Next Time You Need A Witty Comeback, Try This
Let us discuss the problem of producing a witty retort at a moment’s notice. It’s so HARD. Who can ever get it right? We have all been there, no? We get some bizarre shit said to us, and we just stand there blinking. We go home and seethe, we fall asleep with great difficulty, and then we wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect rejoinder all ready to go. There is a name for this problem, l’esprit de l’escalier, which is French for thinking of the right thing to say as you trudge down the stairs and into the street after the dinner party. I am informed that the English word for it is “afterwit,” but I have never heard anyone say that, and I don’t like how it sounds, so let us stick to the French. It will make us seem sophisticated.
The worst thing about this problem is that you cannot turn back the clock. The rejoinder has to come immediately, or it cannot come at all. I have learned this as I have learned so many lessons: the hardest possible way. Going up to people like three months after the Incident and saying Remember when you said maybe I wouldn’t be so broke if I didn’t have to pay so many traffic fines all the time well the joke’s on you because I haven’t actually PAID any of them? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t go over well and then people think you are so strange forever.
The Wikipedia entry on this problem is not great. It is short and over-reliant on a tedious anecdote about Diderot. It also gives the impression that the problem is unusual, that is something which only afflicts the very stupid, when really it is near-universal. It is much, much more common to fuck it up than to get it right. Here, for instance, is a Buzzfeed article titled The 32 Wittiest Comebacks of All Time. A lot of them aren’t good. I will level with you and admit that I understood the point of less than half of these alleged zingers. As well as proving that men love to tell women that they aren’t hot and propagating the myth that Winston Churchill was funny, this list shows that good witty comebacks do not come readily to any of us, not even famous old people. It is not something we have mastered as a species. Well, we can all stop worrying about it now, because here comes my better self, riding in with the solution.
Just say “WHAT?” Just do it. Just say “WHAT?” People don’t say WHAT enough. Next time someone says something that you think is wrong or strange or mean, or puts you on the back foot in a way you cannot endure, just say “WHAT?” You can say it loudly or softly. You can say it like you are happy or sad. You can say it inside and outdoors. You can say it on a plane. Imagine for example you are at an academic conference you are not really qualified to be at. Why are you there? What is anyone even saying. What does “ensistering” mean. Imagine it is nearing lunch time and someone gives a critique of your work that is probably all true and right, except you do not really understand a great deal of what is being said. It is all very much beyond what meager intellectual ability you have not yet squandered. You know what you can say? “WHAT.” Say it with as much joyful scorn as you can muster. Say “I’m sorry, WHAT?” You have no idea how this throws people off.
Say WHAT like someone has just told you the most outlandish fucking thing you have ever heard, an extraordinary and game-changing piece of gossip, an absolute bolt from the blue. Next time someone says something that requires a snappy retort, say “WHAT?” like they have just told you two of your best friends had been secretly sleeping together for years. At the very least, it will buy you some time. Say it like “Oh my GOD. WHAT? You are absolutely KIDDING me.” Lean hard on the T, like whaT? Narrow your eyes suspiciously. WHAT.
It is a confusingly hostile move, sort of like a Slow Burn, because it cannot be interpreted as straight animosity. Imagine you are at a press conference, and a man is saying something Incorrect. I am sure you can think of some recent and startling examples of this. Imagine that instead of offering a reasoned critique of all the ways he is sinister and wrong, you just put up your hand and when he points at you, you just say WHAT? COME AGAIN? I AM SORRY BUT: WHAT. Think about how that would feel and how it would be.
“WHAT?” is good for all sorts of reasons, not least because it works in all situations. As long as you are bold and unafraid, you can always say What. Look at this list. It says right there in the title that these retorts are “helpful,” implying that they can be adapted to everyday life, to be used by us when we need. Are they really helpful, though? No. Are they appropriate to any situation other than the exact one which is being described? No. Especially the first one! Jesus! These aren’t good. What’s good is WHAT. Just say it. It is satisfying and effective. People need to explain themselves more in this world, and the best way to make them do that is to look them square in the face and yell WHAT? You never have to worry again about coming up with the goods at short notice, because now you have WHAT, and that is enough. You are welcome.