An empty warehouse filling with tiny sparks of dreams is a strange place to spend a Sunday morning. To boot, it was a warehouse on the far west side of Manhattan way up in the 50s, the nearest signs of life being the Larry Flynt Hustler Club and Terminal 5, a place I try to avoid as if it were an active Ebola volcano (though the upcoming Sleater-Kinney show broke my boycott).
This is where New York got its chance to audition for America’s Got Talent which is, ostensibly, a nation-sized version of the talent shows you saw in high school. Or it’s a new version of the Gong Show, or basically like an American Idol but with magicians and puppeteers, or whatever (surprise: I don’t have a TV). The point is, the show drags its tuna net countrywide and sucks hopeful participants into the vortex that says “you, yes you!, could be the One to make it.” The prize is a million dollars, a chance to headline a show in Vegas, and all sorts of teevee. So in preparation for the 10th season, the show held auditions on Sunday that drew thousands of people. Here are your dreamers, America. And I was there too. Even more bizarre, I was asked to come by the producers.
For the record, I should tell you that I don’t think I have any talents. Yes, I can blog with the varsity team, and I’d happily challenge any of the list-making bros at Complex or the factory farmed thinkpiece animals over at Brooklyn Magazine to hot takes at 50 paces if such a competition existed. And I can actually report (as in, pick up a phone and call people), in tight circles around other would-be journalists, a skill that the internet seems to treat with as much respect as someone who knows how to grow okra in the post-blight world of Interstellar. And I am really, supernaturally, good at motivating beach trips even during the most dire of summer morning hangovers.
But those are not “talents” that America wants to see on stage during a primetime competition, and America, you’ve got a valid point there. Part of the reason I got into writing in the first place, woah back in high school, was that it’s a field that keeps you out of the spotlight: I can’t dance or sing, and improv gives my stomach a bad case of the intestinal fidgets, but I can observe, and contextualize news well enough to get paid for it.
So that said, America’s Got Talent, came to me. Over the past three years, I’ve found one skill that has put me on a stage in front of people on an almost monthly basis, and a solid two handfuls of time I’ve even walked away a winner: Competitive punning. I describe it as less emotional than slam poetry but whiter than freestyle rapping.
You’ve read about Punderdome 3000 multiple times if you’ve opened up Brokelyn in the past three years, as it’s one of the silliest, affordable — and consistently most popular — regular events in all of New York City. The monthly ‘Dome at Littlefield is like a clarion call for the word nerds of Brooklyn and beyond. Like many wonderful things in NYC, it’s an outpost for those of us who thought we had no outpost, a place where people take the rank cheesiness of what was once known as Dad Humor and refine it down to a fine art, or at least a thing to do on a Tuesday night. It’s some antics for cunning linguists and if you think that’s crude, oil be right back with a better description. Find me there under my nom de pun, Forest Wittyker.
Punderdome has turned into a strange cult of writers, comedians, performers and fans. The producers of America’s Got Talent heard about it, and asked the hosts (Fred and Jo Firestone, who are almost certainly reading this. Hi guys!), to send the winners from last week’s to audition. I won (prize: Wonder Woman apron, baby Supergirl outfit), so I woke up Sunday morning, after a full 13 hours of our annual commemorative Red Hook bar crawl the previous day (eat a dick, Sandy), shook off the hangover haze and hopped on the train.
We got to Pier 94, the aforementioned empty warehouse/dock house on the edge of the river next to cruise terminals and a customs office, and immediately entered a zone of earnestness we just don’t have in Brooklyn. To our left, a girl in a sequin jumpsuit under her jacket, who would have looked at home spinning a baton, being ushered through the line under the gaze of her mother, whose talent, if I had to guess, might be as a Mama June impersonator. A handful of people were practicing songs outside. On a planter near the entrance sat a teen boy in full-on angst mode, his Bieber-hair flopped down over his eyes as he ground his chin into his hand, not looking at his mother who kept saying apologetic things but was getting nowhere. His talent may have been: emoing.
Through the door, the place was like a battlefield triage chamber for dreams big and small. In the back was the big America’s Got Talent stage, a mock up of the one from the show. Scattered throughout were thousands of people toting all sorts of ambitions and equipment: an African music troupe in full garb, a steel drum band playing “Hot Hot Hot” ‘to themselves, an old gray-bearded puppeteer with a gentle face walking around with a suite of puppets hoisted above his shoulder on a wooden hanger. Lots and lots of singers.
“How many people come through here a day?” I asked the girl ushering us to an audition room.
“Too many,” she replied, not even the least bit interested in considering an answer. I met up with my pun audition cohort, Rekha Shankar (nom de pun: Punky Brewster).
