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Austin Chronicle Puns of Steel

Gradations of Groaning at the 23rd Annual O.Henry Pun-Off World Championships

By Clay Smith

MAY 15, 2000:  On a recent Sunday in downtown Austin, a woman in a bright pink floor-length gown who looked like she might be AWOL from a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism bound up an outdoor stage and started saying strange things -- stranger even than her appearance -- to a group of assembled people.

"Fair ladies and noble gentlemen," she began innocently enough. "I, RaPUNzel, have a hair-raising tale to SHEAR with you written by the brothers TRIMM. 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 DESE TRESSES! The queen thought it was a PERMANENT SOLUTION, but day after day, knight after knight would try to rescue me from a tower so tall the FOLLICLE you! They would climb my braid, and if they weren't that handsome, I would give them the BRUSH-off. (Gee, I wonder if that's where I got the reputation for being a big TEASE?) One day, a handsome knight named Prince Latherrinse tried to rescue me. He was HEAD & SHOULDERS above the rest. I said, 'COMB and SHAVE me!' The queen found out about it and cut off my hair. And let me tell you, hell hath no fury as a woman SHORNED! She'll have hell TOUPEE because I am not someone to TANGLE with. Prince Latherinse whisked me away. We got married and had twins but we didn't live happily ever after because he placed too many CONDITIONERS on our marriage, which was really CRIMPING my STYLE. So we PARTED ways and a custody battle ensued and it came down to SPLITTING HAIRS, so he took one twin and I took the other. So now I don't date princes anymore because I don't want a LATHER RINSE REPEAT. I've gotten back to my ROOTS by changing my hair from blond to brown, and this new color is to DYE for. After all, brunettes have more PUN. Well, that's the LONG and SHORT of my HAIRY tale story. I bid you all a DO."

Still there? If you withstood that barrage of PUNishment and have arrived at this sentence without experiencing an irregular heartbeat, you were probably at the 23rd Annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships cheering on Rapunzel (aka Tiffany Wimberly of Fayetteville, Arkansas) as she handily won this year's Punniest of Show competition. In Punniest of Show, contestants perform prepared monologues no longer than two minutes -- preferably 90 seconds. Wimberly's was notable for its dearth of groan-inducement. It made people laugh and whoop and holler.

"I think we were all in agreement that that was the person who should win," says Marc Pruter, a founder of Monks' Night Out and one of four Punniest of Show judges whose Bad Dog Comedy Theater will be opening in July. For the pun-challenged, Pruter elucidates what sets a prize-winning punster apart: "1. Memorization of your pun. 2. Stage presence; costuming was very helpful. 3. Just commitment to the material. There were so many people here who had notes. Yes, it's a pun-off but it's like any other competition; you should rehearse."

There are several ways, it turns out, to tell a punster what you think of his or her performance:

A deep, guttural, and protracted groan = a pun so bad it's good. For added effect, wince like you're experiencing the most vicious moment of a bloody horror movie. Jerk your head back from the source of discomfort and look away, wincing all the while. Make sure other people in the audience see you doing this. Example: After making $250 for the O. Henry Museum by auctioning off two baseballs signed by Nolan Ryan, Pun-Off producer Gary Hallock said, "We lived up to Ryan's Hope."

A light groan, voiced with a note of surprise, as in "Aha!" = This is a sophisticated pun that has obviously been allowed to mature and ripen in the performer's mind. Too many of these in a row and things get boring, despite the intellectual pleasure they offer. Example: During the High Lies & Low Puns competition (in which pairs of contestants are called onstage, given a topic at random, and bandy back and forth on the topic without puns being made on the same word), contestant Gregory Chandler was handed Fruits & Veggies as a topic and said, "We've picked up a lot of these puns from TV. I guess we're all tubers."

A brief groan, without overdue expression = a pun that just barely merits recognition. The audience is left wanting for more. Example: As the hot afternoon wore on, veteran Pun-Off emcee Joel McColl asked rhetorically if everyone was still conscious. "Everyone conch-ious?" Hallock shot back. "We shall sea."

After she had won and received her trophy, Wimberly told me that she had been practicing her piece so often that her three children were able to prompt her when she forgot a line. I asked her if her punning has rubbed off on them. She recalled that she and her daughter were driving by a pasture once and her daughter, who was five at the time, said, "Do baby cows get their milk at the calf-é?" although Wimberly acknowledges that what she may have really said was, "Do baby cows get their milk at the cafe?" It all depends on how you listen. But rest assured that Wimberly is a good mother: "They'll hear me say something and they'll groan, so I know that I'm raising them right," she says.

Some punsters stick to prepared material; others venture out into the shaky realms of improvisation. "I think better on my seat than on my feet," Wimberly says. "That's why I'm better at going up onstage with a prepared piece memorized." So she doesn't drive her friends and family mad with her insertion of puns into everyday language? "I guess I know when to ... like Gary, he's just all the time, I mean, you get into a conversation with him and he'll say something that's not punny and you're thinking, 'Maybe I didn't get it,' or 'Maybe I'm slow or something,' because it's all the time for him. Me, I dose it out and I know when and when not to pun. I guess I'm more of a polite punster," she decides. "But if it comes up it comes up and I have to say it, otherwise I'll be bursting at the seams or I'll go home and tell my husband, 'Hey, I had this great pun today' or at night when we're getting ready for bed we'll say, 'Okay, what was your best pun today?' And we kind of compare puns that way."

To each his own. There's another way to compare puns, and it's called High Lies & Low Puns. Those who dare to enter must prepare themselves for copious amounts of humiliation and frequent frustration with the brain's inability to work as quickly as desired. In Sunday's High Lies & Low Puns competition, two punsters hopped onstage and were given "wheeled vehicles" as a topic: "Are you bicycular?" one of them asked the other. "No, but I'll Dodge that remark," came the reply. "That's all you can a-Ford." This goes on and on until one brave soul is left standing.

"This is the world championship; it is the world championship because we decided it was," longtime producer Gary Hallock says with evident pride. Hallock began attending the Pun-Off circa 1984, won Punniest of Show in 1989, and has been running the show since 1990. It seems that vaunted punster O. Henry can look down with pride the first Sunday of every May on the house in Austin he used to inhabit. He must feel a certain amount of camaraderie: As punster Gregory Chandler says, "I think the great thing about this is that it's the only time of the year that you can freely come and do something that the rest of the year people will just kind of want to pummel you for."

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