Peter Dixon

Review: UK Pun Championships, Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival

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Earlier this week, Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival declared a new day for our calendars – UK Punday, coinciding with the festival’s UK Pun Championships that evening.

The tournament, being fought for the third year, celebrate one of the public’s most popular form of joke. So, what is a pun?

The Collins On-Line Dictionary defines it as, “noun: the use of words or phrases to exploit ambiguities and innuendos in their meaning, usually for humorous effect; a play on words.”

When you start digging deeper you find that the humble pun has several forms – the spoonerism (the transposition of the initial consonants), a sentence where there is a substitution of a word, and where words are used that can give two entirely different meanings sentence.

A pun can be a very sophisticated form of comedy writing. Certainly, a well crafted pun has every part of it honed down to the essentials, and it makes good use of wordplay.

A few hours before the competition, at a discussion on puns, the 2015 Pun Champion, Leo Kearse, spoke about the broad appeal of a pun saying, “Because a pun’s got two meanings it makes it more accessible. Older people or people who feel they could not laugh at some smut feel that they can laugh, because it’s got that double meaning….Most of the joy in a pun is how stupid, pointless and daft it is.”

Puns go back many centuries. Some ancient Egyptians even had them carved on their tombs. They were very popular in Victorian times.

There has been a pun resurgence in the last few years with the advent of Twitter, as they can often fit neatly within the 140 characters allowed in a single tweet.

In fact, it was an attempt to engage and involve the wider Twitter community in the festival that prompted the Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival team to start the pun championships in 2014.

Lee Nelson was an inspired choice as host for evening. The cheeky chappy style worked very well with an audience that were encouraged to cheer, woop, groan, and from time to time sing along to a version of The Bangles “Happy Punday.”

Indeed, the audience had a key role to play as it was the level of their applause that sent the successful act through to the next round. There was no small hand-picked panel of experts here.

In his very own style, Lee Nelson introduced the championship and explained the format of the contest. As in previous years, it followed the basic style of a rap battle.

For each round, a pair of contestants, each wearing a plaque with their pun name on it, took it in turn to fight it out whilst stood behind a wooden ‘barrel of laughs.’ Meanwhile Lee had his ‘pundium’ centre stage.

He rested his ‘ipun’ from which he played a whole series of remotely appropriate, but often amusing sound effects.

In the first round, at the start of each match, each of the competitors gave us their favourite pun (aimed at laughter generation) and then least favourite pun (which was crafted to elicit groans). On several occasions it had the reverse effect, but no one seemed to mind.

Thereafter topics were picked randomly from a dustbin by members of the audience. Competitors took it in turns to pun about that chosen subject. The audience applauded for their favourite punster and the winners went through to the next round.

Eight comics started the quarter finals. The semi-finals followed, before the two finalists then fought it out until a winner was crowned.

Kearse on Humanity (Leo Kearse) originally decided not to defend his 2015 crown this year. However, he agreed to stand in when a contestant dropped out a few days before the championships. It was a decision he now may be regretting.

He was matched against Roger The Propmeister Swift, and were the first two on stage. The first topic drawn out of the bin was royalty. The pair made a good start, but seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, a little nervous opening in front of a sold out audience who were very vocal in their desire for a night of punnary.

Although Leo came up with some good lines, the audience narrowly went with Roger. It was a surprise early exit for the former champion.

Next up were Toby-Le-Rone (Richard Woodford) and Colin Chapstick. Richard was off to a great start performing the first physical pun of the night with the line, “What drives me potty….these wheels,” as he brought out a child’s potty with a set of working roller skate wheels attached.

With the chosen topic of baking, Richard pressed home his advantage to victory with lines like, “bakers, eh? They’re so kneady!”

The third pairing of General Punochet (Masai Graham) and Richard IV The Last Puntagenet (Richard Pulsford) raised the bar much higher. Both had very strong support from the audience and, on the subject of flowers, they were both clearly stronger than the previous four contestants.

Lee Nelson toyed with the audience about how he was interpreting their reaction. In the end, both went through to the semi-finals.

The last two contests changed the tone again with lots of quick fire ad-libbed punning banter between them before the challenge started properly. Nigel Lovell and Tony Cowards were clearly up for a hard fought match.

With the topic of television, Tony Coward delivered one of the best lines of the night on the BBC’s programmes about space and time. He rightly went through.

The audience were beginning to find their stride by this stage, and as one member got up to leave there came the cry from the stalls of “PUNish him”.

The first semi-final saw Richard Pulsford drawn against Tony Cowards on the topic was Europe.

Richard’s experience, having performed in the previous two pun championships, shone through as he delivered a series of solid top quality puns. He became the obvious choice as the first finalist.

Lee Nelson’s dilemma of putting through an extra semi-finalist was solved by having all three remaining contestants (Masai Graham, Roger Swift and Richard Woolford) on stage for the remaining challenge before the interval. Graham attracted the biggest cheer of the first half and was the clear winner.

A debate overheard during the interval was the age old question as to whether men prefer puns more than woman. The conclusion is usually that both enjoy them equally. Certainly the audience attending was roughly 50:50. It was a shame, therefore, that there were no female comics in the line up.

Another reflection was that no one could now doubt Lee Nelson’s decision to put both Masai Graham and Richard Pulsford through from the first round. They had unquestionably confirmed themselves to be the best two performers on the night.

For the final the idea was to have three topics to pun. The first topic of love provided a popular start for Richard Pulsford with his Fed Ex gag.

The next random topic could not have been better suited for Masai Graham. ‘Animals’ allowed him to tell both his ‘Top 10 Best of The Edinburgh Festival’ awarded jokes from the last two years.

From 2015 came, ” What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo? One’s really heavy and the other is a little lighter!” This was quickly followed, from Edinburgh 2014, by “I’ve written a joke about a fat badger, but I couldn’t fit it into my set.”

At this stage the audience were in their element as they shouted out a variety of cow puns such as “Stop milking it,” “Let’s have an udder,” and “Just moooove on.”

The first two topics went to Masai Graham, putting Richard Pulsford in a situation hard to retrieve. He did battle on though and pulled things back by narrowly winning topic three, education.

By now it would have made sense to award the contest to Masai Graham. However, Lee Nelson opted for a tie breaker in order to use the pre-prepared prop of a real tie. When the tie was cut in half it revealed the fourth topic of chocolate.

By this time, Masai was clearly the audience’s favourite so it was no surprise when he was given the biggest cheer of the night at the end of this ‘tie breaker.’

Complete with throne and robes, Masai Graham was awarded the honour of becoming the UK Pun Champion of 2016. Gracious in his acceptance speech Graham crowned off a joyous evening of entertainment. A puntastic night.

Date of live review: Monday 8 February 2016

Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival runs until the 21 February, 2016. The complete programme is available on-line at All ticket enquiries on 0116 242 3595