Christopher Hitchens wrote:Perhaps as a result of this kind of insecurity, Mensa gatherings are noted for two recurrent themes—the making of puns and the forming of viciously opposed factions. Mensa members “love puns,” said Gabriel Werba, a former director of development for Mensa America, “and I happen to believe the worse a pun the better it is. Outside of Mensa you don’t have that appreciation.”
Puns are the lowest form of verbal facility.
Similarly on his "Guide to the Arts" podcast with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais said of Shakespeare:
Ricky Gervais wrote:Some say maybe the greatest literary genius in history. I'm not a fan. And I'll tell you why I'm not a fan. One reason and one reason only. Nothing to do with the structure, his themes...fantastic. The pun. Oh, I can't stand the pun.
I suppose it's the people that have taken on the pun. It just reminds me of a bloke with a beard and a pipe at a party doing puns. You know. And it's things like, in Shakespeare, like "I'll take their maidenheads" and you have to look at your Brodie's Notes to go "okay, cut off their heads and take their virginity. Oh, brilliant". You can't explain a joke in retrospect, you don't laugh if it's then explained to you.
He goes on to call the pun "the lowest form of wit", and gives examples, such as a sign saying "keep off the grass" in a highly self-satisfied reference to cannabis use.
Similarly, using "quibble" in the sense of "pun", voracious lexicographer Samuel Johnson expressed his quibbles with Shakespeare:
Samuel Johnson wrote:A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! He follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.
Is any of this fair to Shakespeare? In the Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio and Lucento argue while tuning a violin:
William Shakespeare wrote:HORTENSIO (as LITIO): Madam, ’tis now in tune.
LUCENTIO (as CAMBIO): All but the base.
HORTENSIO (as LITIO): The base is right; ’tis the base knave that jars.
At the time I enjoyed this for its wit and frivolity, but in retrospect, it does seem like the situation was tortuously building to the pun all along. And it does seem like something a boring smug uncle (not necessarily your own) would say at a dinner party, doesn't it? Can we judge Shakespeare by the standards of stamp collectors and wine tasters, or is it wrong to let them annex his shrewd device?
Curiously, two of Hitchens's (and my) favourite novelists, Nabokov and Joyce, were avid for the pun. The sinister narrator of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, mulls on the slight linguistic difference between "therapist" and "the rapist" and wonders if the moral difference is equally slight. Not one of the book's comedic high points, but there's no reason why puns can't be in the service of something other than humour. Joyce's whole career descended (or ascended, or transcended) into a complex web of puns, culminating with the brilliant and barely readable Finnegan's Wake. More curiously still, Hitchens deployed the technique himself. Startled to find it was his turn to be at the podium in a debate, he said "If I can't be erect I can at least be upright". In the question-and-answer segment of a lecture he gave at Politics and Prose on atheism, a rambling interrogator asked him repeatedly if he was a (metaphysical) materialist, in between apologising for not having read Hitchens's book closely enough to glean the answer for himself. Hitchens replied "As long as you got a receipt I don't care. Yes, I am a materialist. Believe me."
The pun has other high profile defenders. Alfred Hitchcock (Ha! Cock!) remarked "Puns are the highest form of literature." Some of my favourite lyrics are puns. Gym Class Heroes sang "Baby girl's a queen. But a queen's just a pawn with a bunch of fancy moves". The Beautiful South adeptly combine pun with metaphor in "How Long's a Tear Take to Dry": the guilty male lover sings "You're so sweet", to which his unimpressed and unforgiving other half replies "The flowers smell sweeter, the closer you are to the grave".
So are puns good or bad form? Does it depend on the individual pun? What distinguishes a good pun from a bad one? Laughing stock from badinage? Perhaps a homophone depends on the speaker? Fit to be barred, or fit for a bard?