When you think about wit, what comes to mind? Someone who’s quick with a funny remark?
My guest today says that while humor is one part of wit, it’s really better thought of in a broader way, as a kind of “improvisational intelligence.” His name is James Geary, and he’s the author of Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It. Today on the show, we discuss all things witty. We begin our conversation describing the nature of wit, and how it’s linked to one’s all-around sense of resourcefulness. James then makes the case that instead of getting our contempt, puns should actually be praised as a sophisticated form of wit. We then dig into what fencing and jazz can teach us about the role of improvisation in wit, why we need wit more than ever these days, and what you can do to start being a bit more witty.
- What is wit? What makes something witty?
- The relationship between wit and humor
- The wit of Odysseus
- Why puns are underrated
- What fencing can teach us about wit
- The wittiness of insults (and verbal “combat” in different cultures)
- The neuroscience of wit
- What’s the state of wit today?
- Cultivating a witty mindset
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 20 Aphorisms I Thought Were Dumb as a Boy, But Now Appreciate
- The Maxims of Francois de La Rochefoucauld
- 21 Epigrams Every Man Should Live By
- Buster Keaton
- The Humor Code
- MacGyver Manhood and the Art of Improvisation
- The Dozens
- Why Insults Sting and How to Handle Them
- 50 Old-Fashioned Insults
- Stanislaw Lec
Connect With James
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. And when you think about wit, what comes to mind? Someone who’s quick to the funny remark? My guest today says that while humor is one part of width, it’s really better thought of in a broader way as a kind of improvisational intelligence. His name is James Geary, and he’s the author of the book Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It. Today on the show, we discuss all things witty. We begin our conversation describing the nature of wit and how it’s linked to one’s all around sense of resourcefulness. James then makes the case instead of getting our contempt, puns should actually be praised as sophisticated forms of wit. We then dig into what fencing, as the sport of fencing, not putting in fence in your backyard. And jazz can teach us about the role of improvisation in wit and why we need wit more than ever in these days and what you can do to start being a bit more witty. After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/wit. James joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right. James Geary, welcome to the show.
James Geary: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got a new book out. Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It. So what got you thinking about wit and deciding we need to have an entire book dedicated wit. Was it you had an experience with an incredibly witty person or as have you been trying to capture what wit is for your entire life?
James Geary: Well, I’ve always been interested in language and wordplay since I was really a little kid. There are not many or any books in my house when I was growing up, but we did my family subscribe to two magazines. One was TIME Magazine and the other was Reader’s Digest. And I ended up becoming a journalist and actually working for TIME magazine eventually. And Reader’s Digest, that was the place where I first discovered quotable quotes. That page in the magazine in every issue where you have a collection of sayings from various celebrities and famous people.
I remember reading when I was about eight years old, the following quotable quotes. “The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.” That’s an aphorism. I didn’t know about aphorisms when I was eight, but there was something about that saying in particular and quotable quotes in general that really fascinated me and I just became over the years obsessed with that kind of use of language. Very concise, funny, paradoxical, philosophical. And I ended up going on to write a couple books about aphorisms. And from there, I was led to metaphor because I was trying to figure out how aphorisms work. Aphorisms are really just short, witty, philosophical sayings. Working mostly through metaphor, like the one about the rut and the grave. Those are just metaphors.
And then I ultimately alighted on wit as the kind of fundamental operating system in our brains that allows us to have these witty insights and philosophical musings, and to be able to express them not just in the language but in all kinds of forms. And one of the things that the book explores is verbal. It can be intellectual, it can be visual. And I think that’s sort of the origin story for my fascination with wit.
Brett McKay: Were you afraid that by putting wit under the microscope, you would kill it in the process? Like people who analyze jokes, scholars who analyze jokes. They make a joke unfunny by figuring out what makes a joke funny.
