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Keeping Puns Alive During A Pandemic

O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championships

by Julianne Richter, past BSMF President

Even though many 2021 Austin-area events had to be postponed or canceled during the ongoing COVID pandemic, the 44th annual O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championships returned in a two-part virtual format thanks to the creativity, determination, and support of museum staff, board members, competitors, and faithful sponsors. The 2021 virtual O. Henry Pun-Off included the Punniest of Show competition, the PunSlingers showdown, and a virtual auction sponsored by the nonprofit Brush Square Museums Foundation (BSMF) (

Punniest of Show Competition

The Punniest of Show contest was won by Robin Roper, while second and third places went to Katy Stevens and Martha Louise. Competitors submitted a 90-second video of their prepared presentation filled with puns, and web site visitors could view the 32 online submissions during the week of October 23 - 30 before making their voting choice of favorite

screen capture of entries
32 Contestant Videos

Pun-Off Producer David Gugenheim said that 1,548 individuals voted in the contest, with even more viewing the 32 online performances. He believed that Pun-Off submissions were getting better every year.

“In my early days as a competitor, most of the Punniest of Show routines were shaggy dog stories - a drawn-out setup for a pun as a punch line at the end. When humor started being shared with a click across the internet, it forced competitors to be original. Their routines have become far more creative, and they have upped the quality of their presentation,” he said.

In a crazy story filled with 39 puns with grammatical terms, Robin Roper, 2021 winner of the Punniest of Show, said she had competed only once before in the O. Henry Pun-Off in the PunSlingers category. She had some good advice for punsters wanting to compete.

“I’d recommend writing down a list of terms related to your topic and then coming up with as many puns about each term as possible,” she said. “Then see if you can piece together a story with those.”

Second place Baltimore, Maryland resident Katy Stevens sang her bluesy pun-filled song at the piano titled “cringin’, goanin’, sighin’, moanin’, friends eye-rollin’ punner’s blues.” For budding punsters, she said, “Find a punning partner, pick a topic and have fun honing your clever craft as often as you can!”

PunSlingers Competition

The PunSlingers competition was streamed live on October 23, 2021 with 16 punsters battling it out in morning and evening rounds. Punslingers had to pun spontaneously back and forth on a given topic, much like an old west gun shootout with only 5 seconds to come up with a new pun. The winner of the PunSlingers competition was Nikolai Vanyo. Second place went to Arun Debray and third place was a tie between Aaron Lipp and Manny Marshall.

PunSlingers participant group picture
2021 PunSlingers emcees and jury panel

In the championship round, Arun and Nikolai, made puns back and forth continuously for 15-minutes on the topic of “Groups – Human or Animal” until a 4-person panel of judges chose Nikolai’s winning performance. A recording of 2021 PunSlingers’ final rounds are on YouTube ( and also linked on website

Nikolai competed in both the 2016 and 2017 Pun-Offs and he shared his winning strategy for punsters.

“My advice for trying to succeed in punning is to work on those mental muscles that allow you to break down words into syllables, and find ways to link those syllables in another way. When, you keep at it, it becomes almost automatic,” he said.

Third place winner Manny Marshall attributed his success to some family history. He said, “When I was growing up, my father and I had regular pun wars. I love puns, so at this point I’d say it’s kind of second nature.”

Punster Robin Roper had a different take on punning competition. She said, “For PunSlingers, just remember it only has to meet the technical definition of a pun “words that sound alike, but have different meaning.” It doesn’t have to be a funny or good one. And ultimately, it’s a pun competition, so have fun with it!”

Fundraiser for a Wordy Cause

Putting the two O. Henry Pun-Off contests into a virtual format was a challenge for the museum staff and producers, but the nonprofit Brush Square Museums Foundation also took on having a virtual silent auction at It was launched October 16, and the public could make bids on a variety of items through October 30. The virtual auction raised close to $900 and included everything from original artwork, golf lessons, autographed history books, restaurant gift certificates, Austin FC and University of Texas football tickets, and a sailboat day cruise. Souvenir Pun-Off logo t-shirts and coffee mugs could also be bought at

The BSMF President, Clay Leben, said "it was important to do an online fundraising auction this year, even though the auction was not in person because of the pandemic. In past years, while punsters entertained the audience, we raised money for the museums with pass-the-hat donation appeals, auction items, and a used book sale. Even though the virtual events raised less money, it was gratifying that people across America and the world watched and contributed.”

The museum staff and board hope that the 2022 O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championships will return to an in-person format in the fall, but it all depends on the challenges presented by the always changing Corona virus pandemic.

Board President Clay Leben summarized,

“Our goal is to host a live audience outdoors October 8, 2022. We’ll closely follow Austin Public Health Department guidance and hope the audience will come like past years. We also hope to broadcast live stream video again of the punsters on stage because in a PUNdemic Laughter is the Best Medicine!”


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