“Haul a Yugo. Haul a Yugo.”
Gearly beloved, we are Blazered here in the name of our Four-door, who art in Half-ton. I’m speaking of our lord and Mazda, Jeep-sus Chrysler. He is the Alfa and the Romeo. He was born in a Ranger, he was Tempo’d by the DeVille, and he Daihatsu’d for your Sentras.
He said, “Dodge not, that ye not be Dodged.
If ye have Fiat, ye can move Montecarlos.
Thou shalt not Corvette thy neighbor’s Whitewall, but turn the other Cherokee, ‘cause, he ain’t Chevy, he’s my Beretta.”
Let us Prelude:
Sayeth the prophet Isuzu, in the Dusenburg Bible, In the 23rd Saab, “The Ford is my Chauffeur. I shall not Walk. He Lexus me in the paths of Right-turn-signals. Yea, though I walk through the Valet of the Shadow of Dart, I shall Fiero no Eagle. Subaru Goodwrench and Mercury shall Volvo me Audi Daytonas of my life, and I shall Dwellmeter in the house of Delorean, Four-cylinder.”
I’m please to see that so many of you are still in the room. This treatise on theology was my winning monologue from 1997, in the O.Henry Pun-Off. It’s one of those yearly events that keeps Austin weird. I am only slightly ashamed to confess that I’ve won it six times. Then the weird turned pro. I went on a TV game show and won a thousand bucks, wearing my hat as world pun champion.
Today, I’m wearing a different hat. I am a Pundamentalist. I’m here to puntificate about the higher meanings of the lowest form of humor. Now, I know that the spirituality of puns sounds oxymoronic – or just plain moronic – like using the phrase “Holy War” or “Fox News.” When you start mixing them together, there’s no telling how it will end. So, let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning, says the good book, was the Word.
In the beginning, wrote the author Samuel Beckett, was the pun.
Now, I don’t claim that a Pundamentalist is any more spiritual than the average person, but perhaps I can persuade you that I’m not any less. And that if Jesus could bestow Heaven’s blessings on whores, thieves and tax collectors, surely he would not withhold them from a humble punster.
After all, Jesus, himself, is said to have been a punster. In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 16, Verse 18, Christ is talking to his head disciple. He says, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”
They say this line is really hilarious if you happen to speak Greek. In the original language of the New Testament, Peter is Petros, and rock is petra. The pun works even better in French, where the name “Peter” and the word “rock” are one and the same: Pierre.
But I a-pierre to have gotten ahead of myself. Perhaps I should begin by asking, What is a pun?
At the Pun-Off, we Noah Webster’s definition is a good one. A pun is, and I quote, “The humorous use of a word, or of words which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words.”
Is that clear? Let me elaborate.
Puns come in two flavors: Homographs and homophones. This might explain why so many people are homophobic.
A homograph is a word that’s spelled the same as the original word, but has a different meaning. Here’s a current example: Why did Tiger Woods give up golf? Because he couldn’t drive 100 yards. In fact, part of the reason that late-night comedians have had a field day with Tiger is that his name is a double homograph. How can you resist asking questions like, Where do Indian golfers go to cheat on their wives? Into the Tiger Woods.
That’s a homograph. A homophone is a word with a different spelling but a similar sound. For example, we all believed that Tiger wouldn’t, but we found that Tiger Woods.
The most dreaded of all puns – shaggy dog stories – are a string of homophones, set up by an elaborate and far-fetched yarn. Have you heard the one about…Kermit the Frog, when he went into a bank to apply for a loan? The loan officer was named Patricia Whack, and she asked him, “Mister Frog, what can you give me for collateral?” Kermit thought long and hard, and then he said, “How about this?” He reached for the spot where his pocket would have been, if he hadn’t been a frog, and out he pulled a small brass paperweight shaped like Elvis. “Well, Mister Frog, this is most irregular,” she said. “I have to go and talk to my manager.” So she went and talked to her manager, and he just laughed and slapped his thigh, and he said, “It’s a knick-knack, Patty Whack. Give the frog a loan.”
Whether it’s a homograph or a homophone, a pun is a play on words. And even that word “play” has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to theatre. Just as an actor is a person pretending to be a different person, so a pun is a word masquerading as a different word. On the other hand, it refers to child’s play, to having fun with words. A Pundamentalist treats the anguished language like Play-Doh. I pull it, bend it, twist it, and sometimes eat it when no one’s looking.
The play’s the thing, wrote William Shakespeare. And surely it’s no coincidence that the greatest playwright in our language was one of its greatest punsters.
In Romeo and Juliet, the unlucky Mercutio ends up on the losing end of a swordfight. His last words: “Ask for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man.”
In Julius Caesar, a shoemaker calls himself, “a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them.”
Old Will was even more shameless in his sonnets. When he was wooing a reluctant maiden, he even stooped to abusing his own name:
“Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus.”
Oddly enough, the punster of Avon never used the word “pun” in any of his plays, not in its sense as a play on words. That’s because the usage did not exist until at least sixty years after his death. Even stranger, the Oxford English Dictionary is not sure how the usage got started. The word “pun,” it appears, is a bastard stepchild of the mother tongue.
The O.E.D.’s best guess is that “pun” comes from the Latin verb “pungere,” which means “to prick.” Need I say more? The Latin passed through Italian and on into an English word, “pundigrion.” That’s a mouthful. But round about 1680, it was considered hip to compress long words down to a single syllable – as we do today by shortening “disrespect” to “dis” and “neighborhood” to “hood.” Thus, it may be, that “pun” was born.
