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This Guy Spent A Year Exploring The Subculture Of Competitive Punning

Yes, you read that right.

This Guy Spent A Year Exploring The Subculture Of Competitive Punning

When my colleague Joe Berkowitz–with whom I’ve worked for more than five years–told me he was writing a book about pun culture last year, I can’t say I was entirely surprised. This is a guy who was voluntarily kidnapped by Heineken and attempted to make small talk about race with his Starbucks barista, so it’s not totally out of character for him to spend a year researching the weird world of competitive wordplay.

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Yes, pun competitions are an actual thing–and my semi-fearless colleague made it his business to investigate them. This week, Joe and I engaged in a Slack conversation about his new book, Away With Words (in between getting our other work done, so please don’t fire us, bosses!). It turns out his mission required him to get on stage and compete alongside the champions of punnery–and expose himself to the bright and dark ends of the punning spectrum.

“The best pun I heard during the course of writing the book was: ‘I went to go shopping for cherries and microphones the other day: bought a bing, bought a boom,'” Joe told me. “The worst pun I heard was: ‘If steaks can’t satisfy you, can ribs?’ where the words ‘Can ribs’ were somehow supposed to form a pun on ‘Cribs.’ This was 15 minutes into a pun duel about furniture and all the good puns were taken, but still: wow,” Joe recalled.

“And the puns I’m most proud of came when I got the category ‘Amusement parks’ and did a whole interconnected bit about proposing to my wife, which involved 8 amusement parks puns, like ‘I got down on dis-knee, said “it’s U-n-I vs. all” and then I did a ring toss.’ It got a monster reaction and I was very proud.”

Joe Berkowitz [Photo: Joel Arbaje]
Here’s what I learned from Joe about how puns and pun culture relate (and don’t relate) to both our virtual and all-too-real lives in 2017.

Me: I remember when we sat in the same row of desks together–that was still the best row of all time. All the other rows here at Fast Company utterly suck in comparison to The Great Row. (Sorry, colleagues, but I’m a journalist, so I can’t lie about that here.)

So in the 5.5 years we’ve worked together, I’ve discovered you are not only a consistently brilliant writer, a funny guy, and a really nice person, but also at times socially anxious (not all the time! sometimes!). It would be hard for me to imagine you participating in a pun competition if I hadn’t seen you read your creative nonfiction before . . . but pun competitions are a different animal, no?

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Joe: You’ve definitely picked up on the quiet truth of my social anxiety. I felt it just as much on the stage to do pun competitions as I have at storytelling shows and other kinds of scarily public situations. Actually, I felt even more anxious because a pun competition is a timed word-puzzle comedy contest that you can’t really prepare for beyond just feeding your pun instincts with more practice. The thing is, though, the people who attend pun competitions really want you to do well, so they tend to be great and heavily responsive audiences. Getting applause is the greatest cure to social anxiety that exists.

Me: Right–you’re not just reading off an agonizingly perfected piece of paper.

Joe: Yes–and everybody there knows it, so they’re lenient when you say something lame and act like they’ve just seen a ridiculous magic trick when you do something awesome. And I definitely saw other people come up with extremely clever wordplay super fast over the course of my year embedded in the pun world. I never got that great at it, though, to be honest. The arc of this story was not a journalist who goes on to become the greatest competitive punster in all the land, but more of just a general tour of that land, and the people who inhabit it.

Me: That atmosphere sounds like the opposite of Twitter, lately. When you do something lame, I mean. I still think Twitter is pretty awesome when you do something good. Or funny. Or whatever. By “you,” I mean “one.” But why puns? I used to work at a New York City tabloid, where puns were the highest form of headline currency. Here at Fast Company, not so much. What got you interested in them?

Joe: Twitter lately is like a sadness gauntlet filled with clowns and Nazis, and the light at the end of it is your house on fire. So yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of a pun competition. But there are definitely puns on Twitter.

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I got interested in the competitive pun world, and I wish there was a better story for it, because my agent and an editor at Harper thought there was a book in it. But as I started researching, I quickly realized one of my friends was a pivotal figure in the Brooklyn pun scene, and watching him perform with these other punsters against the editors at the New York Post to come up with punny headlines–that really lit up my brain. So even though I was kind of there on assignment, I got hooked pretty quickly.

Me: When I was a Daria-esque teenager, I loved to say puns were jokes for people who couldn’t make real jokes, which goes to show you what a complete and utter moron I was in the ’90s. Puns are amazing, and hard–something I learned when I worked at the aforementioned New York tabloid. But they’re a bit quaint, too–what is it about that form of humor that is relevant in 2017, a decidedly not-quaint era as far as I’m concerned?

