“The only gracious way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can’t ignore it, top it; if you can’t top it, laugh at it; if you can’t laugh at it, it’s probably deserved.” – J.Russel Lynes
The story has been told many times. Nancy Astor, the first female member of British parliament, so disliked Prime Minister Winston Churchill that she once shouted at him, “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill, a master of wit, quickly responded, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Now that’s a comeback.
There are times we desperately wish that the perfect words would all come together in a flash of brilliance and pour forth out of our mouths with all the bite we wish to deliver to an offending party. If you’re like me, however, the Perfect Comeback usually arrives at my brain hours after the train has left the station. “Ooh, I should have said…!” but I didn’t.
The Perfect Comeback can take the sting out of another’s rudeness, repay someone for an ill done to you, or just settle a score. It is different from an insult, in that it is a reaction to what has come immediately before. You can’t prepare. Which makes the Perfect Comeback all the more wonderful when aptly delivered.
Although you have to be careful: In high school, I was once insulted in the school cafeteria, and the Perfect Comeback managed to float right off my tongue and sting that ol’ meanie like a swarm of wasps. I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself. I stood taller, turned to strut out, and promptly ran into a large column. Humility returned.
So what are some of the best comebacks of all time? Winston Churchill was so good at these that I could fill the entire post with some of his zingers. But I will give my Top 10 List with some variation:
10. In his early career, Winston Churchill attended a meeting at which another parliament member gave a long-winded speech. Churchill closed his eyes to fall asleep. Seeing Churchill’s behavior, the speaker became angry and shouted: “Mr. Churchill, must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?” Churchill merely replied: “No, it’s purely voluntary.”
9. Just after the 1992 Republication National Convention, Vice President Dan Quayle revealed that he planned to be “a pit bull” in the upcoming campaign against the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and running mate Al Gore. When asked for his reaction, Clinton replied: “That’s got every fire hydrant in America worried.”
8. During a television debate against incumbent U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings in 1986, Republican candidate Henry McMaster challenged his opponent’s fitness for office by suggesting he take a drug test. Hollings quickly answered, “I’ll take a drug test, if you’ll take an IQ test.”
7. Writer G.K. Chesterton was a corpulent man and playwright George Bernard Shaw was rather thin. Once upon running into each other, Chesterton eyed Shaw and stated, “Looking at you, one would think there was a famine in the land.” Shaw replied, “Looking at you, one would think you caused it.”
6. Muhammad Ali was known for his arrogance. He once took a flight on Eastern Airlines in the 1970s. As a flight attendant made her final checks, she noticed that Ali failed to fasten his seat belt. She asked him to buckle up, but Ali answered, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” The flight attendant smartly replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”
5. After James II assumed the throne following his brother Charles II’s death in 1685, Charles’s son led a rebellion against the new king. The insurrection failed, however, and the rebels were brought to trial before Chief Justice George Jeffreys. At one point in the trial, the judge thrust his cane in the chest of one of the rebels and charged, “There is a rogue at the end of my cane!” Facing death on the gallows, the defendant probably figured this was his last chance for a great comeback and thus asked, “At which end, my Lord?”
4. The Conservative Winston Churchill once entered a men’s room to find Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor Party, standing at the urinal. Churchill took a position at the other end of the trough. “Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?” Attlee asked. “That’s right,” Churchill answered. “Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it.”
3. In 1930 and 1931, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was the highest paid major leaguer, bringing in $80,000. Despite an astounding year in 1931 (.373 batting average, 46 home runs, 163 RBIs), Yankee officials asked Babe to reduce his salary to $75,000 for the 1932 season, in the midst of the Great Depression. Ruth held out. At a press conference, a reporter pointed out that $80,000 was $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover’s salary. Ruth famously retorted: “Maybe so, but I had a better year than he did.”
2. Despite the fact that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had a long-lasting relationship both on and off the screen, it got off to a rocky start in their first film Woman of the Year (1942). The tall Ms. Hepburn haughtily said upon meeting the stocky Mr. Tracy, “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Spencer Tracy retorted, “Not to worry, Ms. Hepburn, I’ll soon cut you down to size.”
1. Mark Twain was quick-witted at every turn, and once again in a debate with a polygamist, Twain’s words trumped his opponent. Having argued the issue of polygamy for some time, the polygamist Mormon forcefully asked, “Can you cite a single passage of scripture which forbids polygamy?” Twain responded, “Certainly. No man can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24, by the way.)
If you want to read more about perfect comebacks, check out the following websites:
Also, I highly recommended Viva La Repartee by Dr. Mardy Goethe. He has done extensive research into witty comebacks across history and does an excellent job of relating them in a quick read.
Now what are you favorite comebacks? Did you ever deliver a Perfect Comeback? How did that feel? How was it received? (Did you actually say, “Bazinga!”?) What do you think is necessary for the Perfect Comeback?