My mind had gone completely blank. Zip. Bupkis. I could not recall the name of a single state in the union. Only an image of the map—sans place names—whirled in my mind's eye. Finally, I managed a weak retort. But it was ostensibly over for me, just a few seconds shy of the Final Four.
The appropriately named Will Wittels downed John Morrison to earn the title of Bull City king-pun in the first annual Durham Pun Championship, hosted by "the perpetrator of this event," Tom Campbell of the Regulator Bookshop. Duke rhetoric professor George Gopen judged the two-hour wordplay slugfest in an official-looking choir gown. And the boisterous audience showered the contestants with groans, guffaws and rare but prized groan-guffaws, a term I just made up.
Before the jib jab began, about 25 of Durham's most notorious pun mongers gathered in a nervously chuckling clot behind a makeshift stage in the bookshop's basement, eyeing the beyond-capacity crowd and trying to look nonchalant. We grinned at one other, aware that we would soon fling puns back and forth in rapid-fire combat, trying to claim the "claret jug"—a tarnished-yet-cherished silver pitcher engraved with "Metropolis Country Club Tennis Championship 1934." Nonetheless, it was an apt trophy for the serve-and-volley format of the event.
Facing each other onstage, two punsters were given a categorical theme to riff off, handing a microphone back and forth to blurt witticisms as quickly as possible. If a competitor couldn't summon a legitimate pun within 12 seconds, he or she lost the round. Half-baked puns were rejected by judge Gopen, who offered the punster five additional seconds to make repairs. If neither punster faltered, the volley would go to 10 puns each, in which case the lowest total time would determine the winner.
Coming up with the categories was the hardest part of judging. "It took much more thought than I thought it would," Gopen admitted. "Some were too narrow, some were too expandable, loose around the edges." As for what seemed to be the worst-faring category (building supplies and home improvement), he shrugged, "The locks were too loose on that one."
Before we started, I chatted with Wittels and Max Gallop, both political science doctoral candidates (the Jon Stewart Effect, anyone?) at Duke, and who admitted to having practiced a bit beforehand.
"I started making Will make puns on topics that would never ever come up, such as names of famous Nazis," Gallop deadpanned. Wittels, foreshadowing his eventual victory, quipped, "Maybe he's got a little bit of pun-is envy." This is what passes for a shoot-around at a pun championship.
Once Campbell welcomed the crowd and Gopen went over the rules, we were under way. The first couple of matchups were tentative as we figured out the format. The key is to use an opponent's talking time as one's own thinking time so there's no delay when handed the mic. It amounted to a kind of forced repartee that gathered its momentum from the crowd's response to a particularly bon mot or from intense flurries of thrilling one-upmanship onstage.
Here are some of the more crowd-pleasing zingers that drew loud groan-guffaws:
Wittels, on the subject of fruit: "When peaches are young, they're really nectar-teens."
Dave Jesse, on the subject of books: "Jesus was betrayed by Pride and Pre-Judas."
Gallop, on cars: "Oil me up, big man!"
Katie Ruf, on politicians: "You're kind of Washington the floor with me here."
Ted Graham, also on politicians: "That's hitting Pelosi the belt."
Richard Dansky, on the Civil War: "Oh, the Shermanity!"
Wittels, responding to Graham's "Will this be oven soon?" on cooking: "That's a good bar-be-question."
Lewis Caviness, whom I eliminated in the second round by the slimmest of margins, flashed a wide-eyed grin afterward. We briefly rehashed our clash, which was on the topic of sports events. After Caviness uncorked "I think I may strike out on this one," I'd parried with "Well, the umpire always strikes back." He drew the same excruciating blank that let Colby Bogie knock me out of the next round.
"You did 'the umpire strikes back,'" Caviness noted. "I froze because I was trying to come up with one on The Return of the Jedi." The force does not appear to be with punsters.
Dansky, who described the competition as "verbal Tetris," fell to early favorite Mike Webb in the opening round. Dansky stumbled back to the competitors' area, more bemused than disappointed. He had produced his 10 puns in 16 seconds. Webb, however, had needed only 12 seconds. "It was tough," Dansky sighed. "Overthinking is the enemy of the pun. Well, any thinking is the enemy of the pun."
Here's a transcript of the championship final, on the abstract subject of time:
Wittels: "This is tick-tock taxing."
Morrison: "I'm second-to-none here."
Wittels: "That was a minute idea."
Morrison: "Yeah, I thought hour puns were pretty bad."
Wittels: "I'm going to morn my loss."
Morrison: "I'm days-ed and confused."
Wittels: "I gotta use my noon-dle here."
Morrison: "It's been a long time. I'm not A-B-C-D on this, but I'm eon this."
Wittels: "I wouldn't call that week."
Morrison: "No, but I played it by era."
Wittels: "I'm like a month to your light."
Morrison: "These times are trying." (The judge had to rule on whether or not this was a pun, and he let it slide.)
Wittels: "Millenni-mum's the word."
Morrison: "And it'll be sent and recent every century."
Wittels: "One of us is on the eve of victory."
Morrison then opened his mouth and squinted his eyes, but no pun came. Wittels was the wittiest of the evening.
Several members of Durham's pun elite mentioned they might make the pilgrimage to Austin for next spring's 35th O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship, the model for the Durham event.
I went over my brain freeze as I drove home. Suddenly, it was so clear. When I had stumbled on state names for a few precious seconds, I was as good as Ore-gone. I felt so Cali-forlorn-ia. But most of all, I really wanted to try Mich-again, too.
Correction (July 14, 2011): John Morrison was misidentified in the photo.