Q&A: Pun DMV offers pun-derful night at DC Improv

September 23, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

Does your office have a pun jar to drop cash each time you make a bad pun?

You may want to compete in Pun DMV at the D.C. Improv on Wednesday night.

“Everybody knows somebody who loves puns,” Chris White, D.C. Improv’s director of creative marketing, said. “At this point, we have a pretty healthy list of people who are interested in participating and who have participated in the past, but there’s always new people coming out of the woodwork. (Friends) shove them on stage.”

The pun-tastic event has happened quarterly for the past three years.

“It’s grown a lot,” host Dana Fleitman said. “The D.C. Improv has a lounge and a main room, the lounge seats 60ish and the main room seats 275, and at one point Chris was like, ‘Let’s try it in the main room.’ It sells out every time. We’re almost sold out already for Wednesday because D.C. loves puns and puns love D.C.”

The evening includes two different competitions for your pun-loving pleasure.

The first is a freestyle battle of prepared pun monologues.

“People prepare their material in advance,” White said. “They can decide whatever the speech is about, then they pick a pun theme. They can do all their puns based on, say, U.S. presidents or fish or trees. It’s really up to them what they pick, but it has to be two, three, maybe four minutes tops. They’re preparing that in advance, so they usually have a few months to prepare for it.”

The second is a rapid-fire “pun off” tournament.

“We take four or five people and get them on stage at the same time,” White said. “Dana prepares topics in advance, people draw them out of a hat, then you have to go really quick, just come up with a quick pun on the spot. You keep going and if you can’t keep up, if you can’t come up with a pun, if you take too long, you’re kicked out. We start to eliminate people and after an hour we have a champion.”

Which topics can we expect to be drawn from the hat?

“It’s actually a bit of an art to figure out the right topics,” Fleitman said. “You want it to be specific enough that it’s a challenge, but not so specific that it becomes trivia.”

Fleitman said that it’s hard to find that balance, but it has to be “something that’s specific enough but big enough.”

The winner of each competition receives $100. But contestants don’t do it for the money; they do it for the joy.

“It’s mostly the satisfaction of winning,” Fleitman said. “The true winner is always the viewer. When people get nervous and say, ‘Should I do it?’ I’m like, ‘Well, the stakes are quite low.’ … It’s a lot of fun, people are very supportive, so it’s more about the fun and the glory and the experience than it is about the prize.”

Past winner Erika Ettin used a routine she practice at one of the pun shows. She placed third in the O’Henry Pun-off in Austin, which is like the “‘pun Super Bowl’ for the U.S.,” White said.

Previous contestant Logan Anbinder did an entire Harry Potter rap, nothing but Harry Potter puns. “It was the one of the dorkiest things you’ll ever see. It was tremendous,” White said.

Sometimes they even bring in props like Daniel Riker, who juggled knives while doing a routine on sharp objects. “I don’t think he dropped anything,” White said.

“I would have known because I was at the front of the room hosting,” Fleitman said. “I will die for puns! At least I’d die doing what I loved.”

Usually, the cornier the joke, the better.

“The more bizarre and corny, the happier the audience becomes,” Fleitman said. “I did puns on dessert.”

Just make sure you know the difference between a pun and a reference.

“If the topic was outer space and someone says, ‘Puns are out of this world,’ that’s a reference,” Fleitman said. “It’s not really a pun because you’re not replacing any words. It’s clever and I like it, but it’s not really a pun as if you said, ‘My Venus is huge.’ That is a pun! And that person can call me after the show.”

In the end, the audience reaction will determine if a joke is successful.

“The audience’s groaning or lack thereof will indicate whether that was a good pun groan or a ‘We’re not accepting that’ groan,'” Fleitman said.

Tickets cost $6, get there early if you want to sign up for the tournament.

“There’s something about pun shows,” White said. “I would have never expected five years ago that this would be as much fun as it is. It’s a complete surprise, but it’s crazy to me what a great reaction this gets. I don’t know if it’s the city or if it’s just the art itself, but it’s amazing to me the type of response this has gotten.”

The best part is that there is zero pretense.

“This is just such goofy, dumb, escapist fun — and I mean that in the best way possible,” White said. “It’s all just regular people … doing stuff that is so corny or so clever. … It’s so genuine, spontaneous and real that it’s one of my favorite events to see. I’ve watched the best stand-up comedians in the world, but in terms of what I have fun at, puns has got to be at the top of the list.”

Find more details on the D.C. Improv website.

Hear our full conversation with Chris White and Dana Fleitman below:

September 23, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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