what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed
Jokes are anonymous. Good jokes show no traces of their author. They are cultural possessions. Their forms and formats persist as their content changes. One generation’s mother-in-law jokes becomes the next one’s taunts about feckless youth. Jokes thrive on cliche. Wit is a different species of humour, marked by originality and authorship. Witty remarks are original, expressing, as Pope had it, what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed. Wit shows the mark of its author. We know a quip by Wilde or Coward as distinctly theirs, not as merely a joke of its time.
Comedians are a hybrid artist, some of them merely performers of jokes, others writers of wit,—most are a combination. When we watch a programme by Larry David or Tina Fey it often has the quality of their authorship, and the quality of their performance. Mean Girls could only have been written by Fey; 30 Rock has her imprint as author and performer. When Larry David says “Pretty good,” the humour is performative. When he tells a dinner companion he wants to elevate small talk to medium talk (when challenged about his intense conversation style), he is being witty. Witty comedians say things we recognise as true but which we wouldn’t usually say: few of us outright say we are bored by our interlocutor’s small talk. Jokes, however, tend to reflect things we all think and say, or at least frequently hear said.