Sunday, April 22, 2007

Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Cup of Old One-Liner in the Mo-o-o-o-orning...

Sky Movies just did a poll of the top one-liners, and these two guys linked to it. Unfortunately, the list is complete bollocks.

Number 9 in the list - 'Nice beaver! Thank you, I just got it stuffed!' - is all right, but isn't much more than a schoolyard joke.Number 7 - 'Is that hair gel?' - (from Something about Mary) isn't even a one-liner. And you have to wonder how exactly number 10 could get into a 'best of all time' list: 'When I met Mary I got that old-fashioned romantic feeling where I'd do anything to bone her' .

Kenneth Williams tops the list with 'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!', which is pretty good, but Mel Brooks got in similar one liners, for instance: 'Let's face it! You can't Torquemada anything!' I also like a few of the one-liners Brooks gives the Sherrif of Rottingham in Men in Tights. He strides through the film, crying,

'You deer to steal a king's dare!'


'Struckley has locksed again!'

This habit he has of mixing up words is fun, but when Robin Hood bursts into a feast and begins wooing Maid Marian, he has a complete breakdown:

'Gah! It is ILLEGAL to kill a PIG in the king's FOREST, Locksley. Don't you know that?'

Now I think that's pretty funny, but then, that's just me. Anyway, why are we just going for movie one-liners? Some of the best come from plays and books. Lines from 'There's Something About Mary' remind me of Aristophanes at his least amusing -

'Another! Make it donkey shit this time!'

'Another, another! From a boy with lots of lovers. He says he likes them friction treated.'

(And Aristophanes at his least amusing is still hilarious.)

Aristophanes even has the honour of composing one of the longest one-liners in history. It's just one word long, or should I say it's just one long word. (And a warning: I'll be referring to this word a lot. I plan to make it a party trick. Yes, I am the death of every party.)


Wikipedia describes it thusly:
The gynecocracy of this play attempts to treat everyone equally. They create this dish so that they can serve one food that fits everyone's needs.
Ogden Nash has an engaging ability to make his one-liners rhyme:

Hark! It's midnight, children dear!
Duck! Here comes another year!

His poem 'The Middle' is so clever, but it fits in four short lines, and deserves to be quoted in full:

When I remember bygone days,
I think how evening follows morn;
So many I loved were not yet dead,
So many I love were not yet born.

Of course, you expect one-liners to be pithy and terse, but sometimes (like the Aristophanes quote above) the joke lies in their length. This is a neat trick that some writers have, of packing a lot of detail into their writing while keeping the structure simple. P J O'Rourke does this:

Usually, writers will do anything to avoid writing. For instance, the previous sentence was written at one o'clock this afternoon. It is now a quarter to four. I have spent the past two hours and forty-five minutes sorting my neckties by width, looking up the word paisley in three dictionaries, attempting to find the town of that name on The New York Times Atlas of the World map of Scotland, sorting my reference books by width, trying to get the bookcase to stop wobbling by stuffing a matchbook cover under its corner, dialing the telephone number on the matchbook cover to see if I should take computer courses at night, looking at the computer ads in the newspaper and deciding to buy a computer because writing seems to be difficult on my old Remington, reading an interesting article on sorghum farming in Uruguay that was in the newspaper next to the computer ads, cutting that and other interesting articles out of the newspaper, sorting - by width - all the interesting articles I've cut out of newspapers, fastening them neatly together with paper clips and making a very attractive paper-clip necklace and bracelet set, which I will present to my girlfriend as soon as she comes home from the three-hour low-impact aerobic workout that I made her go to so I could have some time alone to write.

S J Perelman does it as well, although in his case it's never quite certain where his one-liners are leading you to:

I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws.

Even better:

I have Bright's disease and he has mine.

And what about the classics? Jane Austen, anybody?

* How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!

* We have been exceedingly busy ever since you went away. In the first place we have had to rejoice two or three times everyday at your having such very delightful weather for the whole of your journey...

* It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

* One cannot be always laughing at a man without now and then stumbling on something witty.

