The literary critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made a sharp distinction between “wit” and “humour,” a distinction that is useful also in characterizing radio and television comedians.
“Wit” was perhaps best defined by Pope in the “Essay on Criticism”:
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d . . . . (ll. 297-8)
Pope’s poetry also provides numerous examples; one of the best appeared earlier in the same poem:
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own. (Ll. 9-10)
Everyone has noticed how rare agreement is, except among politicians who have been fed “talking points” by their party’s campaign committees; yet no one but Pope thought to compare disagreements about literature to the disagreements we have among ourselves when we try to answer the question “What time is it?”
Wit, then, relies on the expression of an idea. It is a kind of verbal cleverness. “Humor” – or “humour” if you’re British – is an older concept, going back to medieval medicine. Medieval physicians believed there were four fluids (humours) in the body which were responsible for both diseases and he formation of personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). (If I’m telling you what you already know, please forgive me; perhaps somebody else out there doesn’t know it.) A person in whom blood predominated was “sanguine,” that is, eager and excitable; if the blood was excessive, it caused a disease, and the patients had to be bled by attaching leeches to them.
The classic example of the literary application of this theory was a play by Shakespeare’s friend and rival, Ben Jonson, Every Man in His Humour, in which the comedy arose from the personalities of the characters. It was so successful that Jonson followed it with a sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour.
If you followed radio comedy in the days when there was any, or if you’ve been watching television comedy in the years since radio devolved into disk jockeying, you can see how the distinction between wit and humor applies to the comics on those media. Here’s how my watch ticks – and yours, like Pope’s, may very well run differently from mine.
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