Puns are of course the highest form of humor. But why?
A Mixed Rep
I am deliberately flouting the usual claim, of course, that puns are the lowest form of humor. (That judgment seems to have been traced back to several sources, including Samuel Johnson.) The appropriate response to a really good pun is considered to be not a laugh, but a groan: the better the pun, the louder the groan.
On the other hand, the use of the pun has weighty, even punderous, examples on its side. The art of punning goes back into ancient times. Shakespeare himself is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays. Even Jesus, as is frequently noted, founded his church on a pun: “We read in Matthew 16:18: ‘Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.’”
In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, bluff Captain Jack Aubrey is frequently derided by more sophisticated characters for his delight in puns. I recently ran across a mention in Treason’s Harbour, ch. 2 (p. 45):
. . . Meares, who was only a commander. A brilliant play upon this name occurred to Jack, but he did not give it voice: not long before this, on learning that an officer’s father was a Canon of Windsor he had flashed out a remark to the effect that no one could be more welcome aboard a ship that prided herself upon her artillery-practice than the son of a gun, only to find the officer receive it coldly, with no more than a pinched, obligatory smile.
Personally, I thought the “Canon” joke both funny and clever; but then, I’m not the one being called a son of a gun. The attraction to puns is characteristic of Jack Aubrey, though, given his innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures and general good humor (badly represented in the movie version). I note that even Wikipedia cites an Aubrey pun as an example.
Those with agile minds can have great fun ‘running a topic’ with rapid-fire pun volleys. I recall staying up late one night on a high-school retreat with some buddies and Father Bill LaFratta, who outdid us all in puns on a subject like ‘cars’ (and may be responsible, or reprehensible, for my subsequent descent into pundom). Our family has occasionally gotten into text message exchanges that build off one another, on topics like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.
David: Come to think of it, Marx could work as an orcish name . . . and orcs could serve well as the meanies of production.
Rick: “Keep your head down . . . there’s an orcish Marxman over there, I just saw an arrow go by.”
David: He was just advocating for an equitable distribution of health.
Rick: Or death.
David: And the archmage leading the orcish jacobins could be robes-pierre.
Rick: And hoping the audience gets the point of his argument.
Science fiction writer Spider Robinson is extraordinarily fond of (and good at) wordplay. At Callahan’s Place, the fictional bar in his series of stories, Tuesday night is set aside for trading ever more appalling puns on a given topic. I’m not even going to attempt to reproduce Robinson’s groan-worthy inventiveness; check the stories out for yourself!
Shaggy Dogs and Feghoots
Then there’s the story that ends, after an elaborate build-up, with a pun—a variant of the shaggy dog story. Snoopy, at his typewriter, occasionally indulges in one of these, as in a recent Peanuts reprint (8/3/2020). Ideally the pun-ch line will include multiple puns, so as to make a fitting topper for the build-up. I fondly recall the quintuple pun about immortal porpoises, presented in different forms here, here, and (under the rubric of “dad jokes,” naturally) here. As in that case, getting the punch line may require knowing some particular phrase or quotation, on which the conclusion of the story is a takeoff, and thus become dated; for example, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” (On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the original phrase in the porpoise pun: the joke version makes clear enough what the original would have been—at least for comic, as opposed to legal, porpoises.)
There’s an entire category for short stories whose conclusion is a pun: “Feghoots,” named for a series of science fiction stories by Reginald Bretnor, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.” A favorite of mine that isn’t mentioned in the Feghoot article is “The Holes Around Mars,” by Jerome Bixby, who was also (incongruously) responsible for the chilling story “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode. The “Mars” story, however, is just good fun all the way through, featuring a spaceship captain addicted to puns, and ending with—Well, I see the text of the story is available at Project Gutenberg, so I’ll let you find out for yourself (if you dare).
Tom Swift was the lesser-known science-fictional counterpart to the young detectives Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. All three series were ghost-written by various authors under the auspices of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Given the provenance, the books were, let us say, not esteemed for their literary style. In particular, the Tom Swift books were prone to using adverbs, especially adverbs ending in “-ly,” to decorate the supposed plainness of simply using “said” in dialogue. There’s an example of such dialogue at the Wikipedia page.
A “Tom Swiftie” is a pun in which a speech adverb of this sort is used to make a pun on the rest of the sentence. By convention, the speaker is always “Tom.” Hence:
“Close the refrigerator door,” said Tom coldly.
“The man is dead,” said Tom gravely.
But we can get more inventive than that.
“Let’s invite Greg and Gary!” said Tom gregariously.
“We’ve arrived at the camp,” said Tom attentively.
As a dedicated reader of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” series in the 1960s, I’ve always been fond of this variant.
Puns of Opportunity
But we may get the greatest satisfaction from hitting upon a pun unexpectedly. When a never-before-heard pun evolves naturally out of a conversation, surprise adds to the fun of the sudden (in)congruity.
A writer can enjoy the same effect when they come up with an unplanned witticism. The unexpectedness may not be evident to the reader, who may assume the author carefully set up the line, but the writer knows better.
