How Texas punslingers made this Canadian eat humble pie (Remember that a la mode)
Pat Tanzola, National PostPublished: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
MOST PUNS ARE JUST POINTLESS YAWN SEQUITURS. FOR EXAMPLE: TREE PUNS ARE NOT VERY POPLAR. GAMBLING PUNS ARE REAL EYE-ROLLERS. PUNS ABOUT RADIO FREQUENCIES SHOULD BE BAND. VIDEO GAMES? NO PUN NINTENDO'D! FOOD PUNS ARE HARD TO TAKE INGEST. AND LIVER PUNS TASTE AWFUL; WHO CARES IF THEY'RE FULL OF IRONY! CHICKEN PUNS ARE FOWL, OBVIOUSLY, AND PUNS ABOUT DISMEMBERED COWS ARE ABSOLUTELY TEARABULL.ISLAM PUNS ARE SO OFFENSIVE, THEY GIVE ME KORANARIES. SO NO MO' HAMMEDING IT UP. AND MIDGET PUNS? SIMPLY THE LOWEST FORM OF HUMOUR. THE JOKE'S ON ME, THOUGH: AS A PUNSTER WHO IS ALSO ROMAN CATHOLIC, I'M PRETTY MUCH GUARANTEED NEVER TO HAVE SECTS!
For a handful of demented linguaphiles, clever wordplay, a quick retort or a witty bon mot can be better than sex. Indeed, for pun slingers like me, the pun is mightier than the "s"-word.
If you think that's sexy, you should have been with me in Austin, Tex., last month, for the 30th annual O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off -- which, with its quick tongues, hot verbiage and perverse puntifications, certainly earns a "triple-lex rating."
Austin, home to a famed live music scene -- and pun-offs -- may be the weirdest city on the continent. Some proof: To fend off encroachment from large corporations, the city's official small business slogan is "Keep Austin weird."
And Austinites are weird with a vengeance, fiercely hip and hi-tech, fiercely granola and fiercely loony. The annual O. Henry Pun-Off (named for the famed short story writer from Austin who apparently enjoyed punmaking, and also spent time in jail -- the latter did not result from the former ) celebrated its 30th year in 2007.
The competition has two categories: the "prepared pun," called Punniest of Show, where contestants have 90 seconds to spew punishing balderdash on any topic. I won bronze in 2005 for my "cannibal puns" routine. It scored 38 out of 40 with the judges ("Men and women of good taste, great to finally eat you; I wouldn't lie, my mother braised me well, so that's no can o' bull ... My grillfriend, a cute little fillet, didn't think I'd make it all the way to the Pun-Off, but now she's eating Russell Crowe").
The other event, far more surreal to behold, is the Hi-Lies and Lo-Puns event, a.k.a. "Punslingers," which pits punster against punster in sudden-death improv: Competitors must think of a pun on a preselected topic within five seconds of their adversary's quip, without reusing any previously punned-upon words. Duels can last up to half an hour, with laughs and groans both in ample supply. For almost 20 minutes in 2005, I flexed my vocabs in the second round against eventual Punslinger champion Brian Oakley, on carpentry and construction puns (bowing on strikes when the judge didn't interpret my "wash shroom/washroom" pun as germane to the topic).
Punslingers is wordplay at its most torturous, with survival dependent not on funniness, but punnyness. A returning champion at the event, Alex "The Terminator" Ramirez is known for his vast and instantly recalled lexicon of puns on any topic, but none of them are the least bit humorous.
Contrast this to the late George McLughan, famous for his arsenal of hilariously disgusting quips incorporating every known bodily fluid -- a definite cloud pisser, er, crowd pleaser. McLughan never won at Punslingers, but he was so popular that a third award, the MVP -- most viable punster -- is given in his name to the best performer as voted on by all the punsters (Ramirez, McLughan and Oakley are featured in the excellent documentary PunSmoke, which delves deep into the turmoiled mind of the competitive punster).
As a supposed beacon of Canadian pun-ditry (check out Pun-Gents.com for some of my online silliness), I aimed to do the impossible in 2007 and bring back Texas gold for the True North Strong and Freaky. I definitely had Can-hype this year. The CBC's Tom Howell caught wind of the pun-off, and hired a local KUTE reporter to record my hopefully-medal-winning Punniest of Show routine and pun-slinging battles for our airwaves.
Strutting onstage outdoors in downtown Brush Square before the 600-strong audience, it was time for my Punniest of Show prepared speech. Cocky from success in 2005, I thought that, for the 30th anniversary Pun-Off, nothing could be better-received than what I had in store: an homage to puns themselves. Not just an homage, but a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of all that punsters must put up with, the abuse we suffer at the hands of the groaneral population. Puns about punsters -- a routine that made fun of punsters, and at the same time celebrated them. It went something like the spiel at left.
Sadly, I did not win. The judges liked my speech, and I delivered it error-free, smoothly and with conviction, but they gave it just eights and nines out of 10. Offstage, the KUTE reporter told me I had been robbed: I ended up placing eighth out of a field of 32.
KUTE was kind, but was it too rash of me to go into Austin and mock punsters? Was I treading on sacred punning ground -- was it possible for such a ground to be sacred? Or maybe my routine was clever, but just not that funny. Don't mess with Texas, I guess.
Instead, the judges smiled on Joe Sabia, a 23-year-old punning spitfire from L.A. competing in his first Pun-Off. He wowed the crowd with a punster-rap titled "Unpresidented Misbehaviour" that punned on all 43 U.S. presidents (search Joe Sabia on You-Tube to see his routine); there was no way I could ever compete with that. Sabia scored a flawless 40 out of 40 and brought the crowd to its feet.
Sabia waxed on his victory after the event. "I've always been doing puns, in front of my friends, and they've always hated it," he said. "A lot. I figured I'd go to a community where people actually embrace it."
"People thought I'd be crazy if I flew out to Austin, Tex., but I actually did it, and I think, yeah, maybe I am a little bit crazy."
In the punslingers event, I punned valiantly and won Round 1, on grammar and punctuation puns (though some of my remarks had me feelin' like the 's' comma the earth).
But it was in the second round -- category: insects and bugs -- that I went down.
Some play by play from my routine:
"I'm not too familiar with American politics. George Bush, can someone tell me when his termite end?" Alas, after 12 minutes and two other competitors, I did not survive when I repeated a pun ("Insector Gadget") and got called for my third strike. Even Sabia bowed out in the third round to eventual champ Arthur Simone, an artist and improv comedian from New Orleans who moved to Austin after Hurricane Katrina.
"I've never seen so many puns in my entire life," Sabia said about the Punslingers event.
"It's one of those things where, if you say a pun, a lot of people roll their eyes, but here in Austin, a lot of people who do this competitively get erections when they hear puns, and that's a new experience for me, but it's pretty cool."
As for myself, I guess I couldn't handle the pressure. As a Canadian up against an American punning juggernaut, I felt like a lonely Luke Skywalker facing the Emperor's punderbolts. They even announced me on stage at one point with "Next up is Pat Tanzola, from Toronto. He's got nowhere To-ronto, nowhere to hide."
A tough crowd for this punning Jedi, but Sith happens, I guess.