“The Insufficient Brevity of Wit”
Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It by James Geary (W.W. Norton, 2018)
A Book Review by Pam Munter
In contemporary social circles, one of the most onerous accusations is the absence of a sense of humor, an indirect reflection of one’s character. Yet, this acquired sensibility is not only idiosyncratic and personal but culture-based and subject to time and geography. In Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It (WW Norton, 2018), James Geary has opted to explore humor’s socially elite cousin, the more esoteric and less commonplace verbal acrobatics called wit.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines humor as, “The ability of a person to appreciate or express what is funny or comical.” Wit is more rigorous, demanding a “quickness of intellect…(a) talent for saying brilliant or sparkling things, especially in an amusing way.” Wit is improvisational and contextual, Geary writes, and correlated with intelligence. “Playing with words is playing with ideas.”
Geary is well credentialed for this research-based task. A journalist formerly with both Time and Ode, he writes online for The Huffington Post and Salon.com. A semanticist, his previous books are about metaphors and aphorisms. In the many essays that comprise Wit’s End, however, it’s unclear whether Geary wants to entertain or to inform.
He opens with a persuasive defense of puns, decrying their reputation as “the lowest form of humor.” He advocates its opposite: “To make and understand a pun, you must grasp two things at once: the primary, apparently intended import of a word or phrase, and the secondary, usually subversive one.” It’s likely the most cohesive, linear essay in the book.
Each section is independent unto itself, often presented with insufficient context for the reader to grasp the full playing field. He moves from a once-over, gee-whiz historical framework (“The average number of puns in a Shakespeare play is 78.”) to a short play set in the eighteenth century but with confusing modern references. As if this weren’t enough material to cover in a single book, he delves into art as wit. There are vast stretches in several sections that try a reader’s patience—too many examples, one after another—resembling a struggling comedian hoping to score with the next punchline.
One of the better written sections is an exploration of wit’s neurobiological components. Organic brain dysfunction could be one of the causes of malapropisms, he alleges, and explains why a comedian who is bipolar may have advantages on the stage. Those with a bipolar diagnosis can make quick, disconnected connections, invoke novel and nonlinear combinations and exhibit divergent thinking. His prime example? Robin Williams, of course. Could people without that handicap be verbally facile, too? What would account for the consensual great wits of the last century, such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward or Robert Benchley? To what does he attribute their seemingly infinite capacity for puns, quips and riotous ripostes? The famed Algonquin Round Table, location of the epitome of witty interactions, has been well chronicled and deserves more attention in a comprehensive work.
There are myriad examples without satisfying links or explanations as to why he considers them witty. They’re stacked like flash cards, often without a compelling common denominator. Some of his forays into playfulness seem like asides. To add to the confusion, he inserts a few tasteless jokes, which, rather than support his study of wit, seem to interrupt the higher tone. While he introduces and explores scientific thought on the subject, he doesn’t spend much time with Freud and his oft-quoted statement (and lengthy treatise) about jokes being inherently hostile transactions. In his chapter on “Slapstick Metaphysics,” Geary casually mentions a few of its practitioners (e.g., Buster Keaton) but, to many people, slapstick is the most primitive form of humor. Apparently, the decision to include it is personal. “Nothing like a good pratfall to lift the spirits.” It doesn’t seem like quibbling if the reader might ask if the antics of Wile E. Coyote are really prime examples of wit. The distinction between humor and wit becomes nebulous at best.
Then, he leads us into the world of jive, even providing a glossary of terms, as if to demonstrate his hipness. Jive is the adopted argot of black musicians from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, a “declaration of linguistic combat” intended to create a bond and, parenthetically, to exclude white outsiders. He includes caustic remarks here, which he also terms wit. “You’re so dumb,” he cites in one of his many examples, “you think the Supreme Court is where Diana Ross plays tennis.” This can lead to an exchange, a cutting contest, often between men. Geary jumps in with both feet, even while telling us, “this kind of caustic, improvisational wit is seldom welcomed by society at large.” Sarcastic bantering is the raw meat of TV sitcoms, but is it wit?
The thin veneer of conceit within these pages tends to distract from the vast amount of information he offers, generating literary whiplash. The book opens with an ode, “Oft Was Thought, An Essay in Sixty-Four Lines by Alexander Pope” and ends with another ode, “Wit Thanks, Being What’s More Formally Known as the ‘Acknowledgements.’” Cute, clever, shamelessly self-indulgent.
At the end, the reader may feel as if she has wandered into a disorganized, but occasionally amusing, bookish buffet. There are a multitude of wit-identified choices but the proportions of the selections seem off. It won’t take many pages to speculate that the underlying agenda may be to demonstrate the irresistible and cultured badinage of the author, himself.
Wit is dependent upon context, timing and cognitive flexibility. While Geary is able to demonstrate all three to varying degrees, his digressions and often stilted language are distractions. But perhaps that’s his point. Wit is brief, spontaneous and often transgressive. “Given that no modern author I know of has written professedly upon the subject of wit…I endeavor here to treat of wit more analytically, with more rigor, and more zest, and, I hope, in a manner not unsuited to its acute, elusive nature.”
Wit’s End is a cross between a college lecture and a stand-up routine. The reader has to wade through a lot of tall corn for a laugh or two. In this rambling journey from Greek mythology, to the Talmud, to jazz, less might have been better.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.