It’s the event where hundreds of people sit in the broiling Texas heat to watch a high stakes verbal sparring match of puns, words and wits. That’s right, we went to the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship in Austin, Texas!
O. Henry (aka Will Porter) is a famous American short story writer known for his plot twists and word play. Somehow, someone got the idea to have a Pun-Off in his honor, an annual event that takes place at O. Henry’s former Austin home, now a museum and a Nerd Trip destination in December 2012.
Coincidentally, I was back in Austin during the 36th annual Pun-Off weekend in May 2013, so we grabbed our lawn chairs and headed downtown to the verbal battlefield for the competition subtitled “Jest for a Wordy Cause.”
I feel I should disclose that I am not a fan of puns. Most of the time, I find them to be forced and contrived.
However, I have a new pun respect after witnessing the mental agility of the Pun-Off competitors, standing before hundreds of spectators poised to groan and boo at every over-wrought attempt. Despite this appreciation, I will tell you that some of the puns were just downright painful! Some were brilliant.
We arrived toward the end of “Punslingers,” where competitors have five seconds to come up with a new pun in a particular category, such as insects, diseases and famous vehicles (think of puns like “generally” and “General Lee”).
The Pun-Off website has a list of popular categories as well as the contest rules. There’s even video of one of the final rounds: Celebrity Questions. The organizers gave these examples, “Is Jackson Brown?” “Have you seen Ted’s new gent (Nugent)?” You get the idea.
A panel of judges decides if a pun is acceptable: you cannot repeat a pun or the context, which can happen when these rounds go well past 10 minutes. Contestants who repeat a pun get a strike (three strikes and you are out) and those who exceed five seconds are also out.
The crowd really gets into the competition! Contestants play to the audience for support, and I think the judges are pretty forgiving, such as accepting a pun on Luke Skywalker for “Celebrity Questions” (they later struck down another fictional character, maybe some people think Luke Skywalker is really a famous celebrity? I think everyone really just wants to give competitors the benefit of the doubt).
At one point, the crowd actually turned on the organizers, shouting down the “famous vehicles” category and demanding a new one!
Audience members cheer especially good puns and encourage the judges to accept weaker ones. Sometimes the emcee asks a contestant to explain his or her pun. If the judges disallow it, the contestant can refine or rephrase the pun.
I was honestly surprised that there was not more groaning. I think my typical eye rolling was tamed a bit by sympathy for competitors, who must really have to study and practice. You need a pretty wide breadth of knowledge for this.
This year’s Punslingers finals came down to two veteran competitors, both previous winners. This year’s pun champion was Benjamin Ziek of California. After the competition, we took a picture with the Nerd Trips sign!
Whether you appreciate puns or not, if you appreciate a quirky competition or just feel the desire to smolder in the Austin sun watching competitors feel the heat on stage, keep your calendar open for next year’s O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship.