In this week dedicated to the crafting of wit, we have centered our conversation on a definition given by Mark Twain,
Twain shows us that all wit is grounded in two concepts: the marriage, and the relation. In the last article, we talked about the marriage: two separate ideas that become linked. To accomplish this, we browse mental lists of words that are associated with the two ideas, and through rhyme or substitution, fashion or word or phrase that links them. This will result in something like what we created last time, uniting “bird” and “alien” with the phrase “Take me to your feeder.”
The next step, then, is the relation. We need to justify why these two concepts have been put together in the first place. You’re familiar with the formula already. We’ve been prefacing jokes with a simple “What do you get when you cross a… with a…?” ever since we were kids. No one bothers to wonder how or why these things were “crossed” in the first place, we can just appreciate the joke. But if we can justify the how or why before the punchline, then we have taken our wit to the next level. Our phrase “Take me to your feeder” suddenly has meaning when we give it context. Who is saying this? And why? “What did the Martian bird say when he landed on earth? ‘Take me to your feeder.’”
It’s still a groaner, but it has all the elements of a textbook pun.
Puns, of course, are not the only forms of wit. Two other flavors that you’ll encounter, especially in theater, are the double entendre and the epigram.
As puns are the union of two unrelated words, the double entendre is the union of two meanings of the same word. Shakespeare made extensive use of the double entendre. Take a look at this banter between Maria and Sir Andrew as Maria is attempting to leave the conversation:
Sir Andrew: An you part so, mistress, I would I might never draw sword again. Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?
Maria: Sir, I have not you by the hand.
Sir Andrew: Marry, but you shall have, and here’s my hand. (he offers his hand)
Maria: (taking his hand) Now, sir, thought is free. I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink.
Sir Andrew: Wherefore, sweetheart? What’s your metaphor?
Maria: It’s dry, sir.
First of all, let’s just admit that Andrew’s reference to his sword is itself a double-entendre. It is not, nearly as witty as Maria’s jab, however. When we understand that in Shakespeare’s time, a man with a “dry hand” was impotent, we can fully appreciate Maria’s superior wit.
The second meaning of a double entendre is generally referencing a taboo subject on which it would be inappropriate to speak plainly. That’s why we see so many that are sexual in nature, but that is not always the case. Hannibal Lecter, at the close of Silence of the Lambs, quipped,
I do wish we could chat longer but…
I’m having an old friend for dinner.
Knowing that Dr. Lecter has a history of, well, eating people, this line brings a surprising bit of levity.
The final common form of wit, the epigram, is probably more familiar to you than you think. An epigram is crafted by repackaging an idea in an unexpected and amusing way.
In our previous Twelfth Night dialogue, Maria’s epigram was so unexpected that it went over Andrew’s head. Instead of cutting straight to the “dry hand” remark, Maria flavorfully suggested Andrew take his hand “to the buttery-bar and let it drink.”
Oscar Wilde, lauded as one of the wittiest playwrights of all time, used the epigram to hilarious effect in The Importance of Being Earnest (a title which, itself, is a double entendre, by the way) . Examples could fill the page, but one example of an epigram is this one-liner:
“The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.”
Crafting an epigram requires outside-the-box thinking. For puns, we use our Mental Rolodex to associate words. For double entendres, we use it to “look up” multiple meanings of the same word. But for epigrams, we need to start with a concept and consider similes (what is it like?) and metaphors (how can it be described symbolically?) It’s perhaps the most difficult of these three brands of wit to create, but the pay-off is grander as it leaves the listener thinking, “Wow, I would never have thought of it like that!”
And indeed, your advanced wit can be the highlight of any social engagement. But! In closing, I issue you a warning from the great Noel Coward, lest you are tempted to let your wit run amok: