Aaron Schwartzbaum’s jokes, heavy on wordplay and delivered with a wink, inspire much groaning among his friends and family. “I’ve been pissing off all my friends for years,” he says.
When he saw on Facebook that DC Improv was hosting a pun competition back in March, he signed up immediately. He enjoyed the first experience so much that he returned for the second iteration several months later, where he took second place with a prepared speech. And last night, he returned again — and won, not once but twice, on the strength of puns like these, centered around Europe:
“I don’t want to kiss and tell here, but I did see her Netherlands.”
“Her roof was leaking water and I actually used her pet rodents to plug it — yeah, I made a hamster dam.”
“I hope I was able to Sweden your evening.”
Schwartzbaum sparred with a handful of other pun wizards during two rounds of competition at last night’s DC Improv event, part of a recurring series that organizers hope will become a bi-monthly tradition.
The “Beltway Pundits” event, which includes a round called the “Punger Games,” focuses squarely on a brand of humor that some comedy snobs dismiss as lazy or lowbrow. But for the event’s founder Laura Powell, whose business card describes her as “pundit-in-chief,” puns represent a performance style that holds untapped potential.
“It’s kind of like this underground form of humor,” Powell says. “It’s often called the lowest form of humor, but I find that offensive.”
Powell, who’s competed at the international level in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, created the event after taking a few comedy classes at DC Improv and realizing that she could put her longstanding love of puns to productive use at the venue. She’s been pleased with the turnout so far: The 60-seat DC Improv lounge area has sold out for all three performances, and the later events have brought a mixture of returning competitors and fresh faces.
The two-part event begins with a series of prepared speeches of two minutes or less from registered competitors. Each speech has a theme — last night’s included the election, cars, Donald Trump, short people, math and dating. Some speeches tell a coherent story with puns scattered throughout; others place the jokes front and center.
Powell awarded a score from 1 to 10, as did her fellow judge Brian Agler, the champion of the first speech round back in March. Both were looking for dazzling wordplay, and they also took the performers’ timing and confidence into account, according to Powell. “We try not to be too harsh because we realize people aren’t professional performers,” Powell says.
After a short break, participants are joined by competitors from the audience for a bracket challenge. Two or three contestants at a time stand on stage and take turns delivering puns from a given topic. If you flail, you fail. The person left standing moves on to the next level of the bracket until only one remains.
Last night, that one was Schwartzbaum, already glowing from his first-round win. He told DCist before the second round that he thinks improvising puns on the spot is harder than delivering them in a pre-written statement.
“Normally it involves a bunch of giggling to myself in the shower thinking, ‘That’s a good pun,’” Schwartzbaum says. “Then I’ll keep it in my head and see if a theme emerges.”
Not twenty minutes later, he eked out a win on the strength of puns like “Go puck yourself!” Competition was fierce, though. Several competitors who appeared to struggle with nerves in the prepared round came alive in the second half, while others appeared more comfortable with paper in hand.
The enthusiasm for the event within the room wasn’t hard to miss. Competitors laughed, joked and hugged each other throughout the night. High-fives were exchanged, friendships forged. One particularly eager competitor told the event’s sound manager Chris White to keep the tradition going.
“This is a great event,” he told White. “Please keep doing more of these. It’s so much fun.”