Puns. ‘Nuff said.

Thanks to a FB group called The Punnery, I can now make really bad puns even in my sleep. Here’s how I became a convert.

With a ‘pundit’ husband, you might as well join the fun
Shoba Narayan
May 20, 2013

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My husband, Ram, is an inveterate punster.
Yes, I have heard it all before: He is a “pundit” and not a “punter.” It has taken me 20 years to learn to say that without blanching.
The problem with puns, as I keep telling Ram, is that they exclude. The person who delivers the pun feels clever, but the listeners may feel like fools if they don’t catch on.
Puns rely on wit and a sharp mind to be successful. The way to respond to a pun is by punning it back, which is difficult for normal people to do. Most people don’t think of twisting words, using irony and tricks of sound. They quickly run out of steam.
When you listen to a joke, you guffaw. If the joke is good, the laugh is involuntary. It doesn’t take much work.
But when you listen to a pun, you have one of four reactions: you understand it and retort quickly; you get the pun and scratch your head for an appropriate comeback; the pun completely passes you by; or you get the pun and feel annoyed that the person is delivering a pun when you are in the middle of a grocery line, feeling cranky.
Humour is embracing; puns are not. Jokes often seek the lowest common denominator. Puns are elitist. They are the product of intellect and not the gut.
There is a reason puns are most popular among the people who invented the language being used. With puns, you have to own the language in a way that slapstick or standup do not demand.
With a pun you cannot use gesture, parody, or the sound of Julia Child’s voice (high falsetto, for those who don’t know) to get people to laugh. Jokes rely on delivery more than content. Think of the deadpan voice or the use of a certain gesture or the perfect pause before the punch line. Puns don’t use any of those vehicles for their verbal punch.
With puns, it is all about words. With puns, the person who delivers the line chortles with amusement and the chances that you can be equally quick with a punning response are usually slim.
In case you haven’t guessed, I dislike puns. Make that the past tense. I disliked puns until very recently.
For our 20th wedding anniversary I decided to give my husband a present that would be a true symbol of how much I valued the state of our union: I decided to participate in two activities that he loves but that I don’t much care for: cricket and puns. And since I am not particularly bowled over by watching a cricket match, I decided that I would begin with the puns.
A Facebook group called The Punnery helped me along. With close to 10,000 members, all of whom seem rabidly into punning, this group is a great place to start- if you must,
“When in Rome, you must roam,” said the beginning of one thread. “The food is so good, I am glad-i-ate-tor,” said a response. “All the ancient history will Caes-ar (seize your) mind.” And so it went. I have to admit that once I got into it, words loosened up and danced around for me.
I discovered that the trick about delivering puns is to be imaginative, have a good sense of current affairs and history, and develop a good vocabulary.
There is one more thing that helps if you want to enjoy puns. Try them out over dinner, particularly with your children.
Over one Italian meal, I sat with four children: my two daughters, my niece and nephew. We had a “punathon” where someone just started with one line and the others carried on. It was like word-building on steroids. I was surprised at how quickly the children picked up the idea of the game. They were all between 12 and 16 years of age; I would argue that anyone has to be in that age group, or older, to appreciate puns. Before that, I find, kids enjoy jokes, particularly if they have to do with body parts and sounds.
Puns require verbal sophistication and that happens with maturity. Don’t count on it, though.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Hilarious piece on hypochondria

Written as only Woody Allen can.


An Inside Look

By Woody Allen,  New York Times

Sunday Review,  January 12, 2013



WHEN The New York Times called, inquiring if I might pen a few words “from the horse’s mouth” about hypochondria, I confess I was taken aback. What light could I possibly shed on this type of crackpot behavior since, contrary to popular belief, I am not a hypochondriac but a totally different genus of crackpot?


What I am is an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac or, should I say, the same emergency room. Still there is a fundamental difference. I don’t experience imaginary maladies — my maladies are real.


What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.


The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.


Unfortunately, my wife bears the brunt of these pathological dramas. Like the time I awoke at 3 a.m. with a spot on my neck that to me clearly had the earmarks of a melanoma. That it turned out to be a hickey was confirmed only later at the hospital after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Sitting at an ungodly hour in the emergency room where my wife tried to talk me down, I was making my way through the five stages of grief and was up to either “denial” or “bargaining” when a young resident fixed me with a rather supercilious eye and said sarcastically, “Your hickey is benign.”


But why should I live in such constant terror? I take great care of myself. I have a personal trainer who has me up to 50 push-ups a month, and combined with my knee bends and situps, I can now press the 100-pound barbell over my head with only minimal tearing of my stomach wall. I never smoke and I watch what I eat, carefully avoiding any foods that give pleasure. (Basically, I adhere to the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, nuts, figs and goat cheese, and except for the occasional impulse to become a rug salesman, it works.) In addition to yearly physicals I get all available vaccines and inoculations, making me immune to everything from Whipple’s disease to the Andromeda strain.


