Friday, April 22, 2011

John Pollack's "The Pun Also Rises"

John Pollack, who won the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, was a Presidential Speechwriter for Bill Clinton. Earlier, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Spain, as a field assistant in Antarctica, and as a strolling violinist on Mackinac Island.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics, and reported the following:
From Page 99-100 of The Pun Also Rises:
Soon enough, English-speaking Jewish comedians were playing to mainstream audiences and punning to great effect. After all, Americans of diverse backgrounds had long embraced puns and were hungry for fresh talent. In the first half of the twentieth century, many Jewish comedians—Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, Gracie Allen and George Burns among them—rose to prominence. It wasn’t that Jewish comedians were the only punsters: Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello were masters of the art as well. From Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, puns were stock in trade.

Sometime around mid-century, though, the public’s changing comedic tastes began to maroon the humble pun. Although the precise tipping point is hard to pinpoint, puns began to draw more and more groans. Postwar audiences didn’t reject the pun entirely, but began responding better to humor that was a little more raw and a little less obviously constructed.

In an atomic age of duck-and-cover, the McCarthy hearings, and a nagging ennui about suburban conformism, a new and more irreverent stream of consciousness began to gather force. Much as jazz audiences of the time embraced the more dissonant music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, edgier comedic audiences were applauding iconoclastic Jewish comics such as Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce who, starting in the 1950s, began challenging longstanding humorous forms and taboos.

While both of them appreciated wordplay and Bruce pushed public language to new frontiers of impropriety, they drove American comedy in a whole new direction, away from the standard joke-and-punch-line routines. Other great comics quickly followed suit, and as the 1960s gathered momentum, traditional comedy began to seem passé, especially if audiences considered the topic to be tame. As such, the popularity of puns took a dive.
By this point in The Pun Also Rises, readers have explored the myriad forms that puns can take, examined how the brain extracts meaning from ambiguous sound, followed the rise of puns from ancient times, and are tracing the pun’s decline in western culture. Later in the book readers will learn the catalyst role that punning played in the invention of the world’s first alphabet, why puns still matter in today’s political and social discourse, and how they continue to facilitate human creativity and progress.
Learn more about the book and author at the official The Pun Also Rises website.

--Marshal Zeringue