Are you a fan of wordplay? Whenever a perfectly fine sentence walks by, must you throw a punana peel under its feet? Then the 40th Annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships—set to take place on May 13 of this year in Austin, Texas—just may be for you.
Here’s how it works—the Pun-Off officially has two competitions: Punniest of Show and Punslingers. Each only allows a maximum of 32 contestants. Punniest of Show is a prepared contest, meaning the contestants come with material already written and stuffed full of puns. Contestants have 90 seconds to deliver their full material. They may go slightly over the allotted time, but anyone reaching two minutes or more is disqualified. The judges then rank each performance on a scale of 1 to 10, and the top three win. And in the event of a tie, the audience helps determine the winners through a championship round.
Punslingers is more off the cuff. Nothing is prepared in advance. Puntestants are brought up in pairs and given a topic to riff on. They each have five seconds at a time to get out a pun related to the topic, alternating back and forth like a pun-pong game until one is either stumped or gets three strikes for puns that don’t really work with the topic. Then it continues tournament style, eliminating contestants from brackets until the final group remains—which is usually an odd number of people. Ultimately, a three-way competition ensues, and the winner is determined.
Because this is the 40th year of the competition, organizers have a special exhibit prepared called “Once a-Pun A Time.” The exhibit will show photos and memorabilia from past competitions, as well as an interactive game and a fundraising auction.
If you’re a fan of the Oh Henry candy, sorry to say this contest is not named for the sweet treat. It’s actually named for William Sydney Porter—better known as O. Henry—a short story author who moved to Austin in 1884. He started a humor newspaper called The Rolling Stone (no, not that Rolling Stone), which he continued until winding up in jail for some unexplained shortages at the bank for which he worked. Porter got a six-year sentence, but was released after serving about half of it. He then moved to New York, changed his name to O. Henry, and went on to become a popular American writer. One of his most famous works is the Christmas story Gift of the Magi.
“I can’t listen passively to someone speaking without the possibility of puns echoing around in my head,” Gary Hallock the current producer and host for the competition, told Wired last year. “I’ve often compared punsters to linguistic terrorists. We’re literally stalking conversations, looking for the weak place to plant our bomb.”
Sadly, participant registration for this year is over, but spectators are still welcome. To get in on the competition next year, keep an eye on the website for updates about when and how to sign up. You’ll be entered into a lottery pool and the next 32 contestants will be drawn. Anyone not drawn moves to a standby list and will have 24 hours to confirm attendance if a contestant drops out before the event.
For inspiration, check out last year's Punniest of Show champion Jerzy Gwiazdowski's prize-winning, countries-of-the-world-themed monologue (above), or the periodic-table-of-the-elements-themed final Punslingers.battle round. (The pun begins at about 5:13.)