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Away with Words

AWAY

Away with Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions Paperback – June 13, 2017  by Joe Berkowitz (Author)

Fast Company reporter Joe Berkowitz investigates the bizarre and hilarious world of pun competitions from the Punderdome 3000 in Brooklyn to the World competition in Austin.

When Joe Berkowitz witnessed his first Punderdome competition, it felt wrong in the best way. Something impossible seemed to be happening. The kinds of jokes we learn to repress through social conditioning were not only being aired out in public—they were being applauded. As it turned out, this monthly show was part of a subculture that’s been around in one form or another since at least the late ‘70s. Its pinnacle is the O. Henry Pun Off World Championship, an annual tournament in Austin, Texas. As someone who is terminally self-conscious, Joe was both awed and jealous of these people who confidently killed with the most maligned form of humor.

In this immersive ride into the subversive world of pun competitions, we meet punsters weird and wonderful and Berkowitz is our tour guide. Puns may show up in life in subtle ways sometimes, but once you start thinking in puns you discover they’re everywhere. Berkowitz’s search to discover who makes them the most, and why, leads him to the professional comedian competitors on @Midnight, a TV show with a pun competition built into it, the writing staff of Bob’s Burgers, the punniest show on TV, and even a humor research conference. With his new unlikely band of punster brothers, he finally heads to Austin to compete in the World Championship. Of course, in befriending these comic misfits he also ended up learning that when you embrace puns you become a more authentic version of yourself.

Review

Relentlessly hilarious, mercilessly self-aware, and consistently compassionate,
Away with Words isn’t just a chronicle of competitive punning but also
a story about discovering where you belong and claiming your destiny.
(Josh Gondelman, coauthor of You Blew It)

People often dismiss puns and punsters out of hand, but Joe Berkowitz reveals the best for who they really are – quirky, creative and often truly brilliant. (John Pollack, former Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton and author of The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics)

If competitive pun-makers can be heroes, Away with Words tells the tale
of a hero’s journey. (Jo Firestone, cocreator of Punderdome 3000)

I love Joe Berkowitz’s writing. He combines a down-to-earth, sometimes skeptical eye with a fantastic sense of humor and a true joy in creativity. He’s a cool dude because he’s also a nerd par excellence. Of course he became obsessed with puns. Get into his wordy weird brain and enjoy yourself (Sara Benincasa, author of Real Artists Have Day Jobs)

This funny little book results from Berkowitz’s yearlong dive into the subculture of pun competitions. Of most fun is Berkowitz sharing in detail his own nerve-wracking performance at the World Championships, as well those of his competitors. Recommended for passionate readers of books about words and wordplay. (Library Journal)

Product details

Waterboarding the English Language

ByDavid WinebergTOP 500 REVIEWERon June 13, 2017

Format: Paperback

Puns are bottomless. Comedian Steve Allen used to collect the so-called best and publish them in books, but he knew he could never have the definitive collection, because they just kept coming. At the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s, the best and the brightest vied to outdo each other, for about ten years. Given a word, they had to employ it in a sentence. From this came such deathless utterances as: We wish you a meretricious and a happy new year. Now, there is a small non-chain of pun events all over the USA, where people pay to be tortured by contestants who fly in from around the world. It’s the new millennium.

Away With Words follows the punning of a cadre of New Yorkers on this non-circuit. They work out locally, and make the road trip to Austin where the oldest US event is their World Series of punning. The book reads like a television reality show. It progresses chronologically, episode after episode, has the same setbacks and euphoric moments, the same angst and second-guessing, and culminates in Oz. It is mostly background, mostly detail, mostly description, with several bouts of thick action interspersed. You get to know the contestants, possibly more than you wanted to, just like reality tv, and you get to read endless puns.

Two things about the puns. Because these are performance contests, they are intense personal efforts, not simply tossed off, unexpected witticisms in conversation. Sometimes they are too intense. Be prepared to read a pun and not get it. (A lot of it has to do with delivery and timing, and books are not the best medium for that.) Sometimes the contestants actually have to explain the pun to the judges or the audience, which is a real buzz-kill. The other thing is what Joe Berkowitz correctly calls pun fatigue. Twenty puns in a row on the same topic can be, can I say – punishing.

Berkowitz learns the ins and outs, eventually moving up a notch in the hierarchy of winners. He has entered a tiny universe unknown to most mortals, and like its television equivalents, this show is an education in how this microuniverse works, warts and all. The bottom line appears to be that standup comics or people who use mental dexterity in what they do and how they live make for naturally performing punsters. They are more observant, and quicker with associations. They have honed attitudes and timing that can lift a bad pun into a shriek of laughter. So it’s not necessarily something just anyone can take up and succeed with. Fortunately.

David Wineberg

 

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