- If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder. [Groucho Marx]
- At which end, my Lord? [criminal defendant responding to “Hanging Judge Jeffreys'” statement, “There’s a great rogue at the end of my cane.”]
The ability to relate to people is a hallmark of wisdom. We can sum up wit with one observation: Some people know how to tell a joke, some don’t.
Garrison Keillor's work is a real-time narrative of wit. His humor offers the comforting warmth of a fire in the hearth.
- Garrison Keillor, In Search of Lake Wobegon (Studio, 2001) recounts his origins.
- Judith Yaross Lee, Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (University of Mississippi Press, 1991).
- On life, cheerfulness and aging
- In 1985 with David Letterman
- Program in 2008
- News from Lake Wobegon, February 14, 2009
- News from Lake Wobegon, February 5, 2009
- News from Lake Wobegon, March 21, 2009
- News from Lake Wobebon, The Lives of the Cobwoys, January 24, 2009
- News from Lake Wobegon, The Lives of the Cowboys, January 31, 2009
Garrison Keillor's columns:
- Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me (B. Geis Associates, 1959).
- Robert S. Bader, ed., Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: The Selected Writings of Groucho Marx (Faber & Faber, 1996).
- Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx (Simon & Schuster, 1967).
- Mardy Grothe, Viva la Repartee: clever comebacks & witty retorts from history's great wits & wordsmiths (Collins, 2005).
- Mardy Grothe, Oxymoronica: paradoxical wit & wisdom from history's greatest wordsmiths (Harper, 2004).
- Mardy Grothe, I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like: a comprehensive compilation of history's greatest analogies, metaphors, and similes (Harper, 2008).
- Michelle Lovrick, Women's Wicked Wit: From Jane Austen to Roseann Barr(Chicago Review Press, 2001).
- Amy Gash, ed., What the Dormouse Said: Lessons for Grown-Ups from Children's Books (Algonquin Books, 1999)
- Des MacHale, Wit: Quotations from Woody Allen to Oscar Wilde (Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1998).
- Matt Lee and Ted Lee, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006).
- Aidan Levy, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins (Hachette Books, 2022), is about a musically witty jazz saxophonist.
- Ralph Keyes, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde: A Treasury of Quotations(Gramercy, 1999).
- Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde's Wit & Wisdom: A Book of Quotations (Dover Publications, 1998).
Other great witticists:
- Richard Langworth, ed., The Definitive Wit of Winston Churchill (Public Affairs, 2009).
- James C. Humes, ed., The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill: A Treasury of More Than 1,000 Quotations (Harper Perennial, 1995).
- Bob Blaisdell, ed., The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of Quotations (Gramercy, 1999).
- Alex Ayres, ed., The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (Running Press, 1991).
- Andy Rooney, Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit (Public Affairs, 2009).
- Andy Rooney, Years of Minutes: The Best of Rooney from 60 Minutes (Public Affairs, 2003).
- Ben Yagoda, Will Rogers: A Biography (Knopf, 1993).
- Richard D. White, Jr., Will Rogers: A Political Life (Texas Tech University Press, 2011): on the serious political side of everyman’s funny man.
- Joseph H. Carter, Never Met a Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers (Harper, 1991).
- Benjamin Franklin, Wit and Wisdom (Peter Pauper Press, 1998).
- Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life (Knopf, 2021): “It’s Tom Stoppard’s World, and We Don’t Live in It”
Wit, in print:
- Kelly Oxford, When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments (Dey Street Books, 2017): “. . . Oxford has a gift for snarky one-liners and self-effacing humor . . .”
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895), the master witticist's magnum opus, uses a sharp stick to poke fun at the mores and conventions of Victorian England.
Garrison Keillor's books:
- Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans (Augsberg Fortress Publishers, 2009).
- Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home (Penguin, 1990).
- Garrison Keillor, Pontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel (Viking, 2007).
- Garrison Keillor and Jenny Lind Nilsson, The Sandy Bottom Orchestra (Hyperion Books, 1996).
- Garrison Keillor, Good Poems for Hard Times (Penguin, 2006).
