Pun out and play • Brooklyn Paper

Pun out and play

Pun judge: Eileen “I-Lean” Reynolds, blogger for The New Yorker, and author of “Battle of Wits: A Report From The Punderdome” was a Celebrity Judge Extraordinaire in a previous Punderdome event.
Courtesy of Punderdome 3000

What did the pun do to improve its public image?

It hired a new punblicist!

The pun, the lowly unit of humor, has found a new expression in Brooklyn, which experts say is a harkening back to a punnier time in human history.

The Punderdome 3000 is a monthly event held at Littlefield in Gowanus that has the borough’s most pun-chy wannabe comedians dishing out dad-worthy lines all night long — and this competition takes a lot of wits, guile and punning, says its organizers.

“It’s a bit like American Idol,” said Fred Firestone, who comes up from Missouri once a month to throw the informal competition with his daughter Jo. “But while the puns are important, what really allows one to be successful and go on to the next round is their delivery and the ability to get the audience to laugh.”

Firestone and his daughter run the event, which they say is a riff off the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships held every year in Austin, Texas, by giving participants themes to work with — Brooklyn neighborhood names or nineties TV shows, for example — in order to create as many puns as they can in pun-ctual spans of 90 seconds.

It may seem like a trivial pursuit, but language pros say this is no mere game: the pun is one of the most fundamental units of human expression.

“The pun was a key factor in the rise of modern civilization,” said John Pollack, author of “The Pun Also Rises,” champion of the 1995 O. Henry contest, and former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton — at times a walking pun-ch line in his own right since his pun-godly behavior in the 1990s. “People think of puns today as low humor, but through most of human history puns were a sign of eloquence and sophistication. They weren’t expected to be funny necessarily, they were just expected to convey multiple meanings.”

Pollack, who researched centuries of puns for his book, says there is evidence of punning dating back to antiquity — punbelievable, if you think about it.

“We have evidence of punning dating back 35,000 years, but puns got kicked to the curb of humor during the Enlightenment when intellectual tastemakers started insisting on rules, rationality, and hierarchy because they were trying to understand the natural world through order and scientific reason,” he said. “Puns defy that sort of reason, because they’re very subversive.”

That may help explain the show’s popularity.

After starting out with a modest crowd of 40 people at Park Slope’s now defunct hotspot, Southpaw, Firestone says the event has bloomed into a rollicking affair attended by hundreds of Brooklynites every month.

Punderdome 3000 at Littlefield [622 Degraw St. between Third and Fourth avenues in Gowanus, (718) 855–3388. www.punderdome.com] July 3, 8 pm. $7.

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.

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