Joe: There is a bit of history that I learned that did not make it into the book about how, historically, in times of oppression, the use of puns increased because people could use them to sneak hidden meanings into things. I’m not sure how much that is playing out right now, though, as I am not seeing many political puns these days. (Well, outside of this amazing HuffPo headline from today.) The better answer to your question is that while puns do seem quaint and vaudevillian, and they ARE, they’re also very much interwoven throughout the modern landscape of comedy and language altogether. They may not be the punchline to a ton of great jokes but they contribute a lot to just making language more colorful. They are in the creative insults on Veep and the chyrons on The Daily Show and novelty menu items. Although in the case of that last category, they are usually bad.

Me: Regarding the last category, they are never bad on the chalkboard in Bob’s Burgers.

Joe: That is true. There is actually a pun quota on each episode of Bob’s Burgers. There is a storefront sign, a rat van, and a Burger of the Day in each episode and it’s each writer’s job to come up with them. I actually visited the Bob’s Burgers studio in California and interviewed some writers about it.

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Me: Visiting Bob’s Burgers, writing about puns . . . your job sounds fun! Except I know that you were also psychically pretty stressed while you were writing this book. Was it weird for someone as politically activated as you were during the election to be writing a book about puns while all that was going on?

Joe: Well, the election was a huge awakening for me. I had more or less assumed that the movie was over and the good guys won on the day that Obama was elected. Sure, I bristled at any drone-related news I heard, and I was aware that the Democrats had lost SOME measure of ground since 2008, but I was paying the bare minimum of attention and didn’t notice until too late which way the wind was blowing. By the time I did notice, the idea that I had spent the year leading up to the most consequential election in American history writing a book about pun competitions, instead of trying anything to thwart the apocalypse, it kind of broke me to some degree. It took a while to reconcile. But with some perspective now, I feel okay about it. This book was an adventure and a great opportunity. I had a fun time living it and writing it and I made some good friends with whom I’ve actually worked on non-pun-related projects since I finished writing. So while it will always be a little embarrassing to tell the story of my personal 2016 in the future, I don’t regret it.

Me: I don’t see why you should regret it–I don’t think examining our language, which is the root of everything in our human lives (including politics) is a waste of time. So what did you learn about language, and America, while you researched and wrote this book?

Joe: I learned that wordplay has been used competitively throughout history. Ancient cultures had these weird face-offs at weddings and other rituals, and there have been these “answer me these questions three”-type meddle-proving endeavors that have involved wordplay. So even though pun competitions seem like some silly bullshit that can only exist in the frivolous present–or the present as it existed before November 2016–they are deeply rooted in a wide swath of cultures. For me, that is just really interesting to think about. That puns and jokes are a quirky part of human nature. Do animals have their version of punning? Is punning what makes us superior to them? Couldn’t tell you. But I do also know that nobody has yet made a computer program capable of generating puns. In terms of how the experience has made me see America, I’ve only noticed that Americans sort of consider it the redheaded stepchild of comedy. Lots of Americans quietly love puns but either don’t realize it or are ashamed to admit it. From what I understand, British people don’t have that problem. Most of the time when Americans say they hate puns, they just mean they hate bad puns.

Me: I think it’s incredibly interesting that no computer program has been able to generate puns. Is that for real? That makes me really happy, because I like to think that our capacity for attaching complex and contextual meaning to language is one of our supreme gifts as humans. I suppose that might be one of the many reasons why chatbots are still largely programatic, not artificially intelligent–and why Microsoft hired so many poets and screenwriters to program its bots.

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Joe: You could give a computer program a database of puns and it would be able to spit them out on cue when a topic was mentioned. But as far as I know, and I did research this and it is in the book, computers have a difficult time linguistically doing what our brains do instantly. The blind carpenter who picked up his hammer and SAW? A computer would not be able to factor in the multiple meanings of that last word, much less construct an elegant sentence around it. I met a computer programmer who works at a place Fast Co. tends to cover breathlessly, and he tried to reverse-engineer a punning program. It did not happen.

Me: What you’re saying rather makes me think that puns might be part of what will help preserve our supremacy over our would-be robot overlords.

Joe: Challenge them to a pun competition and watch them worship you as a god.

Me: My Roomba can’t play on words, so I feel empowered already.

Joe: My Roomba did work himself off of a little ridge he was temporarily stuck on over the weekend and I was legit proud of him. (My Roomba is gendered, I guess?)

