After Ben Ziek won big at the 2013 world pun championships, his life didn't change. He kept the same job he's had for 13 years, as a night auditor at the Burbank Airport Marriott. He gets in at 11 p.m., helps balance the books, does wake-up calls and deals with guest complaints before leaving at 7:30 a.m.
“It was like somebody created a special Disneyland just for me. It’s a whole weekend where you just don’t have normal conversations with anybody.”
Co-worker Angelique, who sits at the desk nearby, does not appreciate his punning. “She doesn't like it all,” Ziek says. “For 13 years I've joked that she doesn't have a sense of humor.”
A 38-year-old gentle giant with a dark crew cut, Ziek has the fortune and misfortune of being among the best in the world at something many people disdain.
While puns often are derided as the lowest form of humor, they have a storied history. The earliest known puns were cave carvings — from one angle, they looked like a woman, from another an erect penis, according to John Pollack's The Pun Also Rises. The form counts among its many famous supporters Aristotle, Cicero, Jonathan Swift and, of course, Shakespeare, who used thousands.
Puns tailed off with the Age of Enlightenment, when rationalists became uncomfortable with puns' ambiguity, and the rise of the printing press (puns are not as fun on the page). In America they were popular in the age of Groucho Marx and Abbott & Costello but fell out of favor as comedy became more subversive in the 1960s and '70s.
Now puns are enjoying a newfound acceptability. Sex and the City used them (“If you're tired, you take a napa, you don't move to Napa”), and The Daily Show's punny graphics get laughs. Rappers pun constantly, including Eminem (“McDonald's bathroom, in a public stall, droppin' a football, so every time someone walks in the John I get Madden”) and André 3000 (“I cc'ed every girl that I'd see-see around town”).
The resurgence goes hand in hand with the mainstreaming of nerd culture. Hollywood's nerd-in-chief, Joss Whedon, used them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Everyone's a punster on Twitter through hashtag wars (#RuinANurseryRhyme? Old Mother L. Ron Hubbard), which are a big part of Chris Hardwick's Comedy Central show, @midnight. The Internet has helped spread puns for subversive purposes, as when Chinese citizens spread the meme “grass mud horse,” which in Mandarin is a pun on “fuck your mother” and a symbol of defiance against government censors.
The pun comeback has heightened visibility for the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas, where last year Ziek won both major events: In Punniest of Show, judges rate a contestant's 90-second prepared routine. In the Punslingers tournament, contestants face off one-on-one to see who can come up with the most puns on words in a given category.
Newer competitions have popped up, such as Pundamonium, a “pun slam” that has been held in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and other cities. The monthly Punderdome 3000 in Brooklyn draws up to 400 people.
Punderdome host Jo Firestone feels that the legitimacy of puns dovetails with the rise of normcore. If it's cool to wear high-waist pants and athletic socks, it's cool to geek out on wordplay. “Puns are something that have always been a dad's joke,” she says.
Still, in conversation, puns are more likely to draw groans than praise. Ziek doesn't mind. “Groans are good,” he says. “Laughs are great. Silence is bad.”
On May 10, he was back in Austin to defend his titles.
The Pun-Off, held annually since 1978, matches the peculiar energy of a place where the unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” This is the city, after all, that organizes Eeyore's Birthday Party, an outdoor costume party honoring the depressed donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh.
The night before the Pun-Off, competitors gather for a dinner on the spot where the event is set to take place — the park behind the O. Henry Museum, dedicated to the author known for his wordplay and surprise endings. (The Pun-Off is owned by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.)
It's a reunion of legends past. Steve Brooks, a country singer with a mop of gray hair, is the only other person besides Ziek to have won both Punslingers and Punniest of Show in the same year. Retired from competition, he now serves as a judge and emcee.
“I miss the adrenaline rush,” he says. “Sometimes if I'm emceeing a couple folks and their puns are crappy, I want to jump in and make some good ones to show them how it's done. Or show them how it's pun.”
Brooks has a sermon he performs in Unitarian churches on “pundamentalism.” “The ambiguities of the meanings of words are not important just to puns but to poetry and scriptures and to writing in general,” he says. “Sometimes the way that a pun affects the listener can be a miniature Zen moment of enlightenment. It causes a little explosion inside your brain.”
Another judge is Jim Ertner, 67, a retired naval architect who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Noah was the world's first naval ark-itect,” he adds. Working in shipbuilding, for a company of thousands, he would be the go-to guy for roasting retiring employees. Ertner now writes joke books, as does fellow judge Stan Kegel, a retired pediatric cardiologist in Orange County.
