Get Thee to a Punnery
A paronomasia (a.k.a. pun) is a play on words that produces two different meanings for humorous effect. Samuel Johnson derided puns as the “lowest form of humor,” while Alfred Hitchcock extolled them as the “highest form of literature.” William Shakespeare—a jokester whose works include more than 400 puns about genitalia alone—would probably wax paronomastic about how both men’s last names are suggestive of penises. One thing’s certain about that Willy: He had balls.
“Alms for the poor!” cries a beggar in Monty Python’s 2005 Broadway smash Spamalot, as severed arms make charity nosedives from the rafters. With puns like these, who needs handouts? But Monty Python turned anti-pun when it came to the age-old “Walk this way” joke. In the archetypal example, a heavyset woman at a pharmacy inquires for talcum powder, a treatment for chafing. “Walk this way,” says the bowlegged clerk. Playing on the homonym way, meaning direction as well as manner, she quips, “If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need talcum powder”—a confidential reveal that made vaudeville audiences guffaw. Hackneyed by TV sitcoms (including I Love Lucy and M.A.S.H.) and at least five Mel Brooks films, the joke’s staleness peeved Monty Python. Rather than shelve it, the Pythons chose to degrade it further. A recurring bit on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–1974) is to lay the setup, then interrupt the punch line to admonish the offender. Only once is the joke resolved, when Eric Idle, asking for aftershave, enjoins, “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need aftershave.” He is immediately arrested. Clichéd japing is a punishable offense in the Flying Circus.
In Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974), Igor (Marty Feldman) greets Victor Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) at the door and invites him to “walk this way.” Momentarily frozen, homophonically bewildered, Dr. Frankenstein hobbles in, imitating Igor’s hunchbacked style. As Barbara Stanwyck says in Remember the Night (1940), “That gag’s so old it’s got whiskers.”
“At’s-a some joke, eh, boss?” Chico Marx hams in Duck Soup. Although the consensus is that the Marx Brothers, vaudevillians–cum–movie stars, wrote this dusty yuk—and the desire to see Harpo aping Groucho’s signature gait (hunched over, one arm behind his back) after being waved in with the classic line is admittedly strong—there’s no proof they ever performed it. Instead, like many comedy standards, this joke was an orphan dropped at vaudeville’s doorstep and raised by a thousand comedians, and the Marxes would certainly have encountered it on the vaudeville circuit. It’s easy enough to imagine Chico and Groucho performing this cheesy offshoot: A man applies for a job at a French cheese factory. The French-accented manager bids him, “Werk zees way.” He replies, “But I haven’t even interviewed yet!” As Groucho laments in Animal Crackers, “Well, all the jokes can’t be good.”
Yiddish naturally gives rise to punning. A fusion of Hebrew, German and other Indo-European strands, the language of Ashkenazi Jews is a homophonic gold mine. For example, the Hebrew word for “oil,” shemen, is the Yiddish word for “ashamed.” The Yiddish word for “speedily,” baagole, is just a schmear of cream cheese away from being a New York breakfast. Yiddish pervaded the Marx Brothers’ Yorkville, NYC, neighborhood in the early 20th century, and though they didn’t speak the language, the Marxes soaked up its expressions as pickled herring (an Ashkenazi favorite) does vinegar. The young Groucho employed Yiddish catchphrases as part of an experimental stage persona.
The Marx Brothers are funniest when making schmucks of other people—a characteristically Jewish trope of pitting wit against fool. (Fantasies of the little guy putting one over on the big guy probably spring from a long history of oppression.) But Jewish characters in Elizabethan theater weren’t jokesters. Representing the anti-Semitic stereotypes of the time, they appear as either penny-pinching moneylenders (Shylock, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) or villains (Barabas, from Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, who meets his fate in a vat of boiling oil). Shakespeare’s greatest punsters, Puck and Falstaff, were goyim.
The closest ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s ever comes to William Shakespeare’s 400 genitalia puns is Schweddy Balls, an homage to the pun-based 1998 Saturday Night Live sketch in which Pete Schweddy (Alec Baldwin) markets his round holiday confections with testicular innuendo. In Shakespeare’s day, deliberate mispronunciation of con, count, quaint and the scandalous country matters (Hamlet’s slang for sex) to sound like cunt elicited the same juvenile giggles that today erupt at the word balls. Shakespeare, like SNL, sometimes used dirty humor to reach a broad fan base.
