A few different things might grab your attention the first time you hit up Punderdome 3000, Park Slope's raucous, year-and-a-half-old amateur pun competition. Because a lot's going on: Candy bars flung at the audience? Yes. Human-powered applause-measurement devices? Yep. TV theme-song sing-a-longs? Check.
But for me, and I suspect for a lot of people, it was the balding, middle-aged, Rodney Dangerfield-impersonating co-host Fred Firestone. Look, Brooklyn is hip, and Brooklyn is young. So, it was weird: How did this guy, who is nautical miles away from an emo haircut and skinny jeans (to his great credit), end up on the Southpaw stage? (The show is now held at Littlefield.)
As fellow host and show creator (and daughter to Fred) Jo Firestone said, "People like that don't really perform for young people. It put a spin on things for hipsters. They don't usually see middle age, balding men on stage." Yeah, so how'd THAT happen?
I set about finding out the story behind one of the Slope's oddest, funnest live shows. And the answer is an equally odd pairing: of a young, Brooklyn-based comedian and St. Louis dad who conducts corporate seminars. That's right, at the heart of this increasingly successful, monthly conglomeration of dorky fun are seminar principles first designed to get Missouri Avis professionals on their A-games. Well, that, but weirdified the way only Brooklyn (and maybe Portland) can do.
For the uninitiated, Punderdome's basic setup is this: contestants, with self-appointed punny stage names, compete in several rounds against one another. In each round, Jo gives the punmeisters a topic, and they have 90 seconds to come up with their best (or just a lot of) puns. Then the audience votes by applause. How do you measure applause? Obviously, you turn a human being into an audio device. A volunteer from the audience climbs inside a contraption called the "Clapometer" and "objectively" measures the noise.
These days, around 180 people come out every month for Punderdome. But the show wasn't getting nearly 200 people right off the bat, of course. That first edition came together kind of randomly, taking place in the little basement room of the old Southpaw (may it RIP). Jo, an aspiring comedian, had booked the room, but didn't have a show to put on.
"My method is I book a space, and then I develop a show," Jo said. She didn't know exactly how to use Southpaw's dungeon of a lower level, but she knew it should be a competition. "I like a show where people can showcase how bizarre they are."
Her Austinite boss mentioned the huge pun competition that takes place in Texas' self-proclaimed weirdest city, and so Jo decided to do one in Brooklyn.
Simple enough, except, um…how exactly do you run a pun competition? So, in a surprise to the parental unit, Jo called up her dad in St. Louis for advice.
This wasn't just a "Hey Dad, what do I do?" call, though, like when you need to sign up for health insurance for the first time or understand what IRAs are. Fred actually knew how to put on a show, though perhaps not exactly of the kind Jo was considering.
Fred's the guy businesses in St. Louis call when they need corporate seminars and keynotes in conference rooms at the Marriott. But, when he does it, Fred tries to get regional sales manager Sally Henson and Mike Jones from accounting to open up, get engaged, and enjoy themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, Fred has a game-show set he stores in his garage for these events. "Not many people can say they have that around the house," as he says.
So, together, Jo and Fred came up with a game-show structure for the show. Some of the elements came directly from Fred's corporate sessions: At a Punderdome, if you correctly complete one of the 'warm-up' puns that opens the show, Fred will "gently lob" a Payday candy bar stored in a fanny pack strapped to his dad jeans. The same kind of Paydays Fred tosses to Sally in sales and Mike in accounting at seminars back in Missouri.
The Clapometer comes from the seminars, too; but in his version, Fred just had someone move their arm around. Jo, perhaps inspired by all the Etsy-ing that goes on in Brooklyn, crafted a wearable Clapometer that fits snugly over the torso of an audience volunteer. It's equipped with a cartoon-y arrow and brightly colored categories like "Groan" or "Punderful," etc. (The look of Punderdome mostly comes from Jo -- from the Clapometer to the "mystery boxes" that hold the (mostly silly) grand prizes and the event's signage.)
It quickly went from Jo asking for advice, to a collaboration. Finally, she asked her dad to come out and host it with her. "Something sparked in him, and I think he's always wanted to be a famous game show host," Jo said. Fred explains it with a little more parental tenderness. "I'm used to getting eye rolls from my adult daughter," he said. "So I see this as an opportunity to hang out with her."
But, as Jo says onstage, one of the rules of Punderdome is "no hugging." So, let's go with the "wanted to be a famous game show host" explanation. Anyway, nowadays, Fred flies out from St. Louis once a month to do the show with Jo. Ticket sales just cover airfare and hotel -- and probably some Paydays.
Punderdome's grown pretty rapidly. And a lot of it's from loyal, repeat audience members and contestants. During that shitty surprise N'oreaster that hit in November, just after Sandy, I ran into a couple PunderDOME fans who made it down from Harlem despite the shitstorm of snow (aka 'snowstorm'). That's loyalty.
And that's the secret, St. Louis sauce behind the Dome's success. In subject and in execution, Fred's seminars are "all about engagement," Fred says.
The seminars teach customer experience -- how to get people engaged when they walk in the door of, say, your Honda dealership -- and Fred keeps his own customers, the seminar attendees, engaged in turn. So that's what's going on at Punderdome: Contestants choose punny nicknames (e.g., Forrest Whittyaker and Do Punto Others) because it "starts conversations," Fred says.
The Payday rewards for shouting puns from the audience? Engagement. The fact that all the increasingly drunk Brooklynites in the seats get to actually choose the winners by getting drunkenly loud? Giving ownership. And it doesn't stop.
"It's a full-court press for three hours," Fred says. "There is no down time in Punderdome."
As contestants write their puns, audience members volunteer to lead sing-a-longs -- or share other talents -- to fill the 90 seconds of space. And I know, from some of the serial contestants themselves, that Fred is relentlessly encouraging. They keep coming back because they feel like they own a piece of it.
They also keep coming back because Punderdome gives them a stage for a somewhat weird talent. "Can you imagine having some untapped skill like that?" Jo says of repeat Punderdome champion, Do Pun To Others. "He is amazing. He just needed a venue."
With the howling crowds, repeat championships, and all the stage time, Punderdome has, perhaps inevitably, also produced some weird local celebrity. "It's strange. It's its own world. People get famous because of Punderdome. Some of the people even get laid because of Punderdome."
And that right there, I think we can all agree, is the ultimate measure of success in any endeavor.
The next edition of Punderdome takes place at Littlefield on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 8pm.