We were sent into another room to fill out a form, which was laden with a series of intimately probing questions (yelling at me through my hangover in ALL CAPS) that felt like what your high school guidance might ask you if you said you wanted to go to college for “arts.”
“WHAT IS YOUR DREAM?” the sheet scream-asked. ‘WHY IS THIS TALENT IMPORTANT TO YOU?” “WHAT OBSTACLES HAVE YOU OVERCOME IN PURSUING YOUR ACT?”
This is the moment where I truly realized: we were frauds. Not frauds in the sense that our “talent” did not in fact require some level of skill, or commitment, or even maybe some of the magical alchemy that turns chumps into champs. But we were frauds in the sense that we didn’t truly care. Here was a building full of thousands of people holding dreams in their hands; they’d practiced for weeks, gotten up early, found their way here, waited in line for surely hours, practiced in the corners while waiting more. Here we were, answering the questionnaire with jokey responses. My DREAM? “Just once, I’d like to punch a shark while surfing,” is what I responded (clarification: only in self defense). The OBSTACLES I have OVERCOME IN PURSUING punning? Well, I drive my friends fucking crazy with puns while practicing.
Across the table, a thickset Asian dude with sleepy eyes, looked out at the window at the cruise ship, the Norwegian Gem, docked next to our building, its side cabins and empty deck chairs staring back at us, with no apparent talent.
“You guys ever been on a cruise before?” he asked, breaking his stony silence. I told him I had not. “I never realized the ships were so big,” he said. We later found out that his talent was comedy.
Rekha and I swallowed our doubt, and were ushered by VIP handlers into a line for one of the audition rooms — of which there were dozens, small rooms or curtained-off chambers scattered around Pier 94. Outside of each, the air was thick with anticipation, the notes of people practicing scales, guys twisting into their dance outfits, the strum-tune-strum of acoustic guitars. We were, undoubtedly, the only people we saw who were of the young-20-30-something-of-Brooklyn demographic. Whether artisanal pickle making, noise-pop concerts, condo gentrification or other popular Brooklyn pursuits are demonstrable skills can be debated, but none were represented here. The age range was either 6-18, or 45-70.
“Performer name?” a check-in girl asked an old guy with white hair, carrying a drum and a thick drumstick.
“CRAZY GEORGE!” he responded.
And, look, I’m not some cultural tourist here: This is not an excoriation of the aspirational values of America, like some sort of snarky People of Walmart takedown, with its mean “look at them folks!” vibe. People here were honest, and hopeful. They threw themselves into these tryouts, seeing fame on the other side, like those tweeters who send out nightly entries into the @Midnight Hashtag Wars every night, hoping their’s floats to the top of the flood. They’re even braver actually, because they put themselves in front of an actual person to be judged, and put their real talent on the line. Maybe they had no other venue for it.
Our audition room was one floor up a narrow staircase. We were pushed to the front of the line, in front of people who’d clearly been waiting longer. We could faintly hear someone singing through the door. The kid behind us was all turnt up on sugar or something: he had long blonde hair and a blue ribbon pinned to his shirt announcing that today was his 10th birthday.
“Aren’t you scared??” he asked the AGT minder in the line, referencing not the audition but the railing over the staircase, which had a gap at the bottom small enough for a 10 year old to slip through. “You could sleep roll and fall right off here and die!” He repeated this assessment several times, as if he expected to sleep in this audition line for the night and put his life in risk at the process.
“No,” the minder responded, perhaps eager to hear a question that wasn’t about the chances of making it on national TV. “Because I’m Batman.”
The kid was there to sing. His audition song was going to be the Family Guy theme. “Do you guys like Bob’s Burgers?” he asked. Common ground found, at last.
Finally, we get called into the room. The spare, blank chamber looked like what a bus station might use for a temporary jail. Behind a long folding table, one large woman sat in front of a laptop, an earpiece stuck in one ear.
“So,” she says, staring wearily but professionally at the two of us “whaddya do?”
“Uh, so we do puns,” Rekha said. We were expecting them to be more prepared for us.
“Ok” the woman responded. “Go!”
Well, er, that’s not really how it works, we told her. Usually we get a topic and then kind of riff on that topic for a minute or two.
“Ok,” she says, moving it along “the topic is: America’s Got Talent!”
Rekha and I looked at each other as if she’d asked us to do puns in Esperanto. Between the two of us, we probably knew enough about the show to put together three puns total, and that’s with at least two Howard Stern puns included. We nudged her to give us another topic; she came up with fast food restaurants. We picked up our pens and paper, in Punderdome form, and started taking notes. After 90 seconds, she jumped back in:
“Let me stop you right there. That’s a lot of quiet time for TV”
Yeah, it is. Here again were our fears this wasn’t a thing that could translate to national TV.
