Punger Games: 6 Rules to Making Puns Ever in Your Favor

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I have loved a good pun for as long as I can remember.  Anyone that knows my family can probably guess that my affinity for a play-on-words more than likely traces back to my dear old dad.  We were raised on puns and irony (“not sarcasm”, as we were continually reminded).  My dad, an illustrious English professor of some 54 years, managed to work a pun into our dinner table conversation almost every night.  What made the Professor’s puns so iconic wasn’t necessarily the quality of the pun (highly variable), but rather the unique manner in which they were delivered.  This can probably be best explained by simply giving you an example.

Typical night.  The eight of us sitting around the dinner table.  Someone would ask for ice in their drink.  “I once had a girlfriend named ‘Ice’,” my dad would start, “she was cold hearted.”  Someone might mention that their steak was overdone.  “I once had a girlfriend named ‘Well Done’…. She was disappointingly tough.”  And so on.

There was always a slight pause after my dad revealed that he had a girlfriend named “Mash Potatoes” or “7 Up” or “Hoagie Sandwich”.  Although ostensibly he did it for dramatic effect, I’m pretty sure a lot of the time he hadn’t actually thought up the punch line when he started the joke.  I kind of liken his jokes to a Stephen King novel.  He had a really intriguing idea going in, but didn’t really think far enough ahead to have it button up nicely in the end.

I can think of no specific examples, but I have numerous memories of one us saying “Dad, that doesn’t even make any sense”, all the while my dad was wheezing with laughter, his hand always placed over his heart as if to brace against a humor induced heart attack.  I was always my dad’s best audience, except for himself of course.  It was in these moments, while my siblings rolled their eyes, that I took note and learned one of the greatest lessons my dad ever taught me.  Be your own best audience.  Doesn’t matter who likes your jokes, or even if they make sense.  If they’re harmless and they make you laugh, you possess a veritably endless fountain of happiness.  You possess the power of self-Prozac.  It’s a marvelous trait to have.   

My brothers and I carry on the pun tradition, in our own way.  Impromptu pun-offs (kind of like rap-offs or dance-offs, except not totally stupid) still arise when the opportunity presents itself.  A decent pun thrown out from a brother is the start of yet another Punger Games.  Do you team up for a while, play off of each other, knowing full well that there can be only one victor in the end?  Do you hang back and bide your time, waiting for the precise killer blow?  Or do you enter the fray like a mad man and overwhelm your opponents?  Like an ol’ drunken Haymitch Abernathy, I have come with 6 pearls of wisdom so that you too, may emerge a victor of the Punger Games.

1) Low hanging fruit is the least delicious. If everyone thought of the pun before it comes out of your mouth then you shouldn’t have said it.  If someone says “Hey did you hear Fred got struck by lightning?!”  you could say “How shocking!” but that might get a couple of eye-rolls at best.  You could also say “How revolting!”.  Better, but kind of transgresses my rule #2(see below) in that it doesn’t really make sense in this circumstance, because that doesn’t really fit the definition of revolting.  If I had my choice I would go for “No, is he ‘current’ly ok?” Not only does it make sense but it is STILL the proper thing to say even if you weren’t making a pun. 

Puns are like Scategories, if you think everyone else has it on their paper, have the stones to try for something else.  For “famous athlete that starts with a B” you could go with Brett Farve (1 pt).  You could also go with Barry Bonds (2 pts).  Or, better yet you could go with “Brutus the Barber Beefcake” (3 pts) and win the game and the respect of those around you.  You’ve got to surprise other people’s brains with what your brain came up with first, or at all in some instances.

2) Your pun has to make sense.  This seems obvious, but is probably the most transgressed rule of them all.  The closer your pun phrase is to something that would have actually been said at that moment in time, the more power that pun possesses.  Asking if an Australian zoo worker is “koala-fied to handle animals” is a solid pun.  If someone says “Hey, how did ice fishing go? I heard it was really crowded.”  Someone could say “Yeah, it was reel fun.”  That scores big points for rule number 2 because that phrase, without the pun, is a perfectly appropriate response to the original question.  Granted, that particular pun ranks extremely low on rule 1, so I would still avoid it.  I would probably go with “Yeah, we were bassically shoulder to shoulder with all those freaking ice holes.”  I like this for a variety of reasons.  The whole thing makes sense and the second pun in the sentence scores extra points because not only does the pun reference make sense, but it still makes even without it being a play-on-words.  You would complain about too many ice holes just as you would too many of what the pun alludes to. 

