The death of the pun

Charles Purcell laments an age of literal headlines. No pun, no fun.

There was a golden time in journalism when the art of the pun reigned supreme … when journalists competed with each other to create magic such as “why I stuck a cracker up my clacker”, when food editors printed “let’s be friands” in 16 point type, when Mrs Slocombe’s naughty pussycat was in literary vogue and “show me the Monet” in an arts supplement was considered high wit worthy of the royal salon of the Sun King.

For generations of journalists raised before the eventual domination of the internet, the headline itself was a chance not only to capture the readers’ attention, but a chance for subeditors toiling in the background to excel. For it was often the subeditor – not the editor or the writer – who was responsible for such words of wit. It was their chance to shine, another tool in their tool belt apart from knowing the correct way of using the Oxford comma and how to police layouts for “orphans”, “widows” and “DOCS children” (OK, I made up one of those).

The racy English tabloids were often the leaders and inspirations for the punning competition. While it is technically not a pun, “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” is perhaps the gold standard of a clever headline … funny, intriguing, bound to attract the reader’s attention. It is perhaps the one headline all newsfolk know.

Cartoon by Andrew Weldon

Cartoon by Andrew Weldon

In Australia, the NT News has become famous (infamous?) for its extremely clever and punnish headlines. In the Walkley Awards, under the category of three best headlines, Paul Dyer of the NT News submitted three crackers: “Eyeful tower”, “Dogs of phwoaarr!” and the world-famous “Why I stuck a cracker up my clacker”, justly walking away with the top prize.

The NT News pushes the envelope in ways that some institutions fear to tread. I would have to go back to my days on ACP’s P-mags to get away with headlines such as “why I stuck a cracker up my clacker”. (Mind you, “phwoar” was an oft-used word on the P-mags. “Phwoar – what is it good for?”, “Man O Phwoar”, “Phwoar King and Country” … the list is endless.)

Yet while journalists on the more highbrow mags dream of writing clever headlines like “how do you solve a problem like Korea” or “headless body in  topless bar”, the arrival of the internet and search engine optimisation has put a crimp on the whole pun craze. Funny but non-specific words such as “cracker” or “clacker” would not automatically take the online reader to the NT News story (unless, in this case, it is already world famous), whereas something more boring and specific such as “Darwin man ends in hospital with a firework up his buttocks” might. And type in “eyeful tower” into Google and the first reference you get is for a pun-happy optician in the UK.

Thus, treats for the subeditor to write – such as “Thai me kangaroo down, sport” – will not draw as many hits as “local Thai restaurant wins food award”. Amusing japes on ’80s songs such as “Wake me up before you go go” will lead online readers to Wham fanpages rather than your lifestyle article about sleep cycles.

The time of headlines proclaiming “bigger than Ben-Hur” are almost a thing of the past .. “local sports arena ranked among nation’s biggest” have sadly taken their place. “Let’s get physical” has been replaced by “neighbourhood gym attracts customers with spin class”. The whole subgenre of puns of Thai restaurant names is in peril. You will never pick up a daily broadsheet and see the headline “for he’s a jolly good phallus” or “wangs for the memories” any more.

Yes, the puns will continue to sneak in due to the efforts of proud subs, but facts and functionality rather than fun has become the order of the day. And somehow, the language of headlines is all the more poorer for it.

Although we can all live without puns about Mrs Slocombe’s cat.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.

Andrew Weldon is a cartoonist who knows his way around a pun. Check out his website.