Cultural Caviar

The Art of the Comeback

November 26, 2013

Multiple Pages
The Art of the Comeback

Is there anything better for Christmas than a bit of a laugh? Well, a visit by, say, the blonde CIA agent in Homeland would be preferable, but I think she’s got other things on her mind than yours truly. Great comebacks are my favorites. For example: When the great French actress Arletty was dragged into court and accused of giving comfort the French way to a German Luftwaffe officer, her only defense was, “If you men hadn’t let them in so easily, I wouldn’t have slept with him.” She also added that her heart belongs to France, “but my ass is international.” She was cheered and set free immediately.

The most famous comeback belongs to Voltaire—who else? When asked on his deathbed by a priest if he renounced the Devil, he responded that this was no time to make new enemies. An even bigger ham, the great John Barrymore—also on his deathbed—felt his nurse put her head on his chest trying to hear if his ticker was still ticking. “OK, hop in,” said the actor, then he expired. A pompous English judge who was notorious for cruising for boys late at night asked a colleague what he gave for buggery, meaning what length of prison time. (Homosexuality was until 1967 illegal in a nation composed mostly of homosexuals.) “Oh, fifty pence or so,” answered his colleague.

“When asked on his deathbed by a priest if he renounced the Devil, he responded that this was no time to make new enemies.”

My own greatest quip came to me while dead drunk. Most good comebacks are never thought out. They just happen. We were at Mortimer’s attending a Reinaldo and Carolina Herrera dinner party for Princess Margaret. I was placed next to Margaret after the main course. (They were switching people around so she would meet them all up close.)

“I think we met in ’67,” I said, slurring my words.

“What, you’re a schivil shervant?” slurred the princess right back.

“Do I look like a schivil schervant?”

“My God, he’s a schivil schervant.”

End of conversation, and a quick change of placement followed. On our way out, the nice pianist saw the Princess and hit a few bars of “God Save the Queen.”

“No, no, none of that,” said an agitated Margaret.

“It’s not for you, ma’am, it’s for Jerry Zipkin,” said yours truly, never to be spoken to ever again by Jerry.

A comeback as good as Voltaire’s—who some believe had thought of his comeback beforehand as he knew what the priest would ask him—was from John Wilkes, the brilliant orator and Parliamentarian when he was told by the Earl of Sandwich that he would die either in the gallows or by the pox. Wilkes never missed a beat: “That depends, Sir, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

Robert Benchley, one of our greatest humorists, was also a famous lush. Emerging from a nightclub he saw the resplendent doorman in uniform and said, “My good man, call me a taxi.”

“How dare you,” said a furious gentleman, “I am a United States admiral.”

“Oh, in that case, call me a battleship.”

“What the fuck was that?” This vulgarity was supposedly pronounced by the mayor of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The other one about the Japanese takes place in a New York high-school class for 16-year-olds. “Who said, ‘We will pay any price, bear any burden’ and so on?” asks a teacher. Nobody answers until from the back of the class a tiny hand goes up. It’s a new boy, Takashita.

“JFK in his inaugural address, January 1961,” says the little Nip.

“Bravo, Takashita,” says the teacher, “and how long have you been in this country?”

“Six weeks, sir.”

Suddenly another voice is heard. “Fuck the Japs!”

“Who said that?” yells the outraged teacher.

“Harry F. Truman,” comes the answer.

My own dear father came up with a good one under unfortunate circumstances. A notorious womanizer, he always raised a ball-and-chain pennant when my mother was onboard his boat warning the fairer sex to stay away whenever he dropped anchor in some hot spot with mama along. One day he forgot all about it and went to bed, my mother still walking the deck. Two beauties arrived and asked her if she was John’s latest. My mother played along and they spilled the beans. When she went below and started screaming at him, demanding what he has to say for himself, the only thing he could come up with was, “Damn it, I forgot to raise the bloody flag.” 

William Buckley was a comeback natural. He was once asked on live television why we were losing the war in Vietnam. “Well, we have the Bavarians and they have the Prussians,” came his answer, shutting everyone up. And how true it was. The Viet Cong were fighting like Prussians and the South Vietnamese like Bavarians. When flying to Boston to debate Arthur Schlesinger at Harvard, I believe, Bill was offered a cigar by Schlesinger and accepted. As soon as they landed they were surrounded by reporters. The professor said something like he was here to defend American values against warmongers like Buckley. “All I know,” said Bill while rolling his eyes, “is that if the good professor and his ilk hadn’t screwed up the Bay of Pigs, we’d still be smoking Havanas.”

These are all oldies but good ones. Nothing is harder than humor, something that’s totally disappeared nowadays, replaced by crudeness and vulgarity. One could fill a book with Groucho Marx’s rib-ticklers. My favorite is very well known:

GROUCHO: So, you got any kids?

FEMALE CONTESTANT: Yes, Groucho, I have eleven children.

GROUCHO: Eleven?! Did you say eleven kids?

FEMALE CONTESTANT: Well, I love my husband.

GROUCHO: Lady, I love my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.


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