Puns have long been the ugly stepchildren of comedy, derided for generations as the dull weapon of choice of trying-too-hard dads and uncles. But what was once considered the lowest form of humour has quietly risen in the ranks, and in recent years, the pun has gotten a makeover. Thanks to the rise of competitive punning events, including Brooklyn’s seven-year old Punderdome event, punning has started to resemble something like art, or at least colourful graffiti.
In the right context, the pun can be sharpened from a dull quip into a piercing weapon, busting the pompousness of a too-serious situation and bringing much-needed levity to any interaction. It is the perfect form of weaponised silliness for our perfectly dumb modern times.
As pun champions ourselves (Sam is the reigning Punderdome champion, Tim refined his skills working at pun Valhalla: the New York Post), we are often asked for tips on how to make puns in ways that will impress your friends and coworkers, or at least make them not want to stuff your mouth full of cotton. Here are some pro tips for punning in public.
Pun for a good cause
Like taking on crossfit, attempting to juggle or entering into any story that begins “I had the weirdest dream last night,” you must really consider why you are trying to pun before you get in over your head and bore everyone. Puns are not jokes, they are not a “bit,” they are not a tight five you can work out at an open mic. A pun is more like a garnish on a dish of conversation, a sprig of word parsley on an existing plate.
Here are some reasons you may want to pun in public:
— To make small talk a little better: Lame small talk and the repetitive cliches that assault us daily can strangle even the most adept conversationalist, but puns can shock it back to life. Example: when talking about the weather, someone might say, “This storm hasn’t been much yet, but it’s early.” To which you can respond, “Yeah wait until four; cast your opinion then.”
— Coping with the horrors of the world: The world is one big tabloid front page now, and it all deserves a campy headline to take the edge off. Example: when the conversation comes around to Donald Trump’s many alleged crimes, you might remark that he should join the Russian Olympic sledding team, because he loves co-lugin’.
— To throw a good party: The campiness of holiday parties and themed occasions paves the way for puns on everything from costumes to snack names to decorations. Think Oscars parties with appetisers like The Crepe of Water or Timothy ChaleaMezze; a Super Bowl party featuring Justin Timberlatkes and a Rye Eagles Rye cocktail. A Halloween party we both attended this year featured rooms broken into spooky Brooklyn neighbourhoods: Scare-oll Gardens, Prospect Frights, Clowntown Hell, Braaaains-on-Hurst (for non-residents, that’s Carroll Gardens, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and Bensonhurst, respectively).
Some pun-spoken Rules
The etiquette of public punning is fundamentally no different from that of ordinary conversation: It requires a degree of social grace, but you’ve still got to make it look natural. And in the absence of an actual Emily Post Guide to Puns, here are some golden rules to follow:
- A pun is not a punchline. Never deliver standalone puns, or winding jokes that end in one. You risk being immediately christened “that guy” at the party and avoided for the remainder of the evening.
- Don’t try to pun on someone’s name. Trust that anybody with a remotely monosyllabic name or nickname (e.g. Hope, Will, Ghan) has heard the puns before, and has grown to hate them all. (This rule holds true for any obvious joke that occurs to you about someone’s name, pun-related or no. They have heard it before, and they hate it.)
- Don’t prepare puns in advance. This is the equivalent of entering a rap battle with pre-written rhymes. They should be spontaneous!
- Don’t make the obvious pun. Subway posters and sandwich boards assault us daily with “eggs-cellent” specials, and just about anything that rhymes with “fake news!” These are the Borat jokes of puns (and should be similarly consigned to dust with the year 2006). Everyone knows by now that sweet dreams are made of cheese, and that going vegan is a huge missed steak. The TL;DR: If you’ve seen it on a sign, it’s not worth saying.
- Do deploy puns to improve a joke, or shorten a reference in conversation! One need only scroll Twitter to see some examples of this in action.
- Do recognise the window of opportunity. Puns go stale quickly. If it takes you more than 10 seconds to drop your pun, the moment has passed.
- Do read the room. And the occasion.
- The other rules of regular society still apply. Never use puns to mock someone’s appearance, sexuality or gender.
- Recognise when the pun quota has been reached. There is a point at which no one, not even you, can tolerate another pun. A good giveaway is when the person you’re talking to stops playing along, or tries to shift the convo away from the pun bait you’ve been attacking.
Do your wry-search
Imagine if punning were a uni class in 2018. The required reading would probably include: John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises; the canon of William Shakespeare; a lot of rap (in particular lyrics by Lil Wayne and Childish Gambino); every episode of Bob’s Burgers. Most recently, journalist-turned-pun-pilgrim Joe Berkowitz even wrote Away With Words, which peeps into the world of American pun competitions.
Puns may be something of a subjective art form, but there’s still an established standard of quality and insight, so seek it out and study up.
We’ve covered the why, the when and the what of punning in public. As for the “how”, there is of course no beaten path to becoming a champion punner. But practising some of the techniques below can certainly help you begin to find the joy in it (and that’s all the best puns really leave us with, anyway).
Connect the thoughts
Puns are free association so let your mind run wild with a word or topic you want to pun on. Unless you’re at the annual O’Henry Pun off in Austin, no one is going to referee you on what actually counts as a pun and what is just good word play, so let your mind spin on rhymes, assonant words, soundalikes, lateral words or concepts.
Subverting expectations is key to punning, so you can and should draw on clichés, idioms, old proverbs, and tired song lyrics for inspiration. Take a page from headlines in daily papers, which always scramble to use cliché-based puns when scooping news. Winners like “Iraq And A Hard Place“ (The Daily News, 2014), “Cloak and shag her” (NY Post, 2012), or “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?” (The Sun, 2006) stand out precisely because they echo phrases we’ve all heard many times before.
Develop an aural fixation
Practice a different kind of listening. Standard party etiquette demands that we hang on to a speaker’s every word, but punning relies on mishearings, mangled words and mondegreens. So let yourself begin to notice the sounds of language in conversation and imagine what a word might be if you’d misheard it, or if you mashed two together. “Sorry, did you say camping was in tents? Or intense?” Etc.
Stick the landing
Let’s say you’re at a fancy party and you overhear someone delivering a devastating smackdown in wine knowledge. That would be a “cabernet savage own.” Stick the landing by enunciating the “savage own” part, and don’t make the mistake of muddling things by trying to blend in the pronunciation of “sauvignon.” That way you won’t end up with a blended whine of your own.
Be careful of a salt
Most importantly, deploying puns in public is like sprinkling salt: a little bit can add flavour but too much will destroy the whole meal. And if taken in moderation, they’re perfectly healthy to in jest.