My New York Obsession

My Idea of Pun

Word nerds give more than a wit at the monthly Punderdome competition in Brooklyn.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

My love of wordplay is second to pun. There’s nothing more enjoyable than ruining the English language—and my own Twitter feed—one sleight of sound at a time. Breaking up marriages of words? I guess you could call me a homophone wrecker.

As a die-hard fan of puns, I have season tickets to listen to the words play at their home arena in Brooklyn: The Punderdome. It’s an edge-of-your-seat experience of relentless and fantastical verbal barbs, akin to watching an episode of Game of Groans, with only slightly more nerds.

How does it work? Each round, the puns follow a categorical thread, like “Things You Find in the Bedroom or Bathroom,” and the contestants fabricate puns and knit wits.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Puntestants are moved to the next round based on audience applause measured by the “Human Clap-O-Meter”—a person who, according to the Punderdome event description, “accurately and scientifically assesses” the crowd favorites. Rounds proceed until the final one, where two compunitors face off in a mouth-off until only pun remains.

It’s, in a word, punderful. Or punbelievable. To paint a fuller, nonpunny picture, imagine: linguistic lightning striking, tongues revving like engines, and knuckles cracking alliteratively. (Turns out once you start playing with your words, it’s impossible to stop. Like Lay’s potato chips, you can’t beat just pun.)

Wordplay is our family business, and business is goof.

The ’dome’s hosts are Fred Firestone, self-described “Rodney Dangerfield impersonator” and his daughter, comedian and Tonight Show writer Jo Firestone. A father-daughter duo is the only authentic way to host a pun competition, if that wasn’t already apparent. Puns were one of the first ways I bonded with my own dad, other than talking about savings. The formula checks out now: He’s an accountant, so it was easy for him to manipulate word problems and solve for any variable. And me? His most valuable asset, except for the times I was a liability. In the car on the way to anywhere, we’d have a full tank of puns and annoy the seat stuffing out of my mother and sister. Wordplay is our family business, and business is goof.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

But even with all that backseat practice, I’m not sure I’d ever be brave enough to enter the Punderdome fire for fear I’d get smoked by these word-slaying serial comma killers. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from wordshopping my nom de pun (that’s pun for “punny name”), and I’ve settled on either Phrasier Crane or Natalie Portmanteau.

A lot of these contestants, like Lingo Starr and Homestar Punner, have been punning for longer than the event has been a New York cultural staple. The ’dome’s eighth anniversary was last Tuesday at Littlefield, and I tried to think of a pun for that, but it was too weak.

For my nom de pun (that’s pun for “punny name”), I’ve settled on either Phrasier Crane or Natalie Portmanteau.

I attended with a friend, Rachel, who ended up being the absolute best person to invite, the perfect plus-pun. While the traditional response to a good pun can range from a snicker to a full-out groan or my personal brand of squawking “aha!,” Rachel was apundantly vocal—and her enthusiasm turned out to be puntagious.

Throughout the ’dome, we, and the folks fortunate enough to be in our immediate cheering perimeter, hooted and hollered at the professional punners’ masterful tongue twisting. A few highlights of the word champion night included: congratulating ourselves for being punctual; having to explain that “no, we aren’t high, we’re just having a really good time”; Rachel spitting a beer in my face as a reaction to one of the puns (I regret not wiping it down); and, finally, Rachel basically shutting down the whole competition in the final “Celebrity Names” round by yelling—out of utter respect and punderment—“What?!” when the eventual winner asked, “Are Ju-de Law?” after her opponent tried to regulate a pun. I had no idea my mild-mannered friend got so excited by nerdy talk, but we both enjoyed some good, clean pun. I would recount some of the other winning phrases, but as with the most stinging jokes, you just had to bee there.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I entered the Punderdome expecting some light entertainment, and I left feeling cerebrally stimulated by my fellow word nerds and just a little bit damp. Punderdome may not be for everypun, but if you made it this far, we’re definitely nerds of a feather and you might want to flock to the next pun.

Nikki Palumbo is a writer and comedian in New York. She previously wrote about the 79th Street Boat Basin for What Should We Do and puns on Twitter @nikkipalll.