On Being Funny in Public

What does ironic speech do to belief? Alisdair MacIntyre notes in After Virtue that our relation to our beliefs changes, depending on whether we sing our convictions or say them in a creed. But what about those beliefs that we banter?

Questions about our late-modern bantering impulse surfaced in this past Sunday’s Honor’s Excursion to Provision Theatre to see Shaw vs. Chesterton: the Debate.  This skillfully performed, 80-minute, three-man show, directed by Tim Gregory, featured representations of two of the greatest witticists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: George Bernard Shaw and Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  Although there wasn’t much of a story arc over the debate, the show’s central conceit was deeply humane.  Despite radically different worldviews—Shaw was an agnostic, and Chesterton a Christian—the two somehow managed warm, lasting friendship. 

The play’s significance for our time came out in a prefatory video montage of sundry American politicians arguing, sometimes cleverly, sometimes viciously, almost always loudly.  Chesterton and Shaw’s solicitousness for each other provided welcome contrast with the railleries of our mediascape. Despite the mild chauvinism of these two friends’ arguments—manly, rational, agonostic discourse was the only mode of discussing Christianity, the only available alternative to secularism—their admirable practices of sharing a tea cup between debates, teasing each other’s foible-ridden bodies, laughing at each other’s jokes—dramatized a different rhetorical culture than the noisy, railing-heads on Crossfire reinforce. 

But I saw the play less as a parable of the importance of friendship for our time than a rendering of wit’s possible role in public discourse.  

Wit is a strange word.  C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words traces this earthy Anglo-Saxon term, gewit, to that quality that, for so many centuries in the Western tradition, distinguished the human from the animal: rationality. This is what we’re getting at when we speak of losing our wits or living by them. To have wit, in this oldest sense, is to be intelligent. Later, people began to distinguish among different kinds of wit and then, with that dark penchant for perfection that so often characterized eighteenth-century literary critics, to try to privilege certain sorts of wit. As Lewis notes, literary conservatives like Dryden and Addison tried to make sure that you “stretched and contracted” the word to signify “whatever you and your friends write or enjoy and to exclude what your enemy writes or enjoys” (104).  But almost miraculously, the word shook itself free of these narrowing critical pedantries and assumed a healthy ambiguity.  Critics now use the term to refer to the genius of a poet or novelist (we refer to the wit of Jane Austen), while the layperson more commonly uses the term to refer to someone’s ingenious, funny, sometimes merely clever use of words (the wit of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert).  We have, notes Lewis, given up, for the most part, using the word in its oldest sense to refer to rationality; but we have, by some happy linguistic chance, stumbled on a fairly stable, useful, and non-partisan pair of meanings for the term. 

One of the oddities of contemporary rhetorical culture is that almost no one can make any serious profession without deploying wit in the sense of speaking swiftly and comically.  To be incapable of ironic or clever speech is almost to be deprived of voice today. Or, from the perspective of the late-night TV-watcher, to be deprived of ironic discourse is almost to be deprived of information—so frequently do people gather their news from Stewart and Colbert.  (I find myself catching up on current events by listening to the NPR news-quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, on Saturday mornings.) Late modern society, in other words, is running a long experiment in the sustainability of the ironic register in the teeth of tough social problems. G. K. Chesterton and G. B. Shaw may be good guides in the rhetorical trial we’re giving wit.

This morning, I picked up Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and came across this line: 

I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though of course, I have had ordinary human vainglory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it.

I confess myself dubious that Chesterton never said anything for humor’s sake.  The very periodicity of his sentences suggests a huge self-consciousness about his own cleverness.  Malcolm Muggeridge, in his mordant Chronicles of Wasted Time, noted that Chesterton had a habit of blowing out his moustache whenever he’d said something he thought witty. 

But perhaps we could say that Chesterton has set up an ideal dialectic for us late-modern ironists.  There should be, he seems to be saying, a wry and wonderful interaction between our best efforts to say what we believe and the comedic realization that sometimes comes in the act of confession.  Not comedic in the sense of Comedy Central merely, but comedic in all the senses of wittiness.  Rational, ingenious, funny.  Our beliefs help us make intelligent sense of the world.  Our beliefs are also witty in the somewhat dangerous sense of the term: they feel like something clever that we just said.  (C.S. Lewis once said that no argument seems as implausible as the one you just elaborately made.) But these confessions are also witty in the middle sense of poetic genius: they bear the weight of something older and more ingenious than we could ever come up with. As Chesterton says of his philosophy, “I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.” 

Which is as pretty piece of wit as we could ask to come across in public speech.

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