- Gospel Birds and Other Stories from Lake Wobegon
- Summer: Stories from the Collection: News from Lake Wobegon
- Spring: Stories from the Collection: News from Lake Wobegon
- Faith: Stories from the Collection: More News from Lake Wobegon
- Plenty of Pretty Good Jokes
- A Prairie Home Companion: Final Performance
- Groucho Marx, Memoirs of a Mangy Lover (Da Capo Press, 2002).
- Penelope Lively, How It All Began: A Novel (Viking, 2012): “ . . . an elegant, witty work of fiction, deceptively simple, emotionally and intellectually penetrating, the kind of novel that brings a plot to satisfying closure but whose questions linger long afterward in the reader’s mind.”
- Simon Rich, New Teeth: Stories (Little, Brown and Company, 2021): “A Toddler Detective, Pirate Parents and Other Witty Treats . . .”
- Edmund White, A Saint from Texas: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2020): “White’s tale is exactly like a stroll through Le Jardin des Tuileries — if the garden had been planted with land mines instead of tulips.”
- Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts: A Novel (Catapult, 2021) is “an invigorating work, deadly precise in its skewering of people, places and things.”
- Virginia Feito, Mrs. March: A Novel (Liveright, 2021): in this witty psychological thriller, “the final pages are shocking . . . and readers may find themselves tempted to return to the beginning in order to understand just what Feito has so convincingly managed to achieve within her accomplished debut.”
- Joshua Ferris, A Calling for Charlie Barnes: A Novel (Little, Brown and Company 2021): “. . . give him props for finding precisely the right way to meld memoir with satire, to do this with bracing originality and to keep heads spinning from this novel’s first page to its last.”
Film and Stage
- The 1952 version of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" is by far the best, and a desert-island, version of this work available on film.
- Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s drily sardonic exposition on life and relationships
- Broadcast News, a look at the people who (used to) provide us information
- Dead of Night, a witty look at murder
- Limitless: “a seductively cynical, sharp-eyed comic fable for an age of greed and speed”
- Love in the Afternoon: watch for the musicians
- The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek: “The ‘miracle’ which sets all things right is a beautiful touch of extravagance that is the liveliest spoof of all.”
- Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, a French satire, giving the audience “an amused affection for human nature”
- A Taxing Woman’s Return: “don’t be deceived” by the film’s “cool, breezy manner”; “it scalds”
- The Thin Man, a film noir: “The film's strong suit is the witty repartee between Nick and Nora Charles, who manage to behave like saucily illicit lovers throughout the film even though they're married.”
- This Is Spinal Tap, a mock documentary about a rock band
- Joan Miró, Harlequin's Carnival (1924-25)
- Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Pablo Picasso (1915)
- Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916)
- Honoré Daumier, Baron Jacques-Antoine-Adrien Delort (1773-1846)
- Honoré Daumier, Jean-Marie Fruchard (1788-1872), Deputy (1833)
Music: songs and other short pieces
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Wit is defined as mental sharpness and intelligence – a reflection of a full and agile mind. In his three “Razumovsky” string quartets, Op. 59 (1806), Beethoven played with Russian themes, with extraordinary intelligence and understanding. “In his commission, Count Razumovsky’s only specific request of Beethoven was that Russian folk tunes be significantly featured in the music. Beethoven fulfilled this request in two of the three quartets, but with melodies that are, as he put it, 'real or imitated' Russian themes.” Like a person of great wisdom encountering someone new, Beethoven expanded on those themes in a variety of ways, challenging listeners to keep up with him. Top performances of the three Op. 59 Quartets (No. 7 in F Major, No. 8 in E Minor, and No. 9 in C Major) are by: Alban Berg Quartet in 1979, Vermeer Quartet in 1984, Emerson String Quartet in 1996, Pražák Quartet in 2000, Takács Quartet in 2002, Quatuor Sine Nomine in 2005, Quartetto di Cremona in 2018 (No. 1; No. 2; No. 3), and Dover Quartet in 2021.
Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10 (1925), displays a droll, characteristically Russian humor from beginning to end. “He owes . . . some of the details of his nose-thumbing, wrong-note humor to Prokofiev, he is fascinated by Mahler and his ways of twisting the tails of commonplaces, and more than once we see Stravinsky’s Petrushka raging in his cell or fixing us with his stare from the top of his master’s booth.” “Nervous tension and sarcastic wit, passion and intelligence, contemplation and action, nobility and banality – all expressed with an economy of means that is simultaneously subtle and direct.” “It is not as harrowed as his later works, and its sarcastic edges gleam with acerbity more than grim irony. But it’s this youthful voice that first made an impression on listeners around the globe, who had never before heard of Shostakovich, and had no idea of his later (now nearly mythologized) torment.” Top performances are conducted by Rodzinski in 1941, Svetlanov in 1966, Haitink in 1981, Neeme Järvi in 1985, Bernstein in 1989 ***, López Cobos in 2001, Jurowsky in 2006, and Vasily Petrenko in 2015.
Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins could insert new musical themes into his live performances to suit a momentary occasion, such as the time he began playing a riff on “Auld Lang Syne” during a performance of a standard jazz work when new year arrived. When some friends and I saw him perform in Newark a few years ago, when he was well into his seventies, one of my friends remarked that she hoped he could remember the tunes without falling over; I assured her that he could play them at great length, in his sleep. Asleep, Sonny Rollins has more musical facility than most of us have while awake.
- “Way Out West” album
- “Volume 1” (1957) album
- “Rollins Plays for Bird” album
- “Saxophone Colossus” album
- “Freedom Suite” album
- “East Broadway Run Down” album
- “The Bridge” album
- “Newk’s Time” album
- Live in Europe (1959)
- Live in Denmark (1968)
- Jazz Jamboree (1980)
- Live in Tokyo (1988)
Frank Zappa albums:
- “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”
- “One Size Fits All”
- “Burnt Weeny Sandwich”
- “Sheik Yerbouti”
- “Joe's Garage”
- “Hot Rats”
- “Dance Me This”
- “Greasy Love Songs”
- “Everything Is Healing Nicely”
- “You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Volume 5”
- “Them Or Us”
- “Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show”
The Bobs (an a capella quartet with a twisted sense of humor) albums:
- “My, I’m Large”
- “The Bobs”
- “Art for Art's Sake”
- “Songs at Any Speed”
- “Get your Monkey off my Dog”
- “Rhapsody in Bob”
- “i brow club”
- “Too Many Santas!”
- “Shut up and Sing!”
- “Sing the Songs of . . .”
Guitarist and blues singer Doug MacLeod approaches the blues with a keen wit, often poking fun at sentiment. His albums include:
- “A Soul to Claim” (2022)
- “The Authorized Compact Biography”
- “Break the Chain” (2017)
- “Doug MacLeod on Black and Tan”: 1; Vol. 2; Vol. 3; Vol. 4
- “Live in Europe” (2016)
- “Exactly Like This” (2015)
- “There’s a Time” (2013)
- “Brand New Eyes” (2011)
- “The Utrecht Sessions” (2008)
- “Where I Been” (2006)
- “DUBB” (2005)
- “A Little Sin” (2002)
- “Whose Truth, Whose Lies?” (2000)
- “Unmarked Road” (1997)
- “You Can’t Take My Blues” (1996)
- “Come to Find” (1994)
In these two piano concerti by Bacevičius, the soloist flits in, out and about impishly, while members of the orchestra make offhand remarks:
- Benjamin Britten, Phantasy Quartet (1932)
- Derek Bermel, Intonations (2016), “is my first multi-movement quartet, inspired in part by the novel ‘The Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. Each movement explores a distinct quality of the human voice, from the breath of harmonica blues to a gospel singer's melodic thread to vocal cadences in hiphop.”
- Potsa Lotsa SL, “Silk Songs for Space Dogs”
- Flip Phillips, “Flipenstein”: a witty take on “horror” classics
- Pago Libre & Friends, “Got Hard”
- Ben Goldman, “Glen Boldman & The Philadelphia 5”
- Joris Roelefs, “Rope Dance: Light-Footed Music for All and None”
I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.
The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.
Then when he was ready he said "all right."
And I yelled "overruled" and his eye turned up.
And I caught him just as he used to look
When saying "I except."
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Penniwit, the Artist”]
- Ogden Nash, “A Word to Husbands”
- Aditi Machado, Emporium (Nightboat, 2020): “'Wordplay' isn’t quite the term for what’s going on here; it’s more like linguistic athleticism.”