Benjamin Ziek
Benjamin Ziek

Pun-Off Champion Benjamin Ziek

Benjamin Ziek
Benjamin Ziek

Each May since 1978, some very punny people gather in Austin, Texas, to participate in the O. Henry Pun-Off. This year's competition takes place May 10; we spoke with last year's Punniest of Show, Benjamin Ziek—who plans to participate again this weekend—to find out just how he does it.

What’s your day job? 
I'm a hotel night auditor. I work to make sure our guests are charged properly, and that the hotel's books balance. I also help with guest complaints, questions, or issues.

Do you incorporate puns into your daily life or work?
I pun a lot at work—to the chagrin of my co-workers—and in life. However, it's almost involuntary. A paranomastic, or punster's, mind works much in the same way as a dyslexic's. We hear something, something sticks out in a conversation, and our mind just starts working on how we can change that word or words into something humorous. Some people hold it in. I usually will just say it, depending on the situation.

How do you prepare for the pun-off? How long does it take you to craft your Punniest of Show entry?
For Punniest of Show, I usually take about 3 to 4 months to come up with my finished entry. I'll decide on what topic I want to use. Then I make a list of things belonging to that topic. I start playing with the words, and come up with individual, usually disjointed, sentences. Then I find a way to bind them together, check it for time—you have a maximum of 2 minutes before being disqualified—then pare it down if necessary. When I'm finally happy with it, then I practice and try to memorize it, so I can perform it, rather than just reading it, because you're also judged on performance.

In particular, how do you hone your craft so that you can participate—and ultimately win—in the Punslingers portion of the competition?
For the Punslingers competition, the first year I went, I created a Powerpoint program to give me a random topic on which to make a pun. I spent hours practicing, but you can never fully be prepared since you don't know what categories will show up. My approach when I'm on stage is to come up with two puns when I hear the topic. That way, I can use one, and save the other to pull out when I need it. One of the biggest pointers I could give is to listen carefully to your opponent's pun. There may be something in it that you can use as a springboard to your next pun.

According to the rules, you can present your Punniest of Show routine in any format. Is there any format you want to tackle?
I never know how I'm going to present my routine until I've written it. So far I've done a couple of regular stories, a soap opera, a film noir, and I've even sung. I just let the routine dictate what format it will be

Can you tell me a little bit about competition? Is there any behind-the-scenes drama? Has a war of the words ever turned into an actual fight?
There is a great camaraderie between the Pun-Off contestants. When you have a love for something so niche, finding others who share this love is an amazing thing. So everyone gets along well, even during the competition. Sometimes people get upset with a topic they get during Punslingers—and sometimes with reason, as this could make the difference between winning and losing—but everybody knows it's part of the game.

What’s one pun you’ve heard at the Pun Off that you wish had been yours?
In 2009, the first year I went, I was told a pun by a friend, Jay Rosenberg, that I ended up getting to use in Punslingers. The category was mythology: "I have a friend named Dora who wrote a one-panel comic strip which the critics didn't like, so they all Panned Dora's Box." (Pandora's Box.)

When you’re up there delivering your puns, what sort of reaction are you looking for from the audience?
To be honest, anything but silence. People think that groaning at a pun might coerce the punster to stop, but I believe it's just the opposite. A laugh is great because the recipient got it and enjoyed it. A groan is great because the recipient still got it.

What separates a good pun from a bad one?
I don't like to look at puns as good or bad. I see them as well-crafted or poorly-crafted. Some of the "worst" puns are ones that are superbly crafted.

What’s the worst pun you’ve ever heard?
One of the worst puns, though I still love it, was from my roommate Tim, who once said he knew someone whose father was from Canada, and whose mother was from Minnesota, so that makes him a Canasota. (Can of soda.)

Who, in your opinion, is history’s best punster?
There are many people throughout history who have used puns in their works—Shakespeare, for example. A lot of the classic movie comedians, in particular Abbott & Costello and the Marx Brothers, were masters of the art, but I have to say that for me, my earliest pun memories involve the books written by Random House founder Bennett Cerf. His punny sense of humor is evident when he appeared as a panelist on What's My Line?

Do you have any tips for coming up with good puns?
I would say, listen to words. Also listen to the individual sounds that make words up, and see how you can manipulate those words and sounds into something humorous. Use what you know. I love cooking, so in 2012, my pun routine was about cheeses. Last year, about herbs and spices. If you want to be a punster, don't be afraid of hearing groans. Remember, a groan is not a bad thing in the world of puns.

You’re the reigning Punniest in Show champ. Do you have any strategies for staying on top this year? Are you already preparing?
Write, practice, repeat! Everyone prepares so well for this competition, that it's impossible to pick a winner. I have started preparing my routine for this year, so we'll see what hap-puns!

A version of this story appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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