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CRITIC AT LARGE

Those Tasty Treats: Hot Tossed Puns

February 26, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

I regret to say that the International Save the Pun Foundation in Toronto has struck again. John S. Crosbie, who calls himself the foundation's Chairman of the Bored (a weary and awful pun to begin with), has released his annual compilation of the ending year's 10 best puns.

It is a curious contest, in which the 10 best and the 10 worst would be regarded as indistinguishable by those who regard the pun as an insidious offense against humor, language and social decorum generally.

What is to be made, for example, of Crosbie's prime pun, already circulating widely, about the piece of string who enters a bar but realizes that the bar does not serve strings. The string ingeniously bends itself double and ruffles its hair. "You're a string," the barkeep says suspiciously. "No, a frayed knot," the string is able to reply.

Blessed be the twine that buys, Crosbie did not add.

The list includes another bar joke, about the saloon pianist in Chinatown who refused to play a fast tune until the customer had bought a half-dozen drinks. "With six you get allegro," the pianist explained.

Then there was the college football coach who was asked how one of his players was doing scholastically. "Terrific," said the coach. "He makes straight A's, although his B's are sort of crooked."

Those were the good ones.

Crosbie also immortalizes a little drama about a train that was running out of coal but knew it could get some more at the city of Gdansk, formerly Danzig. The train pulled into an unilluminated station. "Can you make out where we are?" the engineer asked a trainman.

"It says Danzig in the dark," replied the train man.

"Buy coal, porter," the engineer said, much relieved. (He couldn't very well ask the porter to buy Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, naturally.)

As in many jokes, it is obvious that the punch line came first and the chore was to figure a way to justify it. It ought not to be hard, I feel, to improve on the existing buildup to "A bunny shaved is a bunny spurned." (The original involves a small rabbit who wanted to be the Easter Bunny but chose a disastrously wrong approach.)

Crosbie reports on the honeymooning couple who requested a suite.

"Bridal?" asked the clerk.

"Yes," said the groom. "We're tired of horsing around."

The trouble with most puns is that they carry the aroma of sweaty labor rather than the perfume of sudden, appropriate inspiration. They produce groans even from those of us who love puns.

And there are, of course, people who hate puns with a passion near to rage. Most of the professed haters I've known simply think of words as sensible and utilitarian, like cinder blocks or shelf brackets, and not to be toyed with or used capriciously.

A fondness for puns is an addiction that begins, like most, with that first fatal step: the pun you heard or, even more fateful, the pun you made.

"Her neck's dirty." "Her does?" is technically a wordplay, not a pun, I suppose, but it went around like wildfire when I was in fifth grade, closely followed by "What's the matter with your baby, buggy?" both calculated to prove that speech lent itself to more variety and surprise than the parts of an Erector set.

A family named Jacobs moved into an apartment over a downtown store. As we drove by one afternoon, an aunt of mine said, "I don't see the stairs; I wonder how they get in and out?" I can't remember what I must have been reading, but, precocious brat that I was, I said, "They probably use a Jacob's ladder."

Any sensible family would have packed a change of socks and underwear and a handful of jelly beans into a bandanna and told me to leave town and make my own way in the world. But I was encouraged instead, and, like Crosbie's puns, I have gone from bad to worse.

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