(I quoted that last one on sufferance, but it is bloody funny.)
And of course, there is always this quote by Jack Handey:

Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Basically, it's made up of two separate words — "mank" and "ind." What do these words mean? It's a mystery, and that's why so is mankind.

So there.

(Post written by Tim in an attempt to get some infernally stupid melodies from 42nd Street out of his mind. What are your favourite one-liners, everyone?)


Karen said...

Nobody reads books anymore- You should know that! I was walking past a bookshop earlier today though and Mel Brooks was on the blackboard- "Hitler, what a painter! He could paint an apartment in a day. Two coats" (I'm probably mangling it, I know).
It is very disturbing that Something About Mary featured so prominently- no Woody Allen in the top ten? I'm too lazy to click on the link.
My favourites- Oscar Wilde to the wallpaper. In fact, I have a strange temptation to type up the whole dying words section of Brewer's in response. Also, just about all of All About Eve. And, of course, patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.

Karen said...

Oh, and Samuel Johnson's dictionary is fabulous for one liners too.

And not forgetting Tom Waits- "You know there ain't no devil, that's just god when he's drunk".

TimT said...

The Brooks quote is good. The strange thing about Brooks' humour is he often doesn't aim at writing one-liners (according to the biography of him I read, he actually wanted to avoid being witty, maybe because puns distract attention from the character/situational comedy/absurdity of the plot, etc) but he is still so witty, and witty in such an original fashion. I like: 'Don't interrupt! I'm having a rhetorical conversation!' and 'Do you know who I used to be?'

Woody Allen was in the top ten (unsurprisingly, it's about masturbation - 'Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with a person I love.') And there's even a Marx Brothers' quote.

Here's a literary quote for you, from Groucho. It's cute in that it relies for its humour on two commas placed at different spots in a sentence!

Outside, a dog is a man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read.

TimT said...

Macquarie Dictionary has a 'Dictionary Wit' section which takes off where Dr Johnson's dictionary left off:

Karen said...

Oh, I love the Marx brothers!

I thought the Brooks joke was pretty good too. I agree that it's often best to avoid that painfully witty line after painfully witty line style. The Woody Allen line is good, although he has much better. I enjoy Woody Allen movies for the cumulative effect rather than the individual lines. The observation of human relationships is especially sharp, but its subtlety is realised gradually, I think.
Much of it is context- for instance when Bette Davis says "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night". It's such a hackened line now, but it's still a fabulous moment when she does it.

TimT said...

Oh man, I hadn't heard that one! I just laughed out loud! Mae West is also hilarious: 'A hard man is good to find.' Thanks, Mae.

I never liked The Marx Brothers as a kid, the humour never quite hit the spot with me, but I suspect they'll grow on me now. I must get the DVDs.

Tim said...

The Complete Prose of Woody Allen is like an dictionary of one-liners. Of course, some of his best one-liners are two-liners, or even more-liners, but that's fine with me.

Karen said...

I just got out my copy of the collected Dorothy Parker while the computer was out, but, strangely, couldn't find anything I wanted.

Mae West- I like "It's not the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men".

One about my profession: "What literature can and should do is change the people who teach the people who don't read the books"- A.S. Byatt.

Billy Bragg (yes, showing my politics) has great one liners: "The most important decisions in life are made between two people in bed"; "Just because I dress like this doesn't mean I'm a communist"; "I can't wait till we take our blood tests. Oh Baby, let's take our blood tests now".

Karen said...

Here we go. Something from Dorothy Parker relating to what you said above:

"There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply callisthenics with words".

TimT said...

That Mae West, it's all sex sex sex sex sex sex sex with her. She has a one track mind. I don't get any of those Billy Bragg quotes. Well, all right, the first one makes sense but not the rest.

Tim, yes. I think I have the same book you do. The other thing about Woody Allen one liners are their strangeness. Weird jokes about smuggling penguins across state lines, etc.

Karen said...

I think of Mae West as a somewhat tragic figure, a perception which was reinforced by a documentary about her I once watched. I'm sorry to hear you don't get Billy Bragg. I like to sing along to him in my terrible fake English accent when I've had a bit to drink. I guess you won't join me in that when I eventually buy you the promised drink.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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