History's Greatest Replies

Any attempt to compile history's greatest replies—or history's greatest anything, for that matter—is fraught with difficulty, so it might be more accurate to refer to the replies that follow as simply my all-time favorites. Most of them come from people whose names will be very familiar to you, and I think you will agree that the comebacks and retorts here are very special. All of them—along with many, many hundreds more—appear in my Viva la Repartee book.

arrow John Barrymore
arrow Robert Benchley
arrow Niels Bohr
arrow Truman Capote
arrow Johnny Carson
arrow Winston Churchill
arrow Marc Connelly
arrow Calvin Coolidge
arrow Edna Ferber
arrow W. C. Fields
arrow Mohandas Gandhi
arrow Alfred Hitchcock
arrow Pope John XXIII
arrow John F. Kennedy
arrow Chico Marx
arrow Groucho Marx
arrow Dorothy Parker
arrow Babe Ruth
arrow George Bernard Shaw
arrow Mark Twain
arrow Voltaire
arrow Mae West
arrow James McNeill Whistler
arrow Oscar Wilde
arrow John Wilkes

John Barrymore

After a long day of shooting a film in Hollywood, John Barrymore and some fellow actors stopped in at Lucey's, a popular watering hole near Paramount Studios. After one-too-many drinks, Barrymore excused himself to go to the bathroom. In his slightly inebriated condition, however, he inadvertently chose the ladies' room. As he was relieving himself, a woman entered and was shocked to see a man urinating into one of the toilets. "How dare you!" she exclaimed, "This is for ladies!" The actor turned toward the woman, organ in hand, and resonantly said in full actor's voice:

John Barrymore

“And so, madam, is this.”

Robert Benchley

After lunching at the Algonquin Hotel one day, the American humorist Robert Benchley and his companions walked through the lobby and out the front door. Still engaged in conversation with his friends, Benchley offhandedly said to the uniformed man standing by the front door, "My good man, would you please get me a taxi?" The man immediately took offense and replied indignantly, "I'm not a doorman. I happen to be a rear admiral in the United States Navy." Benchley instantly quipped:

Robert Benchley

“All right then,
get me a battleship.”

Niels Bohr

After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1922, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr invited friends and associates to a celebration party at his country cottage North of Copenhagen. The event was also well-attended by members of the press. One reporter, noticing a horseshoe hanging on a wall, teasingly asked the famous physicist, "Can it be that you, of all people, believe a horseshoe will bring you good luck?" Bohr replied:

Niels Bohr

“Of course not,
but I understand it brings you luck
whether you believe it or not.”

Truman Capote

Truman Capote was fond of regaling people with an anecdote about one of his finer moments. At the height of his popularity, he was drinking one evening with friends in a crowded Key West bar. Nearby sat a couple, both inebriated. The woman recognized Capote, walked over to his table, and gushingly asked him to autograph a paper napkin. The woman's husband, angry at his wife's display of interest in another man, staggered over to Capote's table and assumed an intimidating position directly in front of the diminutive writer. He then proceeded to unzip his trousers and, in Capote's own words, "hauled out his equipment." As he did this, he bellowed in a drunken slur, "Since you're autographing things, why don't you autograph this?" It was a tense moment, and a hush fell over the room. The silence was a blessing, for it allowed all those within earshot to hear Capote's soft, high-pitched voice deliver the perfect emasculating reply:

Truman Capote

“I don't know if I can autograph it,
but perhaps I can initial it.”

Johnny Carson

During his three-decades as host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson delivered some of the funniest lines in the history of show business. While many of his best lines were undoubtedly written by his stable of talented comedy writers, one of Carson's funniest—and most famous—remarks was a spontaneous quip he made on a 1965 show. The guest that night was Ed Ames, formerly of the popular singing group "The Ames Brothers" and at the time appearing on the Daniel Boone television series in the role of Mingo, a Harvard-educated, tomahawk-throwing Indian. When Ames said he had taken tomahawk throwing lessons, Carson asked for a demonstration. Within seconds, a curtain opened, revealing the chalked outline of a standing human figure on a huge wooden log. As Ames hurled the tomahawk at the target, he said, "This is how you take care of an enemy." To everyone's shock, the blade of the tomahawk landed squarely in the crotch of the human figure, with the handle pointing up and out, looking almost like an erect penis. There was a moment of stunned silence, which was immediately followed by Carson's quip:

Johnny Carson

“Gee, Ed, I didn't even know you were Jewish.
A frontier bris!”

