Pundemonium comedy review: Toff in Town (Melbourne)

*Warning: may contain traces of puns. Prepared on equipment in which puns may also have been prepared.

The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne stretched out to put on its second annual Pundemonium (or groanfest as some have it) at the decidedly groovy Toff in Town last night —  six floors of cool as host Richard Higgins put it, topped by a “nightclub which lets no one in and is manned by two koalas with an instagram account”.

The world seems to be divided by one’s reaction to punnery: most seem to like it or loathe it, with very little in between. I received a number of weird “why would you?” looks when I announced attendance at this event , amidst cheering from others. Punning seems to be the very ugly cousin of wit and comedy to many of us, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see the band room packed out this evening, and it’s early too, so most haven’t had time to hit the bar much yet.

Host Richard Higgins, in sparkly red sequins, shoots out various good, bad and downright awful puns in a terrific set up intro, leading into self-confessed word nerd David (my favourite word is acrobat) Astle, taking us on a punderful tour of the meaning and history of punning. He spoke of how a pun worked to visually invoke the right side of the brain, while the left side analysed the language to produce the a-ha moment and accompanying laughter or groan.

The event’s format is game show – two teams: Astle, Jane Clifton, and Saturday Paper founding editor Erik Jensen making up the Feaux Fighters; and feminist writer, poet and artist Jessica Knight, freelancer Elizabeth Flux and ABC Breakfast host Michael Rowland forming Igneous Pop. It’s the Spicks and Specks of wordplay with a similarly light hearted attitude.

Host Higgins shows a groanometer at the outset, assuring us that it’s ok to react at any point on the scale from lolz to full face vowel groans to “yeh, nah”, as it’s very much a real time game. There’ll be lots of tries and quite a few fails along the way.

Aside from the very large crowd in what is usually a band room, it felt like an intimate night at the pub, Higgins listening intently to the crowd and handling the action with an assuredness that was cleverly hidden behind a sometimes nervous manner. The whiteboard with his homemade spinner for pun themes was cause for much hilarity as he bumbled around trying to drag it across the crowded stage.

There was lots of audience participation, Higgins picking shouted puns from the crowd (who did at times better than the cast in picking some of the slide quiz clues – Clifton said several times: “I hate this audience!”). Pun of the night come from a punter who covered two themes at once with “men-o-Porsche” (cars and body stuff), winning a Trophpee (can ‘o’ peas) for her efforts.

The punners were all great at different times, Astle and Jensen spitting out puns in great numbers of hit and miss, while on the opposite team Rowland came up with fewer, but far better delivered pun-jokes, told with that inimitable newsreaderly authority, including a moment where he interrupted proceedings to let us know he had an important story coming through, delivering a joke as if it were the next 9/11, to the chagrin of host Higgins and a collective sigh of relief/groan/laugh from all of us. Delivery is all. Liz Flux was a force too, despite repeatedly reminding us that geographical puns were not her forte.

Puntering seems to be drawing into a new era of acceptance with pun-offs becoming common in the USA and acknowledgement from comics like Wil Andersen who rely on the pun for their work. Once the domain of kid and dad jokes the pun is asserting its rightful place at the comedy table. Long may it groan. See you next year at Pundemonium.

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