Pardon My Pun

As a young man I had a pet frog I was very fond of. But after the frog became badly jaundiced, with its skin turning yellow and scaly, it died. I wrote a farewell poem to it. With a nod to Elton John, I titled the poem, "Goodbye Yellow Sick Toad." I've always liked puns.

I read somewhere that celebrated screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men, et. al.), one of my favorite writers, despises puns, which makes sense because, arguably, puns represent the lowest form of humor. Puns are to comedy what Vanilla Ice is to rap. Maybe that's why I like them so much.

Back when the USSR was struggling to stay in existence, and I was writing about politics, I noted that in the battle between competing ideologies, Las Vegas bookmakers had made Communism a 7-point underdogma. I thought it was cute. Others didn't.

One sure way for a pun to fail is to give it an over-long introduction. Brevity is crucial for puns. I once tried doing a spoof of Christ's crucifixion, with the executioners asking the head man where they should place the cross. Deciding it should be located in shady place, he said, "Put it where the Son don't shine." Because I took so long setting it up, the joke fizzled. It probably would've fizzled anyway, but still.

I once wrote an article addressing dress code issues in the workplace. Employees had requested the right to wear short-sleeve shirts, but the company insisted everyone wear long sleeves. Thinking it would be funny to place the debate in the context of the Bill of Rights, I argued that people should have the "right to bare arms." It turned out not to be as funny as I hoped.

Among my favorite puns from other people (apologies for being unable to recall who said them or where I read them) are these four:

  • Those who jump off a bridge in Paris are in Seine.
  • Be sure to practice safe eating. Always use condiments.
  • The man who fell into the upholstery machine is now fully recovered.
  • Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

When writing a 2003 article critical of the U.S. military's overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, I decided to open with the snappy introduction, "Caught between Iraq and a hard place." I later learned that this precise phrase had already been used by other writers. So not only had I shamelessly resorted to a pun, I had been guilty of plagiarism.

During the 1990 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito, a guy asked my opinion of the proceedings. As difficult as puns can be to appreciate when they're expressed in writing, they are all but guaranteed to fall flat when expressed verbally.

Convinced that the hearings had needlessly dragged on and on--and that Alito's confirmation could have been wrapped up much earlier--I answered with a straight face, "I think Alito goes a long way." Having no idea that a pun had just been hurled his way, the guy nodded thoughtfully and said, Yeah, I agree."