May 20, 2013
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