James Geary: Yeah. Not only was I afraid of that Brett, but I actually did that. The first version of the book, the first chapters that I wrote were truly horrific and just uninteresting. Not funny at all, and completely uninspiring. And I had a little crisis. Actually not a little crisis, a big crisis early on when I was trying to actually write the book where I thought it would not be possible to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Because like you say, I didn’t want to write a book that completely destroyed the liveliness, and the fun, and the joy, and the surprise of wit by analyzing it to death. And I discovered that by trying to write it in a conventional, straightforward nonfiction type treatment, that that’s unfortunately exactly the effect I was having.
But at the time, our son, our eldest son was in drama school. And he mentioned to me one day that his class, they were going to watch some films of Buster Keaton, a fantastic silent film star from the 1920s, and as an example of wit. And I said, “Oh wow, that’s” … I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan and my son, our kids grew up watching buster Keaton films. So I said, “Well you should tell your teacher that I’m writing a book about wit or I’m so far unsuccessfully writing a book about wit, and I’ll be happy to come down and give a talk about that subject.” And to my surprise, she agreed and invited me down. I did this talk to my son’s class.
And as part of the class, we did some improv exercises that that actors do. And during that afternoon that that was happening, I thought, “Here I am standing in front of a group of aspiring actors who specialize in dialogue and creating scenes.” And I thought, “This is the way I need to write the book. The chapter on witty banter and verbal wit,” which I was struggling with at the time. “I need to write it like a play.” And show, there’s a classic journalistic dictum. Show, don’t tell. I can show how it works, how verbal fireworks, witty fireworks work rather than trying to explain it to people. And that’s how I alighted on the idea to write each chapter in a different style. So the chapter on verbal wit, well actually there’s a couple. One is written in the form of a play. Another is written in the form of a rap song, lyrics to a rap hip hop song.
There’s a chapter on the neuroscience of wit, how wit works in the brain. And that’s written like a scientific paper. There’s a chapter written in iambic pentameter, the Heroic Couplets of Alexander Pope, an English poet from the 18th century who’s a great, great wit and wrote a lot about wit. There’s a poem about the spirituality, the spiritual side of wit, which is written like a sermon like you would hear in church on a Sunday.
And once I realized that was the mechanism through which I could tell this story by writing in these different styles and taking on these different voices, then it became paradoxically really easy to write. And I felt like, and I hope that’s also the experience of readers, that I bring wit to life on the page rather than kill it through over analysis or over explanation.
Brett McKay: No, you’re successful. This was a fun read. Because you said it changes up throughout the book. So we’ve been talking about wit. And I think people, most people, they know wit when they see it, they know when they see a witty person. But I think if you pressed most people to say what is wit, what makes a witty remark witty? They’d probably be like, “Well” …
James Geary: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So what is what? Are there elements that are necessary for a phrase or word, or whatever to be witty?
James Geary: Yeah, I think there are. And I think we tend to think when we think of wit, we tend to think of verbal wit and someone being funny. And while being funny is certainly an aspect of wit, it’s not the defining characteristic of wit. You can be witty and not funny at all. So my definition, the one that I came to as I researched the book is wit is the ability to think, say, or do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place.
And if you think about the way we use the word wit in everyday conversation, we say we’re living by our wits, or we’ve come to our wits end, or we need to keep our wits about us. Or someone is dimwitted or quick-witted, or a nitwit. These are all very familiar phrases the way we use wit in just normal conversation. And none of them have anything to do with being funny. What they all share, those expressions, is wit as an improvisational intelligence. And that’s why my definition doesn’t specifically mention being funny because, like I said, you can be witty without being funny. And someone who for example, is living by their wits, they’re not being funny. They’re being resourceful, they’re being ingenious. They’re solving problems when they have few resources. And I think that’s the essence of wit.
And part of that essence involves, and I think this is where it intersects with verbal wit. It involves surprise or novelty because a witty saying, we recognize and we laugh at a witty saying because it surprises us in some way. It’s unexpected or it gives some twist to what might seem familiar on the surface. But by just giving it a little twist, it brings a new aspect of that thing to light.
So I think the intersection between … and in fact wit, the way the word was originally used hundreds of years ago in English was more to indicate someone’s intelligence or acumen rather than their sense of humor. And if you look at the etymology of the word, wit comes from a Sanskrit verb, which means to see. And that’s where the word video comes from for example. The verb … and to see is also a metaphor for to know or to understand. I see what you mean means I understand what you’re saying.
