The famed short-story author O.Henry lived most of the 1880s in a modest frame house in downtown Austin. Since 1977, his backyard has been home to one of the annual events that keeps Austin weird: The O.Henry Pun-Off World Championships. It’s the Olympics of competitive wordplay, or more accurately, the WWF. Instead of bashing one another with folding chairs, the contestants wield words like switchblades, carving up not just their opponents, but the anguished language.
Steve is a pun gent. He inherited the gene from his dad. Little did he know, when he moved to Austin for the music scene, that he would come to dominate its pun scene. Between 1993 and 2001, he carried home six championship trophies, most of them in the shape of the bronzed hindquarters of a horse. His 2001 victory earned him a trip to Hollywood, where he appeared on “I’ve Got a Secret” as World Pun Champion. He also starred in the 2003 documentary Pun-Smoke. He was honored by PUNY (Punsters United Nearly Yearly) as the 2010 Punster of the Year.
In 2005, Steve retired from competition to become an emcee. His exploits from the ’90s have yet to make it to YouTube. But in the clip above, you can watch him referee a final round, and get a taste of the lunatic combination of highbrow and lowbrow that makes the Pun-Off special, in every sense of the word…
If you haven’t yet run screaming from your PC or mobile device, read on. Below is a profile of Steve and his puns from an online magazine that’s so defunct that nobody can remember its name. Farther down, you’ll find links to four of Steve’s epic puns, for the epic-curious. They’re Marx Brothers monologues that pair such unlikely topics as Bible verses and cars, or philosophy and Tex-Mex food. Still farther down, you’ll find a link to his sermon “Pundamentalism.” It probes the relationship between higher forms of consciousness and lower forms of humor, using examples from Shakespeare, Sufi teaching stories and Jesus. Click on any of the highlighted titles to read more.
For the Pun of It
Puns. Mere mention of the word elicits groans from otherwise polite people. Puns are words exploited shamelessly for humorous effect, wrung for every single drop of meaning. They’ve been called “the lowest form of humor,” and, as a friend of mine says, “there’s a special place in hell for pun-makers.” But is their pungent reputation justified?
Steve Brooks would know. The six-time winner and reigning champion of the O.Henry Pun-Off World Championships admits that life as a compulsive punster can be difficult. When asked what his first big break was, for instance, he says it was when someone threatened to break his jaw if he didn’t shutup. Puns can put off the less appreciative, and habitual punning took a toll on Brooks’ social life. “Until I moved to Austin,” he adds, “where people will turn out by the hundreds to watch me pun.”
Brooks, the world-class punster, has been punny all his life and says even his first word was a pun (“Dada”). But he didn’t find fame until 1993, when he won the Pun-Off’s “Punniest of Show” competition.
In the contest, competitors deliver a 90-second prepared pun. Brooks, who believes “parody is the sincerest form of plagiarism,” performed a pun that began “Fort Worth and Seguin years ago…” and just got sillier from there. This “Texasburg Address” scored a perfect 50 out of 50 points the only time, Brooks believes, a performance pun has earned a perfect score.
In 1994, he stole the show by winning both Punniest of Show and “High Lies and Low Puns,” where dueling punsters take turns making impromptu puns related to a topic drawn from the Bad Pun Bedpan. The catch is that each gets just five seconds to ponder their puns. When one chokes, the other advances to the next round; by the end of the afternoon, the wittiest wordsmith has emerged as champ.
Brooks’ prize-winning prepared pun of 1994 mixed philosophy and Tex-Mex food into a new school of thought called “Tex-Mexistentialism,” which, he notes, “all started with the philosopher Juan-Paul Salsa, who wrote, To Bean, or Nacho to Bean, that is the Queso,” and espouses such beliefs as “Pinto, therefore, Cayenne,” “Honor Tamale and thy Papaya” and “Thou Salt not Tequila.” Brooks, a musician and songwriter, occasionally performs the “Texasburg Address” and “Tex-Mexistentialism” between songs at concerts.
How does a world-champion punter keep fit? With a serious training regimen. “My training season opens April 1,” says Brooks, “no fooling. One of the few friends I have left throws out a topic and I try to reel off five puns related to the topic as fast as I can. Repeat the exercise with a whole series of topics. Then I buy him a beer.”
Brooks is also a journalist in Austin and he says that making puns is good for his writing. “Punning keeps my mind limber. No one should work with words unless they can also play with them … Language is like Play-Doh,” he muses. “I love to bend and shape it in new ways, and occasionally eat it when no one’s looking.”
World Champion Puns
Lincoln’s Texasburg Address
1993 O.Henry Pun-Off
1994 O.Henry Pun-Off
1997 O.Henry Pun-Off
Inhale to the Chief
2001 O.Henry Pun-Off
Pundamentalism. A deceptively lighthearted look at the history and spiritual significance of the lowly pun, from the six-time champion of Austin’s O.Henry Pun-Off. It includes some celebrated punsters, from Shakespeare and Mullah Nasruddin to Jesus, as well as selections from Steve’s championship routines, like “Carstianity” and “Tex-Mexistentialism.”