Lorne Jackson

[WARNING: The following article contains numerous examples of puns that could prove detrimental to the health and general wellbeing of the reader. The Herald Magazine cannot be held responsible for any reaction, allergic or otherwise, to these puns. Those who choose to read on do so in full knowledge of the risk involved.]

IN the beginning was the word. (According to some sources, at least.)

That first word must have been lonely, hovering there all on its own, without even a comma for company. Eventually another word hit the scene. More followed. Soon there were entire vocabularies. Bulging dictionaries.

Then something curious took place. Two random words smacked into each other at high speed. Those words sounded very much alike, which was sort of humorous, when people thought about it.

Thus was born... the pun.

Let’s now skip forward a few thousand largely uneventful years until we hit 2019, when we stumble upon the following conversation taking place between two Herald journalists. (Let’s call them Hack 1 and Hack 2.)

Hack 1: (enthusiastic) Just spotted a brilliant event in Glasgow’s West End. A pun championship at Oran Mor!!!

Hack 2: (droll) Ha! Sounds wonderful.

At this point it’s necessary to point out that Hack 1 is exceedingly fond of puns while Hack 2 can’t stand them.

Hack 1: I guess if you came with me to the competition, that would be an exquisite form of pun-ishment!

A moment’s silence. A tumbleweed skitters past.

Hack 2: You should enter this thing. You’d win it. (Beat.) And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Hack 1: I’m sure the other competitors will be stronger than me. Next to them I’ll be a pun-y specimen of manhood!

Another tumbleweed joins the first. Hack 2’s face is a mask of stoic calm, though a glint in his eye reveals that, deep down, he’s tortured by searing daggers of pain. Think Joan of Arc tied to the stake.

Hack 2: (against his better judgement) I’m all for pun-ching your lights out.

Hack 1: Don’t be so grumpy. Come to Oran Mor and have a bet on me winning the competition. Go on, have a pun-t!

At this precise moment Hack 2 grabs the nearby tumbleweeds and attempts to beat Hack 1 to death with them. He doesn’t succeed, however, and instead finds himself, as though trapped in a hideous nightmare, attending the pun fest.

Drawing aside the veil of reticence, I have to admit that I’m the pun-loving journalist, while my colleague, Brian Beacom, is the bloke who hates 'em. (He thinks they stink and can’t abide their pun-gent odour.)

Punning for glory

Regrettably on the evening of the 6th Annual Champipunship I discover, to my intense disappointment, that I’m not allowed to compete as contestants have already been chosen. At least that’s the reason I’m given by the organisers. Nobody admits this at the time, but I get the feeling my ‘ban’ is due to the fact I’d clearly be the punaway winner, destroying the dramatic tension of the event. To have me up there, punning for glory, would be as unequal a contest as Tyson Fury leaping into a playground scrap.

We do get excellent seats near the stage, however, though Brian says he’d have preferred a seating arrangement slightly further from the action. Mexico City being one acceptable option.

The night is organised and hosted by Gary McNair, whose day job is writing award-winning plays. Most playwrights I’ve met have the social instincts of excessively reclusive moles. They hunker down in their garrets, only occasionally braving the outdoors to sulk in the shadows of a theatre, enduring the premiere of a play they’ve written, while glowering at their arch enemies, the newspaper critics.

Gary is not a garret-hunkering sort of guy. You could say he’s actually very garr(et)ulous. Not only could you say this, but I do say this, to Brian, who gives me the sort of look that makes me imagine, for a moment, that he’s a playwright while I’m a newspaper critic.

Meanwhile Gary’s doing his thing on stage. His presentation is harum-scarum, much like his muddled mass of curly blond hair. Which I suppose you could say is hairum-scairum.

He begins anecdotes, then realises, half-way through telling them, that they don’t have a resolution. These are not so much anecdotes as anecdon’ts.

Luckily Gary has an exuberance, a charm, a cockamamie charisma that allows the audience to quickly warm to him. Professionalism be damned, we’re having fun! (Most of us, at any rate.) The night’s gaiety certainly isn’t hindered by the well-stocked Oran Mor bar that a fair number of pun-ters ambitiously attempt to drain during the proceedings. There won’t be many boos as long as there’s plenty of booze.

Penchant for puns

Gary introduces the contestants. I’m not entirely sure where he found this bunch. I seriously doubt they posted CVs or passed a rigorous interview to determine their suitability. Call me an overly-suspicious cynic, but they appear to be Gary’s mates, theatre muckers he’s dragged off the street and into the glare of the limelight.

Most of them don’t seem to have a penchant for puns. (Or do I mean punchant?) Perhaps I’m just jealous. It should be me up there. I shoulda been a contender, instead of these con-tenders. Yet I can’t deny the artfulness of the proceedings. It’s easy to imagine a night of relentless punning being a mite irritating. But does the evening’s entertainment grate? Gratefully, not.

That’s because Gary continues to mix things up. First there’s a round of general puns, followed by art-based puns, with Gary sketching pictures on a whiteboard and competitors attempting to decipher them. This round is much like the TV show Catchphrase, with one important difference. In Catchphrase contestants can at least tell what the pictures are meant to denote, even if you can’t figure out the underlying pun.

Gary’s sketches, however, are not very good. No, that’s an understatement. Gary’s sketches are awful. Next to them, a hastily scrawled stickman looks like the Mona Lisa. Nobody knows what they’re looking at, much less what the pun’s meant to be.

“Rubbish drawings, eh?” I smirk to Brian. But he’s not looking. His head is bowed as though in prayer. And I can imagine what that prayer is: “Please Lord, make it stop.”

I have to admit that I’m rather enjoying Brian’s discomfort. That’s the funny thing about puns. Half the pleasure is how irritating they can be. The great ones elicit a groan as much as a giggle. When we chat during the interval, Gary McNair agrees with this sentiment.

“I’d never want to annoy anyone deliberately,” he says. (Rather unconvincingly.) “But anyone who’s adamant that they don’t like puns, I truly think they’re lying. At the very least they get pleasure out of the lack of pleasure they’re having.”

There are many punsters who have made a good living from wordplay, of course. James Joyce packed his novels with puns. And comedian Tim Vine is notorious for stuffing his act with them. But bad puns do abound.

“I know a lot of puns are hideous,” says Gary. “Every fourth one’s terrible, and every eighth one’s so awful it’s funny again. But whether you get a laugh or a groan, each one’s a winner in my book.”

Pun loving criminals

Gary originally devised the competition six years ago to fund one of his plays at the Edinburgh Fringe. Though his love of wacky (sometimes woeful) wordplay goes way back. “Nothing’s more fun than me and my mates coming up with silly puns,” he says. “We’ll be having a group-chat, then somebody will toss in a pun and immediately there’ll be eight more.”

After the intermission we’re bombarded with more puns, leading to further eyeball-rolling from Brian. (Result!) There’s even a pop music round, with tunes provided by a bunch of muzos called The Pun Loving Criminals. Somebody wins at the end of the night, though it really doesn’t matter who.

As we leave Oran Mor, I say to Brian: “Go on, admit it. That was great pun. I mean fun.”

He doesn’t answer and looks distracted.

“Something wrong?” I ask.

“Just looking for a way of thanking you for a truly memorable evening,” he mutters. “Now there’s got to be a tumbleweed round here somewhere…”