Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits & Wordsmiths

by Mardy Grothe

Published by HarperCollins

280 pages, 2006



The Art of the Comeback

Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke


As a writer and language lover, I appreciate being able to take as much time as I need to find exactly the right words to express my thoughts. And while I've often wished I could freeze time in order to come up with witty retorts during discussions, I've pretty much given up hope; impromptu speaking is not one of my skills. For that reason, I have always been impressed by people who can think on their feet and make me think, "I wish I'd said that." Dr. Mardy Grothe, another language lover, is apparently similarly impressed. The author of Oxymoronica has written a testament to witty rejoinders, Viva la Repartee, which I heartily recommend to those who love words and wit, as well as those who just like a good laugh.

Grothe skillfully combines academia and entertainment in relaying history's most amusing comebacks in Viva la Repartee. He begins by differentiating "retort" and "repartee." Oxford English Dictionary defines them thusly: "Retort -- A sharp or incisive reply, especially one by which the first speaker's statement or argument is in some way turned against himself. Repartee -- 1. A ready, witty, or smart reply; a quick and clever retort. 2. Sharpness or wit in sudden reply; such replies collectively; the practice or faculty of uttering them." Repartee is the broader term, referring to witty responses in nearly any social situation.

Viva la Repartee is divided into fifteen chapters, encompassing "Stage & Screen Repartee," "Relationship Repartee," and "Literary Repartee" to "Senior Citizen Repartee" and "Risqué Repartee." It features comments from celebrated individuals like Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Groucho Marx and Dolly Parton. In each chapter, Grothe introduces and relays a number of anecdotes, offsetting the "punch lines" by double-spacing before and after and bolding them. This technique adds greatly to the readability of the text and makes it much easier to find a particular account when flipping pages. And if you can't find what you're looking for right away, but you know who said it, the names of all those quoted are indexed at the back.

Several of the examples are well-known, yet the humor is no less effective the second or third time around. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted tale of Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor, an American socialite who married into a British branch of the wealthy Astor family. At a party, Churchill proved that being inebriated didn't have a negative effect on his mental processes. When Astor became annoyed with Churchill's pontifications and said, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee," he replied, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it."

Then there's the written interaction between actor Cary Grant and an unnamed magazine editor. Grant was well-established as a debonair actor whose roles usually paired him with beautiful young actresses even as he grew older. When the editor sent a telegram to Grant's agent with the question, "How old Cary Grant?" Grant intercepted the note and responded, "Old Cary Grant fine. How you?"

Some of the less known, but equally pithy comebacks include one in the chapter on "Senior Citizen Repartee" by Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff. After becoming a regular at the Opry in 1938, Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys set the tone for the country-western genre until the 1950s. He remained active in music and politics until his death at age 89. When he turned 83, Acuff was asked, "How's your health?" He replied, "My health is good; it's my age that's bad."

But it's not just celebrities who are blessed with the "gift of jab." Consider this example, also in "Senior Citizen Repartee": A reporter was sent to interview a woman on her 104th birthday. Expecting the usual clichéd responses customary at these occasions, the reporter had to smile when he asked "What's the best thing about being 104?" and the woman replied, "No peer pressure."

Whether you're a writer or public speaker doing research, or merely a reader looking for a few laughs, Viva la Repartee has what you need. And who knows? Maybe some of the wit will rub off, and the next time you're put on the spot, you'll come up with a response that even Churchill would be proud of. | July 2006


Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on