And wit shares that same etymological root, the Sanskrit for … with the word wisdom. So wit and wisdom actually can be traced back to the same word and basically their original meanings are the same.
I have a book here on my desk, Women’s Wit and Wisdom. It’s collection of aphorisms by female writers. And the title is actually redundant. It might as well be women’s wit and wit or women’s wisdom and wisdom because wit and wisdom really mean identical things. So I think that’s what the real essence of wit is. It’s a kind of improvisational intelligence, spontaneous ability to react to things in the moment, to think on your feet. And that sheds some kind of light or provide some insight on a common experience, or a common challenge, or a common problem.
Brett McKay: I want to dig deeper into the etymology, the concept of wit. Because you mentioned resourcefulness, improvisation. You had a chapter talking about how this idea even goes back to the ancient Greeks with Odysseus. Odysseus, he represented this idea of improvisation. What is it? Is that just resourcefulness? Is that what that means?
James Geary: Yeah, kind of, I guess the best way to translate it would be a shrewdness or a mental agility involving, being able to improvise. So Odysseus, the famous example is the Trojan horse, he’s trying to attack Troy, but the city is so well defended, they would never be able to break through. So he comes up with the plan of hiding a bunch of soldiers in this huge wooden horse that they’re allegedly offering as a peace offering. And of course the Trojans take it in. And at night, all the soldiers jump out and slaughter everyone.
But the Odyssey, the whole epic Greek Odyssey is about Odysseus getting into all kinds of scrapes and difficult situations, partly through his own egoism and stubbornness. But he always manages to find a way out. So Odysseus is a great example of someone who lives by his wits.Tthat’s what that whole epic is about, him getting out of these really dangerous, uncomfortable situations that he’s gotten himself into.
So I think improvisation is in Greek mythology, and Greek literature is that kind of improvisational intelligence that allows you to escape tricky situations and solve difficult problems. And there’s a wonderful, Homer uses a wonderful word to describe Odysseus at the very beginning of the Odyssey. And the English translation is a man of many turns. And I think that’s just a beautiful way to think about wit because it does have that idea of resourcefulness and being versatile in the face of adversity. And also, like we were talking about a minute ago, just being able to turn something. We say he has a nice turn of phrase or you can turn the tables on someone, or turn things around. And being a person of many turns I think is probably, it’s a really elegant and poetic definition of a fundamental personal characteristic of wit.
Brett McKay: Well, one story you also talk about that Odysseus is exemplifying wit is verbally. So not only did he do witty things, but he said witty things. The one that’s really famous is when he’s in the cave with a cyclops Polyphemus. And Polyphemus asked him, “What’s your name?” And Odysseus says, “No one.” And as you sort of as like a pun, I forget, there was a pun. If you know the Greek, that is a pun, correct?
James Geary: Yes. So the pun there is actually on the word metis. So there’s different ways in ancient Greek, and I’m by no means an ancient Greek scholar. But the way that you can say I am no one in a couple of different ways. One way involves the word metis. It’s a different word from the one we’ve just been discussing. But it sounds exactly the same when it’s set loud, which is basically what a pun is. It’s two different words that sound the same and have two different meanings. And so in that scene where he’s trying to escape the cyclops, he’s actually blinded the cyclops, he’s gotten him drunk. So the cyclops is passed out on the sofa, and Odysseus blinds him so that he and his soldiers can escape from the cave that they’re trapped in.
And when he does that, the cyclops screams, “Who’s done this to me?” And Odysseus says, “No one, I am no one.” But when he says no one, it means, “No one.” I am nobody. But it also means I am wit because the word is metis. So Odysseus is saying two things at the same time. He’s saying, “I am no one, and I am wit.” And that is another example of that kind of resourcefulness. In this case it’s a kind of cruel resourcefulness, but his life was at stake and that of his soldiers. But when he says I am wit, he’s saying, “I am this person of many turns and I’ve just turned the tables on you cyclops by blinding you so that we could all escape.” So I think that’s a really fun way for Homer to communicate this idea of metis in action through Odysseus’ story.
