Ashleigh Brilliant & The Fine Art of Pot-Shots, July 05 | Wits of Bizdom


Ashleigh Brilliant (left) with his Fairfield host, Brian Stains.

I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED words, verbal contraptions (to quote my friend Richard Beymer), rhymes, sayings, bon mots, pithy twisted witticisms, even advertising slogans (I’d like to change Nike’s "Just Do It" to "Just Buy It"), bumper stickers (my favorite from the ’60s: "JEEZ IF YOU LOVE HONKUS"), even gutter-ball puns if they hit the mark.

I like words more than stories. They have such a life of their own. Call me shallow Hal or ADD, I’ll take a quick hit with a mind-opening kick any day. (Yes, I always read the back section first of The Sun magazine. Even as a kid I’d search for "Quotable Quotes" in Reader’s Digest.)

Somehow those sweet little bits of Zen-like word smatterings that align themselves iron filings-style in the magnetically charged brain waves of an inspired epigrammatist and turn one’s perspective insight-out have always thrilled the living bejesus out of me.

It was five or six years ago I submitted a collection of my own humble offerings in this vain (pun in cheek) called "Life Sentences" (self-publishing guru John Kremer thought the title would sell itself) to a number of the major publishing houses. I made it to a senior editor of one of the biggest, but alas, to make a short story petite: no cigar, cigarette, or Tiporillo.

Though I still harbor illusions for the book’s ultimate succe$$, it was doing market research on said mini-tome-let that I came across the work of one Ashleigh Brilliant (actual name), epigrammatist extraordinaire.

My first thought was to change my name to James Genius. As I discovered the prolific nature of Mr. Brilliant’s output, my jaw slackened. (He now has over 10,000 epigrams.) And he has attained copyrights for each and every one. He also includes an illustration with each Pot-Shot, mostly original drawings, a wonderful touch. He eschews the use of puns, topical subjects, and colloquialisms, and limits the length of each epigram to 17 words or less.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into Brian Stains, who informed me he had just hosted none other than Ashleigh Brilliant at his place. I couldn’t believe it. Brilliant, now 71, is traveling across America visiting fans. I asked if it would be possible to arrange an interview, and before I knew it, I was talking with the man himself. I found him to be self-effacing, personable, engaging, unsurprisingly succinct, and surprisingly down to earth for a card-carrying brainiac. (He’s a lifetime member of MENSA, the high I.Q. organization).

You came from England. Is that correct?

I was born in England. I first came at the age of five, during World War II, to Canada but spent the war years in Washington, D.C. My father was with the British Embassy in Washington. Then we went back after the war to England.

What were you trained as?

I was trained as a historian. I have a Ph.D. in American history from Berkeley and an M.A. in education. Did a bit of high school and college teaching.

When did your first Pot-Shot come up?

Well, I’ve always written strange little things and put them away on bits of paper. Didn’t know what to do with them. It was around the time of the hippie era in San Francisco that I finally decided to try and do something with them and published a few on postcards. I found you could print a postcard for a penny and sell it for a dime. So I figured I didn’t have to go back to teaching.

Did it take off right away with your first batch?

They sold right away. The first one was "Let’s keep the Christ in Chrysler."


Now there are 10,000 different ones, all available on postcards and published in a series of 9 books, plus one collection of essays and a book of social history called The Great Car Craze.

And you’ve always kept them in order. Is that right?

Oh, yes, I’ve always numbered them.

One of the remarkable things is you’ve been able to copyright all of your sayings.

That’s right, and I defend the copyright vigorously. If people violate it, I have to do whatever’s necessary to get them to stop.

You’ve had good success with that. Do you consider yourself a pioneer in terms of intellectual property rights?

In the field of short expressions, yes. But it’s not a pleasant business. I don’t recommend it.

One writer said you were alternately grateful and revolted by your success at hitting the funny bone of the American public when you were aiming at the brain.

Well, that’s sort of a takeoff on what Upton Sinclair said about his novel The Jungle. He aimed at the public’s heart and hit its stomach. That book started the crusade against conditions in the meatpacking industry. I was just making a joke on that, really.

You visited Fairfield recently as part of a cross-country trip. What did you think of the place?

Well, I was most interested in the fact that 10 percent of the population is doing Transcendental Meditation. There’s no other community like that in the world that I know of. So it’s fascinating. I was interested in the college and the Vedic architecture.

Do you have a favorite Pot-Shot?

They’re all my children, but one that I particularly like is "Fundamentally there may be no basis for anything."

Would you consider yourself a philosopher at heart?

I’ve never studied philosophy. When I do try to read books about it, I find it very difficult and boring. But people are always asking me that because I deal with fundamental questions that I guess philosophy also deals with.

May I ask what your creative process is?

I carry a piece of paper in my pocket and when I get an idea, I write it down. Everybody gets ideas but very few take the trouble to write them down. And then try to do something with them to make them marketable. I’m marketing my own thoughts–that’s what it comes to.

Well, you’ve made a living by your wits. And you do illustrations with each saying.

I used to do all the drawings myself freehand, but I’m not a trained artist and it was very hard for me. So over the years I’ve gradually been adapting copyright-free material more and more. I got syndicated in newspapers and had to come up with 312 a year. It took a lot of the fun out of it, became sort of a grind.

I wonder if you have any take on where the world is at these days–you know, the political situation? I was going to ask you to answer in 17 words or less.

[Chuckles] I’m no authority on this… My feeling is that it’s a much better situation than a lot of the other wars I remember. I was a child of World War II. That was so much more terrible than anything that’s ever happened since, that in a way I’m glad I had that in my childhood. Gives one a different perspective. The casualty figures from Iraq are miniscule. They’re all volunteers on both sides anyway.

Thanks for your countless Pot-Shots, Ashleigh, and all your Brilliant thoughts.

Okay, James. Goodnight.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots

With over 10,000 epigrams to choose from, it’s hard to pick just a handful. See more Pot-Shots at his website,

· I’m not getting paid much for staying alive but it’s good experience.

· Single-handedly, I have fought my way into this hopeless mess.

· Appreciate me now and avoid the rush.

· I waited and waited, and when no message came, I knew it must be from you.

· Living on earth may be expensive, but it includes an annual free trip around the sun.

· Life is the only game in which the object of the game is to learn the rules.

· I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent.

· Sometimes I make a mental note, but then forget where I put it.

· Just because I’m happy doesn’t mean you couldn’t make me happier.

· Correct me if you’re wrong, at your own risk.

· All I want is a little more than I’ll ever get.