The family-friendly reputation of Ben & Jerry’s dies at Karamel Sutra and Clusterfluff, two flavors better suited for a curtained back room than the frozen-food aisle. This fate was nearly realized in 2011 when a hard-core porn company, dubbing itself Ben & Cherry’s and poaching the copyrighted logo, released film titles punning on Ben & Jerry’s varieties—Boston Cream Thigh, Peanut Butter D-Cup, Chocolate Fudge Babes, etc. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sued in 2012, and the pornographers ceased and desisted. But considering the ice cream company made the first move in the country-matters department, you could say they were asking for a pornographic lamspooning.
New York coverage of Linsanity, the dazzling emergence of Knicks basketball rookie Jeremy Lin in 2012, delivered some groaner headlines: “Linning Streak,” “May the Best Man Lin,” “Lincredible!” and, because all parties must end, “Lin Some, Lose Some.” Puns, in their catchy frivolity, are a newsie’s dream. The confectionary virtuosi behind Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, however, have made wordplay a promotional art form, christening their flavors with pop culture puns. Legendary monikers include Cherry Garcia, Imagine Whirled Peace, Bohemian Raspberry, and Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream. In 2006 the Vermont-based ice cream makers honored Britain’s beloved comedy troupe with Vermonty Python, a cookie-crumb-swirled coffee-liqueur ice cream. In the container’s illustration, Ben & Jerry’s mascot cows are launched into the air from a golden chalice, recalling a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) in which a castle is besieged by catapulted cows.
The Pythons are no strangers to confectionary gags. In a sketch from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), a vendor walks the theater aisles advertising a dead albatross, as one would hot dogs or ice cream at a ball game. “What flavor is it?” someone shouts. “Seagull-cicle!”
In Shakespeare’s time, brothels had footholds (and handholds) in London’s theater district, trading in bodily commodities the way countrymen deal in honey, carrots and apple tarts—all, incidentally, items the Bard exploited for genital innuendo. Brothels and theaters shared clientele, and Shakespeare’s whoremongering audience went into spasms over words like prick, head, lips, bottom and even the ejaculation “O Romeo, Romeo!” Hamlet’s infamous pun—“Do you think I meant country matters?”—amid sexual banter with his lover Ophelia gives rise (ahem) to yet another, more widespread (tee-hee) pun: Ophelia responds, “I think nothing, my lord.” No thing, of course, was Elizabethan slang for “vagina.”
Shakespeare’s wit is rooted in the work of third-century B.C. playwriting punster Titus Maccius Plautus. (The Comedy of Errors is based on Plautus’s mistaken-identity romp Menaechmi.) Plautus’s favorite trick was endowing characters with punny names to emphasize particular traits. The name Curculio—Latin for “weevil”—produces this exchange:
“Where shall I find Curculio?”
“In the wheat, most likely—I bet you will find five hundred curculios, for that matter.”
Shakespeare mimics Plautus with his recurring brothel madam, Mistress Quickly (read: quick lay). A four-play (oh yeah) Shakespeare alumna, she is the symbol of his country matters.
Mark Twain’s 19th-century time traveler, Hank Morgan (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), is greeted in sixth-century Camelot by a puny weakling offering service as a page. Hank scoffs, “You ain’t more than a paragraph,” but the zinger sails over the boy’s head. Though puns have been in vogue in every age, they don’t often fare well when taken out of their own time and place. Wordplay relies on idiomatic fluency. Thus contestants at Punderdome 3000—the monthly Brooklyn pun competition started by comedian Jo Firestone in 2011—would furrow their brow at most ancient Latin jests from Plautus, the renowned Roman punster. But one translatable quip that makes the forward jump is Plautus’s denouncement of the debauched Greek metropolis Epidamnum, in his play Menaechmi: “And therefore is this place call’d Epidamnum—because there’s no one comes here, but says damn ’em.”
Competing at Punderdome, Plautus would, needless to say, struggle with the topical categories—Occupy Wall Street, 1990s sitcoms, etc. But he would get a kick out of the clap-o-meter, since applause actually started in ancient Rome. “If you like our puns,” the time-traveling comedian might butter the Brooklyn audience, “then a-Plautus.”