The Crime of Punishment

“Remembrance, embers and membranes of beauty make artists and morons lose all self-control.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Ada

One of my preferred ways to make small talk when I was studying abroad in Russia was to ask the locals to tell me jokes, but I gave up on this strategy in short time due to the fact that almost no one was able to produce anything good. Most of the time my interlocutor would tell me they didn’t know any jokes. Or if they did tell one, it was usually of the dismal variety: “What do you call a bird that’s been out in the rain? Wet.” Or: “A kolobok [ball of dough, the Russian equivalent of the gingerbread man] hangs himself.” (Get it?!? It’s funny because balls of dough don’t have necks!!).

Telling my own yuck-yucks didn’t fare much better over there. On a long bored bus ride from Vladimir back to Moscow I pulled out the groaner “Why was the comrade late to the Politburo meeting? Because his car was Stalin!” only to receive a death glare from a swivel-headed old lady in front of us who probably had first-hand reasons to consider Stalin’s rule no joke.

Afterwards, I convinced myself that my personal futility with the Russian funnies suggested a general humor deficiency within Russian culture. Has any pair of authors written more combined pages with fewer jokes included than Dostoevsky and Tolstoy? I set out to try to document the reasons for this, and even struck on what I thought was the perfect title for my project: “Crime and Punishment: A History of Russian Humor.” Unfortunately, I soon began to suspect that rather than Russians not being particularly funny, it was actually that I simple didn’t really know enough Russian or enough about Russian culture to have the equipment to laugh properly. (Probably chickens tell hilarious jokes too, but alas, we’ve yet to learn the bawk bawk so we don’t seek them out for our guffaws). Indeed, journalist Ian Frazier contends that “Russia is the funniest country in the world.” Russian humor is slapstick, he says, “only you actually die.”

So I was left with two choices: either immerse myself more and more into Russian culture so I could have the grounding to make this-or-that pronouncement on the presence or paucity of Russian humor, or else I would have to scrap the project.

I wanted to take the path of least resistance, except for one problem: how could I waste the “punishment” pun I’d so proudly produced? I was obviously unable to, so I had to seek a third way by swapping out the conjunction for a preposition and making the piece not about the hollowness of Russian humor but instead about the deplorability of puns. Which illustrates precisely the problem with puns: once hatched, they have to be used. It’s illegal to waste a pun. No matter the cost.

We probably all know stories where this fact has lead someone into sticky situations. Yesterday I was told the following by a friend of mine who’s a teacher in a charter school. The school was hosting an after-hours trivia night after a day of teacher orientation, and beer was being served. As a joke, one of the members of my friend’s team threw out “Barack Obama’s Big Black Caucus” as a name for their trivia squad. They had a chuckle and kept brainstorming, but then a supervisor requested to join their team, and when she asked the name and the teammate jokingly repeated “Barack Obama’s Big Black Caucus,” the supervisor laughed as well. So, with that seeming sanction, the joke stuck as their team name. However, the supervisor’s supervisor, who happened to be the moderator of the trivia game, was of course not amused. The next day the whole team, sans supervisor, was called to the top-boss’s office and given a stern lecture about un-professionalism. And yet! Even this stern uber-supervisor, though he refused to read out the offensive name during the competition, nonetheless had respected the impulse to pun, announcing my friend’s team instead as “Baroque Obama.” No jobs were lost there, though there’re plenty of cases where that or worse was the result of the inability to let a pun go. (The voice behind the Aflac duck, for example, took a lot of flack and eventually ensured his own firing for making bad jokes about a Japanese tsunami).

I have been struggling with puns since at least as far back as the 7th grade. I’ve sort of had this guilty feeling that they’re debased form of humor because the ratio between how easy they are to produce and how much they seem to make others laugh seems grossly overpowered. And yet the moment when I’ve rid myself of them as a crutch in writing has never arrived. And perhaps my punning has even grown progressively worse in quantity and quality.

To speak seriously for a second: one of the most confidence-shattering events in my career as a scribbler came when I had to speak once a funeral and the only line I could think to say involved a pun and I thought, geez, if that’s all I’m good for … I don’t want to be 40 and when it matters only be able to say something proper to like a 9th-grader.

