What ‘Willy Wonka’ Taught Me About Being Well-Read

Written for Acculturated

September 6th, 2017

Many of my fellow college students enjoyed one last wild beach trip over Labor Day weekend. My holiday weekend, on the other hand, consisted of a bit less beach—ok, no beach—fewer parties—fine, zero parties—but much more Gene Wilder. So who really had the better time?

Between U.S. Open tennis matches, I was able to re-watch The Producers and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I consider The Producers one of the funniest movies ever made, and have seen it so many times I can quote it forward and backward for you. I’d probably only seen Willy Wonka once before, quite a few years ago, but I was surprised to find it an engaging experience, even for an adult. In fact, there were a number of things I picked up on that I missed as a child.

For starters, Willy Wonka quotes Shakespeare. A lot. And when he’s not quoting the Bard, he’s appropriating lines from Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a host of other literary figures. Some of Wonka’s seemingly bizarre lines are actually literary allusions. Even his famous “We are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams” line isn’t original to him. It comes from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem Ode.

After I noticed a few Shakespeare lines in the film I started to pay closer attention to the dialogue, searching for more of these Easter egg references to literature. It helped that I was watching the film with my roommate who is an English major. Together we were able to catch a few more quotes from other works, and in the process developed a new appreciation for the movie. The realization that Wonka borrows liberally from authors and poets of the past adds a new depth to the character. He’s more than just an eccentric businessman. He’s brilliant, a modern-day renaissance man, with a sly sense of humor as evidenced by his very unserious use of serious literary lines. I doubt Shakespeare meant “Adieu, adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow,” to be said sarcastically in Romeo and Juliet, but Wonka’s use of the line was firmly tongue-in-cheek.

Had I not been moderately well-versed in Shakespeare and been watching with a friend who is far better-versed in the literary canon, I would have missed out on this layer of the film; see—our liberal arts educations do have value! In fact, what re-watching Willy Wonka revealed to me is that expanding one’s horizons through a literary education doesn’t just improve your knowledge of the canon—it improves your appreciation for humor and the absurdity of life.

Being “well read” often sounds stuffy or pretentious; in fact, it can make you more open to others as well as to moments of unexpected humor, as it did for me after watching Willy Wonka. It offers you greater access to puns, double entendres, and relevant quotes and quips, and gives you a better understanding of human nature. It offers a recognition of what makes something funny and can help you “get” even obscure jokes. If I know nothing of both union movements and chemistry, how can I know that this joke—“How do you tell the difference between a plumber and a chemist? How they pronounce ‘unionized’”—is hilarious?

A number of studies have tied wit to intelligence, specifically, verbal intelligence—take that STEM majors—but intelligence alone isn’t enough to make someone funny. Cleverness is just a tool that requires knowledge to be wielded properly. Your abstract reasoning skills matter very little if you can’t come up with a reason the chicken crossed the road. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but knowledge is its lifeblood.