A Few Questions With Chris Lamb,
I’ll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Comebacks, Putdowns, and Ripostes
Q1: What’s your favorite comeback in I’ll Be Sober in the Morning?
A: The 18th-century British politician John Wilkes was involved in a nasty exchange with his rival John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who yelled at Wilkes that he would either die on the gallows or of venereal disease. Wilkes then replied, “That, sir, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
Q2: How did the Earl of Sandwich respond?
A: Probably by collecting what was left of his manhood, putting it in a thimble, and then skulking away quietly.
Q3: In your introduction, you write that the comeback and putdown “come from the dark side of the brain?” What do you mean?
A: The person who delivers the putdown isn’t interested in getting a chuckle. Putdowns aren’t jokes, they’re assaults; they’re intended to leave their victim skulking away with their manhood in a thimble.
Q4: Based on the quotes in your book, who was the person you would most like to spend an evening with?
A: Calvin Coolidge. I like quiet evenings at home. Coolidge had that rare charisma that he could walk into an empty room and blend in. When he died, Dorothy Parker said, “How could they tell?” It’s a great line. I don’t know why it’s not in the book.
Q5: Who was the person in your book you would least like to spend an evening with.
A: Joseph Stalin. Mass murderers don’t tend to be a lot of fun. I’m not speaking from personal experience here, just a gut feeling.
Q6: You don’t typically find Stalin quoted in humor books, do you?
A: I think this is probably one of the few humor books that quote Stalin. When told that Pope Pius objected to the Soviet Union’s plans to invade Poland, Stalin asked: “How many divisions does the Pope command?” When told of Stalin’s answer, the Pope replied, “You may tell my son Joseph he will meet my divisions in heaven.” That may not seem particularly funny to you but it had the Archbishops slapping their knees for weeks.
Q 7: What’s the secret to delivering a spontaneous putdown?
A: Winston Churchill, who contributed the book’s title, said, “All the best off-the-cuff remarks are prepared days beforehand.”
Q8: How does one do this?
A: Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1988, knew that Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential candidate, had been comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. During the vice presidential debate, Bentsen waited for his moment. When Quayle compared himself to JFK, Bentsen responded with his “I knew JFK and you’re no JFK” line.
Q9: Who, among recent politicians, was the best at the putdown?
A: “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina. During a television debate, one of his opponents, for unknown reasons, challenged Hollings, then in his 70s, to a drug test. “I’ll take a drug test,” Hollings snapped, “if you’ll take an IQ test.”
Q10: Do you expect any memorable comebacks by any of the candidates currently running for president?
A: No. For two reasons. Humor comes about as naturally to this bunch as knitting to a bear. Secondly, the ability to deliver a clever riposte isn’t the kind of thing that’s rewarded in politics. Political campaigns and the news media want everything choreographed and predictable. If a candidate delivered a comeback, like the ones found in this book, the candidate’s media consultants would spontaneously combust and the media would bury the candidate as too mean to be president.
Q11: Didn’t the media say that Senator Bob Dole’s humor was too mean-spirited when he ran for president?
A: It was Dole who was mean-spirited. There was nothing wrong with his humor. During the Reagan presidency, the three living former presidents, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon were standing side by side at a White House event when Dole observed, “There they are. See no evil, hear no evil,” and then pausing to look at Nixon, he said, “And evil.”
Q12: Do you think politicians shy away from using humor because there’s an impression that humor isn’t dignified for a president.
A: Maybe. We can’t very well have someone like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, or Winston Churchill running the country, can we?
Q13: What inspired you to compile I’ll Be Sober in the Morning.
A: How else would my name get in a book like this?
Q14: What did you learn about politics and politicians from compiling this book?
A: We should be electing the wits. Instead, we’re electing the twits.