So I’m reading this online advice column, where a woman wrote in to ask if she was being too picky in looking for a man who is witty in a particular way.
The columnist responds and mentions her desire to find a man with a “great, dry wit,” and I realized I really had no idea what the hell he was talking about. What IS a “great, dry wit”? I’m hoping someone can relate examples of such behavior or observations here. Is it really that rare? Is it the same as being wryly humorous?
Calvin Coolidge was known to be a man of few words. This story, true or not, is told about him: Coolidge was attending an obligatory dinner party when a woman approached him and said, “I have a bet w/ my friend over there that I can get you to say more than two words.” Coolidge replied, “You lose.” and turned away.
Here’s another, attributed to Churchill:
“Lady Nancy Astor: Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.
Churchill: Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Going by just the way the phrase has always affected me (I didn’t read the linked column) I’d say the connotations include a soft-spoken, laid back, ironic to sarcastic approach to delivering one-liners and turns of phrase. Not so much a joke teller as somebody who can make a snide comment or make some pertinent observation that brings a chuckle or a smile as opposed to a guffaw.
I may be way off base but Shirley Ujest strikes me as a good example, in spite of the fact that she can get a guffaw when she aims for it. Usually her remarks are tart and ever so slightly biting.
I think my best was when at impromptu dinner party I was hosting, a guest knocked the base off a wine glass on a kitchen counter. He was obviously horrified at the faux pas, but I was able to make everyone laugh by quickly observing “Oh, you’re going to need a new glass.”
I always loved my brother’s sense of humor, but I think a whole lot of people wouldn’t think it’s funny. Here are two examples:
1- He sent two identical wrapped gifts for our stepbrother, Jim, and stepsister, Janet. In his letter, he clarified: “The presents are for J. Smith and J. Smith, respectively.”
2- Another time he sent two different, identically wrapped gifts for me and my sister. One had a gift tag on it that said, “to my favorite sister,” and the other one said, “to my other sister.” I thought it was hilarious, but my sister inexplicably decided she was ‘the other sister’ and was hurt.
However, I’m not entirely sure that this is what would be considered “dry wit.”
Coolidge is a great example. One famous example was when he was asked about a clergyman’s sermon on sin: “He was against it.”
When he was Vice President and presiding at the Senate, he sent a note to a senator tell him to wrap up his speech. The senator replied by messenger, “Go to hell.” Coolidge looked at the note and said, “There’s nothing in the rules that says I have to.”
Dry humor is subtle and understated, often the kind of joke that you don’t even realize is a joke until afterwards. It is ironic, and sometimes sarcastic, but delivered in a very cool and understated way.
For instance, though it’s a classic piece of satire, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is very dry.
Noel Coward is also known for being a dry wit, both as an actor and in his plays. Ditto Alfred Hitchcock. For instance, Hitchcock was once castigated by a father since, after seeing Les Diaboliques, his daughter wouldn’t take a bath, and after seeing Psycho, she refused to take showers. Hitchcock said “Have her dry cleaned.” Watch any of Hitchcock’s introduction on Alfred Hitchcock Presents to see examples.
Economists can be dry, but aren’t known for being witty. One exception was John Maynard Keynes. When accused of being inconsistent in his writings, he said, “When I get new information, I change my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?”
Old joke about a Texan given to bragging visiting Australia (but obviously can be converted to any places of origin you like). Texan goes to a pub in the Outback where he meets an old, laconic, wrinkled stockman (cowboy) in a pub and tries to impress him with how big everything is in Texas. Texan says “I once decided to ride across my property in Texas on horseback and it took me 7 days! What do you think of that!” Old laconic, wrinkled stockman, nodding sympathetically, says, “Yeah, I had a horse like that once, too…”
Calvin Coolidge, known to his colleagues as one of the most introverted people they had ever known, was suffering through a particularly loud and unpleasant fundraiser. Halfway through the evening, he was accosted by a party-goer who had clearly had far too much to drink:
“Listen, sir, Calvin? Hello? My friend over there, the one standing right there, over by that guy? We have a little wager going. He said you were far too shy to even talk to me, but I bet him I could get you to say more than two words! So what say you to helping a fellow out?”
Dorothy Parker was famous for her dry wit. When she and a man were in a hotel room together, the front desk called and asked “Do you have a gentleman in your room.” She replied: “I don’t know. I’ll ask him.”
She & Alan Campbell were married, divorced, and remarried. They invited the same people to the second wedding as they had to the first. Someone observed “Most of the people in this room haven’t spoken to each other in year.” Dorothy replied “Includng the bride and groom.”
It’s also way out of character. I can’t imagine any man Coolidge’s age in the 1920s ever using the phrase in a formal public gathering, let alone Silent Cal.
A favorite of mine comes from Pogo. Beauregard has the hiccups. In the course of things, Albert empties a can filled with garbage on him. The hiccups stop. Albert says, “I’ve discovered a new cure for hiccups!” And Beauregard says – in a fairly small word balloon – “It will never be popular.”
As RealityChuck points out, it’s almost impossible, too. For a man of Coolidge’s age and status, in the 1920s, to say something like that in a public setting is only slightly less likely than the likelihood he would have responded in Vietnamese.
Lady Astor once said to Winston Churchill, “Winston, if you were my husband, I would put poison in your tea!” Churchill, never at a loss, riposted, “And if you were my wife, I’d beat the shit out of you!”