“I’m not constantly making puns. I want to make that clear.”
Pun champion Lingo Starr made that point very clear during a recent conversation over coffee at Joe’s in the Village.
“I'm not one of those people and I think those people are bad and should be cannonballed into the sun,” he went on.
If you’re poring over his words looking for the hidden pun, you won’t find it. Punderdome champion Lingo Starr – whose real name is Jerzy Gwiazdowski – insists puns are the lowest form of comedy.
“Puns are a net negative for society,” he said. “The percentage of them that are good and funny is statistically insignificant.”
And yet, Starr keeps on punning. He is part of a group of “compuntitors” that has elevated the form at the Punderdome, a Brooklyn-based pun competition and comedy improv show. There, to use the parlance of the game: Gwiazdowski is No. 1 on the All-Time ‘Dome Leader Board, with 40 top finishes in Punderdome’s 11-year history. He’ll be competing Tuesday, Oct. 25 in the Halloween Punderdome at Littlefield in Brooklyn – along with previous pun champs Lexi Kahn, Daft Pun, Son of a Pun, and others.
When he’s not competing in word play, Gwiazdowski is on the faculty at the New School. He’s also a writer and a playwright, and he regularly co-hosts Vocabaret, “a variety show for word lovers.” He started a podcast on punning, “Punk Asses: a Pun Cast,” with his brother Jordan, also a pun champion. That’s on hiatus. And he’s an actor whose credits include "Law & Order: SVU."
Gwiazdowski won’t brag about his punning skills – in fact, he refuses to use the word “talent” and instead prefers “compulsion.” But Fred Firestone, who co-founded Brooklyn’s Punderdome, will.
“He's amazing,” said Firestone, of Gwiazdowski. “He's got a wonderful delivery and this amazing brain that allows him to look at a topic, think through the components of the topic, and then develop puns in a standup routine within two minutes.”
A great punner, explained Firestone, doesn’t just use words in a silly way. Punderdomes are structured so that participants in the main event are given about two minutes to improvise a standup routine on a given topic; typically these bits culminate in a pun. The great punners can wow audiences with the connections they make between seemingly unrelated topics and words.
Gwiazdowski made his first pun at age 2, when his dad was trying to explain a foul ball in baseball.
“I said, I thought it was a dance for chickens,” recalls Gwiazdowski. “He said he was very proud of me in that moment, which said something about my dad.”
Since then, Gwiazdowski has learned that making unforced puns can drive people bananas, which is why he started entering pun competitions.
“I realized I should probably find a creative outlet so that I'm not doing it in polite company and on dates and at work all the time,” he said.
In 2012, after what he describes as “a good tax refund,” he entered his first pun competition: The O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas. He won. Shortly after that, he found Punderdome by googling “NYC pun competition.” Now he’s the most winning player in Punderdome’s 11-year history.
The Punderdome was started by Firestone and his daughter, Brooklyn comedian Jo Firestone, who regularly hosts comedy shows in New York City. Back in 2011, days before she was due to host her first pun competition, she called her dad, a consultant and motivational speaker in St. Louis, Missouri, to get his advice.
They brainstormed ideas, he flew out to help, and about 30 people came.
“I round to the nearest 30,” said Firestone.
Since the show’s debut, Fred Firestone has hosted 117 live shows in New York City, and 16 virtual ones during the peak of the pandemic. He flies into New York regularly with his wife Marilyn, who runs the PowerPoint for Punderdome. Jo has since moved on to other projects but they all hang out the day before the show.
Fred Firestone said he's thrilled the events are back in person, even if audience numbers haven’t fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Doing the competitions on Zoom wasn’t ideal, he said, because they rely heavily on audience participation.
“Our 12th man on the field wasn't there,” said Firestone.
Winners are judged by applause, which is calibrated by the “Human Clap-O-Meter,” a blindfolded volunteer picked from the crowd.
The only upside of going virtual, he said, was that he was able to open the event to international champions from Malaysia, the UK, and Australia, along with folks from across the U.S.
He admits the vetting process for global pun talent was a little lax. “Anybody from Malaysia that says they won a contest, rock-and-roll heaven, my man, you're in.”
That inclusivity is emblematic of how Firestone approaches the show: He creates routines so the audience can play along. When the night begins, the crowd is encouraged to scream out puns. (They yell “HiJack” when asked how to greet a buddy named Jack on an airplane.) Firestone performs as a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator, and tosses PayDay candy bars to the crowd.
Firestone has a strong aversion to comedy that punches down. He particularly hates when comedians pick on audience members.
“That don't happen here,” he said. “We wouldn't put up with that bullshit for a minute.”
Gwiazdowski also appreciates the pun community, and says that’s the best part of competing. He doesn’t always win, and says he gets “knocked out plenty” in the first round.
“Some of my best friends and colleagues and collaborators are folks that I've met doing Punderdome,” he said.
It’s also nice, he admits, to be appreciated: “It's such a gratifying feeling to get cheers and applause rather than getting fired or broken up with when you make a pun.”
Halloween Punderdome returns to Littlefield on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m.