The Best Puns
The best puns are always spontaneous, powered by context and surprise. Some of my all-time favorites occurred in the following exchange at the1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, in Austin, Texas. I was paired with an opponent and we were given a topic. Alternating, each of us had five seconds to make a pun on that topic, back and forth, until someone missed. It was single elimination.
The emcee—a tall Texan in a straw hat—introduced me and my opponent to the crowd of about 500. I was already outmatched; my adversary was a bespectacled, forty-something man named George McClughan who, as the judge pointed out, just happened to be a former champion. Talk about a bad draw.
The topic was “Air Vehicles.”
“George, why don’t you go ahead and start,” the judge said.
“Oh, all right,” my opponent said. “If a helicopter had babies,” McClughan asked, “would it be a baby Huey?” It took me a moment to get it—a clever reference to both the cartoon duck and the workhorse chopper of Vietnam. He was going to flatten me.
My mind flashed to all the aircraft hanging from the rafters back at The Henry Ford museum outside of Detroit, where I worked. “I hope I come up with the Wright Flying Machine,” I said.
“Wait, wait . . .” It was the judge, holding up his hand. “It’s gotta be a puh-un.” In his Texas drawl, pun was almost a two-syllable word.
“The Wright Brothers,” I said. “W-R-I-G-H-T—I hope I pick the Wright Flying Machine.”
A sudden cheer swept the audience. The brawl was on.
“That was so plane to see,” McClughan said, grinning.
I struggled to come up with a response, but saved myself at the last second with a crude pun on Fokker, the defunct Dutch aircraft maker.
McClughan didn’t flinch. “I guess if I’m going to B-52 next week I’m never going to C-47 again,” he said.
“Well…,” I said, scanning the audience, “I’m looking for a Liberator out there.”
McClughan toyed with me. “This guy’s pretty good,” he said. “I was hoping he’d B-1 bomber.”
I was finding my rhythm. “You don’t think I’d take to flight, do you?”
“I don’t know,” he answered casually. “You’re just up here winging it.”
In its economy and perfect congruence of sound and meaning, a pun couldn’t get any purer. I could pun for an entire lifetime and never make a better one, ever. It was a knockout punch, and the crowd roared. But that rangy Texan refused to fall.
John Pollack is a journalist, author, and former Special Assistant and Presidential Speechwriter to Bill Clinton. He has written for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Advertising Age, and the Associated Press. He was named the World Pun Champion at the 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-off and has written speeches for corporate and public-sector leaders such as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Carly Fiorina, John Glenn, David de Rothschild, and actress Goldie Hawn. He currently works as a speechwriter and consultant for ROI Communication, an internal communication consulting firm. He lives in Manhattan. To learn more about John, visit his website http://www.thepunalsorises.com/
A review of The Pun Also Rises can be found on In The Next Room here.