“The inveterate punster,” wrote Stephen Leacock, “follows conversation as a shark follows a ship.”
It is true. And like the shark, the punster tends to lose his chum pretty quickly. Puns are like grenades. You throw one into the midst of conversation and generally, after the smoke clears, you’ve lost several friends and the survivors are groaning.
Gary Hallock, the producer of the annual O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, calls the pun “the shortest distance between two straight lines.”
It will surprise no one who has ever met me and few who have read anything I ever wrote that I was in Austin this weekend to compete in the 35th Annual O. Henry Pun-Off.
Punning is a compulsion.
I have been a punster all my life. Well, not all my life. I date the beginning of my obsession with puns to the day my parents gave me a book called “Pun and Games” by Richard Lederer. It contained several chapters of exercises showing you exactly how to tie any normal phrase to a chair and bludgeon it into a pun. Some required more set-up than others. (Efficient bakers have four-loaf cleavers. The man who hated seabirds left no tern unstoned.)
“Here,” my parents might as well have said. “We are concerned that you might turn into one of those hip, over-popular teens who goes on drinking binges and requires lots of supervision. Have a book of puns.”
They were right. Nothing kills a party like the person insisting, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” and asking you to guess the difference between cats and commas (“One has claws at the end of its paws, the other is the pause at the end of a clause!”). As a consequence my social life was rather staid; I staid in on Friday nights, I staid in on Saturdays...
In college, I co-wrote two pun-heavy musicals for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals with the now-justly-famous Megan Amram, musicals that included entire runs of puns with themes like disease, “Someone tried to give the author of the Iliad a poisoned canteloupe! And I was like, ‘That's a malignant melon, ’oma!’ ”
But in general, with the occasional exception of headlines involving Rick Santorum, the punster’s lot is not a happy one.
Until you arrive in Austin.
The yard of the O. Henry house in Austin on Saturday was notably devoid of groans. It was a cross between an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and the Olympics, a mixture of relief at finally being surrounded by others who understood your struggle and adrenaline-fueled competition.
For the regular Olympics, people have no trouble understanding why you do what you do, unless you are, say, a curler. And even then. No one ever stops Michael Phelps on the street and says, “Why do you keep rapidly swimming the length of an indoor body of chlorinated water?” Nobody jeers the hurdlers. Reductio’ed ad absurdem, their habits are as strange as ours. And we don’t have to wear unitards while we do it.
Then again, this is probably for the best.
At the beginning of the Pun-Off, the crowd recited, human-microphone style, the definition of the pun: “A pun,” we chanted, “is the humorous use of a word or words in such a way as to suggest different meanings or applications or words that have the same or nearly the same sounds but different meanings.”
Then the competition began for Punniest in Show (90 seconds, 2 minutes maximum of puns on a topic of your choosing). This competition crowned Jerzy Gwiazdowski, whose routine on states and state capitals won a perfect score for being as uniformly inspired as his name was difficult for the organizers to pronounce.
The Punslingers competition followed — 32 contestants (including yours truly) in five grueling elimination rounds of punning on assigned topics. I soldiered gamely through Politics — No Names (“I have difficulty holding an election”) and Cigarettes, but fell during Units of Measurement. In general, you can tell that someone is scraping the bottom of her personal barrel of names of Units of Measurement when she tries to base a pun on the unit “king’s arm.”
The concluding round of the Punslingers was more than 10 minutes of inspired, magnificent puns on the subject of Farming and Ranching, featuring defending champion Ben Zieg and eventual winner Dav Wallace. If you are — as I am — the sort of lonely, depressed punster whose cockles are warmed by the thought of hearing 10 minutes of inspired puns on the subject of Farming and Ranching, then you should book tickets to Austin right now. It gets butter, as they might have said.
But punning is a decreasingly lonely pursuit. Puns are everywhere. Most days, Twitter features a hashtag just begging for some variant of pun. #CelebrityFish. #LessImpressiveMovieTitles.
Punning is one of those things that everyone does but no one admits to, like reading advice columns or texting from the bathroom. Still, one of the surest signs that you know and love a language is that you can pun in it. Sure, for the most part, your love of the language is unrequited, and English keeps trying to take out a restraining order against you for mutilating it beyond recognition. But it has been well said that a good pun is like steak — a rare medium well done. And in Austin, it was well done.
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Here's the video of my routine. I tried to take a philosophical approach to things. I wound up coming in fourth — a point away from the medal stand — which is fair, given the excellence of the top three competitors, my difficulty with the time limit, and the fact that people are always telling me to stop med’lin’.
But just wait until next jeer.
For more about the pun-off, visit PunPunPun.com.