Wit

July 25th, 2013 § 4 comments

HG doesn’t spend his days only writing and thinking about food and drink. Today, HG thought about wit. No, not funny. There are lots of funny people around. Woody Allen, David Sedaris, Steve Martin, Jack Handey, Paul Rudnick, Marshall Brickman and Ian Frazier (yes, the author of On The Rez and Travels in Siberia can be hilarious) and others make HG laugh.(Alas. Dave Barry discontinued his column, a weekly shower of laughs). Wit, however, is scarce. What HG has in mind when he thinks of wit are the off-the-cuff, un-rehearsed one liners, retorts, apt insults, swift characterizations and satirical comments that have bite and savor. The French call these (and HG paraphrases) “staircase remarks,” meaning that they are the remarks you would have used to demolish the dinner party boor; unfortunately, you only thought about these cutting words after you have left the party and are walking down the staircase. Wit takes many forms, not all destructive (although malice does contribute a certain spark). Here are examples of wit that HG treasures. You may have heard many of them but bear with HG and allow the Hungry Guy to bore you: Lady Astor to Winston Churchill: “If you were my husband I’d put poison in your coffee.” The retort: “If I was your husband, I’d drink it.” The legendary British politician Benjamin Disraeli’s description of an unfortunate dinner party: “Everything was cold but the champagne.” Disraeli’s culinary advice (true then and now): “Vote with the liberals. Dine with the Tories.” Truman Capote to a rowdy who displayed his male member and said: “Autograph this.” Capote looked at the unprepossessing organ and said: “Well, I could initial it.”

Show business folk have been responsible for many memorable lines. The great playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were summoned to the hotel room of the volatile, brilliant director, Jed Harris. Harris received them in the nude. There was a heated discussion of the play they were working on. Nobody mentioned Harris’ lack of clothing. But, upon leaving, Kaufman murmured: “Jed, your fly is open.” Screenwriter Harry Kurnitz was a renowned Hollywood wit. When Ernst Lubitsch was fired from his job as a studio head but didn’t leave his office immediately, Kurnitz remarked: “Forgotten. But, not gone.” And, it was Kurnitz who characterized the marketing campaign for the film The Outlaw, a campaign that emphasized the actress Jane Russell’s robust cleavage: “The Sale of Two Titties.”

Jewishness and its many manifestations have elicited some memorable lines. Walter Matthau (who began his career on the Yiddish stage) wrecked his sailboat and was forced to make an emergency docking at a very exclusive, WASPY (and presumably anti-semitic) yachting club. The club commodore asked Matthau: “And, who are your people, Mr. Matthau?.” Matthau’s answer was succinct: “Goyim.” Groucho Marx once inquired of the director of a restricted country club: “I’m only half Jewish. Can I play nine holes?” And, it was Marx who said of the Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater (who was of Jewish ancestry): “I always knew the first Jewish President would be an Episcopalian.” HG will leave the last word (a bitter and sardonic piece of wit) to Otto Kahn, the very elegant and cultivated Jewish financier and art patron. When asked for a definition of a “kike,” Kahn retorted: “A Jewish gentleman who has just left the room.”

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