The moment when Pun-Smoke: The Search for the Worst
shifts from a cozy, only-in-Americana documentary to a piece of considerable (if transitory) import comes late, when Alex Ramirez and Brian Snider square off in Round 3 of Austin's 25th annual O. Henry Pun-Off. Ramirez -- "he's a machine, but he's not funny," says one longtime rival -- is three-time champion of going back and forth onstage until one punster cannot conjure appropriate wordplay in such given categories as external body parts, cats, or drinks. Ramirez is
a machine, because doing so demonstrates quick thinking in front of big crowds, and wit -- no matter how dull -- is still wit. But you can see some complacency in Ramirez's eyes: He enjoys his role as the hunted, but, instead of capitalizing on it, he's most often shown by the filmmakers sitting back with a grin and a scoff for his hunters. Snider, on the other hand, is no ordinary hunter. And when he's on ... well, watch out. More to the point: The showdown between Ramirez and Snider will become the stuff of legend, and not just because of the grand flamenco and Western waltz soundtrack lacing the film's interludes. Their clash is intense, inspiring, at times petty with rule interpretations but as fascinating as their punning subject: money. "'Taxing' has already been used," emcee Joel McColl informs Snider after a deceptively lame attempt. "Oh," Snider replies with chessmaster cool. "I didn't deduct that." Groan, if you will, but that's what they want. McColl calls them "schizophrenics," intelligent people splitting their brains up into sections capable of handling all the aspects of punning: humor (however low), knowledge, articulation, mental flexibility, and, of course, vocabulary. And it is, as every crowd each year will attest, impressive. "Puns are just like sex: The louder the groans, the better it was," says contestant David Guggenheim. Documentarians Mark Morgan, Cameron Burr, Casey Bruce, and Charles Bujan must agree: They shot this film lovingly, with a more accessible than artistic approach, and managed to capture the personalities -- nay, the hopes and dreams -- of local luminaries and punning legends like Gary Hallock, the late George McClughan, and Guy Ben-Moshe. And, in the case of Hallock, his mother and father. "Get a life, Gary," the stern, sour-faced patriarch grunts early in the film. But then he breaks into a smile.
Pun-Smoke: The Search for the Worst screens on Thursday, May 1, at 9:45pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado). $6; $4.50 student/senior/ AFS. Proceeds benefit Austin's O. Henry Museum.
The 26th annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships take place this Saturday, May 3, noon-5pm, at downtown's Wooldridge Square, Ninth and Guadalupe.