Over 550 students at Marquette High gathered during their fourth-hour class period on Monday, Nov. 19 to watch 13 of their peers try to outsmart and outwit each other onstage in the school’s theater. It was the school’s 10th annual “Pun-Off Competition” where students competed for the title of “pun-master.”
Marquette senior Sarah Pisoni now holds that title after three rounds of competition with her Marquette peers. Pisoni was the first female champion in the event’s 10-year history.
“I think it’s very exciting,” Pisoni said. “I think it will maybe encourage other females to participate next year, and maybe in the following years because I think it’s typically more males that are more outgoing and are more likely to do it.”
In addition to being involved in high school athletics, Pisoni earned the designation as a National Merit Commended student in October.
Pisoni wasn’t a complete newcomer to the Pun competition. As a walk-in competitor in 2017, she ended placing in the top three with her humor and improvisational skills under pressure.
“Last year, I came in as a walk-on, because they needed one more person to do it,” Pisoni said. “So, I did it, and I got third place. This year, I saw it was coming up and I wanted to sign up to see if I could do even better.”
According to Assistant Principal Richard Regina, who also helps organize the event and serves as the host, the competition requires competitors to not only be intelligent and fast but also comfortable with performing on stage.
“It’s partially a show of your grasp of the English language,” Regina said. “You have to be pretty intelligent to pull some of these off so quickly. In another part, it’s a comedy show, because puns are funny. At least, I think so. It does take some courage for these kids to get up here in front of their peers.”Regina says the rules of the competition are simple. Students who sign up for the event are split into four groups, labeled A, B, C and D. Each group contains three to four teammates.
Groups are called on stage to respond to a list of topics such as “professions” and “sports,” where each member has to produce puns from a prompt based on each topic. Based on audience applause and personal preference, a panel of three faculty judges gives points for each successful pun. The competitors with the most points move on to the next round.
The top six performers from across the board were chosen to come up on stage for the second round. The school’s faculty and staff came up with the prompts, and teams were given no hints in advance.
The top three finalists from that round moved on to the final round, where they had to provide puns based on a photograph shown on stage. Again, no hints were provided.
“They have no clue, and to do that does take quite a bit of courage,” Regina said. “The first round, we give the teams the topic. We don’t give them a prompt, but we might say, ‘Bowling’ so they start to roll bowling puns off the top of their head and hope they don’t strike-out. We also tell those kids, ‘You have to keep those puns out of the gutter.’
But, that’s only the first round. We give them the prompt, and then maybe some of the ideas they spin in their head help. The second and third rounds, it’s completely impromptu. They have no idea what the topic is.”
According to Regina, the pun competition began 10 years ago as his and three other faculty members’ brainchild. Originally, it was held in the school’s library outside school hours. It had around 10 to 12 competitors and around 60 audience members.
Then, one year, a snow day created complications and Principal Dr. Gregory Mathison gave the group permission to use the fourth-hour time slot for the event.
“Then, all of a sudden, instead of 60 students being in the audience, we have 550 to 600 students becoming a part of this in the audience,” Regina said.Students from all different classes attend and participate in the event, though many are from the language arts department.
“[The teachers] got an invite about three to four weeks ago saying if they wanted their students to be in the pun competition during fourth hour, [they should] feel free,” Regina said.
Regina says the competition is fun for teachers and their classes to attend because they get to see other students in a whole new light.
“Sarah plays sports, but nobody had any idea she was such a punster, which she is,” Regina said. “The last few years, we’ve had a few more females participate, and we kind of knew Sarah had a shot. I mean, she was really good last year when we pulled her out of the audience. Then, she came back this year and, obviously, she was as-advertised.”
According to Pisoni, she plans to continue to “keep the puns rolling” in future classes.
“I think I have to keep going in my classes,” Pisoni said. “My peers and teachers will be expecting me to keep the puns rolling, and provide a little comedic relief in class.”