A father sent his two children off to an expensive Ivy League school,” John Crosbie begins. “When they informed him they intended to concentrate their studies in the field of ancient Egyptian plumbing, he blew up. ‘You mean I’m paying $20,000 a year to graduate a pair of pharaoh faucet majors?’ ” Expectantly, Crosbie leans back, waiting for the sound that is music to the ears of pun lovers everywhere—a groan.
A pun, according to English essayist Charles Lamb, is a play on words “so exquisitely good and so deplorably bad, at the same time.” As the world’s reigning guru of the form, though, Crosbie, 61, scorns those who call it the lowest form of wit. Four years ago he published Crosbie’s Dictionary of Puns (Crown Publishers, Inc., $6.95), with over 3,500 entries ranging from aardvark (“heavy labor”) to Zoroaster (“she refused to join any religious group until Zoroaster”). In 1978, bewailing the state of the art, he formed the International Save the Pun Foundation. Recently, in what he aptly describes as “a world event of incredibly minuscule importance,” he launched a monthly newsletter called—yes—the Pundit.
Crosbie’s all-in-good-pun crusade began a decade or so ago after an evening with publisher-humorist Bennett Cerf. Over a couple of martinis, which, Crosbie notes needlessly, “always foster a dry sense of humor,” they were bemoaning the absence of comprehensive collections of funny stuff. Since then, in addition to pontificating on puns, Crosbie has published a dictionary of riddles, and he is at work on a book of limericks.
Crosbie was born in Montreal, where his father was a steel manufacturer and his mother was an elocutionist. Young John had a terrible stutter and decided to try to overcome it by speaking in public as often as he could. At 13, after his family moved to Nova Scotia, he was paid $3 a week for a half-hour radio show on which he prodded the local funnybone by such offbeat stratagems as playing Hawaiian music on St. Patrick’s Day. After serving in the army during World War II, he worked briefly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (“until I saw myself on TV”), then switched to advertising. Since 1967 he has been president of the Magazine Association of Canada, which develops advertising for major consumer publications.
His spare time, however, is devoted to sticking it to those who don’t believe the pun is mightier than the sword, sharpening his wit in a third-floor office in the comfortable Toronto home he shares with his second wife, Patricia, and their two children. Even though he worries that “there’s a fried chicken following me everywhere I go,” he sometimes spreads his gospel on the lecture circuit, telling people his flash-in-the-pun hobby is here to stay.
While suggestions from pun pals pour into Crosbie’s post office box daily, most of his dictionary’s entries are of his own creation. He tries not to use Patricia as a sounding board, he says, because “I’m very anxious to have the marriage continue.” Instead, Crosbie favors “the CIA method. I sneak puns up on people in conversation and see if there’s an audience response.” Crosbie cautions those whose mastery of paronomasia—the art of pun-making—might give way to paronomania. “In the early stages, you are the life of the party,” he warns. “In the later stages, you don’t get invited.”