Brett McKay: So for the story goes on when the cyclops starts yelling out, “No one is hurting me.” And all the other cyclops are like, “Then why are you yelling? What’s the problem?”
James Geary: He’s very clever. He’s got him coming and going there Odysseus.
Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about different forms of wit and so we can explore these ideas of improvisation. You start off talking about puns being a form of wit. But for a lot of folks, puns are the lowest eye-rolling form of humor. But you think that’s an unfair characterization?
James Geary: Yes.
Brett McKay: Why do you think that is?
James Geary: Because first of all, I’ve never understood why puns are so reviled. And of course when you make upon what’s the first thing you say? “Sorry, no pun intended.” And I don’t think puns are anything that we should apologize for it because I do think they are, in many ways they’re the most pedestrian as well as the most profound example of wit in daily life. And they’re pedestrian because everybody makes puns, everybody gets puns. But they’re profound because I think they touch on the real essence of wit. And that is making these novel, surprising, instantaneous combinations between things are among things that on the surface are not alike and are not similar in any way.
And I think that kind of wit, the sort of aspect of wit is the essence of human creativity really. Because I think creativity is taking what you know and combining what you know in ways that create new things or create things that you don’t know.
So the pun that we’ve just been discussing on metis I think is a great example of that. Odysseus, he’s doing so many things in that pun. He’s confusing and overcoming an adversary, but he’s also making a very profound statement about what wit is and how it works, and why we need it. In fact, that’s the subtitle of my book. And I think that one pun really sums it up. And I think what’s also interesting about puns is that the person who makes a pun and the person who gets the pun or receives the pun are really performing exactly the same kind of creative work. They’re making exactly the same creative connections. It’s just that the person who makes the pun is making that connection in one direction. And the person who receives the pun is making the connection in the other direction.
There was a great example, I did a talk a while back in Washington, in DC. And as part of the talk that I do about my book, I have a pun competition towards the end of the talk. And I asked for volunteers from the audience, and we name a theme like plants or something like that, or modes of transportation, or body parts. And the volunteers have to make a pun on that theme right away, or they sit down. And then the last person standing and the last person punning wins a free copy of my book.
So if the subject were body parts for example, you could say something like, “I browse the web when I look for information.” Eyebrow, it’s a pun on a body part. So as part of that, the pun competition, I also ask the audience to shout out themes that they might want to have the volunteers pun on. And of course this was in DC, so someone shouted out the wall. No one could come up with a pun on that right away. But a woman in the back of the back of the room shouted out, “Don’t take a fence.” And I think that’s a great example of how puns can be profound because it’s a pun, offense and a fence, but it’s also kind of making a political social statement about the whole idea of the wall and the purpose of the wall, and how the wall has become one of the many things that people become so polarized around.
So I think that’s why not all puns are of that high level, but I think that all ponds, even the worst ponds really speak to this essential creative aspect of the human mind. To create surprising, novel, and really fertile, creatively and intellectually fertile combinations.
Brett McKay: So when my kids start making pun jokes, I should encourage that?
James Geary: Absolutely. And you should participate.
Brett McKay: Right. It seems like that’s like one of the first forms of humor that they develop. They start seeing how language can be used in different ways. You say one word, but it means different things.
James Geary: Yeah. And I think that’s, I remember when our oldest child, the one who went to drama school, he was two. And he was just learning to talk. And I remember I was with him and he was standing on the dresser. I was probably just getting him dressed or something like that. And he was looking out the window, and pointed up into the sky to the sun. And he said, “Big sky lamp.” And that’s a beautiful metaphor for the sun. And that’s the way kids learn.
So when your kids are punning, they are in their mind connecting something they don’t know with something that they do know. And that’s the way we learn. That’s the way human beings learn from childhood on up to adulthood. And that’s also the essence of metaphor. So my son, here’s another pun, my son in talking about the sun, was comparing it to a lamp, which was something that he knew. And trying to understand what the sun was by comparing it to a lamp. And that’s where he came up with big sky lamp.