Me: You mentioned our coverage of those who are creating our increasingly intangible, virtual world, one in which the computers can not only beat us at chess but can also determine what we read, who we hear, how aware we are of our periods, and how much information credit companies and social networks are able to mine about us. At the same time, it seems to me–just by reading Twitter–that our language is evolving at an incredible rate. How much agency does our facility with language afford us in the face of all this change? I’m thinking of those punmasters and their ninja-like facility with words.

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P.S. My Roomba is a dude, too, I’m sure of it. Though the Roomba guy says he was inspired by Rosie from The Jetsons.

Joe: Language is always evolving and it feels like it’s evolving faster than ever. Like, if you were to type the words “on fleek” on Twitter right now, your phone would self-destruct like an Inspector Gadget dispatch. Did that one have a shorter window than most new words? Possibly. But in general the cycle with which phrases enter our lexicon and get played out seems to be speeding up or at least maintaining this crazy new pace. If you can invent a new word that suddenly becomes the thing to say for that day, that’s a powerful thing. Pun or not. Just a couple weeks ago, we were all talking about “romphims” (a pun) and whether or not there’s any value there–someone had so many of us saying it for a couple days there. That’s power. The ability to play with language in a catchy way can get your article passed around, to put it in media terms, or net you a hit single, and who knows, it may even decide an election. I have no proof of that last one.

Me: “Fake News” was not really a common term a few years ago, not the way it is now. Fake News is not really an adjective and a noun these days–it’s one noun.

Joe: I just remembered that “Brexit” is a pun. Also, please do not get me started on Fake News.

Me: Just . . . to your election point.

Joe: Indeed, but I am going to be angry about Fake News until I die.

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Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions

Me: Yes, they really should be paying us more to write it.

Joe: I wish I had a fake noose right now. That doesn’t make any sense. Puns!

Me: Okay, sooo . . . I think we have established that the internet is crazy and disruptive but hasn’t totally taken over mankind (yet). I was thinking recently about the internet and how it both contributes to subcultures (see: Reddit . . . see Usenet, etc. etc.) and also maybe connects the world so much that subcultures become less . . . sub. Is the punning world a subculture, or no?

Joe: It totally is. While it does seem to be getting more popular (there are at least three competitive pun competitions I’m aware of that formed in the last year), it’s still far enough out of most people’s typical experience that it hasn’t gone mainstream yet. Punning itself is mainstream, but so is the mechanism by which we’ve oppressed people who pun. That’s why there’s a kind of a transgressive thrill for many people who attend or participate. “Finally! Guilt-free punning!”

Me: Transgressive Punning.

Joe: The naughty thrill of doing this thing a lot of people hate. Punning without apology. So many puns are immediately followed by apologies. Granted, many of them earn those apologies.

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Me: Are these people active online, too? Like is there Pun Twitter and Pun Reddit? Or is this mostly an offline community?

Joe: The closest thing there is to Pun Twitter is that show @midnight. They have this thing called Hashtag Wars where @midnight will tweet, like, #BreakfastMovies and then people will tweet back with the hashtag and something in the area of “Omelet the Right One In”. Then a bunch of comics (who probably think they hate puns) will do the same thing on TV.

A lot of punsters tend to play along with @midnight, and it factors into the book in a couple places. I hung out at the show for a couple tapings and talked to some comedians.

Me: So is this community more sub because it’s largely NOT on the internet? That idea would blow my younger self’s mind, since most of the subcultures I followed as a youth were early adopters of some internet thing or the other.

Joe: In order for it not to be sub, it would have to be more visible and puns would have to be less detested . . . which does not fill me with confidence, re: the sales potential of this book. But as I said: no regrets!

Me: I don’t know–I mean I’m not the most objective interviewer, given the fact that I work with you and like you and don’t want you to toilet-paper my office after this interview, but it seems to me that you met some pretty creative people. So tell us–who are these punners and what are they like?

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Joe: Some of them are performers to begin with–actors, comics, improv people–but many are just creative folks with regular jobs who thought they might be good at this and discovered they were great. Punderdome in Brooklyn seems to attract a more casual crowd, and casual punster; then there’s the O. Henry in Austin, where people are pretty serious about puns.

Me: What was the most important thing you learned while researching this book?

Joe: Well, importance is a relative thing when we’re talking about puns, but aside from a bunch of interesting factoids, the most important thing I learned is how to think on my feet a little faster. I’m a bit out of practice at this point–haven’t been to a pun competition in months–but when I was going every month, I felt sharper in conversation and otherwise. Just generally ready to go off the top of my head confidently in a number of different directions and trust that I’ll find something cool to say.


Joe Berkowitz will be celebrating the book with a comedy show and podcast at QED in Astoria, Monday 6/26 at 7 p.m. He will be joined by comedians Christian Finnegan, Myq Kaplan, and the champions of Punderdome.

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