Punny or die: The ultimate pun competition hits LA


On a stage bathed in purplish-blue light and flanked by quirky stuffed animal tigers, singers from “Pun-Off: The Musical”  kicked off the second-ever Los Angeles Pun-Off with a song.

“People don’t appreciate we’re surrounded by puns every day,” the group sang in a show tune style. “From the names of our entrees: Moons over My-hammy! To the names of yachts: The Codfather, Breaking Bass, Bass to Mouth!”

The audience laughed.

The group Worldwide Puns, also known as the Bay Area Pun-Off, hopes this is the start of what will become a regular tradition in L.A. It’s similar to a spelling bee, but with puns.

It all began in San Francisco four years ago, when some pun-loving friends decided to host a pun competition. It grew from there. 

The group hosted its first Southern California pun-off a few years ago. The second happened in LA one Saturday evening in January.

“There’s no outlet for this particular form of humor outside of this event,” said Noah Gorin, who came to watch the L.A. pun-off. “There’s a lot of improv everywhere. Like you can go to a city, you can get into an improv troupe. There’s no such thing for puns, except this one event.”

After the singers got offstage at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, organizers Jonah Spear and Carmen Olson warmed up the crowd for the upcoming “puntification.”

“Who amongst us has suffered the groans and eye rolls of their friends and neighbors?” Spear said as the audience cheered.

“Or or you’ve said ‘No pun intended,’” Olson added. “But you actually did.” The audience roared with laughter.

Olson and Spear laid the ground rules for the crowd, defining what a pun is: The humorous use of a word or words to suggest multiple meanings, or the use of similar sounding words with different meanings.

Puns can fall flat and not be funny. Or they can induce eye-rolling groans, which Spear and Olson had the crowd practice so they would be ready for bad jokes.

Then the pun-off itself started with pun monologues. Carl Hansen took the stage wearing an “I heart perogies” shirt and socks with pictures of cheese on them. 

He told the crowd his theme was “Oscar noms” (emphasis on “noms”) and he was up at the “cracker” of dawn (like the awards announcements themselves).

“For best actor in an eating role, we have Antonio Bananas in “Pain and Glory,’” Hansen said, pronouncing “pain” as the French word for bread. 

He continued, “Joaquin Chex-mix in –.” The crowd roared so loudly with laughter that you could not hear Hanson’s pun at the end of the sentence.

Once offstage, Hansen said he loves how puns make you think quickly.

“I get groaned at and laughed at, and my wife rolls her eyes at me constantly just because I tell puns all the time,” Hansen said. “So this is an opportunity to actually do it in a manner that’s very receptive.”

Then the pun-off moved to the real competition. There are several rounds, each with a different theme. The field started with eight pun masters. 

The first round had a very L.A. theme: Books that have been made into movies. The pun masters spun elaborate stories to get to the punny pay-off. 

“I was playing a little friendly round of golf with a friend of mine, and we decided to make it interesting to see who could hit the ball the longest,” explained one contestant to the crowd. “And I went up first,and I hit it and it went really far. And then he got up, and he really gave it a knock. And when we got there, they were so close, and we couldn’t tell which one ‘Godfather.’”

The pun was met with laughs and groans. 

Spear and Olson sat next to the stage at a judging table. Their job was to determine whether a pun was really a pun, whether it mets the rules, or whether it was used before.

Amanda Salas stepped in front of the mic, wearing shorts, knee-high socks and a unicorn T-shirt, something she was going to turn into a “corn” pun later in the competition.

“So a lot of us are performers. Who reps you? Who’s your manager? Who’s your publicist? Who’s your agent?” Salas worked the crowd. “You know, if punning had its own category at Gersh, with all the talent in this room, there’d be some Crazy Rich Agents.”

Judge Carmen Olson held up a banana, the pun-off’s version of a yellow card or warning. Salas had used too many of the same syllables from the original wording, “Crazy Rich Asians.” 

Olson held up an apple, also known as the pun-off’s red card, if a contestant received too many warnings for not following the rules, used a topic that was already said, or ran out of time to get the pun out there. 

If a contestant got an apple, they were offered whiskey or chocolate as the crowd cheered them off the stage, some of them waving their hands in the air wildly like Kermit the Frog. 

Salas, a TV reporter by day and punning queen by night, made it to the end of the final round, which consisted of puns about “blades,” but she got the dreaded apple for using a word that was already played. Salas told the crowd, with her voice cracking, that she was just happy to be up there, having finished chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma three months ago.

After the competition, she said she was worried about a side effect of chemo, known as brain fog or “chemo brain,” tripping her up.

“This really means a lot to me,” Salas said. “I was a little nervous coming out tonight because I wanted to really represent because I call myself ‘Punderwoman.’ And so coming here tonight and getting second place – I’m gonna’ tear up again – it really just shows me that you can do everything.”

The organizers presented a trophy made from a random collection of junk to winner David Landau. Landau accepted it, wearing his black T-shirt with a cat holding a femur and the pun “I found this humorous.”

“I like that they make people think differently,” Landau said. “I also like puns because they are one of the only types of humor that don’t need to be making fun of someone.”

Connie-Lynne Villani of Long Beach watched all of this from the audience of about 150 people.

“I’m really enjoying just the feeling of community and the feeling of like, oh, we all know this is awful in the end, but at the moment when people say it, it’s super fun. And you’re like, ‘oh, good job!’ Like, you went there,” Villani said.

The pun competitors were also willing to have a fun with public radio after the competition. They talked about Terry Gross and her “French heir,” a sub for the famous interviewer’s “Fresh Air.”

“There was a little radio station and they were losing money,” said competitor Jess Porter. “And they had to fire their public relations person and someone said, ‘Why do we have to end PR?’”

That riff on NPR was met with a groan.

The organizers hope to plan another L.A. pun-off in a couple of months.

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Susan Valot