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The Modern Wit

Shelley Klein

(Trafalgar Square)

The Clever and the Clueless

The dewy young actress and animal-rights activist Alicia Silverstone, commenting on the movie that made her famous, apparently once said, “I think that the film Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”


Now there’s nothing earth-shatteringly hilarious about this statement, so it would seem that its inclusion in the new collection, The Modern Wit, is intended as an example of what might be called “inadvertent wit”, which is to say dimwitted but earnest (or, sometimes, dimwitted and cynical) statements, invariably uttered by politicians or celebrities, that we are meant to feel superior to, and snigger at.


There are, accordingly, intellectually deficient quotes from the likes of Dan Quayle, Greg Norman, Cher, and other over-privileged twits and nitwits scattered amongst the deliberately clever lines of P.J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, Woody Allen, and their fellow professional wits.


But this is a problem: Combining the inadvertent idiocies of celebrities with the well-crafted utterances of comedians and playwrights just because they share the quality of causing us to laugh makes only a bit more sense than classifying rollercoasters with root canals because they both make us scream. 


Worse, a few of the celebrity quotes in this collection appear to be fabrications (not the editor’s, I hasten to add).  Did Dan Quayle actually say “(i)t isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in the air and water that are doing it”? My built-in bullshit detector began to beep madly the first time I heard this too-dumb-to-be-true quote, and a quick trip over to Snopes.com, that invaluable resource, helped persuade me that Quayle never emitted this gassy inanity (though he uttered other equally risible words in his time). 


Then there are the quotations that make this reader, at least, go “huh?” instead of “hah,” such as Eddie Izzard’s comment that “I like my coffee like I like my women—in a plastic cup.”  (This actually is a little bit funny, when you think about and/or Google it, in an absurdist, vaguely feminist, and meta-comical kind of way.) 


Even odder is the exceedingly cryptic comment by the playwright Stephen Fry, who said—are you ready for this?—“Countryside: The killing of Piers Morgan.”  (That’s not the title of a true-crime book set in the Cotswolds; that’s the entire quotation itself.)  I already know who Piers Morgan is; perhaps a British person could e-mail me a detailed explanation of how he relates to “countryside, colon” and who wants him dead and why. 


Until then, we are not amused.


There are a few other comments that no editor would ever index under “Aisles, rolling in the,” but are nicely poetic nonetheless, such as Ken Dodd’s observation that, “(m)en’s legs have a terribly lonely life—standing in the dark in your trousers all day.” That’s a line that Robert Bly would have given his right leg for. 


One tawdry quip (“Love hurts. Try a lubricated finger.”) made me laugh out loud in astonishment because it was uttered by, of all people, the former President Jimmy Carter, who got into a world of trouble merely by acknowledging, in a Playboy interview many years ago, that he had “lust in his heart.” 


Then I laughed louder when I realized I had misread the attribution; the quotation comes not from the priggish, peanut-farming, cardigan-wearing, infamously ineffective politician, but from the comedian Jimmy Carr. (I immediately went back to the Stephen Fry quote, hoping that I had misread that one, too: But no, it still said, “Countryside: The killing of Piers Morgan.”)


Despite its hiccups, this small collection has a fair share of genuinely, as opposed to inadvertently or spuriously, funny comments. Here are a few:


“Perhaps the toughest time in anyone’s life is when you have to murder a loved one because they’re the devil.” —Emo Phillips


“Glasses can alter your personality completely—if you empty them often enough.” —Jerry Dennis


“I’ve joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I still drink, but under a different name.” —Jerry Dennis


“Make no mistake about why these babies are here—they are here to replace us.” —Jerry Seinfeld


“I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time.’ So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.” —Steven Wright


“My love life is terrible. The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.” – Woody Allen


It isn’t always easy to distinguish between wit and other forms of humor. True wit, I think, is based on a profound intellectual or spiritual understanding of the world and our place in it, expressed not only with humor but with a certain insouciance. But that’s a poor way of putting it. There’s a talented actress who said it much better and more memorably than I could ever hope to: “Lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”


Amen, Alicia.

Rating:

Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman Author.com.


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