What you don’t want to do is make a pun about fishing that isn’t really something you would say in response to the question.   Something like “Yeah, I was totally hooked!”  I mean, I get it that you’re making a reference to a fish hook and that you just went fishing, but saying “Yeah, I was totally hooked” really isn’t something you would naturally say in response to “Hey, how did ice fishing go? I heard it was really crowded.”

Additionally, the more strain you have to put your words and sentences through to accommodate your pun, the less effective that pun will end up being in the end.  I had a friend who made up a joke about a raccoon who was hunting a frog and the punchline was “so you’re a coon huntin’ toad, huh?”  The “a coon huntin’ toad, huh?” was supposed to be a play on “hakuna matata” from Lion King.  Now this may be an exception because it was so ridiculously forced that it ended up being funny in a different way, but if you have to torque your pun or sentence that hard, the whole thing will most likely break under the strain.   

3) The law of exponential stacking:  Putting two or three puns in one sentence is more than two or three times as impressive.  If you’ve just had a baby and the lactation specialist asks how it’s going you could say “oh, he’s the breast feeder I’ve ever had”.  It’s a great pun, but saying “he’s the breast feeder I’ve had in recent mammary” is a veritable work of art.  This desire to score exponentially more points with a full fledged pun phrase must always be tempered with the event-to-delivery urgency, however.  Puns, even good ones, are one part content, one part timing and can quickly fizzle if not delivered soon after the event that prompted it.  Nothing says “I am the man/woman” like a pun delivered completely in stride.

4) A pun’s success ultimately depends on the audience.  More obvious puns will win over the slower witted knuckle draggers, while clever, unemphasized puns will earn you the respect of the truly debonair.  I had a friend who would say a sentence as if there was a pun in there just to see if people actually understood his jokes or just laughed because others were laughing.  Something like “I’m not sure Lance would appreciate it if you…skipped breakfast.” Inevitably someone would laugh and he would then ask them what they were laughing at.  It was a cruel, but the world of serious punning is a cutthroat business.  Going back to the example of the man electrifying himself, my favorite pun (“current”ly) may be a bit too subtle for some.  This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t say it, it just means that you should be aware of the response it will elicit.

5) The Cardinal Sin of Punnery. There is a pun that transgresses rule number #1 so egregiously that uttering it should merit you one of two things: you should either be legally prohibited from making puns of any sort for at least a month, or alternatively, someone should should throat punch you with a pair of brass knuckles.  I am, of course, referring to the phrase “that’s very punny” and it’s many derivatives.  I don’t know why people say it.  Saying “oh, very punny!” in response to a pun from someone else does not put you back on even ground with the person who said the original pun.  What are you looking to gain by that?  You think that’s your ace in the hole to play whenever you’re confronted with a finely crafted pun?  A brilliant trump card that will neutralize any cleverness thrown your way.  You wear it around your neck like a stinking garlic clove necklace in hopes that the vampiric bite of the well executed pun will be warded off.  Well guess what? I’ve got news for you.  These vampires aren’t your typical vampires.  They’re your quasi-invincible Twilight vampires that put garlic on their pizza and wear crosses around their necks.  Casting your light upon us does not cause us to cower and melt away, but to sparkle and shine more attractively than ever before.  We are both Team Jacob and Team Edward.  We are the wielders of true puns.  And we will not be cowed by your lame one liner.

6) No Pun Intended.  A final thought on the matter.  I’m pretty sure that half the people on the earth do not actually know how to correct apply the phrase “no pun intended”.  It seems pretty straight forward.  Say this phrase after you unintentionally say a pun and only afterward realize that you said the pun, thus calling attention to the whacky nature of life and its coincidental happenings.  You do not say this to add emphasis to a pun that you purposefully planted.  I once heard some guy reading a safety bulletin that was entitled “Electrical Hazards:  The Shocking Truth”.  He read the title and then followed it up with “No pun intended”.  Uh, I’m actually pretty sure that when that author of the bulletin was drafting up that beauty, that he intended the pun.  I’m not sure if it was the underlined italics he used on the word “shocking” or the semicolon winking smiley face superscripted afterwards, but I’m gonna guess it was on purpose.   

Now go, my tributes.  Use this knowledge well.  And may the odds ever be in your “favor”… (just kidding, there’s no pun there).

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