Column: Wit

I love wit!

I especially admire it when really hard times are hitting us. Hurricanes, floods, forest fires for instance. And Washington, of course. Just one downer after another.

When this kind of depression begins to corral my attention, I have learned to seek the company of humorists who have the wit and jocularity to make me chuckle and laugh. Many of them are no longer among us, but their witticisms are still fresh and engaging.

Think Neil Simon, Will Rogers, Dorothy Parker, Samuel Clemens, Molly Ivins, Jack Benny — to name just a few.

Some are innately humorous, while others are smart enough to hire clever writers. I doubt Mae West originated that marvelous line, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Or my favorite: “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.”

Remember Dorothy Parker’s great line in a book review she wrote? “It is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.” Caustic brevity was her trademark. A play review: “House Beautiful is the play lousy.”

I used to memorize lines written by witty individuals hoping someday to find just the right moment to plagiarize shamelessly and appear clever myself. Unfortunately, it was only after the moment had passed that my mind caught up and a possible quote made its belated appearance. And better late is not always better than never.

But here are a few favorites that I squirreled away just in case. “There is less to this than meets the eye.” “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.” (Tallulah Bankhead.) “I have read your book and much like it.” (Moses Hadas.) “There are days when it takes all you’ve got just to keep up with the losers.” (Bob Orben.)

One of my favorite writers and wits was Damon Runyon. Here are several reasons why: “The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong — but that’s the way to bet it.” “Much as he is opposed to lawbreaking, he is not a bigot about it.” “All life is six to five against.”

Few, however, can match the wit of Mark Twain. “A classic … something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief even to prayer.” “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” “Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.” “Few things are harder to put up with than a good example.”

While most writers have their wits about them, they are not required — fortunately — to survive by their wit. True wit has nothin’ to do with the amount of education one possesses. It does, I believe, root from a spirit of irreverence and a desire to look at life from off center.

A wit finds inconsistencies in our behavior and puts the twist of humor on them.

And how clever the rest of us are to notice.