Pun-Smoke (Open Road Media, 2003)

Oliver Wendell Holmes said "[A] pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide." Edgar Allen Poe, on the other hand, said that "the goodness of the true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability," and even more tellingly, "[of] puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them." Me? Oh, I'm with Poe. So when I was offered the opportunity to review Pun-Smoke, a documentary filmed at the 25th annual O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship in Austin Texas, well...masochist that I am, I just had to stand there and take my punishment.

What, you think that's bad? Wait until you meet George McClughan, "King of Snot & Puke," specializing in raunchy and perverse wit. Or Alex Ramirez, low-key and urbane master of understated humor, and three time reigning champion. Or Brian Snider ("Why did the lions stop eating the circus clowns? Because they tasted funny."), cheery, boyish, cuddly, wicked, and out to knock Ramirez off of his pedestal. These are some funny, funny men (and women, though the focus is clearly on the male competitors here).

Through interviews, we learn the motivation of these punsters; for example, Steve Brooks is a professional songwriter who compares punning to writing songs, in that he's looking for an emotional response from his audience. George McClughan just loves to make people laugh. Gary Hallock is a compulsive punster.

Through footage of the contest itself we see the punsters thinking on their feet. The subject is 'diseases'-- "Ah, the laughter is infectious." "What's an oncologist's favorite bingo number? B9." "George, you have a wonderful sense of tumor." Argh! The subject is 'internal body parts' -- "The quality of life depends upon the liver." A punster dressed as a pirate is asked "Was the water cold?" He replies, "It shriveled me timber!"

The main section of the film, encompassing the contest itself, is only about an hour long. I spent nearly that entire hour laughing. Another hour's worth of clips follows, including more interviews, some academic background on the art of punning, and more from George McClughan, who died not long after the filming of the documentary and to whom the film is dedicated.

In "Edits to the Lederer", a documentary which will be a superb extra when this film is formatted for DVD, Richard Lederer says that "a good pun is like a good steak; a rare medium well-done." I would say the same of the documentary genre. At heart, Pun-Smoke is the best of the best, a film which should win some awards and which certainly should appeal to a broad audience of not only punsters and humorists but all who love language and its possibilities. The editing is superb, with not a wasted moment or an extraneous scene. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the lighting or the sound quality; if this film is formatted for DVD I hope that the makers will seek the services of a quality professional studio to remaster the sound and adjust the poor lighting as much as possible. Much of the film has the "recorded with head in toilet" echo found on amateur video, and it seems that little attempt was made to properly light scenes filmed indoors.

Technical issues aside, I'm very glad I got to see this movie and meet these very, very witty and intelligent people. I'll be planning a trip to Austin for the Pun-Off some year. I hope that this film will be seen and enjoyed by many, many lucky viewers in the years to come.

[Maria Nutick]