We all know the split. The determinists who believe that there is something in some of us that drives us to be lawyers. The behaviorists who believe that law school squeezes us into what we are.
But what we are is a profession without a funny bone. Watch a group of people whenever the senior partner starts: “You see. There were these three guys who went into a bar. A ….” By that point the flinch factor has the full group looking like Clinton supporters in Illinois.
We cannot tell jokes. And it is ironic. Here we are, the advocates for the oppressed, and we are less successful at telling a joke than the average 8-year old boy.
I can hear the loyal opposition now: “Hold on there, son. I make people laugh every day.” And I will bet you do.
But I will also bet that what has your audience smiling is not humor. It is probably wit.
What God or law school (and academics easily confuse the two) gave most of us is the uncanny ability to 1) make an incisive observation, 2) reduce it to a comic phrase, and 3) deliver it with impeccable timing.
The result is seldom a belly laugh. Usually, a knowing chuckle or wry smirk.
Wit. And we are experts at it. Like Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it.
Oscar Wilde complimented James Whistler on a quip: “I wish I’d said that.” Whistler fired back: “You will, Oscar, you will.”
Frasier: Niles, you’re a good brother and a credit to the psychiatric profession.
Niles: You’re a good brother, too.
Dorothy Parker reviewing Katharine Hepburn on Broadway: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
Oh, yes. There is that aspect, too. Wit usually has a target that leaves the field at least bloodied — if not eviscerated.
The distinction between wit and humor is hardly original with me. One of my favorite writers, John Simon, pointed out in Paradigms Lost that humor and wit are nearly the exact opposites of one another. Humor is “basically good natured and often directed toward oneself.” On the other hand, wit is “aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others.” Simon, of course, is a master of wit.
If you want to see the distinction in its full French glory, rent the film Ridicule. It is worth every sub-title.
So, here is my suggestion. Leave the jokes to the ex-accountants. We can go our merry way keeping alive the tradition of the Lady Astors and the Algonquin Round Table.
After all, at least one of the three guys who went into the bar is going to need a good lawyer some day.
Today’s guest blogger is Steve Cotton, who is Assistant Counsel for Legal Services at SAIF Corporation, a workers’ compensation carrier, in Salem, Oregon. He has written articles and CLE treatises on workers’ compensation and criminal law, and he is a regular speaker at CLEs and other training sessions, where his wit is welcome, and his humor is barred. He also publishes Same Life — New Location.