Punnin’ Games

by Jessie Roberts

“In mixed company, puns are, along with politics and religion, best left alone,” states Ted Trautman, who traveled to Austin, Texas, to compete in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships:

Contestants in the “Punslingers” bracket, facing off in pairs onstage, are given a theme—Disney, weather, et cetera—and forced to make thematically relevant puns every ten seconds or so until one contestant runs out of ideas. … Just as a slam-dunk in basketball earns the same number of points as a layup, this portion of the Pun-Off rewards a contestant for the quantity of her puns rather than their quality. As the moderators explained several times, in a refrain later echoed by desperate contestants defending their ripostes, “It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be a pun.” The Punslingers event may be the only sport on Earth in which the highest level of play is the most painful to watch. …

[M]y favorite moment of the day occurred during a round in which players had to pun on the theme of “Groups (human and animal)”—e.g., flock, herd, choir, and the like.

The two men on stage had exhausted most of the obvious words in the category, and were beginning to butt heads with the moderators…. After a healthy volley one of the contestants offered an invalid answer, and then another, courting disqualification. And then he rebounded with the perfect pun—not the most clever, not the most original, but one that managed to both keep the round going and poke fun at the increasingly strict moderators: “Next year,” he said, “this topic ought to be band.” Despite the limits on both time and topic, this contestant delivered a pun in the heat of the moment that, against all odds, actually made sense. The crowd went wild, perhaps forgetting for a moment that on Monday they would have to return to a world where words mean just one thing at a time.