Not a One-Trick Pun-ny
Punsters have to have a lot in their arsenal and therefore tend to know a lot about a range of subjects. Having a great well of knowledge gives more punning options to draw from, whether it’s a broader base of facts or vocabulary.
But knowledge doesn’t have to be strictly academic. Pop culture references give puns specificity that stands out. Take this reference to the podcast “Serial”:
It even works when a writer only peripherally is aware of what’s being referenced because it can lead to even more creative flights of fancy.
“[The store name] Biscotti Pippen was my doing, because I’m really not a sports person, but I am from Portland, Oregon,” said Amram. “Here’s what I think it would be: a pastry store that’s very tall. It would just be like very tall, like for people who are like seven-foot-tall professional basketball players. They need to have pastries that are on very high shelves. That’s what I think Biscotti Pippen would be.”
Inveterate punsters are also equal opportunity when it comes to other forms of wordplay. This makes for more exciting scripts that keep audiences entertained. While “The Good Place,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and “BoJack” are some of the most verbally dextrous shows, over on FX, “Baskets” is a player as well. The bittersweet comedy blends puns, malapropisms, cognate repetitions, and all manner of rhetorical styles in a stealthy way that could easily be overlooked.
In short, those who pun well tend to seek out more knowledge and other ways in which to annoy/entertain people with their verbal prowess. What’s not to love?
Like any good exercise, fabricating puns keeps a person supple, in mind if not in body. A common denominator in all of these shows is that they’re consistently creative and challenging.
Sometimes a show sets its own challenges for inventiveness, such as on “Bob’s Burgers,” an animated sitcom about a family-run burger business. Each episode is required to have at least three on-screen puns per episode, but far exceeds that count in addition to telling an irreverent but sneakily heartwarming story.
In the opening sequence the shop next door to Bob’s Burgers and the extermination truck that pulls up have new, punny names each time around. Plus, each episode features at least one clever and punny Burger of the Day name on the chalkboard.
Then there’s “BoJack Horseman,” where complex world-building is at play. In Hollywoo, anthropomorphic animals live, interact, and even have sex with humans, and somehow this creates the perfect playground for satirical insights about our own society. And while there are no shortage of animals, and therefore animal-related puns that can appear on the show, “Bojack” isn’t always reliant on its puns, as exhibited by the critically acclaimed Season 3 episode “Fish Out of Water,” which is largely silent. Oh, and the show also has one of the most nuanced and honest portrayals of depression seen on TV. (So that’s why Bojack has such a long face!)
On “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the puns are mainly confined to the occasional shop or product name, but then get the full treatment in the original song lyrics that pepper the show.
“We have a song that’s entirely based on a pun, which is a tap-dance number called ‘We Tapped That Ass,’” said Dolgen. “It’s all about these two guys talking about how they had sex with our lead character all over her house, and they’re tap dancing while they sing it.”
While the songs in and of themselves are creative, how they’re used to portray the psyche of the show’s heroine Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) is an ingenious and consistently entertaining device. The show has rightfully been lauded for both its musical numbers and its fresh examination of mental health.
“The Good Place” is perhaps one of the most inventive shows currently on the air. In its first year out, it made quite the impression by how well it turned its own premise of undeserving people landing in the Good Place in the afterlife on its head. And then it upset its new premise yet again. And again. And again. This continued ability to reinvent itself seemingly effortlessly while also posing moral and ethical quandaries without sounding stuffy and eliciting laughs is a head-scratching feat. How has this show come into being? It’s gotta be the puns.
One Pun-ultimate Point
Never doubt that puns are made with love, and where there’s passion, there’s effort. When the writers were asked to pick some of the puns that they’re most proud of, their answers were appropriately insightful.
“I really like [the store name] Knish From a Rose,” said Amram. “I was like, ‘There’s not enough knish jokes.’ I feel like there were whole categories of food that we didn’t end up doing. It would’ve had to be an hour-long episode of television in which 20 minutes was just like rotating shopping.”
Dolgen had a specific lyric in mind that he wanted to highlight, which is appropriately risqué in its double entendre.
“We had a song called ‘Strip Away My Conscience,’ which is Rachel’s character, Rebecca, trying to convince this guy to kind of show her how to be ruthless,” said Dolgen. “She’s seducing him… for him to impose that upon her. And I came up with a line when we were working on the song where she says, ‘I wanna choke on your cocksuredness.’ I was proud of that, and shocked that we were able to get that through and on TV. So that was a proud moment for me and my family. Rachel came up with this unbelievable rhyme to tee it up, where she rhymes luridness with cocksuredness, which I thought was amazing.”
Bob-Waksberg, he of the ephemeral puns that must take flight or die, offered up, “I couldn’t possibly pick one over any other. As the shoe enthusiast said to her cobbler when she decided to switch to Manolo Blahniks, ‘Don’t make me Choos!’”
Just for the Pun of It
You’re not against fun, are you?! There really isn’t much of an argument here, but one more point was necessary to make the previous one the Pun-ultimate. That said, don’t underestimate the value of fun when it comes to great TV. Not everything has to be sturm and drang, or at least could use some punnery to alleviate the turmoil. Hell, David Lynch put plenty of puns in “Twin Peaks,” and Bryan Fuller made sure everyone knew that “Hannibal” is a cannibal.
So there you have it. Puns can use complex brain functioning, make you more creative, benefit from greater knowledge, and take real passion and effort to carry off. All of these make for smarter and more challenging TV shows. Bring on the pun-ishment!
Additional reporting by Steve Greene.