Bec Hill's comedy concept evening arrives in the Black Box as the Belly Laughs Comedy Festival continues
The humble pun – is there a more divisive, derided form of humour? Henri Bergson defines a pun as a sentence where 'two different sets of ideas are expressed but we are confronted with only one set of words'. But he was a French philosopher and as dry as miser’s toast, so he’s accurate if a bit of a Buzz Killington.
Puns are uniformly seen as the lowest form of wit, the staple of 'dad’s gags', eliciting derision rather than delight and, indeed, the groans come thick and fast at today’s Pun Run, the latest offering from Belfast's Belly Laughs Comedy Festival. But I’ve rarely seen a happier audience or so many comedians gamely putting tried and tested sets to one side in an effort to importune gales of disapproval from a crowd.
Host and Pun Run creator, Australian comic Bec Hill, leaps on stage in thrillingly brave hipster knitwear, despite the Black Box being hot as an oven, and requests a volley of groans from the audience just to get them in the mood. They comply with gusto and it’s time for the first turn, George Firehorse, who appears on stage as a slightly down-at-heel Victorian landowner in a Superman onesie.
There is method to his madness: many of the comedians have placed strictures around themselves in either subject matter, formatting or both. Firehorse is a Superman-based punster – 'Do you like the shoes? They’re Clark’s' – or at least he does for about 20 seconds before delving into more general areas of punnage: 'What’s Prince Philip’s favourite fruit? The Queen’s peach.' 'The pun is better than the imagery,' he humbly points out.
Next up is high-tec hilarity monger Matt Collins, whose entire schtick revolves around a game called Who wants to be a Milliner? ('This relies on knowing that a milliner makes hats,' he admits). A trove of titfer based titters is unleashed, where Collins 'peaks our interest' with 'pithy' observations 'off the top of his head'. He comes unstuck slightly with technology as various sound-levels come out of synch and a joke about 'linex setups' goes so over the heads of the crowd.
Lauren Kerr appears on stage brandishing a knife and proceeds to stab a series of numbered balloons with a practiced flourish, and a knife. Luckily there are puns inside the balloons, which she rattles off with precision and style. She also receives the biggest laugh of the day for calling out a member of the audience who had tweeted earlier 'Is anyone going to this Pun Run thing? I have a feeling that it’s going to be...'
Marcus Keeley, a one-time serious poet, delivers a stentorian rehearsed reading of his puns. 'I know a disfigured barber,' he intones gravely. 'He lives on the fringes of society.'
Ronan Linskey has come from the future to save us through the medium of puns, though he is frequently inaudible through his chemical mask, and many of his jokes are compromised by the terrible things he’s seen. 'I sent my wife on holiday.' 'Jamaica?' shouts a punter. 'No, Jamaica has been underwater since 2215.' However when he strips from his boiler suit for a hip hop/deodorant based finale, the proceeding five minutes start to make a lot of sense.
Ruaidhri Ward’s self-imposed sanction is to produce an entire set based around pizza toppings. He provides the afternoon’s most tortuous and convoluted pun, eventually reaching the punch line by a route so contrived and labyrinthine that Alton Towers are currently constructing it out of iron girders. It’s called 'The Baffler', and it will leave you both exhilarated and nauseous.
Aaron Marshall, clip-board in hand and with thespian grace, delivers a seamlessly professional set of employment gags based upon what I assume to be his actual CV. 'Then I got a job making paper from vegetables. That was a turnip for the books.'
The last two acts are total war. Alan Irwin, in his lovely jumper, wrong-foots us with a couple of sweet forays into the concept of duality of meaning. 'I didn’t want to eat much at the Chinese restaurant, so I said I’d just have a chow starter.' (Quite clever, actually) But suddenly we’re into his Richard Nixon act, where variations on the phrase 'I am not a cook' are repeated ad nauseam.
At first it’s funny, then it’s distinctly worrying. Then, as he relentless pursues the idea again and again, it drifts into hysteria. Lorcan McGrane too, after a typically modest start – 'Is there any kitchen roll left? Plenty!' – brow-beats the audience with an endless, monomaniacal monologue where a fictional night out with the author Stephen King involves the titles of the prolific author’s entire canon. Is it funny? It’s certainly impressive.
As a concept, Pun Run is bullet-proof. If it’s good then it’s good. If it’s awful, well then that’s pretty good as well. The audience is left satiated and happy but exhausted, everybody flattened by the pun truck. It was a pun-ishing couple of hours. There. Now I’m going to take a shower.
Belly Laughs Comedy Festival continues in venues across Belfast until October 6.