The Pun Also Rises: Staircase wit


The French refer to it as "l'esprit d'escalier." Literally "staircase wit," this does not refer in any way to the following joke:

Q: Why do people with two broken legs have difficulty with Alcoholics Anonymous?

A: Because it's a 12-step program.

No, "staircase wit" refers to the witty remark that you think of on your way down the stairs, having already left the room, on your drive home, or otherwise long after your clever rejoinder would have been timely or useful. All of us have experienced this to one degree or another, but for those of us who spend a lot of time writing jokes, it's all the more painful to think of a good one too late. Here are some examples of when this has recently happened to me:

"Can you believe this weather?"

What I Said: "I'm sure it will stop snowing by next week."

What I Should Have Said: "You totally can't! I lent this weather 20 bucks and it told me it would pay me back, and then yesterday I run into it and I'm like, 'Where's my 20 bucks?' And this weather says, 'I don't know what you're talking about, I only borrowed $5, and I'll pay that back really soon.' And it's now a month later, and nothing. Do not believe this weather!"

"What's your poem about?"

What I Said: "It's not easy to summarize, which I why I used the words I did."

What I Should Have Said: "It's about three minutes. It's about to be performed on stage so if you just stick around you'll be able to hear every word of meaning in the entire poem."

"What do you do with your time?

What I Said: "I try to enjoy myself and create interesting things."

What I Should Have Said: "I crush it up with sage and oregano, and then I sprinkle it over pasta."

"No, but what do you DO?"

What I Said: "I'm a freelance writer and performer."

What I Should Have Said: "I eat food, and play games, and occasionally justify my existence to people offended by the idea that I don't have a traditional job."

"Well, you know how women are."

What I Said: "Well, I know how one is."

What I Should Have Said: "I used to, but everything has changed now that they have freed themselves from the hive mind! They have begun to develop individual volition and make autonomous decisions, and now it's like they've all got their own personalities and aren't just interchangeable anymore. The modern world is so damnably confusing!"

"Do you want to come see this tragic play?"

What I Said: "Yes, clearly what I want to do with my weekend is skip my comedy show, drive four hours into town, and then rather than actually talking with you, sit and watch something really depressing on stage while remaining absolutely silent, so I can feel even worse about the world than the news already makes me feel, and then have to leave because you're going on a trip the next day. All of the suffering, none of the human interaction, worst of both worlds."

What I Should Have Said: "No thanks, Mom, but I appreciate the offer."

Seth Brown is an award-winning humor columnist, author of "From God To Verse," and should be nicer to his parents. His website is


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