John Pollack makes a case for the cultural significance of the lowly pun in his new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics. Pollack, a former presidential speechwriter, was also the winner of the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, in Austin, Texas. In this excerpt, Pollack describes the first round of the competition.
I stood on a stage in an Austin park outside the O. Henry Museum, looking out over a crowd I estimated at five hundred people and trying to calm myself as the emcee — a tall Texan in a straw hat — introduced me and my opponent. 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.
After reviewing the rules, the judge asked McClughan to reach into a galvanized bucket and pull out a slip of paper, which featured one of the hundred or so topics on a list that my thirty-one fellow competitors and I had been given just minutes earlier. There had been too many to actually study, but enough to make my mouth go dry with fear. What if I froze, and couldn't come up with a single pun?
The judge read McClughan's slip aloud: "Air Vehicles."
"George, why don't you go ahead and start," the judge said.
"Oh, all right," my opponent said. He looked so relaxed just standing there at the microphone, his shirt untucked, smiling at the crowd. And why not? He was a seasoned champion, and I was just some no-name walk-on from Michigan.
"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. "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.
"A bear made pies for its babies," he replied. "One Piper Cub."
And so it went, pun after pun, as we pummeled each other — and the English language — without mercy. From aircraft parts to the space program to the Battle of Britain, McClughan always had a good riposte ready. He was, in a word, unflappable.
"My girlfriend Mimi came over last night, and we had sex," he bragged. "She was a real screaming Mimi." An obscure reference, but valid. The Screaming Mimi was a type of German rocket artillery from World War II.
From the storm clouds of my subconscious, a Japanese warplane zoomed down to counterattack. "I heard that was a Zero."
The crowd was still cheering when the bell rang. Our seven-minute round was over. Exhausted, I stood there for a moment, heart pounding, mouth dry, my brain seizing up like an overheated engine that's run out of oil. A little dazed at my survival, I turned to walk off the stage.
"John! John! John!" It was the judge. "Don't go anywhere. You've got the Wright Patter, son."
I returned to my microphone. In the case of a tie, the judge explained, the audience got to decide who advanced to the next round. I looked out at the audience. Whatever happened, I could go home proud; at least I hadn't crashed and burned.
Excerpted from The Pun Also Rises by John Pollack. Copyright © 2011 by John Pollack. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.