for example, the province of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward and satirists like Bernard Shaw, but will not needle much an audience shielded by a barrier of footlights. But in more specific, direct contact, it is apt to be wounding, perhaps not merely to its immediate butts.
Having had bestowed on me by some the double-edged honorific of being a wit, I thought I might learn something from reviewing my own favorite sallies and their social implication, if any. Often, but by no means always, they involve puns. Take, for example, my remark at a gathering in which the then sensational marriage of Japan’s crown prince Akihito to a commoner was discussed. Someone pointed out that he had impregnated her, and was thus honor bound to legalize it. “Ah so, “ I said, “it was a shogun wedding.”
Another time, a bunch of us were watching a TV show about Judy Garland. There was wonder about her real name, which someone noted was Frances Gumm. So what sort of a name was Gumm, someone else asked. I volunteered; “Chewish.” But whether or not such remarks were cutting, only an antipodal prince and a dead star could have taken umbrage had they present.
But now what about the following? An acquaintance of mine returned from England, where she had been an unpaid assistant to a friend of mine, the drama and film critic Alan Brien. She thought Alan had to be a closet homosexual, because his frequent accusation that the reviewees were secretly gay, had to be a case of projection. “Not necessarily,” I replied; “not all anti-Semites are Jewish.” This could have been offensive to some Jews, but all my Jewish friends happily found it amusing.
Wit can boomerang on its perpetrator. Once, long ago, I applied for a job as translator at the United Nations, and chafed at a seemingly unneeded lengthy written questionnaire. In one rubric about what office equipment one was able to use, after the obvious specified ones came the question: “Others.” Wearily, I responded, “Pencil sharpener.” This, from a humorless examiner who had circled it with enough blue pencil to provide mascara for a dozen movie stars, elicited a severe oral reprimand and, of course, disqualification.
Wit may also have done me harm in the blue book of a final examination in a Harvard philosophy course. T. S. Eliot had been one of the assignments, and hating him as I did then, I considered his inclusion among philosophers inappropriate. So I wrote: “When the great, witty French writer Anatole France died, an obituarist in Le Temps began: ‘We are sad to announce the death of Anatole, who was France.’ I am looking forward to an obituary beginning, ‘We are pleased to announce the death of Eliot, who was T.S.’” In case you are puzzled, T.S., in those more proper times, stood for Tough Shit.
But what about wit in a review, where it might really matter? As, for instance, in my book review of an anthology of poetry, where I wrote, “Robert Creeley’s poems have two main characteristics. 1) they are short; 2) they are not short enough.” This, to be sure, could do little damage, even to Creeley. What, however, about a theater review? Take one of my favorite ones from New York magazine, of the revival of “Private Lives” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I reproduce the opening paragraph.
“Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” was one of the most coruscating comedies in the English language, and will be so again starting July 18, or whenever Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are through playing it. Actually, that’s not what they’re really playing. Miss Taylor is, all too palpably, repeating her imperious, dying millionairess, Mrs. Goforth, from ‘Boom!’, Joseph Losey’s even more dreadful movie version of ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.’ What Burton is doing is less clear; it would seem to be some combination of a robot from Capek’s “R.U.R.”, an impression of Terry-Thomas as a shell-shocked colonel in an Ealing comedy, and blind Captain Cat in ‘Under Milk Wood,’ which, being a radio play, requires little movement and less facial expression. The celebrated star couple, a mini-constellation, are both on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne (what, alas, is in a name?) Theater, but they are not in the same play and not playing opposite but against, if not past, each other.”
If you want to read the rest, it appears in my book John Simon on Theater. Yet it would have been really damaging only if it had appeared in the New York Times, the only place where a review can affect not only egos, but also the box office. Let me, however, quote from a review by my favorite drama critic, Kenneth Tynan, in a publication that really mattered, of a production of “Titus Andronicus.” He wrote: “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber.”
And how about this from Tynan, concerning the author of “Playboy of the Western World”? He wrote, “Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the lug of a Kilkenny ditch and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely, I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” This, ladies and gentlemen, is wit of genius.
Still, since the French are said to be the absolute masters of wit, let me quote a couple of examples. The superb playwright, scenarist, director and actor Sacha Guitry once remarked to one of his several actress wives. “Cherie, I’m wondering if you don’t play too great a role in your life.” Similarly, his father, the celebrated actor Lucien Guitry, once responded to a crashing bore who pleaded “I speak as I think” with “Yes, but much more often.”
The brilliant French also coined the phrase “esprit d’escalier” (staircase wit), for a clever retort that occurs to you too late. This may have been the case at a symposium at the Telluride Festival, where someone asked me what I thought of the state of film criticism. I answered, “There ought to be an intelligence test for aspiring film critics. Not a very tough one, which most of them would flunk, but one just enough to eliminate 95% of the junk we get to read.” At this, Roger Ebert exclaimed, “John, that is the dumbest thing I ever heard you say. It means that only you should be allowed to write film criticism.” To which, I think I may have responded (or at any rate should have), “Roger, I said 95, not 99 percent. You have just flunked the mathematics part of the test."
Some of the best wit, to be sure, is unprintable. In Budapest, two famous male classical music personages who were lovers had a falling out that lasted for years before they got together again. The town’s wits murmured that the pair must have said, “Let’s start all over again from back.” This works better in Hungarian, where the same single word can also mean from the end.
Well, one thing is certain, a witty criticism of, say, an actor in America is bound to be reprehended. Robert Frost could just as well have written, “Something there is that doesn’t love a critic.” The poem could have ended, “Good reviews, or at least unwitty ones, make good neighbors.”