Five Simple Rules for Making Witty Debate Remarks

You’ve probably seen it before. You are sitting at a desk watching a varsity policy elimination round when suddenly, an experienced debater cracks an outrageously funny analogy and the entire room explodes in laugher. You probably admire these debaters for their ability to produce snarky, witty, and/or sarcastic remarks at almost any juncture, and always at the right moment.

Wit in debate is a skill that’s acquired with experience. It’s not something that can be taught, only acquired. What this means is that if you’re just a novice, there are probably better things you should be focusing on. But for those who want to add just a little extra spice to their speeches in hopes of getting that extra half a speaker point, read on.

1. Do not use ad hominems. You might think you’re being funny when you say “I thought Sarah Palin was the worst debater I’d ever seen…but after this round I might have to change my mind!” If, in fact, the statement is even remotely close to being true, you’re not being funny, you’re just being a jerk. Not only do you make your opponent feel like crap, you also piss off the judge in the back of the room. That means your speaks will suffer, not to mention your reputation. If you’re strutting around like an insufferable asshole during rounds, word will spread, trust me, and it won’t make for a positive experience for you.

The only exception to this rule is when you’re being legitimately ironic. For example, if you were to direct the same remark at one of the best debaters on your circuit and you had a good relationship with them, everyone would probably find it very amusing.

2. Attack the arguments. This goes right along with number one. Instead of attacking a debater for their poor argumentative skills, attack their argumentation. Make fun of it, but keep it light and funny. “Off their disad, look judge, I’ve seen more warrants on a Buddhist monk’s criminal record. Their scenario simply lacks any semblance of rational thought.”

Attacking the arguments is great because you can still take jabs at your opponents without directly offending them or the judge. Plus, if you pull it off right, it can actually help your speaker points.

3. Avoid sketchy issues. What constitutes a sketchy issue? Typically, anything that has a reasonable chance of offending someone is a subject best left off the record. This limitation extends to politics - Sarah Palin jokes included (unless you’re absolutely positive the judge is a flaming liberal). These issues are especially off-limits in front of lay critics. So while you should feel free to compare the quality of your opponents’ impact scenarios to those of a dozen monkeys with typewriters, it’s probably not such a great idea to make casual references to, say, prison rapes.

4. Be original. Do not ask for a moment of silence for a dropped argument. Their case does not have more holes in it than swiss cheese. Your evidence is not on fire. These might have been creative statements to make…in the 90’s. Nowadays? Not so much. Using the same old tired clichés will not jive positively with experienced judges.

5. Don’t impromptu. Even if you think of a really, really awesome joke to crack in the middle of a speech, don’t use it. Why not? Remember, the object of snarky comments is to help your speaks, not to tank them. It’s best that you think these things out before you go into rounds, because not doing so automatically creates a risk that you will accidentally violate one of the four rules outlined above. Instead, you should bounce those great ideas you have off your team and your coaches during breaks and see what they think.

What are some of your favorite witty remarks? Feel free to post them in the comments section.

- Nick