To pun or not to pun; for some, that’s not even a question. On the funniest comedies on TV right now — including “The Good Place,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Bob’s Burgers,” to name just a few — that figure of speech is enjoying a heyday of double meanings and sound-alike wordplay.
For “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, there is no off switch on the pun machine that is his mind. (“Mindpunter,” coming to Netflix soon!)
“I personally always have an app running in the back of my brain working on puns,” he told IndieWire. “Sometimes when I am talking to someone they will get annoyed with me when they realize I’ve stopped listening because I am working on a pun, and they will roll their eyes and say, ‘Okay, what is it?’”
He doesn’t seem to be alone in this compulsion. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna explained what it’s like to work with writer Jack Dolgen, who joins co-creator Rachel Bloom and Adam Schlesinger to write the series’ clever and catchy songs.
“It seems to me what happens is like, somebody said something, and then Jack’s eyes go distant. And then he has it, and then he has to say it,” said Brosh McKenna. “Sometimes he apologizes before he says it, but a lot of times he says it, and then those have worked their way into the show.”
Earlier this year, “The Good Place” writer Megan Amram told IndieWire, “I have a true mental illness of only thinking in puns all the time. I feel like [creator Mike Schur] gave me the gift and the curse of writing an episode that had a bunch of different fake stores in it.
“I got to the part where I was going to write in all the different store names for different types of food,” she said. “I was like, ‘Megan, don’t spend more than hour. Don’t spend more than an hour on this. You don’t need to spend a day writing pun names.’ Then, flash-forward to I was in a coffee shop working on truly hundreds of pun names for six hours or something.”
As proof, Amram shared on Twitter a curated list of some of the punny store names she dreamt up:
— Megan Amram (@meganamram) September 29, 2017
It’s a great time to be a pun on TV, but not everyone appreciates them. As long as there have been puns, there have been pun detractors. The much maligned form of wordplay has been criticized throughout time by scholars who deem puns the lowest type of humor and sometimes even borderline offensive or criminal.
That divisive reaction is just part and parcel of punning though. The realization of a pun can create delight or disgust because it tickles the brain differently in each person. Intrepid punsters understand that laughter is not always the expected result, and that’s a risk worth taking.
“There’s an interesting things about puns that you don’t laugh at them,” observed Brosh McKenna. “When you make a pun people look like they’re angry at you. They just groan.”
Dolgen added, “Usually when you pitch in a room, you’re pitching a joke with the goal of getting a laugh. When you pitch a pun in the room, I’m not looking for a laugh. In a way, I’m just looking for people to wish I was gone. I have a general benchmark on how to judge a good pun or not. I think puns range on a scale of one to 10 with one being sort of the dumbest, stupidest thing you could think of, and 10 being the most sort of brilliant and kind of intellectually enlightening. I think you want either a one or a 10, and the closest you get to five, the worse you are. So five ends up being sort of general dad humor.”
This resistance to crowd-pleasing is yet another sign that those who create puns have to be independently minded and not swayed easily by delivering run-of-the-mill pap. Say what you will about puns, but chances are that if they elicit such a visceral reaction, you aren’t bored.
Although puns may get a bad rap for not challenging the intellect, the heavy use of puns on acclaimed TV shows lately appears to indicate that the opposite might be true. Puns don’t automatically make a show smarter, but they do appear to be a good indicator of how much effort a show puts into its craft and storytelling. If a show truly adores puns, that can be the mark of great TV.
Neurologically speaking, hearing, and understanding a pun requires both sides of the brain. The left hemisphere processes the linguistics and meaning of the word first, while the right side kicks in to recognize there’s a secondary meaning. It’s a bilateral process. Or is it bi-literal?
Curiously enough, there is a medical disorder that is associated with compulsive and excessive bad punning. Witzelsucht is a set of rare neurological symptoms characterized by a tendency to make puns, or tell inappropriate jokes or pointless stories in socially inappropriate situations. This disorder is most commonly seen in patients with frontal lobe damage. While the pun-happy writers on these shows (presumably) don’t have this disorder, their brains very well might be designed to make the processing between the two hemispheres work better in tandem.
Dolgen is the go-to punster on staff at “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” ready with a funny name when needed. When Brosh McKenna texted him asking for possible names for menstrual cups that would be featured on the show, he came up with a list within minutes.
“He texted me back right away,” she said. “Fill It Up Menstrual Cups, Mensipation Cuplamation Menstrual Cup, Mensi-B-Gone, Cup-A-Flow, The Prima Donna, Easy Catcher, The Refill Jill, Fill the Daffodil. We ended up picking Beaver Dam. But you know, not to say anybody could come up with the Mensipation Cuplamation. Not everybody’s brain works like that.”
Dolgen’s penchant for puns is also an asset when he writes lyrics for the show’s numerous songs — two of which have received Emmy nominations.
“Aline accurately pointed out that asset as a disorder, and that contextualized that for me,” said Dolgen. “I really started to understand myself a lot better and the way in which I functioned in the world. I have to apologize to them because sometimes I just have to say a pun that came to mind, and it isn’t relevant to anything, and it’s not gonna help us do the job we’re trying to do in the moment. But it has to come out of me! It’s like having a fart that if you hold it in, it’s just gonna be toxic.”
Bob-Waksberg concurred, although far less pungently. “You can’t save a pun, no more than you can display a butterfly while also keeping it alive,” he said. “Every pun is born to its moment and expires just as quickly.”