An Excerpt from ‘Away with Words,’ by Joe Berkowitz
We’ve now reached the pun solstice, the verbal equinox. The Henry Pun-Off is six months away, a comfortably far-off X in next year’s calendar. That’s five more Punderdomes for anyone who plans on heading to Austin in the spring. My performance at the December Dome was an improvement so marginal it would take nanotechnology to track it, but if I keep going back, I’m bound to get better. There’s just one problem. Fred Firestone gets frostbite even thinking about New York in the winter, so he stays home in St. Louis each January and February, during which time there is no Punderdome. Tumbleweeds will be scraping across the cold ground of the northern metropolitan pun community for months. The circus has left town.
Competitive wordplay doesn’t evaporate in the off-season, though. Just because the Olympics aren’t returning for three years, the athletes don’t automatically abandon their draconian workouts to binge-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There had to be options for practicing beyond just jamming puns into any conversational crevice they almost fit. I was going to find them.
Picture someone practicing for a pun competition. It’s the saddest Rocky training montage of all, isn’t it? In my case, the image entails a man firmly in his midthirties, sitting alone in his bedroom with the door shut, making puns about colors. (“Is having the blues what made Matthew Perry wrinkle?”) The thought of my dead relatives and pets looking down from another plane of existence as I do this is mortifying.
I start off with an overly generous five-minute limit. It’s just a warm-up, something to get my brain used to rattling off puns in a hurry until I can do it instantaneously. Speed is key. Speed is the killer app of pun competitions. You have to be bullet-quick. Not just quick in the way of a devastating comeback when someone insults you—say, for devoting too much time to pun calisthenics—but so quick you already have another pun lined up right away and one after that. Punning is like chess that way: it gets tougher with a time constraint, you’ve got to think far ahead, and nobody looks cool doing it. When you receive the topic, Colors, you peruse the Pantone catalog in your brain, pull powder blue, think “I had some cocaine but my powder blew away,” and on to the next, tout de suite.
I text Ally about sending over some categories she remembers from Punderdomes past, and the laundry list she delivers should be enough to sustain several practice sessions. I set my iPhone to stopwatch, put five minutes on the clock, and glance at the first topic on Ally’s list. It’s Feminism. Go!
The words slut walk are the first that pop in my head. That is probably not good news for me as a person. Next is suffragette. I can take a plane but I will not suffer a jet. Okay! Breast cancer awareness appears and there’s nothing I can or should do with that. Then there’s Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famed abolitionist. Her existence was a coup for feminism, right? I probably should have skipped this topic.
At the end of five minutes, I have a bunch of prompts, but only two puns that might go over well at Punderdome: “Lumberjacks get birth control from Plaid Parenthood,” and “I mix up parts of the couch because I’m intersectional.” Did I mention it took me five minutes to come up with these? A short while later, I realize I could’ve wedged “mansplane” into a line about suffering a jet, which would’ve been pretty sweet if I’d thought of it in the moment, in front of a crowd, and not alone, sprawled across my bed, the only audience my cat and whichever NSA spy is assigned to my MacBook camera.
Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions is available now.
Joe Berkowitz is a staff writer and editor at Fast Company, with a focus on pop culture. He has also written for The Village Voice, Salon, Glamour, GQ, Rolling Stone, and others. His previous book, written with comedian Josh Gondelman, is called You Blew It: An Awkward Guide to the Many Ways in Which You’ve Already Ruined Your Life.