Brett McKay: One chapter that I really enjoyed was where you had these two guys talking about wit, but as a fencing lesson, like fencing with swords. What can fencing teach us about the art in nature of wit?
James Geary: Yeah. If you think of some of the phrases that we use to describe wit, cutting wit, a cutting remark. A witty person who has a foil, which is someone who’s not as witty, who they use to bounce their jokes off of. There’s also the word in English, repost, which is actually a French word and it’s taken from fencing and it means your reply to an attack. The same as true for the word parry. When someone attacks you and you repel that attack, that’s called a parry. And all those words are used when we talk about wit. “I parried his criticism. Well he insulted me, but I had a really great repost.” And those are actual fencing terms. And I noticed that. And then I just started investigating fencing. It actually is part of my research for the book. I took fencing lessons. And what I realize is that fencing is a very, it’s a sport that involves incredible precision. It’s a very highly choreographed sport, and it happens so fast. I would watch a fencing competition. I wouldn’t even be able to see what they were actually doing.
And I think that’s in so many ways analogous to the more combative forms of wit, which is classic example would be Groucho Marx. There’s a sort of edge with, another fencing term. He has a sharpness and an edge to his one liners that I think is very, very similar to fencing. And when you’re arguing with someone, you’re pitting your wits against someone else. It’s very much like fencing because a lot of the art defensing is in footwork. It’s in preparing the ground before you strike. And I think that’s true for wit as well. If you take the Socratic method of argument or teaching where you have two people going back and forth in a dialogue trying to convince each other of a point of view, that’s very much like fencing just as two fencers are arranging their footwork and dancing around trying to get their opponent in a position that makes them vulnerable to attack. That’s what happens in witty reparte, and witty banter, and witty argument. You’re trying to say things and position yourself verbally so that you can land that strike with your sword or with your sharp edged words. So I think understanding fencing really helped me understand that particular form of verbal wit, which is more combative and more insulting than other kinds of verbal wit.
Brett McKay: Well, a more modern or recent iteration of that combative wit is like the dozens you talk about where takes part in predominantly African American communities where typically it’s men, they’ll have these competitions where they’re sort of like rap battles. Rap battle is another example of wit on display, but the dozens is where you just do insults at each other back and forth. And whoever can do the best insult wins.
James Geary: Yeah. And I think rap battles, they really do come from that history of the dozens. In researching the dozens, it’s so fascinating and there’s such great lines. Like when I remember the whole point of the dozens is you’re insulting your opponent and you want to insult him or her in such an expert way that they concede and quit. And one of the lines was like, “You’re so dumb. You think the Supreme Court is where Diana Ross plays tennis.” I just think that that’s such a brilliant, it’s really insulting, but it’s done in such a funny way and it’s done in such an elegant way as as well. And I think that’s again also analogous to fencing. Fencing is actually a really violent sport, but it’s done in this beautiful almost ballet like choreographed way, that the way that those moves are presented, it’s just beautiful to watch. And I think the same is true in the dozens. And actually the dozens all around the world, there are these forms of verbal combat that people indulge in just as entertainment. It doesn’t lead to violence or anything like that. It’s more just a way to pass the time. But the rap battles today are very much coming from that tradition of the dozens.
And one of the reasons that I wrote one chapter as a rap song is I think rap is such really the height of witty expression in popular culture. Some of the lyrics of rap songs, and I’m thinking people like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar, I think they’re just such exquisite use of language and making social, political critique through a very elegant but at times really, really cutting use of witty language. And I tried to emulate that in the chapter that I wrote in the style of a rap song.
Brett McKay: Well another way, music can be cutting. You talk about this too, a forerunner to rap battles or the dozens was during the jazz age, where piano players would have these cutting sessions where basically they would have these improvisation competitions where one guy would play a tune. And then they pass it off the next guy, and who could do the best improvisation on the piano, and they pass it back and forth. You wanted to see who could be the wittiest piano player.
