Two Puns Enter, One Pun Leaves

Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions by Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial, 2017. 9780062495600.

awaywithI picked this book up with the question, “There are pun competitions?” Yes, there are, and enough that Berkowitz doesn’t have to stretch too much to find them.

He starts out at the hip, monthly Brooklyn Punderdome to try out performing in a competition. Hearing laughs at and cheers for the kind of wordplay that usually only earns him the stinkeye gets him addicted, even though he doesn’t win. This starts him on the road to the big annual competition in Austin, the O. Henry Pun Off. How do you get better at competitive punning? By taking an improv class to be less afraid of crashing and burning, among other things. He interviews scientists who study the mechanisms of jokes and puns. (They compare punning with a brain disorder.) He talks to the writers at Bob’s Burgers and Veep who incorporate puns into every television episode. Berkowitz investigates the high-pressure headline punning at the New York Post and visits the set of the pun-based game show @midnight. Along the way he interviews a host of pun champions.

As fun as following these threads was (and Berkowitz is funny even outside the punning), the best part was watching him find his people and become appreciated by a tribe that shares his unironic interest in wordplay.

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