In this world of gray-haired or socially awkward men, 39-year-old Diana Gruber is conspicuous. About three years ago, her roommate asked her to help with a dinner party, and she replied with a spray of punny texts: “OK, whatever you say, chop chop.” “When your guests get here they can hummus a tune.” Gruber's roommate told her, “There's an organization for people like you.”
Gruber first attended the Pun-Off in 2012. “It was like somebody created a special Disneyland just for me,” she says. “It's a whole weekend where you just don't have normal conversations with anybody.”
Gruber speaks six languages and can pun in them all. Last year she moved to Monterey to get a master's in teaching a foreign language, but her fellow students didn't always appreciate her puns — like when a linguist named Dr. Walqui was giving a lecture, she went around asking if anyone was going to the “Walqui talkie.”
“Sometimes I'll make a pun that I expect the class to laugh at it and they don't,” she says. “We're all language geeks, so why aren't we appreciating it more? But it may be I'm out of line and we're talking about something else and it's not funny time, it's serious time.” She recently left grad school and moved to San Diego.
The dinner also attracts first-timers, such as a tall Brit wearing a name tag that said D'arren Walsh. Does his name have an apostrophe? “No, I'm just being a dick,” he says.
Walsh says he won the U.K. Pun Championships, which took place in a comedy club. “I was the organizer,” he says. “I was also the judge.”
In London, he's primarily a stand-up comic. “I have a very understanding girlfriend. Doing puns and having a girlfriend is accomplishment enough,” he says. Scanning the crowd, he adds, “I may be the only one.”
Most participants appreciate an environment in which they can let their puns loose without fear of glares. But there is pressure to measure up. When one competitor, Lisa Bonos, meets Walsh by the vegetable platter, he starts by saying things like, “There's a DIP in the conversation.” She says later, “I was wondering if I was punning enough.”
At one point Gruber helps lead a discussion of favorite puns. One competitor says, “What's The Onion newspaper's biggest competitor?” Ziek quips, “Is it Wiki-Leeks?” The punster seems embarrassed as he reveals his passable but inferior answer, the Garlic Press.
As the night wears on, the punsters form teams to play Schmovie, a board game in which players try to create the best punny movie titles. One round calls for a movie about a constipated basketball player.
A member of Ziek's team comes up with Scottie Poopin', but Ziek overrules him in favor of the more on-point LeBrown Jams. It's a tough round, but his pick ultimately triumphs over another team's Poop Dreams.
There is no formal training for competitive punning in the way there is for, say, baseball or chess. The Pun-Off is open to anyone who signs up online; instead of fame or riches, the winner gets a trophy topped by a golden horse's rear end.
But Ziek unintentionally put himself through exactly what rigorous pun training might look like. Growing up in South New Jersey and then Pennsylvania, he read books of riddles, limericks and Tom Swifties — punny jokes that go something like, “ 'I am so glad I had that cardiac surgery,' Tom said whole-heartedly.” Ziek has a photographic memory and was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school. After moving to L.A. in 1999, he studied short-form improv games at ComedySportz.
His Glendale apartment, shared with four roommates, looks like a dorm room at game show college. On one wall are colored plaques with prizes and prices from The Price Is Right. On another are photos of game show hosts (Rip Taylor, Bill Cullen) and bookcases stuffed with game show–themed board games such as Beat the Clock, the Gong Show Game and Remote Control.
All five roommates have been on game shows. Travis won a Cadillac on The Price Is Right. Ethan won a Jeep Liberty on Wheel of Fortune. Ziek has been on five, including Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, where he won $25,000, and Win Ben Stein's Money. Ziek's also performed in indie professional wrestling, playing a punster wrestling manager named Lex Icon.
Along with a few other friends, the five roommates started Home Game Enterprizes, a production company that pitches game show ideas to networks. They also replicate game shows like Family Feud in game nights at bars around L.A.
Ziek found out about the Pun-Off two decades ago, but he could never scrounge enough cash for a ticket to Austin until 2009. To drill for its Punslingers competition, he made a PowerPoint program that would select a random topic and give him five seconds to make a pun. He came in second in his first year of competition, and then won in 2010 and 2011.
Ziek lives in a world that devalues his particular blend of interests and abilities. He's always wanted to be a game show host, but “I realized that that was a long shot based on my looks,” he says.
Still, his pun prowess has led to some of his life's greatest highs. “I love the ones that take words and take a little twist, add a letter, drop a letter, slur a letter,” he adds. “There are so many things you can do with a word.”
On Saturday at the Pun-Off, check-in begins at 11 a.m., to the sounds of a live band performing TV theme songs. Several hundred young locals and families assemble on blankets and lawn chairs, cramming under the trees to avoid the sun.
Gary Hallock runs around in khaki shorts and an American flag shirt. While juggling a day job managing an Austin apartment complex, he has been organizing the Pun-Off for 25 years.
He spends Saturday herding contestants and putting out fires. Occasionally he'll go onstage to say something like, “There are awnings we bought on sale. They're going to be given to the winners, so they'll be the winners of our discount tents.”
“It's not so much a passion for punning,” he explains. “It's a passion for attention. My wife tells me I'm a media hog.” Ready to retire, he's searching for his replacement.
The first event is Punniest of Show: 32 contestants present short, prepared monologues, and judges rate them from 1 to 10. In the event's early years, competitors would typically recite a shaggy-dog story — a long joke that ends with a whopper. But as competition has grown stiffer, the routines have become more pun-saturated, built around themes.
Steve Brooks once performed a legendary routine on “Tex-Mexistentialism” featuring the philosopher “Juan-Paul Salsa.” In 2000, Tiffany Wimberly won by dressing as RaPUNzel: “When I was a young CURL, a jealous queen LOCKed me in a tower. I was STRANDed … at my SPLIT'S END … truly a damsel in THESE TRESSES.”
As the competition begins, many contestants pun on foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Some tell the story of a date that eventually gets raunchy.
Others are more distinctive. Gruber puns on social media (“He gets all up in MySpace. That's no way to Tweet a girl”) and Brandon Austin on video games (“Can't we all just get a Pong?”). British champion Walsh arrives dressed as a chicken (“I heard about this competition on Face-bok-bok-bok”).
Ziek, in a blue Hawaiian shirt and jeans, watches his opponents from a lawn chair next to his birth father and stepmom (he grew up with his mom and adopted father). He starts to think about his monologue well in advance of the competition and usually writes it about a month beforehand. Two years ago, he used names of cheeses in a love song to a girl named Brie. Last year his winning routine was titled “Seasonings of Love,” the story of a date using spices.
This year he considered punning on every space on a Monopoly board in order, perhaps beginning with “I went to Iran and I Mediterranean,” but he scrapped it as too difficult. Instead he went with trees, in the persona of a motivational speaker talking about “how to become more poplar with the ladies.”
He commits to his motivational-speaker persona — even using a prop headset — and the tree names blend into his speech with ease: “A wise man doesn't wait for an opportunity — hickory-ates one.”
After Ziek comes Andy Balinsky, who cracks up the audience from the first words of his flower-themed routine, as he holds up roses: “Bouquet, I'm ready.” But the biggest crowd-pleaser is Alexandra Petri, a young Washington Post reporter, whose routine is a diatribe on how America needs a female president, punning on all the U.S. presidents — in order: “Don't go LINCOLN a JOHNSON to the highest office in the land.”
At the end, Ziek, Petri and Balinsky tie with 39 points out of a possible 40, and the verdict is decided by audience clap-off. Petri is the overwhelming winner. Ziek comes in second. “Her routine was amazing,” he acknowledges.
But he can still defend his title in Punslingers, the more challenging of the two contests — and the more bizarre.
In Punslingers, participants have five seconds to make a pun on a word in a given topic. Then it's their opponent's turn. They can't pun on a word that's been used — if they do, they get a strike. Three strikes and they're out. If they can't come up with anything, they're also out.
They can't use cliches or figurative uses of a word. If the category is horses, for example, they can't say, “I'm saddled with a burden.”
The puns in Punslingers don't have to be funny — they just have to be puns. Yet it's far more entertaining than Punniest of Show. It's hard to be patient with a performer who spends a year coming up with “lettuce go back to my place.” But it's impressive to see someone come up with a pun on the spot that hits a comedic bull's-eye.
A nurse named Brian Oakley is head of the topic committee, an unofficial title that he treats with the seriousness of a federal cabinet appointment. Back when he won Punslingers three times, the categories were pretty general, such as “food,” but the committee has picked more elaborate topics as competition has gotten stiffer. Last year, one category was “dessert (no candy)” and another was “candy (no dessert).” The least successful category Oakley can remember was “Words that start with P,” which got too confusing when the contestants departed from the hard “P” sound and moved on to philosophy and psychiatry.
If you had the time, Oakley could spend hours feeding you Punslingers strategy. “If the category is colors, don't start with fuchsia,” he says, “because he's going to be burning through green and blue and gray and black.”