Not only in my personal life but in our broader culture we seem to be approaching a tipping point with respect to puns. They’ve now become so saturated in journalism and in advertising, and when advertisers and journos do something you know it’s lame. Perhaps what’s happened to Chipotle is representative. Chipotle used to be this somewhat hip place, what with it’s putting poetry on its burrito bags and being the only place in New England where you could get Mr. Pibb. But in its post-ecoli ad blitz it’s abandoned all pretension and started trotting out signs like “Porkadise Found,” which is something that anyone generic company could do.

If we cared enough we could pin-point some word-historical reasons for our present proliferation of puns. Just as jingles had their hey-day during the early days of the radio, the way we are now consuming media in bite-sized text-based manner online makes them particularly widespread. In the internet era it’s also easier to generate puns than ever before. We’ve got Rhymezone, Wikipedia, and a number of other sites that can easily allow one to cross-reference lists to find potential matches. To illustrate, I’ve set a timer for 5 minutes and have tried to come up with as many mashups-between 1999 New York Yankees and greats of Russian Literature as I can. A couple of ‘control f’s later we’ve got venerables like Mariana Akhmatova, Vladimir Knoblauchov, and Gavrila Derzheter walking around, alongside some more obscure faces such as Tinosov Martinez, Hideki Irabunin, Ricky Ledmitriev, Jeff Mandalstamto, and Griboyed Yarnall. I am sure a programmer could write script to fully automate this for any number of scenarios.

The internet surely makes more puns and makes them less spontaneous, which is part of their original charm. Obviously spontaneity isn’t the only essential element, and obviously not all puns are de facto easy or offensive or lazy or bad. I heard of a particularly memorable one recently: after Carl Lewis gave a disastrous performance of the national anthem at an NBA game, ESPN’s Charley Steiner remarked that the song Lewis sang was apparently written by “Francis Scott Off-Key.”

If we felt like it we could probably come up with a rank order of types of puns. I would put things like Porkadise on the bottom rung. These crassly catabolize one term in the pun pairing for the sake of the other (i.e. “paradise” helps “pork” but not the other way around.

The “Francis Scott Off-Key” seems especially successful to me because it does no disrespect to the terms involved and indeed pays tribute to F. Scott by drawing out something about him that has been latent for many many years. Steiner’s line is extra triumphant because it’s a pun that’s been hiding in plain sight to every American for over a hundred years but he was the first to find it.

And then in a different class there would be those of the Vladimir Knoblauchov variety that serve neither term in the pairing but rip both out of their contexts. Punning only for the sake of punning; pure onanism.

Speaking of Knoblauchov, all my aspirations and frustrations with respect to puns have recently come to a head while reading the Russian-American novelist’s Ada, the plot of which at times seems to exist only for the sake of generating jokes. Open to any random page of Ada and you’ll find a line like this: “Remembrance, like Rembrandt, is dark but festive.” I imagine him in his hotel room writing down all the jokes he can and then finding out how to craft a plot to deliver them together. Just look at the twists and turns he performs with his title character Ada, who’s based off of a character Ada from Dickens and Byron. In Russian, her name means both “oh, yes” as well as “from hell,” (same root as “Hades”) and we’re told in English it’s pronounced by a Russian like “ardor.” From there we go through “arbor,” “ardent,” “adoration,” “agony,” “Adam,” “added Ada,” “cicada,” “avidly (Ada, those adverbs qualified many actions of yours!),” “Dadaist” (“Those manifestoes, those dodoes, die with the dadas”), and a host of other language games with her name. It’s delightful — and utterly meaningless. Meaningless because just because there is some accidental connection between the sound of two words doesn’t mean there’s anything essentially connected between them. It’s only if you allow yourself to “step over” (prestupleniye in Russia, the same word for “crime,” to come full circle) into the world of wordplay that such linguistic acrobatics are to be appreciated. The joke is primary, whatever meaning Nab needs to be attached to the joke comes later. The real-life meaning doesn’t even need to be correct, but instead needs merely to maintain a minimum veneer of reality from which the puns can launch. His stories always take place on two planes according to two different sets of rules. Nabokov’s characters always seem to be looking over their shoulders, vaguely aware of the other world that’s haunting and taunting and tormenting and enjoying and messing and blessing their measly lives. There’s something theological about puns I don’t feel like thinking about right now.

All this is to say: be careful, my friends, be careful with those jokes. Have fun with your daft puns, but remember to respect the material.