James Geary: Yeah. That still exists. If you go to a jazz gig today, that still exists in the tradition of trading solos. The band starts playing altogether, then the sax takes a solo, and then it’s the pianist, or the double bass player, or the drummer. And they each take a turn. It comes back to Odysseus and the person of many turns. What’s happening in jazz improvisation is that they’re taking that musical phrase. And as you say, part of that improvisational passages are just trying to see how many different ways they can turn that musical phrase and make it something different, and build on what the previous player was playing. And that aspect of improvisation when you’re taking something and building on it in the moment spontaneously. That’s a key aspect of wit. And in the chapter on the neuroscience of wit that I mentioned earlier, they’ve done studies. They’ve put jazz musicians and rappers in MRI machines and scanned their brains while they are improvising and compared that to their brains while they’re playing something from memory or playing, reciting pre-written lyrics rather than improvising them off the dome.
And there’s different areas of your brain that are active when you’re improvising and creating things spontaneously as opposed to when you’re reciting something from memory or reading something from a page. And that area of the brain that’s active when you’re improvising and making things up on the spot, that’s a crucial area of the brain for wit because that is the area of the brain that’s active when you’re trying to solve a problem with few resources, or you’re engaged in the dozens and you need to have a smart, witty comeback to someone. So it’s interesting to see how all the kinds of human activities, human creative activities that have to do with spontaneously generating ideas. They’re all involved in this one brain network.
Brett McKay: So an aspect of wit is there has to be another person to understand the wit remark, right? If you, if you say something witty and no one gets it, are you actually being witty?
James Geary: That’s a very relevant question for me because I often say something that I think is funny and nobody gets it. You’re right. I think we say it’s a private joke. You can have private jokes and you can laugh to yourself, laugh inwardly. But I do think wit needs witnesses. And in fact witness is actually from that same Sanskrit verb, to see it’s related to wit and wisdom. So it’s like the famous question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? And I think in the case of wit, it probably doesn’t not make a noise because wit does require … like we were discussing about puns. You can make a pun, but a pun, it doesn’t come into its fullness of being unless someone deciphers, unless someone gets it. And that requires another person. And what I think is so interesting about wit is that it is a collaboration between two people to create the wit or to complete the wit.
And if you think about jokes, you’ve got a joke and it’s got different parts, and you’ve got the setup and you’ve got the punch line. But the punch line is never explicitly explained. If it is, it’s a terrible joke. And we say a person, you get it. You get the punchline. And I think that’s a well-chosen chosen verb because it does require the hearer to go out and meet the teller of the joke halfway. And in many ways, like we’re talking about puns, the person who hears a joke is doing exactly the same creative work as the person who’s telling the joke. And the joke does not exist until it’s completed in the mind of the listener when the listener goes out and gets it.
And I think that’s why what’s so special about wit is it does create this bond. It creates this intimacy because you are working with someone else’s mind in that moment to create the wit that happens. And I think you see that, why does almost every public speaker begin a speech by telling a joke? I think it’s because a joke, a witty joke, a witty remark, some kind of self deprecating humor. It creates that kind of bond because you’re inviting your audience to complete this journey with you. When you complete that journey, it creates this almost in a positive sense. It’s like you’re co-conspirators. You’re working together to achieve this goal, which is wit. And I think that’s why it’s essential that wit is a collective experience. It takes at least two people for something to be witty.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think you wrote at one point in the book, said the perfect witty expression can include so much or mean so much because it leaves so much out. So by leaving a lot out, you force the other person to construct it in their head, which allows them to get more meaning out of the witty remark?
James Geary: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And there’s a great Polish aphorist Stanisław Lec. In my opinion, he’s perhaps the greatest athlete of all time. And one of his sayings is, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” If you think about that, if you think about that literally, it makes absolutely no sense. And there’s no literal clue in the literal meaning of any of those words as to what the actual meaning of the saying is.
But the actual meaning, like you were just saying, it has to be completed by the listener. And Lec in writing that, he leaves out all the most important bits. What the saying is really about group think and how people in a group, it’s easier for people to go along with decisions that they might otherwise resist if everybody else in the group is going along with it.
