Flying high on the ‘screaming ovations’ that greeted his American solo concert debut in Las Vegas in 1955, Noel Coward booked into a hospital for a check-up. The doctor advised less alcohol. Coward wrote in a letter “it is bad for my colon, which apparently is over sensitive, like so many of my friends”. Later a nurse asked him “How ya coming?” He replied that in his present state he “saw little chance of such a contingency arising.” Speed was half the trick. Coward merely opened his mouth and out leapt the toad, no inhibitions, no holding back but beautifully crafted through a great deal of practice. He just learnt how to do it. Which is well over half the battle with wit.
Over twenty years after his death we are still captivated by Coward, By the end of this month, Peter Bowles will have installed himself in the Vaudeville Theatre in the role of Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, which the author created for himself, and Coward’s last accompanist, Peter Greenwell will bring a show of his songs to the West End. Coward inevitably fell out of favour in British Theatre when in the mid-fifties french windows gave way to the kitchen sink. But what he referred to as ‘Dad’s Renaissance’ when he came back into favour in the late sixties with the revival of Hay Fever, under his own direction at The National Theatre, has reinstated his wit as unendingly appealing to British audiences. Is what they recognise and continue to pay money to experience essentially the enjoyment of pure wit?
Most people think they’re witty. But inhibition and lack of practice conquers it. People either think of a reply but allow fear to get the better of them, or they just forget that comedy is about timing. The essence of wit is that you thrust and parry straight away – not a day and a half later and in the privacy of your own mind. Journalist: “Any comment for the Star, Mr Coward?” Noel, as the lift doors closed, “Twinkle”. Not particularly funny but very witty. And asked about a show starring the very young and unbearably cute Bonnie Langford, in which a horse had covered the stage in manure, he gave no quarter to the little twelve year old’s feelings: “If they’d stuffed the child’s head up the horse’s arse, they would have solved two problems at once.” When it came to wit, he was what the great drag comic Mrs Shufflewick would have called ‘the very soul of epitome’.
Wit is a joy. When Blackwell the American designer described Elizabeth Taylor as “looking like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket”, we worshipped him. Whoever wrote in Time magazine that Susan Hayward was an actress “whose lightest touch as a comedienne would stun a horse”, we wanted to ask them round to dinner immediately. We can almost forgive the dreadful Sir Thomas Beecham his bullying manner for calling Herbert Von Karajan “a kind of musical Malcolm Sargent”. To write (sadly anonymously) that “if white bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John” gets close to genius. And how many right arms would any of us have been prepared to give up to have said what George S Kaufman did about a Broadway Comedy: “There was laughter at the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there”? Wit explodes on our palette, invigorates our lives and relieves the strain of existence more cheaply than massage. When PG Wodehouse pitched the severity of a hangover by saying he was lying in bed suffering when a “cat stamped in”, you know there is at least a literary God.
Wit is a game. And we had, according to Mathew Parris, who has edited a ‘personal molehill of an anthology’ called ‘Scorn’, reached that stage in our conversation about it where “we must always mention Nietzsche”. Nietzsche, says Parris, “regarded the game as the highest expression of humanity. When animals begin to play they begin to be divine”. Wit is a game because it’s about the playing not the winning. It is designed to achieve no practical purpose whatsoever. There is not the remotest possibility that the act of putting up wallpaper will ever be witty. Witty people do not do things like that. What witty people do is talk about doing things like that. Furthermore, for something to be witty there has to be someone else to understand that it is. It is not a game of solitaire. It is not in the least onanistic. It is verbal copulation and the ultimate form of aural sex. David Frost once invited the Duke and Duchess of York to dinner and rang Peter Cook to ask him to come as well. Cook thumbed listlessly through his diary and replied “Sorry I appear to be watching Television that night”.
Wit is impulsive but it bears repetition. It must be honed. And it is entirely different from a ‘sense of humour’, which is what people who have no wit at all go to great lengths to prove that they have in abundance. They are the kind of men who put in personal columns that they have a ‘GSoH’ because they once heard a woman say that Mel Smith was sexy because he made them laugh. The mistake that they make is that instead of being funny, they merely say that they are. Sue Townsend identifies her creation, Adrian Mole, as precisely this kind of antithesis to wit. “He makes a few plodding jokes and then writes ha!ha!ha! With exclamation marks to prove that they are. A complete disaster”.
However, being witty is a very self-conscious exercise. Barry Cryer once described himself in a diaphanous moment of false modesty as “entering stage left to the sound of the bottom of a barrel being scraped”. Bette Davis called a rival “the original good time had by all” and Mrs Patrick Campbell said, “Tallulah is always skating on thin ice. Everyone wants to be there when it breaks.” Remarks, every one of them, carefully constructed, meant for an audience and made not so much to hurt the target as to provoke laughter.
Wit thrives through conversation. It is a way of working off our competitive and aggressive instincts when it is socially undesirable to hit or hurt each other. The Middle Ages, presumably because they had no compunction in hitting each other over the head and dragging each other off to the rack, the stake or other forms of what are now merely regarded as the outer fringes of sexual gratification, was not a witty time. According to Mathew Parris it “was all faeces and balls”. After the First World War in Britain however, the desire for peace brought an explosion of wit. And in American TV right now, in a time when hostilities between men and women take place on the language pitch between increasingly equal participants, they are on the edge of another Golden Age with Roseanne, Friends, Cheers, Seinfeld and Frazier.
Friends particularly is the new salon sit-com. They are six twentysomethings – 3 women, 3 men – who do nothing. They just talk. Whole scenes are built around witty lines. Friends exemplifies exactly why British sit coms are so less witty than American ones. In British ones people are always doing things. They’re always mowing lawns and having greenhouses collapse on them. The writers will insist on having plots. And then worrying about resolving them. But who cares what happens? It’s only fiction and someone made it up anyway. All that matters really is who the people are and what they say.
It was Coward’s supreme skill as a technician to be able to invent in his plays the flimsiest excuses for people to say things to each other. The resulting chaos, away from which his main protagonists always tiptoed at the end, was just a hook on which to hang spontaneous and inventive cross talk. He recreated the exact environment in which wit flowers. What he did was to edit our very best dinner party conversations.
And in his songs his pure love of the language and its manipulation is even more evident. In ‘The Bar On The Picola Marina’ there is a verse about three sailors who only come from Messina because it rhymes with Marina and in which the most important thing that happens is not the liberation of a middle aged widow from her dreary past, but instead that “Mrs Wentworth-Brewster” is rhymed with the fact that they “abruptly goosed her”. Coward famously said that all he ever had “was just a talent to amuse”. That this was false modesty is only slightly less likely than it being real modesty. Coward understood exactly what his talent was. It was just to amuse. A true wit.