If Rastafarians avoid the Panama Canal, is it because they dread locks?
That groaner appears nowhere in “Away with Words,” Joe Berkowitz’s tour of America’s pun competitions. But “dread locks” might be irresistibly bad enough to advance me to the second round, for the bar is low: Berkowitz, a reporter at Fast Company magazine, got laughs from a Texas crowd for reciting a string of food puns that culminated in “Stop gherkin us around — this is your fennel warning!”
The author rounds out his irreverent survey of “spoken-word fight clubs” by visiting the set of “@Midnight,” where comics gather “for guilt-free punning,” and “Bob’s Burgers,” the “punniest show on TV.” He also interviews headline writers at the New York Post, one of whom suggested that a story about the heroin-using chef at a French bistro be titled “SMACK MY BISQUE UP.” (That was deemed too cruel to run, even for the Post.)
So what type of people love puns enough to declaim them under the hot lights of Brooklyn’s Punderdome or the blazing sun of Austin’s O. Henry Pun-Off? Berkowitz discovers that they are comedians and coders, actors and slam poets, mathematicians and “unattached English majors” for whom a bad pun “isn’t the party foul it might be elsewhere.” Under stage names such as Groan Up, Black Punther and Quip Me, Baby, Bon Mot Time, these “closeted punsters” view the wit wars as “a safe haven for that person in every office and classroom turning blue in the face from suppressing wordplay all day.”
Thankfully, “Away With Words” is more than just wall-to-wall one-liners such as “Elephants are good at multi-tusking.” A visit to the Humor Research Conference in Texas introduces Berkowitz to “witzelsucht,” the German word for a punning disease that can be a symptom of stroke or other brain damage. (Despite the superior length of its nouns, German has only half the volume of English, whose million-word larder makes it “uncontestably the best language to pun in.”)
Grateful as I am to Berkowitz for detailing the survival of the glibbest, I feel wounded that he brands my favorite quip in the book as an overly effortful “look, Ma, no hands” pun. Yes, it was written in a bid to make Mitt Romney sound folksy, but how often do you get to witness a triple wordplay? “The cook should serve eggs Benedict on hubcaps,” Romney said during a 2011 campaign stop at a diner, “because there’s no plates like chrome for the hollandaise.”
Allan Fallow is a freelance writer and book editor in Alexandria, Va.
By Joe Berkowitz
Harper Perennial. 288 pp. Paperback, $15.99