He lived in Poland during the time of the Soviet Union. So he was writing about authoritarianism and political oppression, and group think in that context. But he leaves all of that out of the story. And it’s the listener who has to provide that. And that’s a great example of the collaboration and co-creation that’s involved in any kind of witty remark or witty experience.
Brett McKay: What do you think the state of wit is today? Because I think oftentimes people think of witty people. It’s always from the past. I imagine that’s because the really, really witty remarks, they stand the test of time. What do you think wit is? Is wit alive and well today? Or is it on the decline?
James Geary: I don’t think wit, it’s not like the stock market. It can go up and down. I think it’s a fundamental way that the human brain works, so it’s always there. But I think in certain eras or certain periods of time, people think that way more or think that way less.
So I don’t know, if you’re looking at late night comedy for example, then there’s plenty of wit around. But if you take a look at a broader look and understand wit as I’ve tried to understand it in the book as not just about being funny, but as a way of thinking, and as a way of solving problems, and a way of making connections. Because I think wit is more about making connections than it is just simply about making jokes. Then I think it would be pretty easy to conclude that we’re living in a witless age sadly. Because if you look at our political and social debates, how polarized and partisan they have become, that is by definition rejecting the collaboration and cooperation that’s required for wit to take place. You have to listen, and you have to respond. You don’t have to agree by any means, but wit can only happen if people are in relationship and they’re listening to and responding to one another in a genuine, sincere, constructive way.
And when it comes to making connections, if you look at any of our biggest challenges as a society, as a planet today, they are all interconnected. They’re all multidisciplinary. And I think witty thinking is the ability to make connections among all these different fields, and also to listen to diverging points of view. And again, not necessarily to accept or agree with them, but to listen and then try and come to a synthesis that brings all those things together. That would be for me a really encouraging and hopeful sign of us as a society, living by our wits.
Brett McKay: What can people do to start being more witty? Is it just telling more dad jokes, be more punny? Is that the start? What do you think?
James Geary: I think part of being witty is being curious, and noticing things, and being alert to things. That has to do with a open, I think a witty state of mind is an open state of mind. And that’s again, you mentioned your kids earlier. That’s what children. Children are open to all these things and they don’t prejudge anything. So I think having that kind of open, curious, childlike mind in that sense is absolutely essential. And I think that’s another trend that we see today is people being very focused on a single discipline, whether you’re an academic or professional. This is my field, and I know everything about my field, but I don’t know that much about anything outside my field.
And then it sounds flippant and maybe trivial, but I do think like you said, making puns is a really good way to train your brain to be more witty. And having the simple pun competition with yourself or with your family, or with your friends. It’s really fun. But also, the way the human brain works and the way it incorporates new experiences and new knowledge is by making different connections. The synapses in our brain whenever we travel to a new place, or meet a new person, or learn something new, new connections are formed in our brain. Our brain actually physically changes to incorporate this new knowledge and this new information. That’s, scientists called brain plasticity. And it’s just basically means the brain’s ability to react spontaneously to new information, and to respond, and to learn, and to grow. And like I said, it may sound a little trivial or silly, but making puns, actually that’s what you’re doing in your brain. When you hear a good pun or you hear a good choke, it’s uplifting. It really perks you up, and makes you more alert. And this also has to do with brain chemistry and the neuro chemicals that are released when we laugh or take in new information. That has a really positive effect on our, our brain chemistry and our ability of our minds to keep making those connections as we age.
So yes, I would urge everyone to make puns, make jokes, and let your mind wander into those areas where you can feel free to make new connections and new combinations.
Brett McKay: Well James, is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
James Geary: Yeah, absolutely. The book is available online. Amazon or if you want to help out your local bookstore, IndieBound is a great way to connect with local independent book sellers online. And if people are interested in learning more about my other books or other stuff that I do, they can check out my website, which is jamesgeary.com.
Brett McKay: Well James Geary, thanks for this time. It’s been a pleasure.
James Geary: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guess there was James Geary. He’s the author of the book Wit’s End. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You also find out more information about James’s work at his website, jamesgeary.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/wit where you can find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic.
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