A bris, of course, is the term for the Jewish circumcision ritual. After Carson's remark, the audience erupted into one of the longest laughs in television history. As the laughter died down, Ames said to Carson, "Would you like to give it a try?" Carson declined, and got one last laugh as he said, "I can't hurt him any more than you did."

Winston Churchill

Nancy Astor was an American socialite who married into an English branch of the wealthy Astor family (she holds the distinction of being the first woman to be seated in Parliament). At a 1912 dinner party in Blenheim Palace—the Churchill family estate—Lady Astor became annoyed at an inebriated Winston Churchill, who was pontificating on some topic. Unable to take any more, she finally blurted out, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." Without missing a beat, Churchill replied:

Winston Churchill

“Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.”

Another famous Churchill reply also involves a London party and a female Member of Parliament, and once again a slightly inebriated Churchill. This time, it was Bessie Braddock, a socialist Member of Parliament from Liverpool, who finally had enough. She reproached Churchill by charging, "Winston, you're drunk!" The Grand Old Man may have had one too many drinks, but he still had his wits about him, replying:

Winston Churchill

“You're right, Bessie. And you're ugly.
But tomorrow morning, I'll be sober.
And you'll still be ugly.”

Marc Connelly

When it comes to repartee, nobody did it better than the members of that legendary collection of wits known as The Algonquin Round Table. For many decades, a delightful story has been told about one member of the group, playwright Marc Connelly. One evening, Connelly was dining with friends when another member of the group snuck up from behind, placed his hands on top of Connelly's bald head, and said to the amusement of the other guests, "Marc, your head feels as smooth as my wife's ass." Without missing a beat, Connelly raised his hands to his head, began rubbing his own scalp, and with a wry smile, said:

Marc Connelly

“So it does, so it does.”

Calvin Coolidge

In a profession noted for windbags, the 30th U. S. President Calvin Coolidge was a politician of very few words, well deserving the nickname, "Silent Cal" (he once said, "I've never been hurt by something I didn't say"). Coolidge's taciturn style frustrated the many people around him who felt a man of his stature should be more talkative. At a White House dinner one evening, a female guest sidled up to the President and whispered in his ear, "You must talk to me, Mr. President. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you." Coolidge whispered back:

Calvin Coolidge

“You lose.”

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber worked for a number of years as a news reporter in the Midwest before moving to New York City in 1912. After her novel "So Big" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, she quickly followed up with the hit play "Show Boat" (so successful and financially remunerative, she called it her "oil well"). Ferber was fond of wearing tailored suits well before they became fashionable. One day, she arrived at the Algonquin Hotel wearing a suit that was very similar to one that the English actor Noël Coward was wearing. Ferber and Coward were friends (she once described him as her favorite theater companion) and Coward saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of playful badinage with one of his favorite people. Carefully looking her over, he observed, "Edna, you look almost like a man." Ferber looked Coward over in a similar manner and came back with a classic riposte:

Edna Ferber

“So do you.”

W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields died at age sixty-seven on December 25, 1946, his life cut short by his notorious alcohol consumption (by some accounts, he drank as much as two quarts of gin a day). Some wags thought it was a fitting irony that Fields died on Christmas, the one holiday he despised the most. As he lay in his hospital bed shortly before his death, Fields was visited by the actor Thomas Mitchell, a good friend. When Mitchell entered Fields' room, he was shocked to find the irreligious Fields paging through a Bible. Fields was a lifelong agnostic, and fervently anti-religious (he once said that he had skimmed the Bible while looking for movie plots, but found only "a pack of wild lies"). "What are you doing reading a Bible?" asked the astonished Mitchell. A wiseacre to the end, Fields replied:

W. C. Fields

“I'm looking for loopholes.”

Mohandas Gandhi

Some of history's greatest replies come from people we don't usually associate with great wit. In the decades prior to World War II, Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi led a massive campaign of civil disobedience designed to help colonial India win its independence from the British Empire. In 1931, shortly after being named Time magazine's "Man of the Year," Gandhi traveled to London to meet with British authorities. The entire nation was curious to learn more about this little brown man, as many called him. Constantly swarmed by press and photographers, Gandhi was peppered with questions wherever he went. One day a reporter yelled out, "What do you think of Western civilization?" It was a defining moment, and Gandhi's reply instantly transformed him from an object of curiosity into a celebrity. In his heavy Indian accent, he answered:

Mohandas Gandhi

“I think it would be a good idea.”

