In my last article on The Art of Stand-Up we discussed the basic joke structure set-up –> punchline –> tagline. In this article we are going to discuss not the structure of a joke, but instead a variation on the humor language game (pardon the subtle but not unintentional reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein) which we call a pun.
It should be noted that throughout this article I am referring only to those puns intended as humor, and not the kind of puns which so often show up in Shakespeare and elsewhere as a literary device.
Puns and jokes are often mistaken for one another, and while it is certainly possible if not easy to make both of these attempts at humor without a theoretical understand of which one is which and what they both mean, as a stand-up comic it is much more useful to have a working knowledge of the structure of many different kinds of attempts at humor in order to better organize your thoughts.
Let’s begin with a simple, workable definition of a joke. For the purposes of this artice, a joke is a communicated attempt at humor in order to provoke laughter. This definition is rather broad and will serve us well at the moment. There are a plethora of situations that could be included under such a large definition, and we will be working through many of them in future articles. A pun is just one of many attempts at humor that falls under the category of “joke”. So what is it?
A pun is differentiated from other attempts at humor by its characteristic deliberate play on words. A pun either exploits a word’s many different meanings, or it exploits two words that sound the same but are spelled different and mean different things.
When a pun exploits a word’s many different meanings it is known as a homographic pun. For example, “I wondered why the baseball was getting bigger, and then it hit me.” This pun relies on the dual usage of the word “hit” to mean both “to strike” and “to occur” (when used as part of the idiom “it hit me”).
A pun that exploits two different words which sound the same but are spelled different and have different meanings is a homophonic pun. A popular example of a homophonic pun that seems to be floating around the web is George Carlin’s “Atheism is a non-prohet institute.” This pun relies on the fact that when spoke aloud, the words “profit” and “prophet” sound the same, and yet mean significantly different things when placed in this sentence. In other words, a homophonic pun is to treat homonyms as synonyms (Walter Redfern, Puns).
Dr. Jay Sutay, a local Hartford stand-up comedian who is also a pediatrician, points out in his act that pediatricians are often referred to as “doctors with little patients,” which is a terrific example of a homophonic pun making use of the different meanings of “patients” and “patience”.
Thus a pun is the deliberate, intentional conflation of two different sets of ideas simultaneously.
Now, the question remains, what is the precise relation between jokes and puns, and why even bother discussing it? I am going to make the claim that the relationship of a joke to a pun is, in mathematical-logical language, one of containment. The category pun is contained within the category joke. All puns are jokes, but not all jokes are puns. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Easy enough.
Due to the fact that most puns are made off the cuff in the midst of conversation and are typically groaners, we tend to think of puns as strictly one-liners, but in fact many jokes rely on puns for the punchline, which means that many puns are harder to pick out due to the fact that they appear in the traditional set-up –> punchline structure. For example, “Did you hear about the guy who had his whole left side cut off? He’s all right now.” The pun here, relying on the homophonic relation between “all right” and “alright”, takes place in the punchline of the joke.
It must be noted and understood that not all instances of word play are puns. Consider our golfer joke from the article on basic joke structure:
One golfer says to another, “I got a set of golf clubs for my wife!” The other golfer responds, “Great trade!”
It is tempting to think that because the word “for” is being used in two different ways that this joke relies on a pun, and in fact this is a fascinating case. If this conversation actually took place between two golfers, then it would not be a pun, because the first golfer did not deliberately or intentionally conflate the meanings of “for”, but rather the second golfer simply noticed that this had accidentally been the case. However, if that story is told as a joke, the way I’ve just done it, then in fact it is a pun, because I intended to conflate those meanings in the telling of the joke. Whew!
Wikipedia has a great article all about puns, touching on many of the same issues as in this article.
Locals can learn more about writing jokes and applying them to stand-up comedy by taking comedy class with Joker’s Wild.
If you liked this article, leave some comments below because I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you’ve got questions or topics regarding stand-up comedy and/or joke structures that you’d like me to address, shoot me an email at [email protected]