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'Away With Words' Guides Readers Through World Of Competitive Wordplay

Oscar Levant once said, “A pun is the lowest form of humor — when you don’t think of it first.” Author Joe Berkowitz used to feel that way, until he got sucked into the world of wordplay.

Before he knew it, the Fast Company writer was performing at Brooklyn’s Punderdome, and then at the Super Bowl of punning: the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships.

Berkowitz (@JoeBerkowitz) writes about his year of punning in “Away With Words,” and joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss his highs and lows in the company of the world’s best punsters.

Book Excerpt: ‘Away With Words’

By Joe Berkowitz

People are screaming. Throaty howls, guttural bellows, and those whoo’s where the first two letters drop off like rocket boosters so the rest of the word can soar. I’m screaming, too. On either side of me are people I could swear I’ve seen on the street holding clipboards, encouraging me to switch to green renewable energy. Ordinarily, I’d cross a busy intersection to avoid those people, but right now we’re on the same team, and our combined energy is making the floor thrum beneath our feet. For some reason, the couple just ahead can only muster a paltry golf clap, but they’re a lonely minority, within the greater lonely minority of people who would come to an event like this.

The man standing on the lip of the stage at the Highline Ballroom in New York City looks like a magician. His hair is a wavy brown head-cape, his face is gaunt but telegenic, and he’s tall enough to dangle things just out of most people’s reach. Every time he says something — alakazam! — the room explodes.

There is nothing I’ve ever been surer of than the fact that this is, hands down, the best reaction to a pun I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to Jewish summer camp in Florida. Twice.

Applauding because someone made a pun seems like a paradox. Every lesson the world has taught me about comedy, irony, and how adults behave in public suggests that this should not be happening, that we’re perhaps laughdrunk from some airborne elixir or that the delicate fabric of civilization is unraveling. But it’s not.

Instead, the five hundred people in the crowd get their wish: Jargon Slayer advances to the next round of Punderdome.

Imagine the biggest You Had to Be There moment that has ever happened. The sky cracks open and a fleet of aliens touches down to teach Earthlings how to move solid matter with their minds. It’s awesome. However, you are seriously under the weather that day and can’t leave the house. Also, the aliens unlock everyone’s mind powers only for one day, and only on condition that they — the aliens — not be captured on video. Never again are they seen or heard from, and telekinesis resumes not being a thing. It’s hard for some people to accept that it even happened. But it did. You just had to be there.

Well, reader, I was there. Not with aliens, of course, but I have experienced something equally implausible. I spent a year attending, participating in, and documenting pun competitions, along with other activities that secretly resemble pun competitions. In that time, I received and recited more puns than even the most ardent Gene Shalit admirer would be able to endure. The book you are about to read presents these puns as they happened, and I must stress right up front that the reactions to them are not embellished.

You are going to read some puns that sound just tremendously unfunny, puns that don’t make sense, puns that will get your blood boiling. This book is going to be heaved across somebody’s living room, borne on a flight of rage, and it’s going to scuff a banister. The important thing to know, though, is that when these puns were performed, they got the exact-size laughs and cheers described here. It strains credibility. The words cognitive dissonance will seem exceedingly applicable the more you read. It’s going to seem as dubious as those nights in college when you left a standard issue party early and everyone told you the next day how legendary a rager it became the minute you left. But it really happened. Every gnarled, misshapen, double-meaning word is true.

You just had to be there.

Excerpted from the book AWAY WITH WORDS by Joe Berkowitz. Copyright © 2017 by Joe Berkowitz. Republished with permission of Harper Perennial.

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"Away With Words," by Joe Berkowitz. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Away With Words," by Joe Berkowitz. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)