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 film "Lifeboat," a drama about eight survivors of a freighter sunk by a German U-Boat, was one of the most popular films of the year (it was also nominated for three Academy Awards). While posing for publicity photographs for the film, actress Mary Anderson approached the director and asked, "What is my best side, Mr. Hitchcock?" His reply was soon being circulated all around Hollywood:

Alfred Hitchcock

“My dear, you're sitting on it.”

Pope John XXIII

One of the few pontiffs in history with a rich sense of humor, Pope John XXIII once reported to an interviewer that important problems would frequently come to mind in the middle of the night, disturbing his sleep. Half awake, he'd make a mental note: "I must speak to the pope about that." "Then," he confessed, "I would be wide awake and remember—I am the pope!" Once asked by a journalist, "How many people work in the Vatican?" the pontiff pondered the question, giving the impression that he was trying to come up with an accurate estimate. Then, with a straight face, he answered:

Pope John XXIII

“About half.”

John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy and his father Joseph were once proudly watching JFK's daughter Caroline at play. As they sat side-by-side on comfortable lawn chairs, no words passed between the two men for quite some time. Finally, the elder Kennedy said, "Caroline's very bright, Jack." Then, after a pause, he added, "Smarter than you were at that age." The president adopted a similar thoughtful demeanor and, without looking over at his dad, said, "Yes, she is." Then, after a pause of his own, he added:

John F. Kennedy

“But look who she has for a father.”

Chico Marx

Chico (correctly pronounced "chick-oh") Marx, the oldest of the brothers, got his famous nickname from his penchant for chasing young women (i.e., chicks) early in his life. Although the Marx Brothers made millions over the years, Chico was often in financial straits because of a lifelong gambling problem (his wife Betty insisted that they rent rather than own a home for fear of Chico's losing their house in a card game). Over the years, his interest in the ladies also created a few marital problems. At a club one night, Betty angrily accused Chico of kissing another woman on the dance floor. His defense may not have convinced his wife, but it has pleased language lovers ever since:

Chico Marx

“I wasn't kissing her,
I was whispering in her mouth.”

Groucho Marx

From 1950 to 1961, Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" was one of the most popular shows on television. In addition to being a perfect vehicle for Groucho's quick wit, the show featured several gimmicks that became part of television history (a little bird that appeared whenever a contestant uttered "the magic word" and the question, "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?"). Shot before a live audience, Groucho would typically interview contestants for a short while before moving onto the quiz portion of the show. However, so many of Groucho's quips were off-color or risqué that it generally took to up to two hours to produce enough suitable material for a half-hour show. One night, a contestant revealed that he was the father of ten children. When Groucho asked "Why so many children?" the man answered, "Well, Groucho, I love my wife." Marx hesitated for a moment, panned to the audience in his inimitable manner, and then delivered one of the most famous lines never to be actually broadcast on the show:

Groucho Marx

“I love my cigar,
but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”

Dorothy Parker

In the 1920s, Dorothy Parker was establishing a reputation as a witty woman with a sharp tongue (the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell called her, "My pretty, pretty cobra"). At the same time, Clare Booth Luce was becoming a respected journalist and well-known playwright. While both women were highly talented, their numerous political, philosophical, and personal differences resulted in a strained relationship. One day, Parker was about to step through a doorway when she came face-to-face with Luce. As the story goes, Mrs. Luce stepped aside, extended the palm of her hand, and said coyly, "Age before beauty." Parker glided through the door, saying ever-so-sweetly:

Dorothy Parker

“Pearls before swine.”

Babe Ruth

In the 1920s, George Herman "Babe" Ruth was not only the greatest home run hitter the game had ever seen, he was also—by a large margin—the highest paid. In 1927, he made a staggering $70,000 (teammate Lou Gehrig made $8,000 that year). Ruth's highest annual salary was $80,000, which he made in 1930 and 1931, at a time when the country was slipping deeper and deeper into The Great Depression. Despite a monster year in 1931 (.373 batting average, 46 home runs, 163 RBIs), Yankee officials cited economic hard times when they asked Ruth to reduce his salary to $75,000 for the 1932 season. Ruth made headlines when he held out. At a press conference, a reporter pointed out that $80,000 was $5,000 more than President Hoover's salary. Ruth considered the question and said:

Babe Ruth

“Maybe so, but I had a better year than he did.”

