The pun is a much maligned form of humor. In his seminal work, Wit and Relation to the Unconscious (1917), Sigmund Freud wrote: “Puns are generally counted as the lowest form of wit, perhaps because they are cheaper and can be formed with the least effort.” Sounds like the father of psychoanalysis suffers from pun envy. Punsters will counter that if the pun is the lowest form, then it is the foundation of all wit. Known for his razor-sharp wit, comedian Oscar Levant declared: “A pun is the lowest form of humor — when you don’t think of it first.” Take that, Siggy!
The pun is celebrated (and exalted) each year in May at the O. Henry Pun-Off Championships (“Jest for a Wordy Cause”) held in Austin, Texas in a park behind the O. Henry museum. American author O. Henry (the pen name of William Sydney Porter), well-known for his short stories, lived in Austin from 1882 to 1895 and was very fond of wordplay. This competition has been described by one contestant as a cross between an AA meeting and the Olympics, “a mixture of relief at finally being surrounded by others who understood your struggle and adrenaline-fueled competition.” For more than 35 years, punsters from all over the world come to vie for the Punniest of Show and Punslingers at the punny event. The event kicks off with the entire crowd reciting the definition of a pun: “A pun 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.” In the Punniest of Show, punsters perform a pun-packed 90-second monologue (more like a punologue) that is scored by judges on a scale from 1-10. In the Punslingers competition, punsters face off in pairs and exchange puns (with a five-second limit) on a selected topic until one of the contestants runs out of punny rebuttals. The winner is determined after several rounds. In 2012 34 contestants matched wits with their pun-ultimate skills; in 2013, 32 contestants battled one another for fastest pun in the west.
Inspired by the success of the O. Henry Pun-Off, comedian Jo Firestone created Punderdome 3000, a monthly event held in Brooklyn, New York. The lively event, that draws crowds of more than 350 pun aficionados, has been described as equal parts stand-up comedy, beat poetry, and freestyle rap. Host Fred Firestone states: “We want people to walk away saying ‘I just didn’t attend, I was part of it.’ It’s a spectator sport.” New York Times comedy critic, Jason Zinoman, who has appeared as a celebrity judge, is a fan: “With these incredibly inventive puns, I don’t look down at puns at all. From Henny Youngman to James Joyce, these people have used puns to great effect. I don’t want to say it’s a high art, but it’s an art.”
Whether you scoff, groan or laugh, there is no denying the wit and cleverness of a great pun. In fact, it was another great American short story writer, Edgar Allan Poe, that recognized that “the goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability.” Amen, brother. The readers of punoftheday.com have voted on their top ten punniest puns. Pun purists will quickly note that the punsters of punoftheday.com are passing off clever word play as puns (there are only three pure puns in their list):
1. I wondered why baseball was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
2. I’m reading a book about gravity. It’s impossible to put down.
3. Did you hear about the guy whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right.
4. It’s not that the man did not know to juggle, he just didn’t have the balls to do it.
5. Einstein developed a theory about space, and it was about time too.
6. I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.
7. There was a sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center that said: keep off the grass.
8. I used to have a fear of hurdles, but I got over it.
9. Police were called to a daycare where a 3-year-old was resisting a rest.
10. He drove his expensive car into a tree and found our how the Mercedes bends.
For futher reading: Get Thee to a Punnery by Richard Lederer, Wyrick (2006).
The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack, Gotham Books (2011). http://www.punpunpun.com/. http://www.sarcasmsociety.com/sarcasm.html. http://www.punoftheday.com. http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/theater/welcome_to_the_punderdome_RuM0kVn2UBgDczm4dwyH4L