Friday, June 24, 2011

The Art of the Comeback or the Repartee

Repartee is the art of the “comeback” or the skilful use of a witty reply. It is a highly developed skill calling for fast and analytical thinking. It is a quick, sharp reply (and for skill with such replies) which comes from the French word "repartie," of the same meaning. "Repartie" comes from the French verb "repartir," meaning "to retort." Most of us can think of the clever reply long after the “moment” has passed, but repartee calls for the ability to speak precisely at the psychological moment.
At its most innocent the repartee is just a clever remark, at its harshest it could be a rapier sharp put down to someone making a hostile remark. This requires attention and alertness. It seems to be a dying art; the best examples are mostly drawn from legendary characters like Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley etc. who are from the thirties and forties eras.
Below is an assemblage of some of the best forms of recorded “repartee” coming from some of the best users of this social graciousness or sometimes antisocial weapon to the unwary or to a deserving hostile person or group.

After an after-dinner recital, an acclaimed and heavily respected opera singer was invited to the White House. But apparently performing for President Calvin Coolidge was quite a frightening experience and her performance left much to be desired. During the performance, one of the White Houses’ guests leaned over and whispered to Coolidge: “What do you think of the singer’s execution?” Coolidge calmly replied:
“I’m all for it.”

After gaining fame for a campaign to promote colonial India’s independence, Mohandas Gandhi travelled to London and met with British authorities. The British were wonderfully curious about this strange little man, and Gandhi was constantly bombarded with questions from the press and photographers. One day, a reporter cried out, “What do you think of Western civilization?” And in a monumental moment that would define Gandhi’s reputation, he replied:

"I think it would be a good idea."

Muhammad Ali once took a flight on Eastern Airlines in the 1970s. A flight attendant was making her final checks on the passengers, but noticed Ali failed to fasten his seat belt. She kindly asked him to do so, but Ali replied quite arrogantly, “Superman don’t’ need no seat belt.” Not intimidated by the boxer’s reputation and fame, the flight attendant replied:

“Superman don’t need no airplane either.”


Oscar Wilde was widely known for his wit and intelligence in plays, but he was no stranger to it in real-life. After one performance of one of his plays, Wilde went on stage and welcomed a warm reception. Many people applauded and threw a copious amount of beautiful flora, but one unsatisfied person threw a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde picked it up and replied with a straight face:
Thank you my friend. Every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.”

When the Civil War took its start, Henry Ward Beecher travelled throughout the US attempting to gather up support for Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. He said that the Union would beat the Confederates in sixty days during his travels; and when he made a trip to England, this was used against him. At that time, war was still a very sensitive topic among the British, due to the Americans winning the Revolutionary War. While he was speaking in Manchester, one hostile man cried out: “Why didn’t you whip the Confederates in sixty days, as you said you would?”
He hesitated only for a second, but then replied:

“Because we found we had Americans to fight this time, not Englishmen.”


In his early career, Churchill was at a meeting and another member was giving a long-winded speech. Churchill began to close his eyes and fall asleep. At the sight of this, the member became visibly angry and shouted: “Mr. Churchill, must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?”  Instead of making attempts at an apology or a cover-up, Churchill simply replied:
“No, it’s purely voluntary.”

Abraham Lincoln was not the most attractive presidents but he was in a sense, almost fascinatingly ugly. During a debate, Lincoln was accused by his more hostile opponent of being two-faced. Lincoln managed to accomplish what few men have done before, he defended himself without insulting the other man, and even poked fun at a flaw of his all in the same sentence. Lincoln calmly turned to the crowd and said:

“If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”


FEMALE INTERVIEWER: So, General Cosgrove, what things are you going to to teach these young boys when they visit your base?
GENERAL COSGROVE: We’re going to teach them climbing, canoeing, archery, andshooting. FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Shooting! That’s a bit irresponsible, isn’t it?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see why, they’ll be properly supervised on the rifle range. FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Don’t you admit that this is a terribly dangerous activity to be teaching children?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I don’t see how. We will be teaching them proper rifle discipline before they even touch a firearm.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: But you’re equipping them to become violent killers.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Well, Ma’am, you’re equipped to be a prostitute,  but you’re not one, are you?

For many decades, a delightful story has been told about one member of a theatre group, the playwright Marc Connelly. One evening, Connelly was dining with friends when another member of the group snuck up from behind, placed his hands on top of Connelly's bald head, and said to the amusement of the other guests, "Marc, your head feels as smooth as my wife's ass." Connelly raised his hands to his head, began rubbing his own scalp, and with a wry smile, said:
"So it does, so it does."

During a discussion of suicide one day, George S. Kaufman was asked by another member of the group, ‘So, how would you kill yourself?’ Kaufman considered the question thoughtfully for several moments before replying:

‘With kindness.’”


