At any party, there’s always one person who can make other people laugh, seemingly without effort. Maybe she’s the master of interesting banter or the silent type, who suddenly fires off a perfectly timed comeback. In the presence of such a person, it’s natural to wonder: why can’t I be that witty? Perhaps you can. Elements of Wit: Mastering the Art of Being Interesting by Canadian journalist Benjamin Errett is a kind of how-to guide for those of us who would like our mots to be a little more bon.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines wit as, “mental sharpness and inventiveness; keen intelligence.” But what does that really mean? Smart people can be boring. And funny people can be dumb. Nor is wit synonymous with humor. “Christopher Hitchens is very witty but he’ll rarely make you laugh out loud,” says Errett. Meanwhile, “Tom Stoppard is a deep wit, but Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is pretty bleak.”
To Errett, wit is a form of “spontaneous creativity.” It’s saying the perfect thing at the perfect time and in a manner that both surprises and delights the people who are listening. And it’s not just the realm of the Victorian drawing room. “Rap is a great example of wit,” says Errett. “The spontaneous word play. The twists and turns of phrases.” Whether you’re in the elevator with an acquaintance or trying to impress your boss at a board meeting, “You want to make people glad that you opened your mouth.” The question is: how?
The first order of business, according to Errett, is to consume “a good diet of high quality witty material.” The more you read, hear and watch, the better primed your brain will be to produce its own witty thoughts. Errett recommends the essays of Christopher Hitchens, the poetry of Ogden Nash, and the plays of Tom Stoppard. “Everything that Louis C.K. has ever done,” he says. Listen closely to the word play of Jay Z and read books by Nora Ephron. It’s also helpful to remember that even the greatest wits–Churchill and Wilde–weren’t just naturally and effortlessly creative when it came to repartee. “They were repurposing a lot of great lines that they’d read, and heard and come up with themselves,” explains Errett. They weren’t exactly stealing the wit of others, but like many artists, they learned to put their own twist on the material they’d gathered. “Time and effort went into making sure that their lines appeared to be of the moment,” Errett says.
Of course, there’s a right and a wrong way to repurpose. Jay Z carried a notebook of rhymes with him to open mics until he became familiar enough with the material–and confident enough–to deploy it without a cheat sheet. But merely having witty lines on the tip of your tongue doesn’t make you witty. “Wit is not quoting Onion headlines or The Simpsons,” says Errett. “Monty Python is brilliant,” he adds, “But references to their sketches that aren’t specifically relevant to the conversation, can easily take people out of the moment.” And speaking of the moment–remember that wit is about spontaneity. Errett points to a great example from the British Office, in which Ricky Gervais’s co-workers stand around awkwardly while he attempts to think up dessert puns to describe Gareth’s stapler in jelly. It’s a classic example of attempted wit gone utterly wrong.
Nora Ephron said that “all life is copy,” and in her novel Heartburn, “she took the events that happened to her–like her divorce–and turned them into material,” explains Errett. But in order for biography to function as wit fodder, you’ve got to pay close attention to the events and experiences of your daily life, even when they seem incredibly mundane. You may not consider a coffee break or a car ride with friends as having the optimal conditions for wit. But as long as you’ve been paying close attention to the conversation, there are always opportunities to riff. A great example of this is “the call back,” when someone makes reference to a point made an hour earlier, but does so in relation to a new topic. “The call back works because it shows you were in the moment and you were interested,” says Errett. “You weren’t thinking about the phone in your pocket or what you’re going to have for lunch.” The tools and tricks you’ve learned from studying the great wits are useless without fresh material to sculpt.
In Hamlet, just before Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude that the prince is insane, he makes the now famous statement, “brevity is the soul of wit.” In a lot of ways, the best wit is very much like ripping off a Band-Aid: swift and snappy. Keep a joke going for too long or extend the pun into a rambling metaphor, and the witty remark loses its punch. Fortunately, says Errett, we have a perfect tool with which to hone our wit: Twitter. The 140-character limit mandates brevity. And the threat of your witty line disappearing without either a retweet or favorite, should (in theory), compel you to practice your craft. As Errett says, “You have to delete many more tweets than you write.” It may not be a case of spontaneous creativity, but it will likely feel that way to your followers.
Dorothy Parker, who spoke these words, would be disappointed to know that these days, we’re more familiar with the calisthenics. “Wit no longer has much meaning in society because it gets conflated with snark, and sarcasm and cattiness,” says Errett. He admits that a lot of wit does contain cruelty, (“especially the British definition”), but using spontaneous creativity as a means of critical social commentary is very different than attacking your opponent simply because you can, or because it’s fun or out of some self-righteous belief in your own superiority. To Errett, wit is most advantageous when used for forces of good. “I’d rather it be compassionate,” he says. Because in the end, high-spirited, feel-good witty conversation is “our optimum existence,” what Errett considers “the ultimate goal for human beings as a social animal.” Now if only wit could solve world hunger.