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A night out at the Punderdome 3000

Becca Rothfeld watches Brooklyn’s best punners battle it out with headline writers from the New York Post.

Girls just want to have pun, so last week I headed to Punderdome 3000, an epic pun-making competition at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. The event pitted previous Punderdome winners against headline writers from the US tabloid the New York Post, best known for gems such as “Osama Bin wankin’” (when US officials unearthed Osama Bin Laden’s personal stash of pornography) and “Headless body in topless bar” (self-explanatory).

Broad-shouldered and apparently corporate types nursed overpriced cocktails while women teetered tipsily in heels. The crowd seemed ill-fitted to the proceedings, which wed the raucous atmosphere of a fraternity party with the cringing embarrassment of a high-school talent show. When the hosts, Fred Firestone and “his alleged daughter”, the local comedian Jo Firestone, called on members of the audience to complete a series of terrible puns, I braced myself for an evening of campy spectacle. “When chemists die, we . . .?” they cried, to which the crowd responded in unison, “Barium!”

Gradually the teeterers and I succumbed to the earnest charm of the punners, who competed under pseudonyms such as Daft Pun and Forrest Wittyker. In the first round, reigning Punderdome champions had 90 seconds to come up with two minutes of puns on a given topic. The results were assessed by the Human Clap-O-Meter, a device operated by a blindfolded volunteer who moved a pointer to reflect spectator sentiment. The rankings ranged from “rotten tomato” (near silence) to “punderful” (thunderous applause). Riffing on “the digestive system”, the punner Words Nightmare vowed not to date men without feet, as she’s “lack-toes-intolerant”.

A panel of “celebrity judges” offered input during the elimination rounds. There was Bevy Smith, co-host of the television show Fashion Queens; Pat Kiernan, a morning news anchor of the NY1 news station; and Éric Ripert, a chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Bernardin – a Frenchman who speaks English poorly with a thick accent and was an illogical choice of judge (“Between the accent and the not knowing what’s going on it will be hard, but I will romaine calm,” he assured spectators).

In the final round, Ally Spier (Words Nightmare) and Jerry Gwiazdowski (Jargon Slayer) faced two New York Post writers for high-stakes prizes: “New York bragging rights” and the contents of two “mystery boxes”. The teams were asked to come up with pithy headlines for a piece that originally appeared in the Huffington Post under the punless title “Student forgets to plug in his headphones while watching porn”. Clad in matching “Headless Body in Topless Bar” T-shirts, the Post writers held their own with “Oral exam”, “He got a D” and “He studied hard”. But the Punderdomers triumphed with “Audio-erotic”, “Wacks on, wacks off” and “Masterbeats by Dre”.

The event put a face to the anonymous voices behind a local institution. “At work, it’s work, but here, there’s so much enthusiasm that it’s not work, it’s just fun,” Billy Heller, the deputy features editor of the Post and a Punderdome 3000 finalist told me. It was a wonderfully weird and wonderfully shameless way to spend an evening in New York. 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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