While the master punster might consider himself a-word winning and totally wit the times, apparently the trend in contemporary humor is to maintain that we’ve long ago out-groan such base verbiage. Or so says John Pollack in his new book The Pun Also Rises, which seeks to explain, esteem and indeed redeem the age-old act of wordplay.
Pollack, who once served as a presidential speechwriter and freelance foreign correspondent, got his punning start at an early age, when he surprised his (apparently easily impressed) parents with the assertion that “bears go barefoot”—a statement that set him on a lifelong quest for snippy quips and double entendre. The book opens, in fact, with Pollack’s recount of his 1995 O. Henry World Championship Pun-Off win, which had him battling competitors in categories like football and airplane parts to make the most (and funniest) puns in the given subject. Many of the resulting punch lines are lame (“I guess if I’m going to B-52 next week I’m never going to C-47 again”), but Pollack’s overarching message comes through: punning is as much about training one’s brain to work a certain way as it is about the actual jokes one produces.
From there, the book goes on to explain the origins and anatomy of the pun, including the nuances between the different kinds (homonyms, word order, etc.) and how they’ve evolved throughout history (Bard-buffs will be interested to learn that Macbeth features one of the first recorded knock-knock jokes, for instance).
Pollack is at his best, however, when explaining the way the brain works as it hears, mishears, and contextualizes wordplay. Something that might seem like an easy cognitive leap—the simultaneous understanding of the words “tents” and “tense” for example—actually requires highly complicated brain functions, he shows, and often our appreciation of punning is directly related to the reward of “getting” the second, less-immediate contextual clue.
The Pun Also Rises loses steam in later chapters, as Pollack seeks to elevate wordplay to unnecessarily noble or subversive levels. This isn’t to say that punning hasn’t been used to political and social ends, but simply that the value in this small, quirky and impassioned book comes not from the author’s defense of his subject, but rather from the joy he takes in dissecting the pun itself.