As far as vitamins go, if I take a few with each meal, over time I can usually get in quite a lot before the latest study confirms they’re worthless. Regarding medications, I’m flexible but prudent because while it’s true antibiotics kill bad bacteria, I’m always afraid they’ll kill my good bacteria, not to mention my pheromones, and then I won’t give off any sexual vibes in a crowded elevator.


It’s also true that when I leave the house to go for a stroll in Central Park or to Starbucks for a latte I might just pick up a quick cardiogram or CT scan prophylactically. My wife calls this nonsense and says that in the end it’s all genetic. My parents both lived to ripe old ages but absolutely refused to pass their genes to me as they believed an inheritance often spoils the child.


Even when the results of my yearly checkup show perfect health, how can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office something may start growing in me and, by the time a full year rolls around, my chest X-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock? Incidentally, this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert. Not that I don’t make an occasional mistake — but what doctor doesn’t? For example, I once convinced a woman who experienced a mild ringing in her ears that she had the flesh-eating bacteria, and another time I pronounced a man dead who had simply dozed off in a chair.


But what’s this obsession with personal vulnerability? When I panic over symptoms that require no more than an aspirin or a little calamine lotion, what is it I’m really frightened of? My best guess is dying. I have always had an animal fear of death, a fate I rank second only to having to sit through a rock concert. My wife tries to be consoling about mortality and assures me that death is a natural part of life, and that we all die sooner or later. Oddly this news, whispered into my ear at 3 a.m., causes me to leap screaming from the bed, snap on every light in the house and play my recording of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” at top volume till the sun comes up.


I sometimes imagine that death might be more tolerable if I passed away in my sleep, although the reality is, no form of dying is acceptable to me with the possible exception of being kicked to death by a pair of scantily clad cocktail waitresses.


Perhaps if I were a religious person, which I am not, although I sometimes do have the intimation that we all may be part of something larger — like a Ponzi scheme. A great Spanish philosopher wrote that all humans long for “the eternal persistence of consciousness.” Not an easy state to maintain, especially when you’re dining with people who keep talking about their children.


And yet, there are worse things than death. Many of them playing at a theater near you. For instance, I would not like to survive a stroke and for the rest of my life talk out of the side of my mouth like a racetrack tout. I would also not like to go into a coma, to lie in a hospital bed where I’m not dead but can’t even blink my eyes and signal the nurse to switch the channel from Fox News. And incidentally, who’s to say the nurse isn’t one of those angel of death crazies who hates to see people suffer and fills my intravenous glucose bag with Exxon regular.


Worse than death, too, is to be on life support listening to my loved ones in a heated debate over whether to terminate me and hear my wife say, “I think we can pull the plug, it’s been 15 minutes and we’ll be late for our dinner reservation.”


What worries me most is winding up a vegetable — any vegetable, and that includes corn, which under happier circumstances I rather like. And yet is it really so great to live forever? Sometimes in the news I see features about certain tall people who reside in snow-capped regions where a whole village population lives to 140 or so. Of course all they ever eat is yogurt, and when they finally do die they are not embalmed but pasteurized. And don’t forget these healthy people walk everyplace because try getting a cab in the Himalayas. I mean do I really want to pass my days in some remote place where the main entertainment is seeing which guy in town can lift the ox highest with his bare hands?


Summing up, there are two distinct groups, hypochondriacs and alarmists. Both suffer in their own ways, and traits of one group may overlap the other, but whether you’re a hypochondriac or an alarmist, at this point in time, either is probably better than being a Republican.


Woody Allen is a filmmaker, actor and writer.

Comedy Improv

This one goes in my Comedy folder

 As 2012 kicks in, it is time to think of resolutions to make and keep. Philosopher Robert Nozick called it “The Examined Life”. After examining mine, I came up with three goals: to be more disciplined; to remember not to forget; and to become funny. The last one is somewhat pathetic because I have resolved to become funny for the last five years. Clearly, I haven’t made much progress. You readers may know me as a writer, but what I really am is a comic trapped in a householder’s body. The day I start earning money from stand-up is the day I will quit all my other gigs and go into the business full-time. It will take me years, maybe a lifetime. I may be the first octogenarian, wrinkled, walker-carrying, almost incontinent comic—and that’s me trying to be funny; and now you know why it will take a lifetime. But hey, what do I have to lose?

For years, this comic desire remained latent. Now, it has become a full-blown obsession. I watch stand-up acts on YouTube continually, try to create jokes in my head and look for material everywhere I go. I tried forming an improvisational comedy group in Bangalore. For the first meeting held over a relaxed lunch at Ebony, I invited a few people I thought were funny. None of us had any idea how to do “comedy improv” but we all agreed that “hot snacks and hard liquor” were a must for all subsequent meetings. I disbanded the group right after, not because of the pressure of providing serious sustenance to this comic crew, but because the people I had invited were highly accomplished. One was the country’s leading architect, whose swearing could make a sailor blush. Others were CEOs and entrepreneurs who had created and sold companies. These were high achievers whose time was extremely valuable. Here I was, trying to get them to do comedy. What was I thinking? I had violated the first cardinal rule of creating a comedy troupe: Gather around jobless losers like thyself. I mean that as a compliment. Read on.

