I’ll tell you when we are all wittiest. It’s half an hour after an event, when you finally think of a clever comeback, but it’s too late to use it. And there’s a name for this. It’s called Treppenwitz, or Staircase Wit.
But it's tough to think that fast. Maybe that’s why people who can do it on the spot become famous for their brilliant rejoinders. President Coolidge hosted a White House dinner once, where a woman said, “I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge’s cool response? “You lose.”
George Bernard Shaw wrote to Winston Churchill: “Have reserved two tickets for opening night. Come and bring a friend if you have one.” Churchill fired back, “Impossible to come first night. Will come to second night if you have one.”
Churchill was known for these. Once Lady Astor said, “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee,” and Churchill said, “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” On another occasion, a woman accused him of being disgustingly drunk, to which Churchill responded, “You’re disgustingly ugly. But when I wake up I’ll be sober, and you’ll still be ugly.”
When a reporter once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi said, “I’m all for it.”
When another reporter asked Pope John XXIII how many people work at the Vatican, the pope quipped, “About half.”
And who can forget the story of Dorothy Parker and Clare Boothe Luce trying to get through a restaurant doorway at the same time? Clare stepped back and said, "Age before beauty,” then Dorothy swept ahead and sneered, “Pearls before swine."
And then, occasionally, we manage to do it. Once, when my two eldest sons were toddlers, they were having a spirited time in the basket of a supermarket cart. They weren’t terribly loud, just energetically talking. An older man walked by and groused, “I’m just glad I don’t have to take them home.” I turned and smiled. “So are they,” I said. Oh, touché, Joni. Once in a while, you hit it out of the park.
If you like humor, check out Sisters in the Mix, one of my novels available here.