If you think puns are the lowest form of humor, Nikolai Vanyo would like to have a few words with you.
Since words are his speciality, you’ll have to Dolly Parton him for his strong views.
“The potential for cleverness in puns is through the roof more than most forms of humor because you’re taking the structure of the language and picking it apart and making something out of it as opposed to just saying words in a sentence,” he says.
Apparently, many New Yorkers agree with Vanyo. Every month, the Brooklyn performance space Littlefield is standing-room-only for the long-running Punderdome tournament, where Vanyo, the city’s best punners, and brave newcomers go face to face until only one winner is left standing.
In the pun competition world, Vanyo is one of the elite gladiators. He is number three on the all-time Punderdome leaderboard after 140 editions of the show, with 21 appearances in the final one-on-one Winner’s Circle round. The 34-year-old Nolita resident even took first prize at the annual Austin-based O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship in 2021, where the rules are much stricter. Vanyo is also a regular at the Vocabaret wordplay variety show at Caveat on the Lower East Side.
Punderdome itself is more than a competition–it’s like a zany high pressure game show populated by the kind of quick-witted intellects who you should think twice if they challenge you to a game of Scrabble. It is arguably the funniest and cleverest comedy show in New York.
The main rounds feature groups of six contestants who have to write as many great puns on their whiteboards as possible in two minutes on a topic they are told right there and then. As if that is not difficult enough, a Punderdome veteran creates a major distraction by singing a not-exactly-in-tune ode to the tournament while the clock ticks down. Then each contestant has another two minutes to deliver their best material in a loose story-like format from their notes to the audience.
At the August 9th, 2023 show, Nikolai came out swinging with “television” as the subject:
“I generally don’t like people who copy Jennifer Aniston’s haircut from the show ‘Friends.’ Is that Rachel profiling?” he says with perfect timing. The Littlefield crowd breaks into a roar. He follows up with: “My friend inherited the empire of the telephone from Alexander Graham Bell, all the way down to him. But now he makes wallpapers and calls it ‘The Fresh Prints of Bell Heir.’”
Nikolai confessed to me that he created the Aniston joke after he had to put his pen down: “I thought, ‘Okay, I have to open with that, otherwise I’ll forget it.’”
He says he mentally “banks” three or four puns like that often. His strategy is to open with his second best pun (“it perks people up and they think ‘Oh, this guy knows what he’s doing, I’m going to listen’”) and close with the best “because you get a great reception and people are clapping when you leave,” a skill that requires split-second judgment.
As with all participants, Vanyo uses a stage name–“Daft Pun.” He watches the all-time leaderboard champ, Lingo Starr, open his parenting-themed set: “Can’t... won’t... Shouldn’t! Hasn’t! Wouldn’t! The contractions are getting closer together.”
That night’s winner turns out to be Hot Cross Puns. The regulars are a close-knit group, so much so that two of them–Insta-grammar and Vowel Movement–are engaged.
Equally important as pun quality is how the winners are chosen in each round by the “the Human Clap-O-Meter,” manned by a different attendee plucked early from each audience. They sit on-stage, blindfolded, and hold a large wooden meter with a spinning arrow hand, ranking the applause each contestant receives from 1 to 10.
Punderdome ringmaster Fred Firestone selects the Human Clap-O-Meter with one requirement: they can’t upstage the show by being funny. Their most important skill is discerning the right numbers for applause levels, because telling the difference between the volume of an 8 and a 10 could make or break who wins or loses.
Aspiring pun heavyweights are given two opportunities each night: the opening Pun Battle Royale of six newbies, where the two winners are given the chance to participate in that night’s main event; and “Can You Beat A ‘Dome Champ,” where a rookie is given 24 hours to come up with their best puns on a subject and then armed with their notes, go head-to-head with last month’s champion, who learns the topic just before the round starts.
Firestone, whose stage persona feels like a campy showbiz grandad, spent 30 years as a business development seminar speaker, which influenced Punderdome’s format: “I always look for vehicles to engage my audience in interaction.” He opens each show by telling corny joke set-ups and tossing PayDay candy bars to whoever yells the punchlines out first. The Clap-O-Meter was inspired by the early 60s TV contest “Queen For A Day,” which featured an applause meter.
Firestone co-founded Punderdome in 2011 when his daughter, comedienne Jo Firestone, rented a tiny Park Slope basement space called Southpaw to showcase her talents. With one week until opening night and stuck on what to do, a friend told her about the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship. The first show, with an audience of 35 people, attracted a writer from The New Yorker “whose boyfriend liked puns.” The resulting article assured them sold-out audiences and they haven’t looked back since.
Flying back and forth from his St. Louis home for every show, Firestone has not missed hosting once, including the 16 pandemic-era editions executed over Zoom. The format allowed challengers from Australia, Malaysia, and Britain into the mix.
Although Punderdome has spawned one brand extension–a home card game published by Clarkson Potter–Vanyo thinks a much bigger audience is already fans of the art form. They just don’t want to admit it: “People appreciate puns. They just don’t want to say they do. People want to save face and say, ‘Excuse the pun, sorry about that.’ It’s probably the dad joke thing. You don’t want to admit that your dad is cool and funny.”
The next Punderdome is October 25, 2023 at Littlefield. For more information about Punderdome, go to https://www.facebook.com/punderdome.
“I generally don’t like people who copy Jennifer Aniston’s haircut from the show ‘Friends.’ Is that Rachel profiling?” Nikolai Vanyo, Punderdome champion