THE ART OF THE RETORT A witty comeback can win hearts – and save your skin. Joan Juliet Buck explores the power and elusiveness of those perfect bons mots.
Iwas a short 12-year-old in a thin dress walking home one summer day in London when a man drew up alongside me in a car, rolled down his window, and asked, “Would you like to come home and see my cock?” “You can’t keep chickens in London,” I said. Now that I have your attention, we can agree that this spontaneous bit of sass probably saved my life. His intentions were clear. He might not have killed me, but meeting his fowl would have left scars. I’d never used the word “cock” in that way myself, but it called up a barnyard scene that allowed me to play a literal-minded enforcer of urban wildlife standards.
I turned a predator into the stooge who fed me my first great line. He didn’t laugh; he fled.
This sums up the four basic tenets of repartee, which is not comedy but wit. One, wit is a response. Two, wit must contain no aggression. Three, wit must be fresh. Four, wit must be uttered with an innocent sincerity that turns reality on its head.
One: A witticism is a spontaneous reaction to a circumstance. A quip never refers to anything that is not happening right now, and cannot begin with “By the way ... ,” “The other day ... ,” “When I was a child ... ,” or non sequiturs such as “I always thought dandelions were onions.” The quip must magnify the absurdity of the Here and Now, which requires some discipline, even training (see Three).
There are shortcuts. The mode of arch correction is a useful standby that puts the interlocutor in his place by taking what he says as a literal truth and then slinging a rule at it. I used it on the paedophile. Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, used it on Jean Harlow in 1934. When Harlow insisted on calling her “Margotte,” Asquith retorted, “No, my dear, the ‘t’ is silent, as in Harlow.”
Two: There is nothing witty about expletives, aggression, or meanness. The underlying core of all human passion is frustration laid thick over the inability to live out the seven deadly sins, but any attempt to address that subtext to prove how wise you are to human flaws takes you straight into bad acting. “I know what you’re doing, you pig!” lacks élan, and, if paired with “Who do you think