Read more of Slate’s “Weddings” issue.
How to deliver a decent wedding toast in five easy steps:
1. Whether you’re raising a glass at the rehearsal dinner or working the mic at the reception, bear in mind that the fundamental idea is to honor the bride.
The foundation of honoring the bride is in not actively dishonoring her. A common pitfall involves lolling in the manure-rich field where the groom sowed his wild oats. It is one thing to employ a subordinate clause alluding, gently and generally, to all that foolishness that his beloved took him away from. It is quite another to request that every female wedding guest who has a set of his house keys now return them and then to grin like a game-show host as, by pre-arrangement, 14 women rise from their seats, in their wrap dresses, jingling key rings. That is the true story of a tacky incident that plays out, in more subdued ways, every weekend in America. Under no circumstances should you declare that the groom is a Don Juan. If it’s that important an issue, then make yourself heard when the officiant says, “Or forever hold your peace.”
Also, it is rarely advisable to assert that the bride is a slut. Imagine an entire country-club dining room cringing, one Friday night in Connecticut, when a college pal of the bride’s lurched to the end of a sloppy encomium. Wrapping up, the speaker said, “So, in conclusion, Greenwich girls are easy …”
2. Incredible though it may seem, I am sparing you the worst quotes from that evening on Greenwich Harbor. Among the toaster’s many problems was that she was unspeakably—and thus unspeechmakeably—trashed. How toasted should one be when delivering a toast? Not very. Go to the bar for one stiff cocktail to quell your nerves. Go back for a glass of sparkling wine to get your tongue feeling fizzy and to have a punctuation-making prop in hand. Ask the bartender nicely for a two extra napkins on which to jot down loose notes or a general outline. Ideally, you should be speaking from the heart, and reading from a detailed handwritten text will encourage the sensation of performing a book report.
Can you read the speech off your phone? No, you cannot read the speech off your phone.
3. To be clear and unoriginal, a toast is not a roast: If you intend to belittle the bride or bridegroom, then try if at all possible to reach back to the days when they aggressively upsold Girl Scout cookies or engaged in torrential bed-wetting. In their invocation of childhood, such stories, like ring bearers and flower girls, point to fertility and renewed innocence. This is not the place to dwell on drunk antics or to trace parallels between the summer abroad when you introduced the happy couple and The Aristocrats.
Stories involving felonies, attempted felonies, bodily fluids, the failure to emit bodily fluids in a timely manner, and coke-fueled orgies should be saved for another time. I suggest that bridesmaids and groomsmen instead encourage rounds of filthy remembrances at the stag and hen parties, respectively, by way of providing a pressure valve. Alternately, concerned parties can spread word that guests inclined to work blue should save it for the post-reception afterparty back in room 423 at the Sheraton. That is the proper place to regale your peers, and them only, with the tale of college road trip where you and the bride dropped acid in Manhattan and then, on the way back to Sarah Lawrence, asked the tolltaker at the George Washington Bridge for directions to your dorm.
4. The wedding toast is essentially a lyric, as opposed to a narrative, form. And yet, week after week, year after year, bastardizers of the art persist in rendering toasts at epic length. There are five known manuscripts of the speech that Abraham Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg. Each contains fewer than 300 words. If it takes you much longer than that to talk about how you and Jen used to carpool together, then the problem is yours. Less is more, especially if you are now or have ever been in love with one or both of the betrothed. If you are in any way concerned about seeming to be pathetic, then you are already pathetic. Shut your trap and save your energies for making clumsy passes at random cousins in room 423 at the Sheraton.
5. Above all, remember that this is not about you and your “thoughts.” It is all too easy to turn a wedding toast into a proprietary statement that asserts your closeness to the bride and/or groom. Or into an extension of your pitiful antics at open-mic night. Or into another expression of your bitter disapproval of the surrender at Appomattox. No.
Open with a joke. (If a joke escapes you, then, like the writers of the sequels to The Hangover and Austin Powers, just repeat jokes that were made earlier.) Keep it brief. Stand up straight. In a wedding toast—unlike in marriage itself—love is all you need.