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Shrewd and Witty Quotes From History’s Humorists

Modern comedy is primarily defined by stand-up specials and social media sensations. But there was a time that the humble humorist played an important role in entertainment, too.

Comedians are more commonly known for being performers, while humorists are typically defined by the written word. Both strive to make their audience laugh, but a humorist is more concerned with wielding intellect and insight to deliver important, and sometimes controversial, social satire.

The great humorists throughout history have been essayists, novelists, critics, and, yes, comedians. They’ve shared biting wit, enviable intelligence, and an undeniable, unforgettable way with words. Humorists may not be as centered in comedic or literary culture as they once were, but they are still out there — you just have to keep your eyes and ears open.

Here are 12 witty and irreverent quotes from some of history’s most shrewd humorists.

Be respectful to your superiors, if you have any.
Mark Twain

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Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was an American writer who is best known for his travel writing and adventure fiction, such as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He has been praised by “The New York Times” as the "greatest humorist the United States has produced."

I haven't got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.
David Sedaris

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David Sedaris is considered one of the best current American humorists. He rose to fame through his self-deprecating stories about his family and through his regular appearances on NPR.

That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.
Dorothy Parker

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Dorothy Parker was a poet, critic, and short-story writer who was a fixture in the New York literary scene, revered for her sharp and sarcastic wit.

Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.
Nora Ephron

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Nora Ephron was a journalist and essayist, but is best known for going on to write, direct, and produce genre-defining romantic comedy films such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless In Seattle.”

Careful, if you think too much, they’ll take you away.
George Carlin

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George Carlin was a stand-up comedian and actor whose frank humor and social critiques made him one of the defining talents of his time.

Marriage is a fine institution, but I'm not ready for an institution.
Mae West

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Mae West was an actress and screenwriter whose bawdy sense of humor pushed boundaries and earned her many accolades.

I am not a politician, and my other habits are good, also.
Artemus Ward

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Artemus Ward, the pen name and main character of Charles Farrar Browne, was an American humor writer and comedic performer who is considered a pioneer in stand-up comedy.

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.
Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein was an American-born, Paris-based writer whose dry, idiosyncratic humor was an understated part of her work in the modernist movement.

I always begin at the left with the opening word of the sentence and read toward the right and I recommend this method.
James Thurber

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James Thurber was an American writer and cartoonist. His work, including comics as well as the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which has been called a masterpiece, primarily appeared in “The New Yorker.”

The problem with winter sports is that — follow me closely here — they generally take place in winter.
Dave Barry

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Dave Barry is an American author who wrote a nationally syndicated humor column for the “Miami Herald” from 1983 to 2005. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for "his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.”

In God we trust; all others pay cash.
Jean Shepard

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Jean Shepard, often referred to simply as “Shep,” was an American writer, TV and radio personality, and actor. He is best known for co-writing and narrating the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story,” which is based on his book “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” inspired by his own life.

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
Gore Vidal

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Gore Vidal was a writer and intellectual known for his outspoken and satirical wit. He is best known for his 1946 novel “The City and the Pillar,” which drew criticisms at the time for portraying overt homosexuality.

Featured image credit: Frederic SOULOY/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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About the Author
Nicole Villeneuve
Nicole is a writer, thrift store lover, and group-chat meme spammer based in Ontario, Canada.
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