Role models: The brilliant cast of Seinfeld. Photo by AFP

Role models: The brilliant cast of Seinfeld. Photo by AFP

Doing comedy takes time. Watch any Judd Apatow movie and you’ll know what I mean. Most comics are guys in boxer shorts, who lie on the couch, eat popcorn and come up with one-liners. In order to do comedy, you have to either be a loser or aspire to be a loser. George Costanza ofSeinfeld is my model. I am a loser trapped in a householder’s body. Worse, I am a wannabe loser. The pressure of creating comedy with successful people was too much. I couldn’t handle it.

That’s the other thing. Comedy requires you to make imaginative, strange associations that are original and spot on. It requires quick thinking. For example, how would you finish this sentence: Doing improv with successful people is like… What? The trick to being funny is to come up with such analogies quickly. Doing improv with successful people is like playing ping-pong with Rafael Nadal? Nah. Not funny enough. I come up with such analogies throughout the day. Except that it is hours after I actually need to use them. Mumbai during the monsoon is like…what? A pregnant woman with PMS? Sorry, that’s really bad; factually incorrect and in poor taste. But that’s the best I could come up with on the spot and I am a feminist. But come up with a clever, funny analogy. I dare you. Munnabhai could have; but then he had scriptwriters for help.

Being a comic involves boldness. For a woman, that’s doubly hard because we are socially conditioned to maintain the peace. We like to be liked, which is probably why Christopher Hitchens wrote his essay, Why Women Aren’t Funny. I hated that piece. But abrasiveness doesn’t come naturally to women. I’ll grant Hitchens that, God rest his soul.

Birthday parties are the worst. They are full of elegant mummies in flowery summer dresses, carrying Fendi, wearing Prada, sipping champagne, and smiling serenely—the perfect audience, in other words, to ruffle a few feathers. To combat this urge, I make up scenarios. What will happen, I wonder, if I stroll up to that acquaintance with blown-out hair, channel my inner Aziz Ansari, and say, “Do you think a 700-thread count sheet will absorb body odour or repel it?” But, of course, I don’t say these things. I wimp out. I need a new social circle, I tell myself; populated by socially awkward losers (and again, I mean that as a compliment) where I can mouth all the lines that enter my head without fear of repercussion. There are people who do that. We call them weird.

Tina Fey is among the few successful comediennes. Photo by Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images.

Tina Fey is among the few successful comediennes. Photo by Andreas Rentz/ Getty Images.

Amateur comedians use swear words and scatological jokes as anchor. I find them extremely funny, but I have a juvenile sense of humour. Wit takes practice because it is subtle. Last week, I watched a superb theatre production of A Man for all Seasons. I went because a friend was acting in it, but what struck me was the script in which Sir Thomas More delivers line after witty line—sotto voce and sans expression, with great comic timing. If wit is hard, self-disparaging wit is almost impossible. I know one couple who have this—my cousins Urvashi and Narayan Mani, who live in Delhi and work in IT (he does. She paints). Their wit is so good, it’s disgusting. I stare at them with barely disguised envy and wince every time they deliver line after comic line. Man, it hurts.

I have found help in the most unexpected quarter: memory books. NotMoonwalking with Einstein, which I found opportunistic, but the old classic, The Memory Book by Jerry Lucas and Harry Lorayne. They talk about using word associations to improve memory. To remember a list, you have to make up imaginative images—your grandmother running naked through a field of corn is a good one—that will remain etched in memory. Trying out this rule has a happy bonus. Forcing your imagination to form random associations helps with forming strange analogies and similes. They aren’t all good, but they are a start. Here’s a go: Attending fashion week is like… faking an orgasm? All air kisses and fake sighs? Attending a Delhi farmhouse party is like sleepwalking with Einstein? I know, I know. I have miles to go before I can sleepwalk or do stand-up.

If you really want something, the universe conspires for you to get it; and no, I haven’t been reading Paulo Coelho. Last week, I got an email from a stranger called Nisha. She had trained in comedy all over Europe and wanted to join a comedy improve troupe. Promptly, I asked her to be my guru. Now, I just need to figure out the hot snacks and hard liquor; not to mention wannabe jobless losers like myself.

Thank you (spoken in a Johnny Carson-like voice to the sound of imagined applause). Thank you very much.

Shoba Narayan has discovered that when she speaks Hindi, people burst out laughing. She cannot figure out whether to be insulted, or awed that someone actually finds her funny. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com