If puns are the lowest form of humor, then it makes sense that Minneapolis' pun competition takes place in one of its lowest bars.
Club Underground is in the basement of Spring Street Tavern. Its walls decked out with a Twiggy poster, punk concert fliers and a hunk of metal fence, it resembles a rec room that hasn't been decorated in decades — or ever. But on the third Wednesday of each month, it plays host to Pundamonium: The Twin Cities Pun Slam.
Part stand-up comedy, part improv, Pundamonium features three to 10 puntestants who riff on predetermined topics such as Abba, Harry Potter and baseball.
"I just like puns. I think there's usually a certain amount of wit involved," says contestant Jeff Riter. "They're either really witty or they're obscenely obvious."
Obvious is fine with fellow competitor Kyle DeGoey.
"A groan is as good as a roar of laughter. If you hear that "awwww," you've done your job," says DeGoey, who wore an "I Prefer My Puns Intended" T-shirt at a recent competition. "People say puns are a low-hanging-fruit kind of humor but I think there's more to it."
So does Art Allen, who founded Pundamonium five years ago. Allen, who competed last month at the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas, hosts Pundamoniums in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. Often, he laughs harder than anyone in the room.
"I do this show, honestly, for me. I get paid to have people make puns for my benefit!" says Allen, who admits the pun competition is practically jury-rigged for nerds. "I like that I get to be the 'first audience member' on stage."
You be the judge
Pundamonium is divided into three rounds, judged by audience members. The first round lets punners prepare in advance, having received the list of potential topics when they signed up that night — or in advance, if they're on the e-mail list. The second round only gives them a couple of minutes. The third gives them no prep time at all and, instead of being alone on stage, they compete side-by-side.
Most of May's punners were fairly smooth in the first round, with pre-crafted puns along the lines of DeGoey's on the theme of Potter: "Just add me on Snapechat" and Christine Hottinger's on Abba: "This set will be a little swede, a little sour."
In the second round, though, all three had gaps in their flow.
"It doesn't feel great," says Hottinger, an attorney who won the May competition. "The important thing is not to freak out about not having a pun right away. You have to relax into it."
You also have to figure out how to deal with a few dozen pun fans hollering at you.
Allen prefaced the second round by telling the audience, "Pun heckling is allowed, but if you heckle someone and it's not in the form of a pun, I'm going to tell your mother."
Audience members took that to heart. When Riter drew the theme of percussion out of a bowl full of topics, he opened strong with, "Let's see if I can drum up a few puns here. This is going to be a real hit." But, when he faltered, an audience member yelled, "You want us to chime in?" (Riter did.)
Heckling serves a few punposes: It helps stymied competitors fill their two-minute slots. It makes Pundamonium an audience-interactive event. And it can be a gateway to becoming a puntestant.
Allen says about half of the crowd at Pundamonium events are first-timers, so the show is attracting a small but steady supply of punophiles. Allen believes the main thing that separates a viewer from a puntestant is the confidence to take their wordplay from private to on stage.
It was the heckling that got Hottinger interested in competing. As a contestant, she says, "it's fun to have that audience participation, but you don't want the audience to run away with you or that will be reflected in your score."
Actually, it seems like Pundamonium observers enjoy it when contestants falter, not only so the audience can get involved, but so they can see how contestants cope with adversity.
"It's hilarious, and I really like the confidence of the people competing," said Kristin Meyer, a comedy fan who came to May's event with a friend, Dana Karls.
"A lot of the puns don't work, but it's really fun when they get hot," said Karls. "We were just talking about how completely comfortable we feel judging them, despite the fact that we couldn't come up with one pun if we were up there on stage."
Once a pun a time...
Obviously, you don't have to go to Pundamonium to hear puns. They're just about everywhere.
A relationship portmanteau like "Brangelina?" That's a pun.
The British exit from the European Union, Brexit? Pun.
This newspaper you're holding (or reading online)? It's the answer to probably the first pun you ever heard: "What's black and white and read all over?"
Of course, there's a difference between a first-grader giggling over the "read"/"red" thing and pun legends like Jerzy Gwiazdowski, who won O. Henry's 2012 Punniest of Show on his first try.
There also are significant differences between punners. Even with just three competing in May, styles ranged from a low-key vibe to fairly aggressive.
"Being very clever, making unexpected puns that really surprise the crowd, that usually gets the best reaction," says Allen, who also owns the Riddle Room escape room. "It almost doesn't matter if the pun is good if you can sell it."
A performing background doesn't hurt, either.
Says DeGoey, "I had done theater and I've always liked wordplay, so Pundamonium is a Venn diagram I thought I'd fit nicely in."
Keeping one's word skills sharp is a prime reason to compete in Pundamonium. Certainly, no one does it for the money, since there isn't any. If some bar swag is on hand, winners might get a Jagermeister crying towel or a Miller Lite mug, but that's it.
"I'm not great at having prizes but, honestly, once people get into it, they love it," says Allen. "I've had people say, 'I can't believe I waited so long to finally compete.' "
Joann Dao thinks Ryan Smith should be one of those people. The pair attended Pundamonium on a scouting expedition, so they could talk it up and bring friends next time. Once a pun avoider, Dao said Smith gradually brought her around to the beauty of puns, so much so that she hopes to see him on stage soon.
Smith didn't take the plunge in May, saying he's not a competitive person. But he is a big propunent of wordplay.
"Because it's punny," said Smith.
And if you see what he did there, you might want to check out Pundamonium, too.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367