The Worst Kind of Punchline

by by Greg Nissan & Joe de Jonge

“power fails and 49ers surge, but Ravens Win” - The New York Times. “Lights Out! Ravens Win the Super Bowl!” - The Huffington Post. “Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Dress Shocker” - The Daily Beast.

None of these puns, alluding to the blackout that occurred at the beginning of the second half of the Super Bowl last Sunday, are funny. Nor are they trying to be. If you disagree with me, I can venture a few guesses about you. You a) are above the age of 40 b) are wearing a thick-knit maroon sweater c) refer to coffee as “rocket fuel” and d) embarrass your children (Sarah, 9, and Joshua, 12) when you pick them up from Hebrew school. John Dryden called the pun the “lowest and most groveling kind of wit.” But it seems there’s some sort of pun paranoia in the world of journalism, where puns are a veritable plague: if I don’t make it, somebody else will. Does that mean I’m stupid? “Ravens win, stop Niners surge” -The Huffington Post.

According to Geraldine Pinch’s Magic in Ancient Egypt, puns held immense importance in the empire, where they were central to myth-making and dream interpretation. For example, dreaming of a harp (bnt) indicated evil (bint). Now, they’re the epitome of dad jokes—clunky eye-rollers—and a central stylistic element of  HUGE PRINT HEADLINE SOURCES like The New York Post and The Huffington Post. The New York Post, the tabloid-as-newspaper famous for its Page 6 gossip, features a 48-size font headline on both sides of the paper, one news and one sports. “Notre Shame” on Manti Te’o. “Booty Gaul” on Dominque Strauss-Kahn. They pun about Knicks games. “May The Best Man Lin.” They pun about killings. “Trayvon Hoodwink.” The phonetic coincidence is their modus operandi. As a kid, I was amazed by the relentless frequency of awful puns in that paper. I envisioned a bearded man in a white suit who would spend all day at the Post headquarters sipping coffee with a splash of Jameson and reading O. Henry in a bulbous burgundy arm chair. The staff would bring him the next day’s paper, all finished but for the headline. He would stroke his beard delicately, his nails trimmed, and after a pensive moment the magic would surface: “Lance Arm…wrong.” Thunderous applause.

After doing some research, I came across the disappointing reality of the situation. Apparently, The Post’s Managing Editor Frank Zini fired 32 people after the New York Knicks didn’t re-sign Jeremy Lin, the international basketball and pun sensation who rose from nobody to “Linsanity” in less than a week. Why did he fire so many employees in one sitting? They were Jeremy Lin’s pun staff. His pun staff. 32 professionals came up with “May The Best Man Lin.” Did they all shake hands afterwards? Or sulk home to write in their journals: “I am pundering whether or not I should quit my job. Will keep you Posted.”

How did this ubiquitously mocked form of word play worm its way into the journalism world? In the right hands, puns can be used to weave a web of literary double entendre. Nabokov and Joyce punned obsessively and complexly. Shakespeare is revered for his dramatic and comic puns. In the wrong hands? Edgar Allen Poe: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.” The man died face down in a gutter and his biggest fans are 8th graders with leather bracelets and Angels & Airwaves posters in their bedrooms, but does he have a point? Maybe in past centuries puns indexed wit, but in the Ironic Age puns just seem too easy. As I watched the Google news feed after the Superbowl, pun after pun passed before me. Perhaps this collective need to pun in every headline is an attachment to the glory days of punning before the 20th century, when this wordplay actually said something about one’s intellect. Maybe it’s just a ploy to sell more papers. It looks doubtful that the pun will make a resurgence. Perhaps the pun will remain in the badlands of bespectacled dad humor for the rest of time. RIP.

Greg Nissan B’15 is ubiquitously mocked.