I remember the delight with which I happened upon a clinching line for a scene in The World Around the Corner. In their online game, the characters have come upon an underground pool inhabited by a talking fish, the Carp of Doom. (I think I chose “carp” based on a hazy recollection that carp were renowned for wisdom in some Asiatic mythologies.) The fish gives them directions for the next stage of their quest, which, naturally, starts out by taking a tunnel from the underground cavern.
“Clear directions for once.” Badon gave a cheer. “I like it. Onward, up the carpal tunnel!”
Dana wished very much that Badon were physically present. She’d like to throw something solid at him…
The Virtues of Puns
So, puns are fun. Why am I motivated to call them a high form of humor?
I locate the root of humor in incongruity—things don’t fit together as we expect them to—with the proviso that when things do fit together in an unexpected way, more neatly than we would have supposed, that in itself is a kind of incongruity: as a child might laugh with pleasure in discovering how puzzle pieces make a picture. Puns fit this basic concept. When words don’t work the way we anticipated, but make a new whole (the connection between the two meanings) in an entirely different way, we do tend to laugh with glee—unless we’ve been socially conditioned to regard the proper response as a groan, of course.
Puns are clever. They reward inventiveness and agility of mind. (In this respect, they share common ground with creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box.”) They’re also playful; they take words lightly and turn them topsy-turvy. We might consider puns and other wordplay as the intellectual equivalent of kids playing on a jungle gym, turning and stretching and going upside-down.
There’s an interpersonal aspect as well. In chain punning or following a subject, the participants play off each other. As in other forms of witty banter, one person’s last remark is the jumping-off place for another person’s next remark. Thus, there’s a certain form of cooperation involved, like that of a volley in tennis—and, just as in the tennis match, an opportunity for one-upmanship and “counting coup” as well. I love hearing someone else make a good pun, but I can’t deny that I’m also immediately searching for a “Can you top this?” response.
There’s a subtler factor too. A great deal of humor involves a kind of overt or covert meanness. Puncturing human dignity and pompousness is a classic formula for humor; but doing so tends to involve some degree of pain or humiliation. When someone—especially a well-dressed man in a top hat—slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the incongruity but ignore the bruised hip and the embarrassment. Sophie Kinsella’s romantic comedies are great fun; but they frequently involve her heroines in extraordinarily embarrassing situations. Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character combined humor with pathos.
I would not go so far as Michael Valentine Smith, of Stranger in a Strange Land, who finally comprehends the laughter of Earth people as a response to pain (ch. 29): “I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.” Pain isn’t essential to laughter; maybe to rueful or ironic humor, but not all humor. Still, Mike has his finger on this much truth: humor often does play off pain.
Puns, though, are innocent of this painful aspect. Only words are harmed or abused. No people have to be embarrassed for a pun to succeed; it’s only language that gets twisted and skewed and made to do unnatural things. Even when a pun responds to a “straight line,” it doesn’t normally reflect badly on the previous speaker. The pun is recognizable as a flight of fancy based on a perfectly innocent phrase, not on the human being who uttered it. And when people are volleying puns back and forth, each line serves as the straight line for the next flight. It brings to mind the reference to a nonhuman species of habitual jokesters in David Brin’s The Uplift War (ch. 85): “To a Tymbrimi, the best jokes were those that caught the joker, as well as everybody else.”
Still, a pun is not always entirely harmless. The punster’s affectionate ‘abuse of words’ can lead to excess.
For one thing, as with other forms of wordplay, punning requires familiarity with the language. Wikipedia, discussing the rhetorical use of puns, observes: “A major difficulty in using puns in this manner is that the meaning of a pun can be interpreted very differently according to the audience’s background and can significantly subtract from a message.” For the same reason, puns are likely to be untranslatable. The connections between words, their similarities in sound or written form, will not be the same in another language. This kind of problem occurs in translation generally, as noted by my critique buddy Blandcorp in a recent blog post. It affects puns along with all forms of art that depend on the specific nuances of words.
It’s also possible for puns to be abused in social situations. I learned early on, when I took up punning as an avocation, that simply responding to people’s remarks with a stream of puns wears out its welcome pretty quickly. (In extreme cases, one might find one’s conversational partners inclined to take punitive measures.)
The reason is that a pun, by its nature, derails the conversation. It diverts our attention from the meaning of a previous remark to its verbal form. A momentary side trip of this sort may be entertaining, depending on the context. But if I keep repeatedly making these side trips, I’m getting in the way of the conversation other people are trying to have. I would be frustrating those who are trying to talk, because the puns interfere with making sense in the language.
It’s one thing, then, to pause with like-minded friends to engage in a pun war (or pun festival). In ordinary conversation, though, puns are best used sparingly, like seasoning in a dinner dish. (A pun out of season goeth before a fall, we might say, or even before a winter of discontent.)
In other words, we should pun with moderation, as in all things—even in the highest form of humor.