I love puns. My first exposure to them was as a young girl who had an obsession with reading joke books in grade school. Every time I came across a pun, I remember being entertained, but decidedly not really laughing. The puns in joke books were always the worst, but they showed me a new way of being clever that was formative in the development of my humor.
For clarity, a pun is a form of wordplay, using similar sounding or alternative meanings of words to change the expected outcome of a phrase, sentence, or joke. It is often seen as “easy” or unintelligent humor, but I disagree. For a pun to exist, the deliverer needs to be able to objectively see two options in language. My distaste for the pun jokes I came across as a kid were based in the obvious setup and punchline, that there was no surprise to it. In my pun-experienced opinion, the best puns come out of left field and leave the recipient surprised with joy or groaning at being had.
One of the most over-used, but integral to pun culture, is the “That’s what she said” line. I’m going to avoid unpacking the heteronormative and oft-misogynistic implications of these kinds of jokes, and instead focus here on the format. If somebody is casually shopping in the produce section with a friend and picking out the best butternut squash for their Friendsgiving meal, when they say “Dude, check out this one, it’s a little ugly, but it’s the perfect size!”, they’re just having casual conversation about a gourd. But when the other friend hits them back with “That’s what she said”, they’ve suddenly brought to light a double-entendre, and put the original speaker in the position of pun. They’ve been had.
While crass, this is also arguably clever. For the most part, puns rely on a sharp and clever mind. That is to say, a bad pun is one in which little cleverness or effort needs to be present. The turns of phrase dubbed “dad jokes” typically fall into this category.
“Hey Dad, can I go to the store?”
“I don’t know…CAN you?!”
This eye-roll inducing “joke” requires minimal effort, topped with annoying implications that you’re using poor grammar. Speaking of effort, check out this awesome pun that I came upon in my research, to giddy delight:
Brilliant. This obviously took at least some effort, is broadcast for an audience of passers-by that will likely be surprised by it’s discovery, and of course has the dual meaning of a well-known saying with crude spelling, or an obvious statement about the mattress itself. I live for this kind of humor.
The best puns are situational, delivered on the spot and quick-fire in a way that takes people off-guard. If you’re really clever, the person or people you’re delivering your pun to will either double over laughing, or not know what’s hit them until minutes later. Either way, I’m a fan of the laugh reaction to a pun rather than the groan reaction, but either can be pretty satisfying. Whether it’s a laugh or a groan, you’ve momentarily opened up somebody’s mind to an alternative reality to the one they were currently in.
At this point I’m definitely nerding out about puns, but I feel they need defending. Lest we not forget the infamous line from Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as his dying words profess, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” My adolescent acting and literature bug had me regularly reading and reciting Shakespeare, and since then I’ve felt this kind of wordplay to be in good company.
If you are a proponent of puns, shine on you crazy diamond. If not, try your hand at peppering in some word-switches with your friends. Sexual innuendo puns are the easiest, as they already rest in ambiguity and center around references to everyday objects and situations. Expand your repertoire beyond them and use the same format to pun other ways. You can set them up as a joke to punchline, or as a response to set somebody else as the unexpected punner. If all else fails, go ahead and do a simple meme search, and post and text a few that make you giggle. While political satire and humor is important social commentary and necessary comic relief, I think adding a little levity to our days with some goofy and silly asides would do us all some good.