Puns Very Intended at the O. Henry Pun-Off

The annual world championship encourages groans

Master punster Gary Hallock makes it quickly clear that he is a unique breed who considers non-hardcore punsters “civilians.” When he tells puns – which he did throughout our hourlong interview – he is encouraged by the inevitable groans of the listener.

Pun-Off host Gary Hallock (left) and producer David Gugenheim (Photo courtesy of Gary Hallock)

“The usual expected reaction of a non-punster to a pun is to groan and to chastise you, to shun you,” Hallock says. “For people like us, and not many people do like us, but to people like us, that is encouraging. Don’t encourage a punster, because they’re already encourageable enough as it is.”

Gary Hallock, 1989 Punniest of Show champion produced the Pun-Off for 25 years and retired in 2015, but hosts the contest alongside punny producer David Gugenheim.

The O. Henry Museum is the former residence of American classic short story writer William Sydney Porter, who was known for his witty wordplay and surprising plot twists. All proceeds from the Pun-Off go to the Brush Square Museums Foundation Inc.

The contest consists of two events with 32 contestants each: the Punniest of Show and Punslingers. The Punniest of Show Competition allows contestants to perform a prepared routine for two minutes, where it is then scored by judges who consider content, originality, and general effect of the presentation.

Pun-Off award winner (front) with event host Gary Hallock (Photo courtesy of Gary Hallock)

In the Punslingers Competition contestants are given a random topic and five seconds to respond with a valid pun, and then the next competitor will be given five seconds to make another pun on the same topic. Contestants who exceed five seconds or incorporate previously used words in their puns are eliminated.

Hallock said most “civilians” will associate puns, wordplay, and rhymes in the same category and will often wrongly define a pun. When people apologize for making a pun, usually it is not a pun.

“Invariably, they would have made a non-pun and then pointed it out to you that they’ve just made a pun and either ask for your forgiveness or profess that they did not intend it,” Hallock says.

Gugenheim says good puns are more about the sound of words than knowing what the words mean, and when the crowd groans in response to a pun, you know it is a successful pun because it “hurts so good.”

To award the best punsters for their skills, the winners of each contest receive trophies but no cash prizes, because people would take it too seriously. Traditionally, each trophy has a horse’s rear on top of it.

“The prize is not what people are there for,” Hallock says. “It costs you nothing to enter except your dignity. If you had any dignity, you wouldn't enter anyhow. We don’t want people going home and saying ‘Hey, I was planning on paying for my vacation by winning a million dollars.’”

Since contestants have the freedom to choose their topic during the Punniest of Show Competition, Gugenheim asks participants to avoid discussing their politics and religion during their performance. He said in the past, there has been debate about including the topic of “internal and external body parts” during the Punslingers competition. Hallock says the topic is allowed because “if you want to turn something into a sexual innuendo, you can do it.”

Contestants compete in the Punslingers Competition on the topic Insects & Bugs. (Photo courtesy of Gary Hallock)

In previous years, a “Bite Your Tongue Warning” was issued before the Punslingers Contest due to the unpredictability of punsters spontaneously creating, but Gugenheim said this was eliminated because warning the crowd about potentially explicit content becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“If I mention the term purple rabbit, now you have an image of a purple rabbit in your head,” Gugenheim says. “If I don’t even bring it up, you would have never thought of that rabbit. We don’t read that warning at the beginning anymore, because we don't want it on people’s minds.”

In May 2015, the O. Henry Pun-Off was featured on CBS Sunday Morning, and the segment launched the event into worldwide stardom, with contestants coming from countries such as Australia and England. Registration for the contest opens every year on April Fool’s Day, and now all contestant slots fill up in minutes. Whereas the contest used to register on a first-come-first-served basis, now a lottery system is used where previous winners are admitted automatically and everyone else is selected randomly.

“The telling thing here is that during the first 30 or so years of the contest, it was just local, Austin, Central Texas people that came out for it as audience and came out for it as contestants,” Hallock says. “It legitimizes us as the world championship to have people from other countries and all different states. We’ve got a lot people trying to get in, and we’re trying to be the gold standard.”

Gugenheim says the origin story of the O. Henry Pun-Off varies, but one rendition claims people would gather behind the O. Henry Museum during the Pecan Street Festival and tell each other puns every year, and it eventually became an official city event. “That’s probably why it’s been here so long.” Gugenheim says.

Hallock says people attending for the first time should “come prepared to have your definition of punning shaken up” and expect to stay longer than anticipated.

[UPDATE: Due to inclement weather in the forecast for Saturday the event has been moved to the Hilton Hotel's Sixth Floor Ballroom (500 E. Fourth).] The 42nd annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships will be held on Saturday, May 11, from 11am-6pm. Attendance is free.

For punsters who did not get selected to compete this year and are itching to make puns without the eyes of an audience, visit the Facebook page to post puns on various topics. For driving down the road or a laugh while going on a run, check out the Pun Intensive Podcast.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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