On the surface, the guy wasn’t particularly fearsome—pudgy, late 30s, polo shirt, plaid shorts, baseball cap. He looked completely at ease, one hand in his pocket, the other holding the microphone loosely, like a torch singer doing crowd work. And when he finally began talking, it was with an assurance that belied the fact that he was basically spewing nonsense.
“I hate all people named John,” he said with bravado. “Yeah, that’s right, that was a John diss!” The crowd roared. John diss. Jaundice. A glorious, groan-inducing precision strike of a pun.
If you’re an NBA rookie, you really don’t want to go up against LeBron James. Anyone’s trivia night would be ruined by seeing Ken Jennings on another team. And if you find yourself at the world’s biggest pun competition, the last person you want to face is four-time defending champion Ben Ziek. Yet that’s exactly where I was, on an outdoor stage in Austin, Texas, committing unspeakable atrocities upon the English language in front of a few hundred onlookers.
The rules of the 39th annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships “Punslingers” competition are simple: Two people take turns punning on a theme in head-to-head rounds. Failure to make a pun in five seconds gets you eliminated; make a nonpun or reuse a word three times, and you’ve reached the banishing point. Round by round and pair by pair, a field of 32 dwindles until the last of the halved-nots finally gets to claim the mantle of best punster in the world. (By the way, here’s how to write the perfect pun, according to those at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.)
My first-round opponent froze when his turn came to pun on waterborne vehicles. Seriously, yacht a word came out. Canoe believe it?
Eventually, there we stood, two among the final eight: me, a first timer, squaring off against the Floyd Mayweather of the pun world. I’d been a little jittery in my first couple of rounds, sure, but now I was punning above my weight, and I knew it. Once the judges announced that we’d be punning on diseases, we began.
“Mumps the word!” I said, hoping my voice wasn’t shaking.
Ziek fired back: “That was a measle-y pun.” Not only was he confident, with a voice that was equal parts game show host and morning radio DJ, he was nimble enough to turn your own pun against you.
“Well, I had a croup-on for it,” I said. Whoa. Where’d that come from?
“There was a guy out here earlier painted light red,” Ziek said. “Did you see the pink guy?”
“I didn’t,” I responded. “Cold you see him?”
Again and again, we pun-upped each other. From AIDS to Zika we ranged. Almost five minutes later, we’d gone through 32 puns between us, and I was running dry.
Ziek, though, had a seemingly endless stockpile and tossed off a quick alopecia pun; I could have bald right then and there.
As far as my brain was concerned, there wasn’t a medical textbook in existence that contained something we hadn’t used. As I stood there, silently sweating, the judge counted down, and I slunk offstage to watch the rest of the competition—which Ziek won, for the fifth time.
Knowing I’d lost to the best cushioned the blow, but some mild semantic depression lingered. When I was growing up, in the 1980s, my father’s favorite (printable) joke was “Where do cantaloupes go in the summertime? Johnny Cougar’s Melon Camp.” This is proof that—well, that I grew up in Indiana. But it’s also proof that I was raised to speak two languages, both of them English. See, there’s the actual words-working-together-and-making-sense part, and then there’s the fun part. The pliant, recombinant part. The part that lets you harness linguistic irregularities, judo-style, to make words into other words. It’s not conscious, exactly, and whether this is nature or nurture, the result is that I’m playing with language all the time. (Here are some clever jokes that will make you sound smart.)
“I can’t listen passively to someone speaking without the possibility of puns echoing around in my head,” says Gary Hallock, who has been producing and hosting the O. Henry Pun‑Off for 26 years. He’s seen the annual competition grow from an Austin oddity to a national event.
It’s almost surprising that it took so long. Verbal puns may date back to at least 1635 BC, when a Babylonian clay tablet included a play on the word for wheat. Humor theorists generally agree that comedy hinges on incongruity: When a sentence or situation subverts expectations, that’s funny. (Also, yes, humor theorists are a thing.) And of the many kinds of wordplay—hyperbole, metaphor, even letter-level foolery such as anagrams—nothing takes advantage of incongruity quite like puns.
