Retired WWU professor uses research in crafting pun stories

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 28, 2013 

Lou Lippman

Lou Lippman

Retired psychology professor Lou Lippman takes his humor seriously. So much so that he has done research into what makes puns most effective.

That's why the Bellingham author's new collection of pun stories, "Wince: A Pun on Thyme," is subtitled "Scientifically Crafted Tales."

His insight, which he tested with his students and reported in serious publications, is that stories that end with puns are judged funnier and more clever if the tales provide fuller context for the punch line, without being too obscure or too obvious leading up to the finish.

His book offers 176 such tales, most of them less than a page long. Here's a sample:

"In his youth and long before his considerable fame, Roy Rogers used to chase outlaws by riding atop a gigantic rabbit. Although it was perfectly effective transportation, Roy was embarrassed by this deviation from the cowboy-hero norm. He was very sensitive and would fly into a rage at the slightest sign of ridicule. You might say that, at the time, he had a hare Trigger."

If you moaned after reading that, then the story was effective, Lippman said, because while successful jokes produce laughter, successful puns produce groans and remarks like "that was horrible!"

"Puns victimize language," he said. "Other forms for humor have other victims."

Growing up in San Diego, Lippman was schooled early in humor by his grandfather, who was a fan of plastic vomit and plastic doggie doo.

"My grandfather used to take me to joke stores," Lippman said.

Lippman dabbled in humor writing in high school, and while a college freshman wrote a spoof report about a make-believe poet that earned him his only "A" that term from the appreciative graduate assistant who graded papers.

Humor took a back seat while Lippman pursued his studies at Stanford University and Michigan State University. After graduate school, he came to Western Washington University, where he taught experimental psychology until he retired in 2008 after 42 years.

His research focused on learning and memory, with forays into other topics, including sport psychology and humor. In the 1970s, at the urging of a friend, he began writing spoof scientific articles for such publications as Worm Runner's Digest and Journal of Irreproducible Results.

Reading his book, I found that his stories resemble puzzles. Sometimes I glanced ahead at the pun finish, then read the story to see how he set up the conclusion. Other times I read stories straight through, searching for clues along in the way in the hope I could figure out the finish on my own. I never did outguess Lippman.

Still, some people wonder if puns are worth the bother. Are they a valid form of humor? Such questions remind me of a story:

A worker at a honeybee business was on a loading dock stacking crates of the live pollinators for shipment to farmers. Meanwhile, across some nearby woods, two inventive boys were playing with an air gun they had made themselves.

To their surprise, one of their handmade projectiles managed to miss several trees during its wayward flight through the woods before landing a few inches above the worker's right knee, puncturing the skin.

The upset worker confronted them. While apologetic, the boys nonetheless marveled that their creation had somehow crossed the field unscathed. In the end they agreed to disagree, knowing that dart is in the thigh of the bee-holder.

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2291.

MORE

- "Wince: A Pun on Thyme," by Lou Lippman, is available online at amazon.com and createspace.com. In time, Lippman hopes to have the book available in local stores and to give author readings. At $12.95, the book's 176 pun tales are enough to make a groan fan buy.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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