Brooklyn’s Punderdome gives dad-jokes all-too-rare encouragement

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Contestants at an April installment of the pun-a-thon (Courtesy Punderdome 3000)
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If there was any question of whether young couples that moved to Brooklyn are swiftly producing a generation of quite familiar dads, the packed room at Littlefield on Tuesday night for Punderdome 3000 sealed the deal.

To be fair, the crowd in attendance was a fairly even split between the sexes (the spirit of dad-humor isn't, it turns out, particularly gendered), with most people in their 20s and 30s. But of the punners who ended up competing onstage, only 6 were women, while 17 were men.

Punderdome 3000 is a monthly pun competition started a year ago by father-daughter team Fred and Jo Firestone. Inspired by the annual O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Tex., and another pun contest she heard about in San Antonio, Jo decided that Brooklyn could use one. She booked the basement of Southpaw (the Punderdome’s long-time home until it closed earlier this year) and promptly called (who else?) her dad to help devise the competition.

As it turned out, Jo’s instincts were right: literary Brooklyn is ripe for just this kind of event, and Punderdome has been celebrated on blogs and profiled on The New Yorker's website. At Littlefield on Tuesday night, all of the roughly 100 seats were filled, with some 40 more people standing.

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Many of the contestants had either seen or participated in Punderdome before; some were regulars, including Noah Philip Smith, Conal Darcy, and Tim Donnelly—a.k.a. The Black Punther, Riposter Child, and Forest Whittyker (everyone adopts a "pun name")—a trio that originally met while working together at Trader Joe’s, where they had a lot of “downtime for the brain,” as one of them put it.

Since then they’ve evolved into what you might call pun junkies: at least two of them were on their sixth or seventh Punderdome. In the days leading up to the competition, they practice together, and hold a warm-up session directly beforehand.

“Once you start doing this, you start thinking in puns, seeing the world as a matrix of puns,” Donnelly said. Another friend, Eric Silver, who wasn’t competing that night, offered his own take: “It all happens in the shower.”

The event works like a tournament: up to 24 contestants can enter (pairs are allowed), and the top two teams from each of the first rounds advances to the quarter finals. Each round consists of spontaneous punning based on a given topic. Punners are given a white board and marker with which to write down jokes, and 90 seconds in which to do it. (While this is happening, preselected audience members lead the crowd in increasingly drunken renditions of such nostalgic tunes as the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "Family Matters" TV theme songs.) The last two teams go head-to-head in the final round (even though both win prizes—mystery boxes). Winners are determined by machine, albeit a human machine: the Clap-o-Meter. Audience applause is registered by this person wearing a cardboard computer costume. “Celebrity” judges offer feedback in the more advanced rounds. The event also has one mysterious rule: no hugging.

Audience participation is big at the Punderdome, and not just because applause determines the winners. Fred revved up the crowd at the beginning by calling out a series of fill-in-the-blank warm-up puns.

“If you’ve got a buddy named Jack, and you see him on an airplane, you don’t want to yell…?”

“Hi, Jack!”

Fred—by day a speaker and seminar-leader for corporations, by night a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator (really)—removed miniature PayDay bars from his oversize black fanny pack and lobbed them in the direction of whoever answered correctly.

Positive reinforcement is important because where there are puns, there’s bound to also be failure. Sometimes it starts as early as a name choice—one contestant on Tuesday went by “Traypun Martin,” which elicited some booing.

“Too soon?” he asked.

“Yes!” the crowd yelled.

But with puns and a big audience, you’re at least guaranteed a reaction. Mediocre attempts were often met with the most universal of all pun reactions: the groan, that begrudging acknowledgement of the most base cleverness. Good puns were one-liners that held their own and got a hearty laugh from the crowd. In the “Board Games” round, for example, contestant Do Pun to Others offered, “Anybody wanna go out for a bite after this? I feel like in this Brooklyn place we got a lot of hungry, hungry hipsters.” On the topic of “Popular Allergies,” Forest Whittyker quipped, “I broke up with my girlfriend because she never had any bread in her apartment … I’m lacked toast intolerant.”

The best material, however, came forth as something like the illegitimate love child of Mad Libs and stand-up comedy. Some of the semifinalists achieved this level at points throughout the night, but the most reliable source was the Black Punther, the winner, who tossed off brilliantly pun-filled speeches in a near-deadpan voice, as in the final round, with the topic “The Periodic Table.”

“I’m gonna make just one pun about potassium, K?"

"When I see a nice looking Chevy, I get a car-boner. And then, when people kick me in the crotch, they leave a car-bone footprint."

"I was talking to my friends, and I said, ‘Are you free on Tuesday to hang out?’ Well, he, Liam, said…"

"When elements are eating salad, most of them are pro-tongs…"

"I so hope that I win. I honestly think that I’m doing a good job … Well, looks like all my puns are gone.

Perhaps it doesn't translate perfectly into text, but Punther's monologue had the crowd—well, everyone who was left; the Punderdome ran for an absurd three hours, and some people didn’t last—laughing hysterically and cheering.

This, after all, is the fleeting nature of puns: “they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion,” Op-Ed contributor Joseph Tartakovsky once wrote in the New York Times.

So the setup is long, and the payoff is ... well, short. But it's great while it lasts. And at least, in the words of one of Tuesday's judges, Ophira Eisenberg, “You can always count on a pun to make you feel better about your life.”