“It was the best of puns, it was the worst of puns.” In my opinion, this quote, spoken by me only nine words ago, is true of every single paronomasia in the history of paronomasias. Puns are the stupidest humorous tool, and yet they’re simultaneously the most profound, funniest and most handy of tools. Many great writers use the pun to great effect– Shakespeare in particular uses them all through his dialogue. Writers in centuries past made puns based on Latin and Greek and proverbs that were popular at the time, which were probably pretty funny. Unfortunately, to an uncultured person like me, they don’t seem like much.
What makes me seem to oppose puns is the use of them as stand-alone jokes. When someone takes five minutes to set up a joke that ends with a phrase that half of the listeners don’t understand, it’s extremely anticlimactic. Take the following joke:
Two fishermen were in a boat by the lake, when one of them stood to catch a fish in a net. As he scooped up the carp, his wallet fell out of his back pocket. As the seemingly doomed billfold started to sink to the lake bottom, the carp slipped out of the net and swam after it, re-emerging with it on his nose.
However, instead of returning it, he tossed it to one of his fish buddies, who balanced it on his nose. More of more of fish-buddies emerged from the water, and all of them played this strange game of keep-away with the man’s billfold.
The first man watched, slackjawed. He said to the other “Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
The second man answered “Sure I have. Haven’t you heard of carp-to-carp walleting?”
I read this a few days ago on the internet. I had no idea what it meant. I had to Google the punch line in order to figure it out. (By the way, if you don’t get it either, the link is here.) It might be one of the top ten best puns in the world, but that only makes it more disappointing to me. The image of carp tossing a wallet around a lake is funny enough, but when you add in a bad punch line like “carp-to-carp walleting”, it becomes a waste of time, just because it really wasn’t that funny. No one likes to have to explain a joke anyway because it loses most of its humor (and you lose the intelligence people assumed you had– next they’ll be pantomiming along with anything they say to you). Over a hundred words were used to set up the joke, and it falls flat.
One type of pun I do like in moderation is the one-liner.
I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down.
There are many hilarious puns that take only one or two sentences to set up. Perhaps it’s because the punch line succeeds the introduction so quickly. There’s a proverb: “Twice you give if quickly you give.” You can speak the above pun in less than five seconds and leave your audience laughing much harder than with the first pun, which needs a minute to articulate and to understand. It’s like waiting for the penny to drop from the Mothership orbiting our planet. (Yes, it exists.)
My absolute favorite kind of pun, the kind that gives me the most pleasure while writing and reading, is the one slipped innocuously inside a narrative. The narrative hides whatever setup is necessary, so it seems to come like a bolt from the blue. The suddenness makes it that much more sweet.
A brilliant type of pun is that which works with names unknown to whoever made the pun. Consider the following example:
“The first word of the sixth annual spelling bee is ‘eschew’.”
Yes, I consider this a pun. It takes one word, “eschew”, and replaces it with another meaning that wasn’t meant– that of sneezing. This technique of making a pun out of any word someone doesn’t know is used almost constantly by writers such as Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, whoever implements the pun seems stupid for not knowing the original meaning, but when it’s funny enough, that can be overlooked.
Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: The brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth: No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. Hubris is worse.
Percy: What could be worse than hummus?
–From Rick Riordan’s Sea of Monsters
It’s funny, but it makes Percy seem like an idiot.
The problem with using puns at all is that you’re bound to come up against a bad one. Replacing a normal word– or worse, a syllable in a normal word– in a normal sentence with a strange word that may or may not have meaning in context is horrible. Saying something is “spook-tacular” around the 31st of October is just cheesy. How many doctors can claim that something is “humerus” before they realize it isn’t funny anymore? It stopped being funny perhaps a day after invention.
Then again, when you take a mistake and make it a pun, it can be hilarious. For example, “It’s worth sacrificing your tim…” Someone obviously forgot the E, but who’s to stop you from saying that you like Tim very much, thank you, and you’d prefer he not be sacrificed?
To sum up this rant, there is a very fine line between wit and stupidity. Make sure not to cross it, for your reputation’s sake.