They come in four varieties. In order of increasing complexity, you’ve got homonyms: identical words that sound alike but differ in meaning (“Led Zeppelin’s guitarist was interrogated, but detectives weren’t able to turn the Page”); homophones, which are spelled differently but sound the same (“I hate raisins! Apologies if you’re not into curranty vents”); homographs, which sound different but look similar (“If you’re asking me to believe that a Loire Cabernet is that different from a Napa Cabernet, then the terroir-ists have won”—terroir being the French word for the environment in which wine grapes are grown); and paronyms, which are words from different languages that sound similar and often come from the same Latin root (“I ate so much cucumber chutney at the Indian restaurant that I have raita’s block”).
Simply put, a good pun is a joke that hinges on wordplay. A truly formidable punner knows that and frames a sentence to make the pun the punch line. But was I a truly formidable punner? I’d thought so—my lifelong dream is seeing Flavor Flav and Ellen Burstyn cohosting a talk show so it can be called Burstyn with Flavor. But after Austin, I had my doubts. I’d cracked under pressure; until I tried again, I’d never know fissure.
The Bay Area Pun-Off is just one of a handful of competitive punning events popping up across the country, such as Punderdome 3000 in New York City, Pundamonium in Seattle, and the Great Durham Pun Championship in Durham, North Carolina. (No experience is necessary—you just sign up and hope your number gets picked.) On this Saturday night, a week after O. Henry, I am in a high-ceilinged performance space in San Francisco’s Mission District, looking for redemption. We commence with a marathon on tree puns designed to winnow the field of twelve down to eight.
“I’m just hoping to win the poplar vote,” one woman says.
“Sounds like a birch of contract to me,” says someone else.
A lanky British guy I’ll call Chet rambles through a shaggy-dog story involving a French woman and three Jamaican guys to get to a tortured “le mon t’ree” punch line. The crowd eats it up.
After someone delivers a good line, I admit that I end up being pretty frond of it. Things go oak-ay, and I’m on to the next round. These hilarious pun cartoons never get old.
After a muggleful of Harry Potter puns, I find myself in the semifinals against an engineer named Asa. The host scribbles the mystery topic on a chalkboard hidden from sight, then turns it around. It says … diseases. The same category that knocked me out in Austin? The category I dwelled on for the entire flight home, thinking of all the one-liners that had eluded me?
This time, there’s no running dry. Not only do I remember all the puns I used against Ben Ziek, I also remember all the puns he made against me. So when Asa says, “I’m really taking my mumps,” I shoot back with, “That’s kinda measle-y, if you ask me.” I reprise puns I’d made in Austin (“Did you see that Italian opera singer run through the door? In flew Enzo!”); I use puns that I’d thought of since (“My mom makes the best onion dip. It’s HIV little concoction you’d love”).
Asa fights gamely, but I have innumerable disease puns at my fingertips, and it’s not much longer before the round is over.
And then there are two: me and Chet. And I’m locked in. No nerves, no self-consciousness, just getting out of my brain’s way and letting the connections happen. When the host announces the theme—living world leaders—I don’t even try to stockpile puns. I just wait, and they come.
Chet opens the round: “Ohhh, BAMA. I don’t know anything about world leaders.”
Hearing Obama conjures up a mental image of Justin Trudeau. Before the laughter even dies down, I nod my head encouragingly. “True, though—that was a decent pun!”
It’s Austin all over again, just in reverse. Now I’m the quick one, and Chet’s the one who has to scramble. My turn? No problem: “I am Bushed.”
Chet has used three U.S. presidents and two British prime ministers; meanwhile, I’ve been from South Korea to Germany, by way of Canada.
Even better, I’ve got another continent in my pocket. “Have you guys been to Chet’s farm?” I ask the audience. “He has this group of cows that won’t stop talking.” I wait a beat before taking the audience to Africa with a nod to Zimbabwe’s president.
“They are seriously moo-gabby.”
What happens next is a blur. I can’t even tell you what comes out of Chet’s mouth, but it’s either nothing or it’s the name of someone dead. Either way, the Bay Area Pun-Off is over.
This may be my only taste of victory in the world of competitive paronomasiacs (a fancy word for pun addicts), and I may never know the secret to the perfect pun. But as long as I’ve got the words to try, one thing’s for sure: I’ll keep using them to create incongruity.
Or maybe I’ll just plead raita’s block.