Great Insults in Pop Culture

Slate (yes, I read there often) has an article highlighting some of the all-time great expressions of personal dislike in poetry. From the Roman poet Martial, translated into English in 1608 by Frances Davison, comes my favorite (of course it’s potty humor):

I muse not that your Dog turds oft doth eat;
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd’s sweet meat.

This has me thinking about great put-downs in pop culture. What are the elements of a great insult? I think the most important element has to be wit. Insult contests are ultimately about who’s smarter (or, in the case of hip hop, badder and smarter). A witless insult can easily be deflected by the insultee simply pointing out its witlessness. Also, if your opening salvo is sufficiently witty you can deflect any comebacks of inferior wit with a sarcastic, “Nice comeback.”

For the similar reasons, originality is very important. Implicit in an insult is a claim of authorship. You don’t want to get caught plagiarizing other people’s insults. That’s an automatic loss. And you can’t repeat an insult that you have already used, no matter how great it was. That’s also an automatic loss.

Of course, many great insults are one-sided affairs–flame wars require two willing participants. And great insults can come in many forms: song lyrics, cartoons, animation, impersonation (caricatured or straight), etc. Great insults can also have fictional, or non-obvious targets.

Here are some good ones off the top of my head:

Jim O’Rourke in “Memory Lame”: “Looking at you / Reminds me of looking at the sun / and how the blind are so. damn. lucky.” It’s even better sung. I laughed out loud the first time I heard this one.

R.E.M. in “The One I Love”: “This one goes out to the one I love / a simple prop to occupy my time.”

Oingo Boingo in “Impostor” (not very witty, but it gets points for its bluntness): “Your head is firmly lodged way up your butt. Where it belongs!”

I didn’t see this one, but I get a kick out of the idea of Trey Parker and Matt Stone blowing up a ham-stuffed Michael Moore puppet in Team America. It was their way of taking care of a personal beef.



8 thoughts on “Great Insults in Pop Culture

  1. All this and no mention of Yo Momma? Best new show on.

    I’m sure as soon as I hit submit I’ll think of some great song lyrics.

  2. “Memory Lame” is posted to Radio.Blog (thanks, Susan). Not only is it a good insult song, but it’s a great song period.

  3. South Park has a ton of great ones. The most recent one is George Clooney’s Oscar speech creating a cloud of smug that threatens to join the smug cloud over San Fransisco and destroy the world.

    “Barbara Streisand” as one of the profanities that Cartman uses to defeat Saddam Hussein was awesome. I’m sure there are other great “we hate Streisand” moments.

    Tommy Boy: “I can actually hear you getting fatter.”

  4. I think the Mountain Goats’s “No Children” is pretty good.

    I hope that our few remaining friends
    Give up on trying to save us
    I hope we come up with a failsafe plot
    To piss off the dumb few that forgave us
    I hope the fences we mended
    Fall down beneath their own weight
    And I hope we hang on past the last exit
    I hope it’s already too late
    And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here
    Someday burns down
    And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
    And I never come back to this town
    Again in my life
    I hope I lie
    And tell everyone you were a good wife
    And I hope you die
    I hope we both die

    I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
    I hope it bleeds all day long
    Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
    We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
    I hope it stays dark forever
    I hope the worst isn’t over
    And I hope you blink before I do
    Yeah I hope I never get sober
    And I hope when you think of me years down the line
    You can’t find one good thing to say
    And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out
    You’d stay the hell out of my way
    I am drowning
    There is no sign of land
    You are coming down with me
    Hand in unlovable hand
    And I hope you die
    I hope we both die

  5. From Planes, Trains and Automobiles:

    You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have NONE of that. They’re not even amusing ACCIDENTALLY! “Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecodotes for you. Oh and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.” I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can you stand it?” I’d say, “‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take ANYTHING.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Woah.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back – you would. Agh! Agh! Agh! Agh! And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea – have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!

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