Ziek's strategy is to immediately come up with two puns, one that he uses right away and another that he keeps in the back of his mind in case he's desperate. He look out at the crowd, at the trees, at the convention center in the background, to see if something jogs his memory. Sometimes you can play off your opponent — if the topic is magic, for instance, your opponent may drift into mythology, which opens up more possibilities.
One of Ziek's rivals is the 2012 winner, Dav Wallace, 41, dressed in a sea-green Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and sandals. He works in marketing in Austin and has been known to pull off visual puns: In a category called “farming and ranching,” he took an audible exhale and then crouched: silo.
In the car with his wife on the way over, he punned on all the European Union member states. “She's sick of this week,” he says.
Another favorite is 2009 winner Matt Pollock, a 32-year-old systems engineer who, like Ziek and Wallace, is an improv comedian on the side. He grew up telling “horrible jokes” with his brother, he says. “We'd make our parents sad.” He and Ziek are like Federer and Nadal — they've faced each other in each of the five previous years, with Ziek winning four times.
“He has an amazing vocabulary, and that's usually what determines who does well,” Pollock says of Ziek. “He doesn't usually run out of words.”
In the first round, Ziek faces Adam Bass, a writer for Groupon in Chicago. For Bass' whole life, he says, whenever he hears a word like scarf, he thinks immediately of both neckwear and voracious eating: “People say, 'You were born to do this.' ”
His dad, Mike Bass, took him to the Pun-Off as a 30th-birthday present. The former sports editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press used to pun — but when his sons started doing it, he realized its effect. “My head would be spinning and I'd go, enough was enough,” he says. “I had to stop. I had to be the adult.”
The category is “art and artists,” and Bass' college art classes come in handy. “I gotta get out of here, I have a Weegee,” referencing the famous photographer as he reaches back toward his underwear. But Ziek is always quick to respond — “I'm excited for this competition. That's why I Rodin to town early” — and eventually outlasts him.
Bass is satisfied. “It's like that boxer who wants to go five to 10 minutes with the heavyweight champion,” he says.
Ziek dispatches his next opponent in “holidays and celebrations”: “People in Switzerland, they're known for being neutral in the wars, but one time we tried giving them guns — it was Arm-a-Swiss Day.” He takes down another in “weapons (no firearms)”: “That's noose to me.” (At one point the judges remind contestants that an air strike is not allowed because it involves the use of a projectile, a point of order so esoteric that an irritated audience member yells, “Whaaat?!”)
In the semifinals, Ziek dispatches Wallace in “groups (human & animal).” Wallace: “Next year this category should be band.”
Meanwhile, Pollock goes round after round churning out puns so well-crafted you'd swear he's reading straight from a pile of candy wrappers. On “medical devices”: “I made a new machine to call my sibling. It's a dial-a-sis.” On “cleaning”: “What does a Japanese person clean their ear with? A wa-swab-i.”
He wins a marathon battle with Petri on “correspondence.” Petri: “I work with graphs, but they don't listen to me. You can't TELL A GRAPH anything.” Pollock: “The port-a-potties over there will not let my wife in. DEAR JOHN, LET HER.” Every time he hears a gem, whether his or an opponent's, he does a little leprechaun jig.
The flaw of Punslingers is that it occasionally feels more like a test of vocabulary than one of punning ability. Competitors such as Ziek and Pollock can take the syllables of just about any word or phrase, change those sounds into a new word or phrase, and then reverse-engineer a sentence to justify its existence.
Yet just enough comedy emerges to make the competition feel artful. The best punsters may be so used to making puns for humor that they can't avoid it, even when it's not necessary. Sometimes it's just easier to be funny.
In the final, Ziek faces his nemesis, Pollock, in “musical genres.”
Pollock: “My friend Ray happens to have come out of the closet. RAY GAY.”
Ziek: “Don't attack me with your gardening implement. Put the HOE DOWN.”
Pollock. “My friend's a Luddite. TECH — NO!”
Ziek: “I taught my mother how to do archery. MOM BOW.”
After a couple dozen times back and forth, Ziek draws a blank. There's silence for several seconds, as the crowd, and maybe even the judges, seem unable to concede that the champion has fallen. Pollock is the winner.
“The last six things, I had nothing,” Pollock says afterward. “I started talking and hoped that when my lips stopped moving I would have something.”
Ziek is resigned, but his agitation shows. At one point he walks over to Pollock.
“None of us said opera,” he says.
Pollock answers, “What's wrong with us?”