Mark Eells at the O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin. Photo by gary whitford
gary s. whitford April 2013

“Everything you do teaches you,” they say, and Mark Eells learned a lot last weekend at the O.Henry World Championship Pun-Off in Austin. A medical information manager at a local medical equipment company, Mark was the only San Antonian at the contest, which drew wordplayers from all over the country – one couple mounted a Kickstarter campaign to fund their trip to Austin from Seattle.

Punning is a very particular art. A good punster finds the ironic twists in nearly any situation. Sally Davies wrote in the BBC News magazine in January that puns are either the lowest form of wordplay or an ancient art form embraced by Jesus and Shakespeare.

“In the English-speaking world, punning is viewed as more of a tic than a trick, a pathological condition whose sufferers are classed as ‘compulsive,’ ‘inveterate’ and ‘unable to help themselves,’” Davies wrote. I recommend that you read the whole essay.

Getting the Pun Habit

It’s hard not to laugh as you groan, and people with the punning talent – or affliction– can rise to O.Henry’s standard and find themselves among peers at the annual competition. Eells participates in email threads with his friends, exchanging puns in their spare moments.

Mark Eells at the O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin. Photo by gary whitford
Mark Eells at the O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin. Photo by gary whitford

“We start an email trail with a pun and it’s reply all, everybody throws in their two cents. Someone started on the theme of ‘old soldiers never die…’ and I added, ‘Old editors never die, they do something else in stet.’ That one was popular. There was a medical pun trail and I wrote, ‘If they do a partial bowel resection, does that leave you with a semicolon?’”

“We enjoy throwing those around,” he said.

Going to the Big Show

The O. Henry Pun-Off has two competitions: Punniest of Show, and Punslingers. In Punniest of Show, contestants perform a 90-second monologue which is scored by judges, much like figure skating or gymnastics. In Punslingers, contestants face off in pairs and exchange puns on a selected topic. Each contestant must come up with a valid pun within five seconds. They trade puns until one of the contestants cannot respond. It takes several rounds to determine the winner.

To prepare his monologue, Eells visited a Sprouts grocery and, he said, “walked around their health food section for about an hour writing down all the possible names of health foods and supplements and herbs and whatnot. I listed them out and tried to put them together into some cohesive, coherent story.” He earned 32 out of 40 possible points.

[Video by Ruth Treviño Miller via You Tube.]

YouTube video

“My mistake was I tried to keep everything on the same theme. As I heard the other stoires, I realized a lot of people told threw a mixed batch of puns into a story. I could have expanded mine a little more. But I was fine, I did 90-plus seconds, I got finished, I stumbled only once, I felt good. At least I wasn’t the lowest score. I can get up next year and not feel as apprehensive as I did this time.”

Round Two

In Punslingers, Mark made it to the second round, where he got stuck on a word. Five seconds go by very quickly when you’re trying to write something in your head in front of a demanding audience well-seasoned with a torrent of puns.

Mark said his experience reminded him of trying out for Jeopardy several years ago in Austin.

“They gave you 50 clues – you had to answer 40 of them correctly. I answered 39. They told us, ‘You’re going to remember one of the answers on the way home today.’ I remembered the answer I needed on the way out of the hall. The clue was, ‘Verdi’s opera about an Egyptian princess.’ My mind went totally blank, but then as I was walking out of the auditorium it hit me, ‘Oooh, Aida.’ Ever since then, whatever stops me from being successful, that is my Aida,” he said.

Mark is not going to let this Aida stop him. “I was blown away by the level of competition. Next year, if I have the opportunity, it’s going to make me step up my game.”

Benjamin Ziek of Glendale, California won both contests, a rare “two-fer” in the history of the O.Henry Pun-Off. The competition is named after O. Henry, the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who lived in Texas in the last decades of the 19th century. He lived in San Antonio (an O. Henry House is located downtown) for a couple of years, but most of his time in Texas was spent in Austin. O. Henry started a magazine called Rolling Stone (not Jann Wenner’s rock magazine), and wrote some of the best short stories in American literature. O. Henry was known for his wordplay, and the contest in his name is held in a small park behind Austin’s O. Henry Museum. For more information about the contest, see the Pun-Off’s website, find them on Facebook and YouTube.

If you’re desperate to find a pun, and can’t think it up, technology can help. Find Pun Generator on the web, with mobile device apps also available.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford couldn’t generate a pun if he had to, but writes clear and compelling copy for websites, ads and other marketing communications. You can find him at Extraordinary Words, on Facebook, LinkedIn and – on most Sundays, in The Rivard Report with Every Word Counts.

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gary s. whitford

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...