I don’t usually watch stand-up comedians, but the other night, almost by accident I did. This set me wondering what the difference was between a great wit and a great comic – and I came to the conclusion that the former will survive, the latter will not. With successful comedians the impact is immediate and then it is gone. On the other hand, great wits have their witticisms reported, written down and therefore remembered. Who can now remember anything that Billy Connolly actually said, although at the time the audience would be falling about laughing. With the great wits it is different. They are remembered and often quoted.
One of my favourite’s, is the 19th century wit, the Reverend Sydney Smith, who was also a distinguished clergyman and writer. He would be invited to dinner parties purely to amuse the guests and was reported to be “the funniest man in England”. His sayings are legendary, such as “I never read a book before reviewing it it prejudices one so.” “There are three sexes, men, women and clergymen.” And so many more.
Another favourite is Dorothy Parker, whose witty remarks were reported, often during the literary lunches at the Algonquin hotel. “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.” “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” That last one is typical of the great wit, a clever twist to one word can prove hilarious. Her epitaph was “Excuse my dust” and this was put on her last resting place. Witty to the last.
Gone are the days when our politicians were great wits. Churchill was probably the last. Witty people are no longer admired in the way they used to be, from Shakespeare’s time to the middle of the 20th century. In this age of instant sensation we don’t need remarks to last. Wit appears less often in fiction as well. Jane Austen’s books were full of witty remarks. I can’t remember many witticisms in fiction that I’ve wanted to commit to memory since then. But I would love to start a debate on this, so do feel free to add your comments and disagreements.