Alexander Pope, who is often cited amongst the greatest of England’s early-18th century poets, once said: “True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d, What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d;”
Translation? “Smart sounds best when said perfectly naturally. Where everyone should’ve understood, that not everyone could’ve done it!”
In sum, sounding brainy should sound like a no-brainer! And if that sounds mind-blowingly impossible to you? Don’t worry – you are not the only one to have lost your mind trying! Because “true wit” still remains the real genius behind everyone’s ability to nail a killer retort; both on and off the big screen! And there’s good reason for this—
According to medical evidence, the brain operates at the centre of how we process and control our emotions – inside and out of movie theatres. And whether these feelings be love, fear, anger or happiness. So that when we cried more salt tears than Jack probably really needed during his swansong in Titanic (1997). And laughed uneasily from between our fingers during Killing Eve, when assassin Villanelle mournfully reproves a captive Eve: “You should never tell a psychopath they are a psychopath. It upsets them.” We have nothing but our own heartless Brain to blame!
This is because the brain’s limbic system comprises a deeply-interwoven network of structures, which together control our emotional responses. Within this network is the Hypothalamus, which regulates our emotional responses to internal or external triggers. The Hippocampus retains and reproduces our memories made; setting the groundwork for how we comprehend both Time and Space. The Amygdala acts as an emotional filter; regulating our responses to human or environmental goads. While the cingulate gyrus and the parahippocampal gyrus double-team within our Limbic Cortex, to affect our mood, our motivation, and ultimately our mind-set.
We get to see all of these cerebral structures in full comic display, in the trailer for the movie “Our Brand Is Crisis.” A 2015 production starring Billy Bob Thornton as Pat Candy, and Sandra Bullock as “Calamity” Jane Bodine.
PAT CANDY: Jane Bodine!
PAT CANDY: So! What’re you doing here? I thought you retired, or gave up or something!
JANE: What happened to your hair?
PAT CANDY: So you still got a great sense of humour!
Now, if the only thing you ever saw of this movie were those five lines, you’d still come away feeling that you’d “understood” at least a few important things about each of the characters. Primary amongst them being the fact that there is obviously some kind of history – albeit of the “complicated” variety, behind these two. And you would be right!
For Bullock plays an American hired-fixer, helicoptered into Bolivia’s teeming political quagmire to shore-up the shaky presidential chances of a less-than morally steady candidate. While Thornton is her “nemesis on the other side.” An equally shrewd global shit-stirrer; intermittently flashing his own “International Political Consultant” card when every other flimsy recourse has failed him.
Hence Pope himself would likely term as perfectly “natural,” the brief burst of un-friendly fire with which these sworn combatants generously strafe each other, upon first renewing acquaintance! But what makes it thus, pray tell? And more importantly: could even perfectly natural be made “even better?” Let me count the ways!
First, when it comes to rapid-fire delivery of killer comebacks: it’s all in the wrist…of Great Writers! Skilled professionals, who either intuitively or after years of honed experience, know exactly what to tweak! And when to leave perfect-ly alone! As such, the optimal placement of punch-lines remains your best comedic defence strategy!
According to Alfred Hitchcock: “dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.” Put in Mere Mortal words? He’s merely intoning that taking Jane’s and Pat’s combative back-story into consideration, and then lobbing the normal workings of the human brain gleefully into the mix, we should – at best, get something like the following upon revision:-
PAT CANDY: Jane Bodine!
JANE: Pat. ..who, again?
PAT CANDY: So! What’re you doing here? I thought you retired, or gave up or something. . .you!
JANE: Something like what happened to your hair, I see!
PAT CANDY: And I see you’ve at least managed to hang onto your sense of humour!
Second rule of discombobulating engagement? “Never waste a Gift Harangue fallen unawares from out your opponent’s own mouth!” I actually winced at just how generously a balding Pat sets-up his own egotistical demolition, through introducing such loaded words as “retired” and “given-up.” Yikes! One can only applaud the vigilant opponent therefore, who immediately seizes upon the attacker’s words, and just as swiftly re-directs them back at a tender spot laid so temptingly bare upon him/her!
Additionally, note how by repetition of the words “something” and “I see,” I have affirmed Hitchcock’s notion of great dialogue being “a sound among other sounds.” This is achieved by keeping the insults flowing pretty evenly from out each character’s arsenal, and aids in furthering the discourse not just structurally, but also phonetically.
Finally, during any War of Words, witty comebacks are best delivered both cold and “rapid-fire.” This is not as anomalous as it sounds! This is actually because the rules of engagement within this particular-ly fractious Theatre of combat, demands that each combatant must “thrust-home” into their opponent’s ego and with bloodless incision, any likely wounding insult calculated to throw the opponent’s wits off-kilter. “Parrying-away” from self thereafter, all emotionally-affective rebuttals standing in danger of ricocheting back onto your Teflon coating!
This, alas! Does NOT include slapping your hands over your ears, and bleating pettishly: “Nah-nah! Nah-nah! Naaah-nah!” The ultimate objective being? Prevention of both adversary and audience, from witnessing you to have received a direct-ly affective “hit!”
Hence, Pat’s no-doubt hurtful taunt about Jane’s professional retreat, gets met by her lofty re-framing of the discussion above her own head, and smacked insultingly onto his. There, to be deftly cut-down by Pat’s tacit refutation of Oscar Wilde’s nostalgic musings, that in Jane’s own sadly-reduced case: “Sarcasm is (indeed!) the lowest form of wit. (and not, as Oscar himself posits!)…the highest form of intelligence.”
Moral of this Caustic Tale? “First – and always: do MAXIMUM harm! Second? Repeat – but NEVER retreat!”
D. J. PAYNE, Dialogue Doctor – Denise is a banter dialogue specialist whose favourite thing to do is help other writers take their scripts from funny to Funtastic.
© Copyright 2021. D. J. Payne. All Rights to this Material fully Reserved by Author D. J. Payne.