Real friends stab you in the front. – Writer Oscar Wilde
You’ll know it when you hear it. The capacity for quick and inventive thought, the clever quip, is almost always appreciated.
It’s broadly classified as wit.
I have, for instance, a friend called Cletus. Ok, it’s a strange name and he got hell for it in his freshman year in University Malaya. But that’s the Catholic for you: their first names are generally from saints and there was a St Cletus somewhere in the midst of antiquity.
Anyway, the guy is a seriously good singer, and we made decent money gigging in pubs in Ipoh where we were both underpaid government servants in the early 1980s.
We were practising one afternoon at home when he hit a false note on an unusually difficult song we were attempting. He extricated himself with some aplomb though: “All that Cletus isn’t gold.”
Among local politicians, the only one I remember with some wit was, surprisingly, Dr Mahathir. I remember interviewing him in 1995 at a time when he seemed particularly incensed with the foreign media.
Indeed, I think he began complaining the minute we entered. He was especially irked by the notion that some elements of the foreign media thought him a dictator.
It provoked this line. “I must be the only dictator in history to have to be elected before I can begin dictating.”
The American actress Mae West wasn’t just a sex symbol, she was an incredibly funny lady. She might be best known for that racy quip: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
But she almost got into hot water when she just couldn’t resist it. This famous exchange took place in a US courtroom where West was testifying:
Judge (raising his voice): Are you showing contempt for this court, Miss West?
West: “No, Your Honour, I’m doing my best to conceal it.”
Then there was the poet and essayist Dorothy Parker. Challenged once to make a sentence with “horticulture” in it, she replied with dazzling speed: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
You might have to think about that.
This one was a little easier but no less funny. When one of her college classmates had her first baby, Parker sent her this telegram.
“Congratulations Mary, we all knew you had it in you.”
In his first visit to the US, the English writer and playwright Oscar Wilde was asked by Customs’ officers if he had anything to declare, “Only my genius,” he replied tartly and he was waved through.
Once when offered a delicious-looking mousse, he replied: “I can resist anything but temptation,” and dug in.
I used to love the sitcom Cheers because the jokes flew so thick and fast. And there were those characters like Norm Peterson who’d say the funniest things with the most hangdog expression.
Norm: “Evening everybody.”
Woody, the bartender. “A beer, Mr Peterson?”
Norm: “A little early in the day isn’t it, Woody?”
Woody: “Little early for a beer?”
Norm: “No, for stupid questions.”
Woody; “What will you have, Mr Peterson?”
Norm: “I just need something to hold me over until my second beer.”
Woody: “How about a first beer?”
Norm: “That’ll work.”