YouTube Screengrab
Show Hide image

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: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.