My hand has started shaking as I take the microphone. I give up on keeping it steady and move on to trying to speak clearly. I’d ask myself “How did I end up here?” but I already know the answer: that irresistible urge to deliver commentary that amuses me when I might be better served by keeping my mouth shut.
But let me back up a bit. You ever go someplace with a bunch of people you don’t know and end up doing something that takes you out of your comfort zone? I got that experience this year at WorldCon. WorldCon is a big, fan-run science fiction convention that changes cities every year. It has a ton of authors attending, and this year they chose author Spider Robinson to be the guest of honor. If you’re not familiar, Spider is best known for a series of stories set in a bar named Callahan’s where time travelers and all manner of things will wander in, perhaps drawn by the tall tales and awful puns that are in abundance there. In keeping with this, the con set up an area to represent the bar (insofar as one can in a convention center) where attendees could gather. I’d read the Callahan’s stories, loved the terrible puns, Spider was going to be signing, there were a bunch of other authors I wanted to meet, and it was being held 15 minutes from my house, so I was definitely going.
As I was figuring out my schedule (authors that will be signing and when, panels on topics I’m interested in, panels I’m not interested in until I see who is on them) I saw an event and I realized I’m not going to make it to the simultaneously scheduled and seductively titled:
Wild Cards with George R.R. Martin
Evolving Military SF with Joe Haldeman
A chat with Greg Benford
Wound Patterns and Survivability in Preindustrial Warfare
…because they’re having Punday at Callahan’s, and I kinda can’t not go. I’ve read the books. I’m a smartass, and it’d be great for my geek cred. The point value of being in a pun contest at a science fiction convention? That’s a double nerd score! After decades of competing at an amateur (although most would say “juvenile”) level I’m ready to turn pro!
I know going into this I’m not going to win—cons tend to draw weapons-grade smartasses with esoteric knowledge and way more time to read than I’ve ever had—but I’ll definitely come away from it having learned something, even if I’m not quite sure what that is yet, so I get to Callahan’s fifteen minutes early to start scoping out the competition and figure out what I’m in for.
Looking around the place I notice that a lot of people’s convention badges have ribbons attached which say all kinds of things. “Rebel Scum.” “I am not a number! I am a free man!” “Chicago in 2022”. I realize the ribbons are the equivalent of bumper stickers for one’s badge. The convention veterans in the room can be easily identified because they look like they’re suiting up for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I, on the other hand, have nothing.
Before I can ask the woman signing me up for the competition about where one gets ribbons, I overhear another lady asking about the rules. She had won prior competitions and had worked on systems for the International Space Station. Punning isn’t rocket science but it gets taken to a whole ‘nother level when you’re competing with an actual rocket scientist. This pretty much confirmed from the get go that I wasn’t going to be the smartest person or ass in the room.
What they tell me is that the rules for this sort of thing vary, but in this case, a topic will be given and the participants have 30 seconds to start delivery of the pun. If somebody already used that pun, reusing it disqualifies you. Everybody will line up and the mic gets passed down the line. If you’re at the start of the line the field is wide open, but you’ve got to think fast. If you’re at the end, you’ve got time to work your material, but somebody ahead might snipe it out from under you. As topics change, the mic starts at the other end of the line and the last participant becomes the first so the abuse averages out. Pro tip: sit in the middle.
As a bonus, should any pun be awful enough, the author will get awarded a Spider Robinson trading card by a judge dressed as the character Callahan. A number of these will get handed out, and for suitably terrible puns, but honestly I was too preoccupied to remember all but one of them. Later, I would recall that it was:
Contestant: “Hey Callahan – get me a beer and a hot dog!”
Contestant: “It’s the 200th anniversary of Frank-n-stein.”
So, to the best of my recollection, this is how it goes.
The handlers have us take seats in a semicircle of chairs in front of the audience. There’s more contestants than chairs, so it’s standing room only for me and a few others who create a back row.
Spider Robinson takes the stage and is kind enough to kick things off by saying, “Well, I always wondered what Callahan’s would look like. Nobody wake me up.” He then has to be off to other commitments. No matter, we are officially endorsed, and I start what will be simultaneously the longest and shortest half hour of my life as I try to come up with something clever while making sure nobody else came up with it too.
Round one is a warm up: Science Fiction. I ignore the shaking of my hand, steady my voice and introduce myself with:
“I wanted to come up with a Star Trek pun, but I guess I’m not Enterprising enough.”
Round two: more Science Fiction.
“I know they’re awarding the Hugos tomorrow night, but I think the rules for this competition are a little bit Nebulas.”
Round three: Astrophysics.
“I wanted to build a shell around a star, but my dad told me, you’re a Free Man, but you’re gonna die son.” This went over well with the crowd, who, as expected, knows who Freeman Dyson was.
Round four: Vampires, but with a twist! A time limit is introduced. Contestants will have a mere ten seconds to complete delivery of the pun.
“You know why vampires don’t play poker? They can’t handle the stakes.”
This goes over well and I take a look around. The time limit has cleared out a few participants and I breathe a small sigh of relief as I realize at the very least I’ve avoided being the first to go. (Reasonable goals, people! Reasonable goals!) I’m able to claim a vacated chair in time for…
Round five: Obscure Mythological Creatures.
Which immediately starts a debate over what “obscure” means. It’s quickly determined that if nobody in attendance knows what the creature is, then it’s definitely too obscure, and gameplay proceeds.
“I don’t think my dry sense of humor will serve me well as I’m feeling a bit de-hydra-ated”, which gets me through to…
Round six: Time Travel.
“You know why time travelers don’t give dissertations? They want to avoid a pair-o-docs.”
Clearly not my best work, but it gets me through. Once the topic changes on the next pass I should be in better shape.
There’s a pause as more rules are introduced. Deliver two puns in 15 seconds without going over time. Ugh. Then I realize to my horror that:
- The subject that I barely squeaked through on has not changed.
- This is the second pass, so a lot of good puns have been used.
- I have to double my non-existent output.
- And worst of all, the mic has shifted to start at my end, where the one guy in front of me has just fumbled his delivery, going over time.
So at this point the only thing I can do is to describe the state of my material and my standing in the competition.
Round seven: more Time Travel.
In retrospect, I should have said something to the effect of “I’ve enjoyed abusing the English language with all of you”, but I was so relieved at that point to be able to step out that it didn’t cross my mind. As the mic went down the line, another five or so contestants went out, so I didn’t feel too bad about exiting there.
Now this was when it really got fun because one, I got to watch the remaining contestants, who were really good, and two, I got to wallow in the schadenfreude of watching them sweat and be so glad I’m wasn’t having to deal with double timing puns on Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.
Once it was down to three participants, the rules changed to best pun by audience vote. After two rounds of that a winner was declared, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons were handed out.
As the winners were walking off, I took a moment to reflect on the experience. It had been really uncomfortable to get up there with the twin challenges of having no idea of what I was going to do and the certainty that I was up there with people that could do it better. However, winning wasn’t really why I was there in the first place. It was to find out something about myself, and I did. I know I can perform under pressure given that I was okay with my material, quite happy to meet my goal of not washing out first, and pleased to know that I knew when to quit with dignity. Plus in not letting this opportunity pass me by I got as close as possible to being an active participant in a fictional setting I’d enjoyed, and that’s a pretty unique opportunity I hadn’t considered.
“I’m good without a ribbon”, I told myself, and started to walk offstage, only to be stopped as the lady who’d handled the sign ups gave me the first two ribbons for my badge. So if anybody asks, there can be absolutely no doubt as to what I’d been doing as a customer at Callahan’s.