Witty barbs don’t come easy

Years ago, when I was living in Alberta, I bought an old rundown house. I didn’t have a lot of money so I tried to do the repairs myself.

My brother Jay, who actually knows how to fix things, stopped by regularly to monitor my progress. One afternoon, he walked in the front door while I was busy looking under the kitchen sink.

“Hi Jay,” I yelled. “I have a problem.”

“What problem?”

“My plumbing is old and doesn’t work properly!”

“Have you considered visiting a urologist?” he replied with a grin.

I didn’t have a comeback.

I was a funny kid, so I just naturally thought I’d be good at repartee. Not so. In fact, most everybody I knew was better at it than me. Take my high school girlfriend. One time we were out with friends and started teasing each other. I thought I’d up the ante.

Quite imperiously I said, “Maybe it’s time for a battle of wits.” Without missing a beat she replied: “No, it wouldn’t be sporting to go to war with someone who’s only half-armed.”

It is strange how many people take their best shots after someone dies. When asked about the demise of a man he disliked, Mark Twain replied: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

Upon the death of obnoxious studio executive Harry Cohn, Hedda Hopper said: “You had to stand in line to hate him.”

However, when it comes to insulting the dead, Red Skelton takes the cake. At Cohn’s funeral, a perplexed studio worker came up to Skelton and wondered aloud why so many people would come to a funeral service for a tyrant. Skelton replied: “Well, if you give the people what they want, they’ll show up.”

Most of us think that comedians are expert at delivering verbal barbs, but they’ve got nothing on politicians.

Take Winston Churchill. One of his foremost critics was Lady Nancy Astor. Seeking to emphasise her disdain, she once said: “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” To which Churchill famously replied: “Madame, if I was your husband, I’d drink it!”

Some Canadian politicians were also gifted at the art of insult. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was known for his self-aggrandizing tendencies, but could nevertheless not stomach arrogance in others. He once turned on a former Quebec premier with razor-sharp efficiency.

“Jean Lesage is the only person I know who can strut sitting down.”Pierre Trudeau was no slouch either. When an opposition Conservative irritated him during question period, Trudeau got to his feet, nodded to his now silent tormenter and said: “The honourable member disagrees with me. I can hear him shaking his head.”

I think the some of the cleverest barbs are those we aim at ourselves. In that regard, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wins the prize. Once when a staffer told him that it was high time that he quit dropping names, Mulroney replied: “I know, the Queen Mother was telling me that just the other day.”

After all these years of writing humour columns, you’d think I’d have learned the fine art of verbal jousting. Not so. In fact, after reading what happened to George Bernard Shaw, I no longer even try.

Just ahead of his brilliant play, Major Barbara, Shaw sent Winston Churchill an insulting telegram: “Have reserved two tickets for you on opening night. Come and bring a friend — if you have one.”

Churchill wired back: “Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.”

Who could ever top that?

Ray Smit is the author of The Trouble With Tapioca, available at

Amazon.com. His columns appear every other

Thursday in The NEWS. E-mail:


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