George Bernard Shaw

After the opening performance of Arms and the Man in London in 1894, playwright George Bernard Shaw joined the actors on stage to acknowledge a rousing, appreciative ovation. Amidst the sustained applause, a solitary voice cried out: "Boo! Boo!" Shaw looked in the direction of the voice and said:

George Bernard Shaw
“I quite agree with you my friend,
but what can we two do against
a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?”

Mark Twain

Olivia Clemens, the wife of Mark Twain, often struggled with her husband's salty language. After years of unsuccessful nagging, she decided one day to try a different tack. Having heard Twain cuss a blue streak after he cut himself while shaving, Mrs. Clemens spent the rest of the day repeating those very same profanities, hoping the endless repetition would get her husband to see what he sounded like and, hopefully, motivate him to clean up his act. Twain patiently let her have her fun throughout the day, but when she did it once again before bedtime, he calmly observed:

Mark Twain

“You have heard the words, my dear,
but you will never master the tune.”

Voltaire

In the mid-1700s, the great French man of letters known as Voltaire was invited by friends to attend an orgy in Paris. Having never participated in such an event, but always open to new experiences, he eagerly accepted the invitation. The next day, as the group rehashed the previous night's activities, the intellectually-curious philosopher reported that he had learned many new things and had greatly enjoyed the experience. Happy to learn that they might have converted the great philosopher to their hedonistic ways, the group invited him to join them again later that evening. Voltaire graciously declined by offering a bon mot that only served to enhance his reputation as a great wit and wordsmith:

Voltaire

“Ah no, my good friends,
once a philosopher,
twice a pervert.”

Mae West

In 1926, after spending a few decades paying her dues and developing her provocative stage persona, Mae West began writing, producing, and starring in her own Broadway shows. In her first play, titled Sex, she challenged social convention by playing a prostitute. The show was an immediate success, and West achieved national fame when she was jailed for eight days for "corrupting the morals of youth." In 1928, she followed up with her next hit play, Diamond Lil, in which she more fully displayed the sultry, wisecracking style that would become her trademark. In one scene, a woman gazes at West's jewelry and says with admiration, "Goodness! What beautiful diamonds." West replied:

Mae West

“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

West was so proud of that piece of dialogue that she reprised it a few years later in her 1932 Hollywood film debut, Night After Night. As years went by, the line became a cinema classic, so indelibly associated with West that she titled her 1959 autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It.

James McNeill Whistler

Primarily remembered today for his paintings, James McNeill Whistler also became a successful author with the publication of his 1890 book "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies." An exceedingly witty man, he was one of the few people who could hold his own with the incomparable Oscar Wilde. In one legendary exchange, after Whistler had offered a particularly clever observation, Wilde said admiringly, "I wish I had said that." Whistler seized the moment, replying:

James McNeill Whistler

“You will, Oscar, you will.”

Oscar Wilde

In 1882, the 28-year-old Oscar Wilde embarked on a year-long lecture tour of America. During that much-heralded trip, he traveled to more than seventy cities and towns across the U. S. and Canada, lecturing on art and the aesthetic movement to intellectuals in Boston, farmers in Nebraska, and miners in Colorado. With his velvet coat, frilly silk shirts, and patent leather shoes, Wilde looked every inch the English dandy. He also shocked people with his open displays of sensuality (when he met Walt Whitman in New Jersey, the two men greeted each other with a kiss on the lips). Wilde's tour started with a bang on January 2, 1882, when he arrived at New York Harbor. Asked by a U. S. Customs official if he had anything to declare, he famously replied:

Oscar Wilde

“I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

John Wilkes

Perhaps the most celebrated retort in the history of wit occurred in a famous exchange between two 18th century political rivals, John Montagu, also known as the Earl of Sandwich, and the reformist politician, John Wilkes. During a heated argument, Montagu scowled at Wilkes and said derisively, "Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don't know whether you'll die upon the gallows, or of syphilis" (some versions of the story say "a vile disease" and others "the pox"). Unfazed, Wilkes came back with what many people regard as the greatest retort of all time:

John Wilkes

“That will depend, my Lord, on whether
I embrace your principles, or your mistress.”
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