Three centuries later, I was born, the son of a punster. My dad made puns compulsively, and back when I was too young to understand the phrase “social leper,” I thought they were awful clever. I was half right. By the time I knew better, I was already addicted. So I became a social leprechaun. I moved to Austin, where people turn out by the hundreds each May for the O.Henry Pun-Off.
The author O.Henry actually did live in Austin, back in the 1880s, and he published a humor magazine that was chock-a-block with wordplay. Today, we compete at the corner of Fifth and Neches, in his former backyard. In the first event, called “Punniest of Show,” we deliver 90-second monologues that are scored by a panel of judges, Olympic-style. I like to think of it as a form of performance art. You can judge for yourself.
The first time I won O.Henry, back in 1993, I gave a Lone Star twist to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Imagine that Lincoln’s speechwriter is a graduate of Texas A&M. And that when Lincoln stands up, to deliver his immortal words, the Aggie realizes that his immortal words are still sitting on the dresser, back at the hotel. In a panic, he hands Lincoln a map of Texas. But Old Abe reassures him, as he begins to read from the map:
“Fort Worth and Seguin years ago, our Falfurrias Broaddus on this Cotton Gin a new Mason, Conception Liberty and Delta Caddo to the Prosper Sinton that Alamo Menard Decatured Eagle. Now, we are La Granged in a great Cibolo Ward, Texline Wilder that Nash, or any Neches so Converse and so Desert Katy, can Longview. We are met on a great Daingerfield of that Warren. But in a Leander sense, we cannot Hallettsville this Groom. The Brady men, both Livingston and Deadwood, who Stonewalled here, have Corsicana it far beyond our Port Arthur to Addicks or Detroit. We here Highland Reese Ovilla, that these Denton shall not have Dial in Van, that this Nixon, under Goliad, shall have a New Braunfels of Freestone, and that Cut’n’Shoot of the Pearl, by the Peacock and for the Pecos, shall not Paris from the Earth.”
But the dramatic monologue is just half the wit at the O.Henry Pun-Off. There’s a second contest, which you we call “Punslingers.” Two punsters face off on a topic, like “flying machines” or the classic “external body parts.” They go back and forth, back and forth, until one of them chokes. When it’s your turn, you have five seconds to start talking.
Getting in shape for jousting with jests is the mental equivalent of preparing for the Capitol 10K, and I’d like to demonstrate part of my training regimen. Lets play, “Stump the Punster.” If one of you will give me a topic, I will rattle off five puns as fast as I can.
Stump the Punster
Okay, that’s enough! Now, if you have not yet run screaming from the room, stop and consider the psychic event that you’ve just witnessed. Like the universe itself, a pun has been created, ex nihilo, out of nothing. To make it happen, both sides of the brain have fired at once – the logical side and the creative side. Could the resulting spark be a miniature moment of enlightenment?
It’s not so different from the experience that Zen masters call Satori. It starts out with a brain cramp. Whether we laugh at a pun, or we groan at it, we’re reacting because our minds are suddenly overloaded. We’re holding two conflicting thoughts at once. We struggle to contain them until our minds snap and our egos explode. For a split second, we let go of conscious control. We glimpse new possibilities of meaning. We see words – and the world – in a new way.
A Zen monk might reach this moment by meditating on a paradox, like the sound of one hand clapping. A Sufi dervish might get there by hearing a joke. Humor is a traditional device for protecting sacred truths, by concealing them from profane eyes.
In one Sufi story, Mullah Nasruddin walks into a shop. The owner comes forward to serve him.
“First things first,” says Nasrudin; “did you see me walk into your shop?
“Have you ever seen me before?”
“Never in my life.”
“Then, how do you know it is me?”
The Sufi writer Idries Shah comments, “The flash of intuitive illumination which comes as a result of the stories is partly a minor enlightenment in itself, not an intellectual experience. It is also a steppingstone toward the reestablishing of mystical perception in a captive mind, relentlessly conditioned by the training systems of material life.”
In other words, punsters are linguistic anarchists. They break rules and question authority. They encourage words to commit free love – not married to a single meaning, but promiscuous and wanton.
When words start having multiple meanings, play can become serious business. In psychology, for example, Karl Jung maintained that puns were part of the language of the subconscious. He noted that his patients often dreamed in symbolic puns. Say you had a dream about choking. The good doctor would ask, “Is there something in your life you’re finding hard to swallow?”
Even more than psychologists, poets traffic in the ambiguities of language. If every word were shackled to a single meaning, verse would be dull and dry. As a friend of mine puts it, poetry begins when the ratio of meanings to words is greater than one to one.
In all these ways, puns bring us back to the ultimate question of meaning. What is the meaning of life? Is life a divine comedy, a board game, a defunct photo magazine or a breakfast cereal?
Like life itself, there’s no single answer. Pundamentalism reminds us that words can help us to interpret reality, but in the end, words are just words. We are not meant to confuse them with reality. But if we play with them, they may surprise us and reward us with new views of reality. And their meanings are not limited to their dictionary definitions, but include their very sounds. That’s why all religions have sacred syllables, whether it’s “Om” or “Amen.” You might say that “Om” is where the art is.
It’s fitting, then, to close with a prayer from another one of my O.Henry routines. I invite you to observe your mind twitching uncontrollably, as it tries to contain two incompatible subjects within the same thought – philosophy and Tex-Mex food. Won’t you join me in the Lard’s Prayer?
“Our Fajita, who art in Huevos, Pollo’d be Muy Bueno. Thy Corona come, thy Chili be Con, on Cuervo it is El Jefe. Forgive us our Tres Amigos, as we forgive those who Seis Salsas against us. Lettuce not into Tomatillo, but Nuevo us from Fritos. For thine is the Gringo, the Agua and the Chorizo. In the name of the Flauta, and of the Flan, and of the Frijole ghost. A-Menudo.”