Wit is in the ear of the beholder?

On January 3rd 1803 a man called Douglas Jerrold was born; a celebrated wit in his day, as well as a playwright and columnist. The Book of Days says that while his writing was droll, his popularity wouldn’t have been so great if it wasn’t for his line in ‘colloquial repartee’ – his apparently spontaneous and unrehearsed quips as he went about his lively social life in London. It then goes on to give a few examples which are for the most part amusing, probably enough to elicit a smile from bystanders, but I wouldn’t actually say they were anything out of the ordinary. In my experience (and maybe I’m just lucky with the people I spend time with), anyone with an irreverent sense of humour and a lively mind will throw quick witty comebacks at you several times a day, and the examples of Jerrold’s (presumably some of his best, or why would they be quoted?) are the kind of thing my dad would come out with on a day when he wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders. Either standards were lower back then, or he was genuinely the funniest person in his circle and it’s just that they didn’t know the right people. Which, as ever, goes to show that it’s not necessarily quality of output it’s just being in the right place at the right time.

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