Father-daughter pair Fred and Jo Firestone have started a family together. To clarify: It's a figurative family, but indeed, "family" is the right word; the Punderdomers are more loyal and tight-knit than just a "community," and have more inside jokes than your average "clan." This is an unusual family, in that the Patriarch is a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator, and every month the group gathers to competitively out-quip each other. But like other unusual families, the Punderdomers know how to have a fun time — and have a pun time.
On the first Tuesday of every month, Fred and Jo host Punderdome, a rollicking and spunky pun competition. It's a night of wordplay in the packed Littlefield, a performance and art space in Brooklyn. The turn out is big, and the line for $7 tickets starts forming around 7 PM - but if you're wise, you'll buy them ahead of time. If you hope to compete, you've got to grab one of the 18 open slots to participate in multiple rounds of pun-making, based on category prompts that Jo announces. Contestants choose punny stage names before the hoopla begins.
Many contestants have punned before, and seasoned Punderdome kin usually keep the same name every time. The winner of the September 3 competition, Isaac Klein, is a cherished 'Domer known as "Punder Enlightening." He'd won once (wonce, maybe?) before, but for him, it's not just about the competition, but also the community. "The regulars fully understand and embrace this nerdy thing," he says. A successful pun, Punder Enlightening says, must be equal parts "wit, stupidity, and surprise." And while there are plenty of groan-worthy quips that are "too obvious or reach too far, with the right delivery, there is no bad pun." Truly Enlightening!
Rekha Shankar, alias Punky Brewster, who's been 12 times and won twice, says a good pun "takes you on a path and then twists your understanding of that path." She echoed Punder Enlightening's claim that a good pun must be surprising and explained by recalling a favorite pun she delivered for the category Fall. "I started dating this guy, and my friend Ana said I was rushing into a relationship, and I said, 'Rush? Hush, Ana!'" A pun on Rosh Hashana, she said, was unexpected in the Fall category, and the element of surprise is how she leafs them laughing. (That last one was me. Don't blame Punky Brewster, please.)
Other veterans waxed nostalgic on their favorite puns in past compuntitions:
"The category was Unused Sexual Innuendos, and I had a run of Sesame Street jokes: 'Why don't you and I Grover to my place, where there's some more Elmo room, and I can see your Big Bird and Count the ways I will do you.' Another time, the category was Colonial Williamsburg, and I said, 'I went to the haberdasher recently and told him my head was cold, and he said, 'Tri-corner hats!" —Forest Wittyker (New York Post reporter Tim Donnelly by day)
"The category was Zombie Apocalypse, and we went on this riff about watching movies, and said, 'We loved Ben Stiller in Eat the Parents and Russell Crowe in Glad He Ate Her.'" –The Punder Twins (Joe and Richy Salgado)
Like a talented punster's imagination, pun categories at the 'Dome span far and wide. At the September 3 competition, categories included Beer, the First Day of School, and Financial Terms. And though the pressure's on the contestants to deliver quips related to these categories that are surprising, funny, and original, the audience has just as much a part in the competition.
The success of contestants is measured by the Clap-O-Meter, a half-wheel contraption that a volunteer wears over his or her face. Depending on how the audience cheers, the Clap-O-Meter-wearer swings an arrow to indicate the success of the contestant's puns, ranging from Rotten Tomato to Punderful, a perfect 10. As Punderdome Patriarch Fred Firestone told me, "The crowd plays a role akin to the twelfth man in football." (The reference was initially lost on me, but he explained that at home football games, a supportive crowd can be as helpful as an additional team member).
It's true: When there's a surprising and successful pun, the crowd is almost riotous. Too rare is it that the humble but intelligent pun is praised and applauded: Usually, it's associated with an uncle's weird joke or an exhausting headline, like "MEMOIRS OF A GEISS-HA" (30 Rock's spoof of a Post headline). But when the old- and new-timers of the Punderdome family come together every month, pun-lovers get a chance to worship witty wordplay and have a place in the genus of quippers. The 'Dome's a home for people who were born to pun.