Prolific Shelby Friedman serves up puns faster than readers can digest "The way houses are built now, the only thing that'll last 30 years is the mortgage." SHELBY FRIEDMAN

February 27, 1992|By Jonathan Eig | Jonathan Eig,Dallas Morning News

If puns were water, Shelby Friedman would be the Mississippi: steady, prodigious and a little twisted.

Mr. Friedman, a longtime Dallas resident, has written more than 100 puns a week every week for 60 years. By a conservative guess, his lifetime of work amounts to more than 300,000 groaners.

Sometimes they gush forth without effort, like a force of nature, waking Mr. Friedman from sleep, interrupting his conversation or halting him midpoint in a racquetball game. He can't stop the flow or even slow it down.

Thousands of the puns are truly awful, and even Mr. Friedman admits his strength is quantity rather than quality. Among all those thousands of puns, perhaps a few hundred border on the inspired.

But no one celebrates a body of water drop by drop. Roll on, big river.

Dip a sheep in chocolate ... you get a Hershey baa.

-- Reader's Digest, October 1969.

Shelby Friedman, 80, is on the verge of becoming the most prolific contributor in the history of Reader's Digest magazine. He is already, far and away, the leader among all living writers.

Only Mark Twain and Winston Churchill stand in Mr. Friedman's way. And look out boys, Shelby's gaining fast.

At last count, Reader's Digest computers showed 277 entries for Twain, master satirist; 270 for Churchill, legendary statesman; and 267 for Mr. Friedman, retired pharmacist.

Fact is, Twain and Churchill have an unfair edge. They're older. And they don't have to pay postage.

"I don't think Mark Twain was as prolific writing quips as Shelby," says Ninabell Allen, assistant managing editor for Reader's Digest, who has been reading Mr. Friedman's torrent of index cards for 30 years. "This guy's an incredible wit."

There's the nuke scientist who swallowed uranium and got atomic ache. -- Reader's Digest, October 1980.

There have been only a few droughts. A day or two here or there when no puns came. But the droughts have been far outnumbered by the floods, the days, weeks and months when Mr. Friedman couldn't keep up with his mind's work.

In his bedroom closet, stacked high in a corner, are some 50 spiral notebooks containing thousands of raw, unpolished puns. Friedman has been unable to use them because new ones are born too quickly.

Reader's Digest gets at least a dozen Shelbyisms every day. Dozens more go to The Wall Street Journal, National Enquirer, Quote magazine and Dallas Morning News sports columnist Blackie Sherrod. Sherrod's readers know Mr. Friedman as "the Postal Pest."

The stack of magazines in Mr. Friedman's closet has grown tall and wide, but he never tried to count his achievements. Did Babe Ruth count home runs? The true greats don't worry about competition.

"Wow, boy!" says Mr. Friedman. "Mark Twain and Winston Churchill. That is illustrious company."

Cross Lawrence Welk with a cosmetics firm ... you get "Avon and uh-two." -- Reader's Digest, May 1984.

We can look for clues to explain the phenomenon: Something his parents did; something a teacher told him; a bad fall, even. But the author says there is no explanation.

"They pop in my mind," says Mr. Friedman, who almost never says anything funny. "I can't help it."

Mr. Friedman is a shy, gentle fellow with an expression that a stranger might call sour but friends recognize as serene. He has droopy eyes, a square nose and a strong chin. His nickel-colored hair, combed straight back, is thinning. He has skinny drumsticks for legs, but he still springs to his feet like a young man.

He doesn't like to read or recite his humor. Usually, when a friend asks him to say something funny, Mr. Friedman says he can't think of anything. He doesn't care to be the center of attention, only to see his work published.

Reader's Digest, with a global circulation of more than 28 million, is his favorite venue.

Mr. Friedman and his wife, Becky, enjoy a wonderfully ordinary retirement. They walk malls, go to movie matinees and clip coupons for discount dinners.

After 41 years of marriage, Becky Friedman says her husband never brags about his puns or tries to amuse her.

"I never hear any quips," she says. "I'm glad he does it, though. It keeps him occupied."

When Mr. Friedman sleeps, he keeps a pad and pen next to his bed. When he plays racquetball at the Jewish Community Center or goes to a movie, he always carries two pens and two pocket-size notebooks.

Why two of each? In case one runs out, of course.

He spends several hours a day transferring his notes to index cards on a 40-year-old Sears typewriter, a plastic job held together with tape. He spends hours more stuffing envelopes.

The going rate for a Reader's Digest pun, most of which appear on the Toward More Picturesque Speech page, is $50. He makes almost enough to pay for his huge supply of stamps, index cards, notebooks and envelopes.

"It may sound kind of kooky to some people, but it fills my time," says Mr. Friedman, his speech slow and dry. "To be retired and to be bored is a terrible thing -- to sit on the edge of the bed and say, 'What am I going to do today?' "

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