On a Wednesday evening in May, the crowd at Brooklyn’s Littlefield venue went wild over host Fred Firestone’s warm-up puns. He called out prompts, and the audience shouted their best answers back to him. “Podiatrists know not victory,” he said, “but –”
“DE-FEET!” the crowd roared.
I looked around and wondered what I had gotten myself into. I had participated in multiple pun competitions – even won one or two – before I entered the big leagues of punning: competing in Brooklyn’s Punderdome.
This evening was Punderdome’s 12th anniversary, held with a packed house – standing room only, and barely. Firestone, a retired professional speaker and consultant, started the event in 2011 with his daughter, comedian Jo Firestone, and now runs it solo. It managed to stay afloat in a virtual format during COVID and now runs every six weeks, with a core community of regulars.
I make a lot of puns, at least enough to alienate those around me, but as I talked to competitors ahead of the big day, I began to suspect I might be in over my head.
For a sense of what I was up against: Six-time champion Faith Yusko (stage name: Hot Cross Puns) uses her daily subway commute to brainstorm puns on categories like “weather,” jotting them down in a notebook on the subway. As a teacher, she lets her fourth-graders grill her on puns on topics of their choosing, like “dinosaurs.” When I remarked that that category seems especially difficult, since all the names end the same way, she agreed. “I’d need a thesaurus to find more words,” she said, without missing a beat.
“Nice,” I replied, intimidated.
Morry Kolman (stage name: Punamerican Activities) attended seven Punderdomes – Pundersdome? – taking notes each time, before he was willing to get up on stage. He also used his 30-plus minute subway commute to pick topics he remembered from past competitions, and in 90 seconds, he raced to come up with as many puns on the theme as possible. He highlighted his best ones in a notebook.
“I wanted to be very prepared the first time I went up there,” he said.
The vibe at Punderdome is anything but cutthroat. Competitors at the most recent event were remarkably supportive, high-fiving onstage and cheering each other on. (I would say the vibe was “wholesome,” but that doesn’t feel like quite the right word, with such a deep bench of sex-related puns best left to the imagination.)
The whole competition was lighthearted and goofy, but it was clear that to have an edge, competitors had to take jokes at least a little seriously. Multiple competitors said they have read up on the “literature” around punning, including the book Away with Words, and were eager to talk strategy.
Adam Conner-Simons, a former pun competitor, recalled prep sessions with champion Emma Miller (stage name: When Wit Hits the Fan) in the final minutes before each competition. Sometimes, he said, he would join her in thinking of a category and “bouncing back and forth” with possible puns.
“There’s a quality of, you know, you’re just getting loose,” he said. “It’s like a basketball player shooting warm-ups.”
Before she competes, Miller said, she scribbles categories, like “all the fruits,” on a notepad and tries to come up with a two-minute, pun-filled standup routine. She also practices using the Punderdome card game (yes, there’s a card game with the same name).
“I really had to hustle,” she said of her early days in the competition.
Punderdome is a multi-stage event. First up is a “Pun Battle Royale” for the newbies, like me, to popcorn jokes on a given topic. Ours was “drinks & drugs.” One competitor asked the audience to “gin up” some support for us; I offered that if our jokes were weak, the crowd would be Smirn[us]off the stage.
I squeaked my way through to the multi-round “Tournament of Champions,” where competitors had two minutes to brainstorm puns on a category and write a two-minute standup set that crammed in as many puns as possible. Our topic was “weddings & life events.” I promptly forgot I had ever been to or heard of a wedding, and did not make it on to semi-finals.
As a Punderdome newbie, I solicited advice from regulars before the competition. We talked through strategy, like whether to repeat a pun someone else has used. Eight-time winner Erika Ettin (stage name: Lexi Kahn) suggested moving past the low-hanging fruit. (In the “vegetable” category, that would be something like “Lettuce commence; I don’t carrot-all,” she advised.)
I knew I would need a punny stage name for the event, and I sought competitors’ thoughts. They kept it real with me. When I pitched Kolman on my idea to go by “Sarah-tonin boost,” the best he could say for it is that it was “interesting.” Josh Klasco, another competitor, agreed: “it’s bad.”
“‘Tonin boost’ – it’s not really, like, a thing,” he said.
They helped me brainstorm a bit. Klasco and I wavered over “Groucho Quotation Marx,” though I ultimately went with Punderdog, a name I thought of on my train ride to the competition. I thought it was pretty original, until Firestone approved it with a “sure, no one’s used that in a few years.” Alas.
My fate would be determined by a “human clap-o-meter” – a blindfolded man in a chair onstage responsible for assigning a number, from one to 10, to the volume and enthusiasm of audience applause for each contestant’s performance. The human clap-o-meter embodies the tension between the goofiness and intensity of this event. The role itself is funny and inherently unscientific, ripe for heckling from the audience if the clap-o-meter misreads the room.
“Nobody gets hurt,” Firestone joked. “I normally say we’ll have to pay for three months of emotional support therapy and an escort to the car” for the clap-o-meter, but “we play around – everybody plays.”
Much of the advice I received centered around the need to “engage the clap,” as Conner-Simons put it. After each round, competitors can do almost anything to score louder applause. When my turn came, I found myself, without really intending to, dancing and leaping back and forth across the stage in a manner that can only be described as “cool.” (A friend said I seemed “out of my element,” and I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant.)
Mike Sutter, the clap-o-meter for the night, said he knew what he was getting into – this was his second time in the role – but it was “maybe a little more intense than I expected.” He agreed to take on the role because he is starting a high-pressure job soon (shooting a film) and wanted to “condition” his body for the stress.
He was expecting – and received – some “jovial” boos from the audience when he misjudged a couple of rounds of applause.
“You can only imagine it if you’re not up there,” he said. “You’re also blindfolded so that, you know, puts you in this weird emotional place, existing in this black void.”
Often, the clap-o-meter is someone plucked out of the audience at the last minute.
“It’s a layman, a civilian, for a lack of a better word,” Miller said. But “there’s a lot of pressure. The last couple of times, I feel like there’s been a lot of tension, with the audience feeling not appropriately graded.”
Klasco also acknowledged the pressure.
“They have this look in their eyes when they get an inkling of what’s about to happen,” Klasco said. “It’s the look of a German vegetarian at Oktoberfest. They fear the wurst.”
“It’s all fun and games,” he added, “but the audience gets kind of mad at them if they don’t represent them accurately.”
Conversations with Firestone strike a similar balance between the silly and the serious. Firestone is not a punner by nature, but was a professional audience-engager, a public speaker and consultant who spent his career helping companies and organizations “pull ahead of their competition by building more trust, credibility and partnership into their crucial customer/client touch points,” according to his website.
Onstage, he is a goofy, self-deprecating presence, cracking jokes from the moment he takes the mic. But he takes the competition seriously. Offstage, he contemplates “how to engage the audience if I have significant content,” and looks for “touchpoints along the cycle of service.” And of course, he adds, “We have statistics on everybody who’s been a champion.”
Raising his children, this approach to audience engagement manifested in a zany game-show mentality, where he might tell his daughter, “You have your napkin on your lap – ding-ding-ding!”
“It was just kind of frenetic,” he said.
He brings that same approach to Punderdome, regulars observed.
“I don’t think most people are especially intense or serious or self-serious about punning,” Conner-Simons said. “I think there’s a tacit acknowledgment that we’re just making silly word jokes here.
This Punderdog, however, will be training hard before giving the Punderdome another go.