Sometimes, a surname can be a lot to live up to. For Santa Barbara-based cartoonist-cum-writer-cum-philosopher Ashleigh Brilliant, said surname says a lot. It does not, however, tell the entire story.
Born in England in 1933 – with a now barely discernible accent that adds new levity to the last name, a last name he calls “convenient” – Brilliant claims his longtime career was never initially a long-term goal. With ever an affinity for writing, however, Brilliant says he has “always written strange little things on little bits of paper.” Before such “strange little things” morphed into what today are his copyrighted “Pot-Shots” (known in the biz as epigrams) and “Brilliant Thoughts,” they were mere pieces of paper placed in Brilliant’s pockets while he played professor aboard a world-sailing ship.
Upon deciding that writing was more “Brilliant” than teaching, Brilliant docked ship in San Francisco in 1967, deciding to turn his “strange little things” into postcards for sale in Haight Ashbury. And, he said, “To my surprise, people bought them.”
Shortly thereafter, in 1973, with wife Dorothy’s family history deeply rooted in Santa Barbara, the two headed south from San Francisco. Now, nearly forty years later – and, more importantly, approximately 10,000 “Pot-Shots” and “Brilliant Thoughts” later – Brilliant’s knack for witticisms has become a full-time enterprise. “It became a business,” he said.
His business now involves everything from syndicated cartoonist positions at various nationwide newspapers (including the News-Press, a gig he landed in 1975) to the marketing of his 10,000 phrases on t-shirts, coffee mugs, bags, posters, calendars, books, and, of course, on postcards. Such commercial success is not without a solid structure, though, namely Brilliant’s self-imposed rules for writing. “It’s a very restricted kind of composition,” he said.
First and foremost, Brilliant says, is his strict seventeen-or-less word limit, a marker Brilliant attributes to the wonder of haikus, which are always seventeen syllables. Although most of his epigrams are less than sixteen words, Brilliant deemed an extra word was necessary “for emergencies.” Other rules include: timeless over trendy, easily translatable, and, most importantly, totally original.
While Brilliant splits the drawing duties with various copyright-free sources, the words behind his success are his and his alone – a fact he has no problem fighting for. Over the years, Brilliant has amassed somewhat of a reputation for employing legal action to ensure that no one uses his Pot-Shot sayings. Such controversies have involved an author and a t-shirt company, both of which used phrases Brilliant claims he formulated first. “Many people don’t believe you can copyright something under seventeen words,” Brilliant said. But, according to a United States federal judge, epigrams are perfectly copyrightable. Because of that, according to Brilliant, all of his Pot-Shot sayings are protected internationally by the Library of Congress.
Also international, is Brilliant’s fan base. With his works available in Spanish, French, German, and Russian languages, Brilliant attests that “very rarely does a day go by that I don’t get some sort of comment from somebody.” Having shipped his merchandise “all over the world,” Brilliant likes the idea that his “audience is unlimited.”
Part effort to be more limitless, and part effort to make business easier, Brilliant has gone high-tech, setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as establishing on online ordering system. Although he takes credit for all of his technological ventures thus far, Brilliant smiled, thinking of one fan’s pending project. “Someone from Finland,” Brilliant said, “is helping with an iPhone app.”
Brilliant also shone when speaking of his community. “I love Santa Barbara,” he said. And his experiences here have run quite a gamut. In 1997, for example, Brilliant spearheaded a successful 9000-signature campaign to illegalize gas-powered leaf blowers within the city, saying the noise distracted him from his work. “I found the noise upsetting,” he said. While “the gardeners were very upset,” Brilliant said, one of his Pot-Shots comes to mind: “There are worse things than noise, but I can’t think of any because of all the noise.”
And, for Brilliant – a Mensa member – thinking is the name of his game. Despite his deep wishes for a local Pedestrian Society, Brilliant traverses Santa Barbara’s scenic streets just fine on his own. “I do a lot of walking, bicycling. I walk all around. I am a walking office. I have always got a radio, iPhone, and paper to write on,” he said. His most cherished local feature, though? “I want to thank all the people in Santa Barbara who’ve been friends and supporters all these years,” he said, all sincerity and no witticism.
After thanking his 27-year-long assistant Peggy Sue Lemkuil and laughing about his “series of [pet] cats,” Brilliant – sitting in his living room-cum-office with wife Dorothy – was calm, content, congenial. “I was a pretty good teacher, I think,” Brilliant said, speaking of his decision to forgo teaching for writing. “[But] after sailing around the world two times, I needed to do something else.”
Also, Brilliant added, “It’s nice to be able to make a living on your own thoughts.”
For more information regarding Ashleigh Brilliant, including how to order his various works, visit ashleighbrilliant.com.