After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1922, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr invited friends and associates to a celebration party at his country cottage North of Copenhagen. The event was also well-attended by members of the press. One reporter, noticing a horseshoe hanging on a wall, teasingly asked the famous physicist, "Can it be that you, of all people, believe a horseshoe will bring you good luck?" Bohr replied:
"Of course not, but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not."

The woman's husband, angry at his wife's display of interest in another man, staggered over to Capote's table and assumed an intimidating position directly in front of the diminutive writer. He then proceeded to unzip his trousers and, in Capote's own words, "hauled out his equipment." As he did this, he bellowed in a drunken slur, "Since you're autographing things, why don't you autograph this?" It was a tense moment, and a hush fell over the room. The silence was a blessing, for it allowed all those within earshot to hear Capote's soft, high-pitched voice deliver the perfect emasculating reply: 
"I don't know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it."

Ferber and Coward were friends (she once described him as her favorite theater companion) and Coward saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of playful badinage with one of his favorite people. Carefully looking her over, he observed, "Edna, you look almost like a man." Ferber looked Coward over in a similar manner and came back with a classic riposte: 
"So do you."

While posing for publicity photographs for the film, actress Mary Anderson approached the director and asked, "What is my best side, Mr. Hitchcock?" His reply was soon being circulated all around Hollywood:
"My dear, you're sitting on it."

Pope John XXIII once asked by a journalist, "How many people work in the Vatican?" the pontiff pondered the question, giving the impression that he was trying to come up with an accurate estimate. Then, with a straight face, he answered:
"About half."

At a club one night, Betty angrily accused Chico Marx of kissing another woman on the dance floor. His defense may not have convinced his wife, but it has pleased language lovers ever since:
"I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth."

One day, Dorothy Parker was about to step through a doorway when she came face-to-face with Clare Booth Luce. As the story goes, Mrs. Luce stepped aside, extended the palm of her hand, and said coyly, "Age before beauty." Parker glided through the door, saying ever-so-sweetly:
"Pearls before swine."

Voltaire once acceded to an invitation to an orgy. His friends were happy to learn that they might have converted the great philosopher to their hedonistic ways, the group invited him to join them again later that evening. Voltaire graciously declined by offering a bon mot that only served to enhance his reputation as a great wit and wordsmith:
"Ah no, my good friends, once a philosopher, twice a pervert."

Primarily remembered today for his paintings, James McNeill Whistler also became a successful author with the publication of his 1890 book "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies." An exceedingly witty man, he was one of the few people who could hold his own with the incomparable Oscar Wilde. In one legendary exchange, after Whistler had offered a particularly clever observation, Wilde said admiringly, "I wish I had said that." Whistler seized the moment, replying:
"You will, Oscar, you will."

During a heated argument, Montagu scowled at Wilkes and said derisively, "Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don't know whether you'll die upon the gallows, or of syphilis" (some versions of the story say "a vile disease" and others "the pox"). Unfazed, Wilkes came back with what many people regard as the greatest retort of all time:
"That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress."

Robert Benchley offhandedly said to the uniformed man standing by the front door, "My good man, would you please get me a taxi?" The man immediately took offense and replied indignantly, "I'm not a doorman. I happen to be a rear admiral in the United States Navy." Benchley instantly quipped:

"All right then, get me a battleship."
As he lay in his hospital bed shortly before his death, W C Fields was visited by the actor Thomas Mitchell, a good friend. When Mitchell entered Fields' room, he was shocked to find the irreligious Fields paging through a Bible. Fields was a lifelong agnostic, and fervently anti-religious (he once said that he had skimmed the Bible while looking for movie plots, but found only "a pack of wild lies"). "What are you doing reading a Bible?" asked the astonished Mitchell. A wiseacre to the end, Fields replied:
"I'm looking for loopholes."

“Dorothy Parker and a friend were talking about a forceful and garrulous celebrity. ‘She’s so outspoken,’ remarked the friend.

‘By whom?’ asked Dorothy.”


“Looking at a worn-out toothbrush in their hostess’s bathroom, a fellow guest said to Dorothy Parker, ‘Whatever do you think she does with that?’ ’I think she rides it on Halloween’ was the reply.”


"I feel so miserable without you; it's almost like having you here."
-Stephen Bishop

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
-John Bright

"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 is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up."
-Paul Keating

Nancy Astor - 'You're drunk!'
Winston Churchill - 'And you're ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober'.

Nancy Astor - 'If you were my husband, I would poison your tea”.
Winston Churchill - 'Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it'.

'I never forget a face. But, in your case, I'll make an exception'.
Groucho Marx.


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