Why Do Gifted Comedians and Humourists so
Often Suffer from Melancholy?
Of course it is perfectly evident, were we concerned with what is perfectly evident, that a sense of humour has enormous advantages. It gives us delicacy and a secret independence of mind. It makes a man elvishly quick and accurate. But there is one thing to be said against a sense of humour, a thing that has to be said most seriously and most decisively; it does not assist, it rather hinders, the joy of life. The two elements of joy and humour, of exaltation and amusement, are commonly combined in one eudemonistic theory, in one worship of pleasure. But they are in truth vitally antagonistic. If the hedonist asks, “Where is the glory that was Greece? Where are the gods and priests of delight?”, it ought to be easy to answer him. They have vanished at the first whisper of modern humour. It was not the monks nor the saints that slew them; it was the jesters.
This vital kinship between gravity and pleasure is one of those principles which, once they are realized, explain a perpetually increasing mass of facts. To take one man out of a thousand. Whether or no Gladstone was the best or the cleverest or greatest or most statesmanlike of any particular body of men, there can be no doubt as to one supreme fact about him—he was certainly about the happiest man that ever lived. And this was considerably due to the fact that he was not tormented by any very strong sense of humour. To have splendid talents, to move in a thrilling theatre of events, to plan vast remedies, to defend them with dramatic pronouncements, to believe with equal intensity in one’s own capacity and one’s own cause, to enjoy clean habits and heroic health, to live to a pleasant old age in a glow of fame and personal dignity; this seems an almost legendary life, but this was his. But laughter would have spoilt it. It is only necessary to make one remark about Gladstone’s great rival. No one who has enjoyed the wit and laughing wisdom of Disraeli and really understood its essence, would be surprised to hear that he was an unhappy man. Let us rather pray for that appalling gravity which marks the happiest of all human creatures, lovers in ecstasy and children at play.
G. K. Chesterton
The secret source of Humour itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humour in heaven.
[Someone said that wit without employment is a disease. Frank Sheed would probably have appreciated the remark. As an outdoor speaker for the Catholic Evidence Guild, the quick-witted Sheed was only too aware of the temptation to use wit rather than argument in dealing with hecklers. In a memoir of his parents, Wilfrid Sheed expresses his gratitude for his father’s decision to eschew a weapon which wounds much more easily than it persuades.]
John’s [Frank’s father] contribution here was more saturnine. He was witty all right, but with that overlay of sarcasm that Sheeds tend to put on everything, like those pitchers who can’t help throwing curves. My father was as busy rejecting this as he was absorbing it, and this was to be a lifetime struggle for him. At law school, he made one of those resolutions of his, akin to his leaving literature to Shakespeare. A fellow grind had just said to him that he found the law an “ungrateful mistress,” to which my father retorted, “In your case, I can’t see that a mistress would have much to be grateful for.”
This may seem harmless enough to a nonaddict—we hit harder than that in my crowd—but for a Sheed, it was the fatal glass of beer. You either practice custody of the tongue at all times, or it is down the slippery path for you, making wisecracks and enemies till there is nobody left. I cannot express my gratitude for my father’s decision that day. His tongue could be rough enough as it was, and it was best to handle him with care in certain moods. Unbridled, his tongue would have been a deadly weapon, equipped with nuclear capacity—and he would never have made a single convert from his soapbox.
Thoughts about (and examples of) Humour & Wit
Cleverness kills wisdom; that is one of the few sad and certain things.
G. K. Chesterton
Shaw, like many witty men, considered wit an adequate substitute for wisdom. He could defend any idea, however silly, so cleverly as to make those who did not accept it look like fools...like Tolstoy, he couldn’t believe in the importance of anything he didn’t know.
Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.
ESKIMO: “If I did not know about God and
sin, would I go to hell?”
PRIEST: “No, not if you did not know.”
ESKIMO: “Then why did you tell me?”
ENGLISHMAN: According to the official life of Michael Collins not more than 200 men were engaged in any of the battles of this so-called Anglo-Irish war, and yet some of you people have managed to persuade yourselves that you beat the British by force of arms.
IRISHMAN: ___________________________________. (1)
For sheer speed Ronald Knox could outwit even Chesterton. Lutyens, the architect of the monstrous Imperial Palace at Delhi, had a habit, on being introduced, of saying something entirely meaningless. It amused him to note the other person’s surprise. Introduced to Knox he said, “Did you know that if you chop vegetables, the temperature rises?” Ronnie answered, “___________________________________.” (2) That seems to me the speed of light.
Great wits are sure to madness near allied.
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.
Humour is reason gone mad.
Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.
E. B. White
Humour is all about distance.
P. J. O’Rourke
Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humourist.
Humour is the great leveller and the great disarmer.
There are three things that are real... God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two are beyond our comprehension, we must do the best we can with the third.
John F. Kennedy
Never say a humorous thing to a man who does not possess humor. He will always use it in evidence against you.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree
People who lack a sense of humour are now being termed ‘the comically challenged.’
No mind is thoroughly well organized that is deficient in a sense of humour.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I sometimes lie awake at night trying to think of something funny that Richard Nixon said.
Lyn Nofziger (a Nixon aide)
Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the woman.
The witty woman is a tragic figure in American life. Wit destroys eroticism and eroticism destroys wit, so women must choose between taking lovers and taking no prisoners.
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.
The atheist Robert Ingersoll had a habit of taking out his watch and giving God ten seconds to strike him dead. Frank Sheed went on to imagine Ingersoll’s arrival at the gate of heaven and God saying to him, “___________________________________?” (3)
Melancholy men are of all others the most witty.
A humourist is a person who feels bad, but who feels good about it.
THE EARL OF SANDWICH: You, Mr. Wilkes, will die either of the pox or on the gallows.
JOHN WILKES: ___________________________________. (4)
There was the man at Hampstead Heath who said to me [while he was speaking for the Catholic Evidence Guild], one night when I had a bad cough, “Excuse me, sir. I think there’s something wrong with your throat. If I were you I’d get it cut.” “______________________ _____________.” (5)
To be witty is not enough. One must possess sufficient wit to avoid having too much of it.
Wit is so shining a quality that everybody admires it; most people aim at it, all people fear it, and few love it unless in themselves. A man must have a good share of wit himself to endure a great share of it in another.
You can pretend to be serious; you can’t pretend to be witty.
All human race would fain be wits,
And millions miss for one that hits.
When Frank Sheed used to speak outdoors for the Catholic Evidence Guild in England—typically to hostile audiences—there would often be exchanges. On one occasion an atheist by the name of Murphy ended a long catalogue of what was wrong with the universe by saying, “I could make a better universe than your God made.” Sheed replied, “__________________________________?” (6)
Wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it.
G. K. Chesterton
He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire. (Winston Churchill) He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends. (Oscar Wilde) I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial. (Irvin S. Cobb) He is not only dull himself; he is the cause of dullness in others. (Samuel Johnson) He had delusions of adequacy. (Walter Kerr) He loves nature in spite of what it did to him. (Forrest Tucker)
Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food.
1) We say that sort of thing partly to amuse ourselves and partly to annoy you. 2) Yes. And if you cut acquaintances there’s a coolness. 3) Have you brought your watch? 4) That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles. 5) After forty years I have not been able to think up a snappy retort. 6) I won’t ask you to make a universe. But would you make a rabbit, just to build confidence?
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