Puns always elicit strong emotions, good or annoyed, from the punner and the punnee. While they get a bad rap in most social situations, they can cause the hardest hearted listener to crack a smile on occasion. Done right, these puns can even make you sound smarter.
So what is the secret to executing the perfect pun? For that ambiguous answer, we turned to an expert: Southpaw Jones, who won the title Punniest of Show in the 2017 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships. (Yes, there are events devoted entirely to competitive punning.) He broke down his punning process into four basic steps.
First and foremost, you must accept the imperfections of the English language. Some words sound like other words. There are grammar rules we never follow and don’t realize it. Embracing these quirks can get the creative juices flowing. “I think there’s this concept that particularly the English language was given to us by the gods, that it is the ultimate expression of human communication, and that it’s infallible,” Jones explains. “But of course we know that … there’s a lot of potential for overlap and miscommunication.”
Great punners listen carefully to pick out potential puns in a conversation, so you need to be a good listener. Jones says that the unintentional puns someone makes when they says one thing and you think they said something else are “training ground” for making your own. You also need to get loose. Open your mind to all the pun-cibilities. “Go beyond what even makes sense as an easy pun,” Jones says, “and if you’re able to stretch reality, stretch the way that you’re talking, you can have multi-word puns.”
Finally, like any competitive sport, you must practice. Practice on the people around you until you’re on the verge of ending friendships and getting disowned. A useful way to do this is to find a topic to base your puns off, whether that’s the theme of a conversation at dinner or something you just finished talking about. It just needs to be fresh in your audience’s mind.
“If you have a topic and you establish it very aggressively early on, then you can make puns based off that topic,” Jones says, “and the cognition of the audience is already sort of half-way there to understanding where you’re going and what they might expect to hear.”
And as all athletes do, always go for the gold. The golden pun, that is. A regular old pun expresses two different ideas. For example, if you’re talking about birds and say, “I’m a raven lunatic,” the joke is about the similarity of “raven” the bird and “raving” as in “crazy.” But the golden puns, Jones’ favorite type, take it to the next level. His preferred example: My summer camp doesn’t even have cabins. It was in tents.
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Now, is there an actual Perfect Pun that reigns supreme, held in high esteem above all others? It’s hard to say. One pun, however, stands out in Jones’ mind as one of the all-time bests:
Ghandi walked around barefoot most of the time, so he had rough feet. And he fasted a lot for spiritual and political reasons, so he’s not very physically strong. And because of the fasting, you could say that he did not have great breath, it didn’t smell great. So to sum it all up, you could say that Ghandi was a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.
Cue standing ovation.
On the flip side, the punning champion also has strong opinions on which puns are the worst: Food puns are just too overdone and over-easy for his taste—“Egg puns, specifically, should be illegal”—and anything that’s more innuendo than pun gets no praise from him. But as you embark your quest to write the perfect pun, don’t let a chorus of groans be a measure of quality for your word play.
“Just because it elicits a groan or because it’s easy does not in my mind make it bad,” Jones says. “Some people are just gonna groan at any pun no matter what.”
For further inspiration, check out Jones’ winning performance from this year’s pun-off.