Q&A: Pun-Off Champion 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.