Joe Berkowitz



274pp/$15.99/June 2017

Away with Words

Milan Bozic

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Away with Words joins a long list of books that look at puns. While most of these books are compilations of puns, such as Richard Lederer's various books, or the occasional history of the form, author Joe Berkowitz explores the subculture of competitive punning, focusing on a group of New York punsters who, over the course of the year he followed them, set their targets on the "World Series" of competitive punning, the O. Henry Pun-Off in Austin, Texas. Berkowitz not only looked at the group and their activities (and, to a lesser extent, their personalities), but he also explored tangents to figure out the appeal of punning and what allows some people to pun more successfully.

Berkowitz attended his first competitive punning event at the behest of his friend, Tim Donnelly, who was a writer for the New York Post at the time. Donnelly was also a regular at Punderdome, a monthly event in Brooklyn, and he had helped set up a competition between the Punderdome regulars and the editorial staff of the Post, a newspaper notorious for its punning headlines and articles. Berkowitz clearly attended the event as an outsider, but he made a connection with the people who make the puns and the concept of Away with Words was born, although the book's genesis is never really discussed within the confines of its covers.

Although his main interest is the world of competitive punning, in order to get an understanding of what goes into puns and what makes people punsters, Berkowitz attends a humor conference in Texas, attends a taping of @midnight, and interviews the writers of Bob's Burgers. While these chapters are almost tangential to the story Berkowitz is telling of the Punderdome group's quest for greatness in Austin, these sections of the book provide the necessary background to raise the study above a memoir of a small group of Brooklynites.

Unlike John Pollack in The Pun Also Rises, a history of the pun, or Richard Lederer in Get Thee to a Punnery, Berkowitz seems to hold puns in some level of disdain, even if he has affection for individual punsters. The book contains multiple apologies for puns and he keeps returning to the idea that punning may be a sign of mental illness of immaturity. Even as Berkowitz describes himself taking the stage at New York's Punderdome or applying to participate in Austin's O. Henry Pun Off, he feels like an outsider...Margaret Mead observing the Samoans or Jane Goodall trying to understand the chimpanzees, although with more detachment and derision.

The book culminates in a blow by blow description of the O. Henry Pun-Off, which saw several of the New Yorkers in attendance and many of them compete. One of the things Berkowitz makes clear is that there are no set rules for pun competition. The rules governing Punderdome in New York are different from those at the Bay Area Pun-Off or Milwaukee's Pundamonium or the O. Henry. because of this, it is clear that the Punderdomes who are competing in Austin must alter their strategies. What would be considered a pun in Brooklyn would get them thrown out in Austin. Furthermore, the format of the competition differs and they had to prepare for the difference.

Despite Berkowitz's attitude towards puns, which continues throughout the book even as he participates in Punderdome, the O. Henry, and Punderdome again, his description of the people who participate is affectionate and they come across as real people Berkowitz likes, although he never fully seems to understand their hobby or the appeal it has. He maintains a distance from his topic, allowing him to remain a

Because puns really need to be heard for their cadence, here is video of the Semi-final round Berkowitz describes on pages 257 between Punderdomer Jerzy Gwiazdowski and Janani Krishna-Jha.

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