But pushing along, Rekha and I launched into a two-person pun battle which, performed in front of a rapt audience, would level the place. The audience would be Puntucky Fried Chicken.
“There’s a fast food explosion going on,” Rekha opened with a thrust. “It’s called a Sonic boom.”
“This guy I knew was really good at robbing fast food restaurants quickly,” I parried. “He was an In and Out Burglar.”
“Porta potties with pizza are called Pap-up Johns,” Rekha countered.
“I heard those doors on those porta potties, you have to jiggle them,” I lunged. “You have to Jimmy Johns open.”
“Chicago is a fast-food town,” she pounced back, “nicknamed the Wendy’s city.”
After about two minutes of this — much longer than the typical 90 second AGT audition window — the producer cut us off again.
“It’s funny,” she said, without having laughed at all. “How do we turn this into something you can do on the stage?”
We could, Rekha offered, deliver it as a prepared bit, similar to what they expect at the O’Henry Pun Off, the decades-old pun competition in Austin, which she’d competed in the year before. From the accounts I’ve heard, the O’Henry Pun Off is to Punderdome as going on Jeopardy is to your local pub trivia night. She gave the judge a sample of her the prepared bit she did at the competition on the topic of sandwiches (she got carawayed with it).
“OK,” the producer said, now so far past our allotted tryout time that our MetroCards were turning into pumpkins. “Have that prepared. So you can come in and nail it.”
She suggested we do a video, and resubmit it to the producer who first reached out to us. Obviously, there was at best space for one punning act in the vast AGT roster, so we should collaborate.
“I think there is room for that,” she said before dismissing us. “I look forward to seeing that video.”
We left the room, feeling at least thoroughly humored for this strange performance we’d just done. The kid, with the Family Guy song, was up next. We wished him luck as we descended.
“You could tell it meant the world to them,” Rekha told me later, “when really they have no idea and couldn’t have any idea what a producer is looking for that season, no matter how inherently good and talented they are.”
Before we left, we looked around a bit more, got close to the main stage, the one with the AGT banners on it, surrounded by a refugee camp of crushed spirits or dreams dangling on the precipice. It was people of all ages (except, again, ours), sitting in folding chairs: dancers in Chinese garb, dragon puppet holders, breakdancers, those steel drum guys. Should we do a video, we wondered? We could undoubtedly come up with something clever; hell, it wouldn’t even be the first time we’ve been in a pun video together.
But, really, what would be the point? At best we’d get strung along to a bunch of auditions, and goddamnit if they certainly wouldn’t be in Manhattan, or worse. If we blasted through all the other competitors, we could win $1 million (after taxes, split both ways), and that’s student-loans killing money and all, but it feels cheap. Because competitions like this feel kinda cheap — the audience isn’t your peers, it’s a room full of producers; or if you get to the big show, the teevee judging panel consists of Bobby’s World (Howie Mandel), Private Parts (Howard Stern), Spice Girl (Mel B) and a model for the Sharper Image (Heidi Klum), who toss their opinion back to the 10 million or so members of the American public who watch it, the same public that’s given 2 Broke Girls four seasons on television. That kind of televised judgement, for some people, is the pinnacle of success, and I don’t want to stand in their way of it, or even compete for its attention.
There is a difference in tone though: the cold room with the single producer isn’t primed for puns. It’s a thing that resonates hardest and best in the room in Gowanus on a Tuesday night. Even in Austin, at the famed O’Henry Pun Off, all the Brooklyn punsters who’ve gone report that it’s a staid and often harsh affair, with people who devote their lives to game shows and trivia making up the bulk of the competition, and a seriousness so severe it crushes the free-flowing joy of just spitting pun fire.
At Littlefield, we do beers and shots while the crowd gets rowdy and screams their favorite puns back at the stage. Find us drinking in good spirits and good company at Mission Dolores afterwards. Collaborations on other projects between ‘Dome participants are becoming more common. Co-host Fred (who was nice enough to set up our AGT auditions in the first place) feels like everyone’s dad: goofy, a little embarrassing and cheesy, but the crowd loves him. His actual daughter and co-host Jo started her NYC dreams those years ago when she first carved the idea for Punderdome out of an empty space she’d booked (RIP Southpaw), before she even had an idea for a show. Now, she’s one of the best up-and-coming comedians in New York City, with a rogue’s gallery of strange, wonderful shows, and you’re damn right she hustled for it. No one will hand you your break, but the city coughs up plenty of chances to try at it.
The whole Punderdome thing — and every similarly mad show booked in the seemingly infinite performance spaces in Brooklyn — feels a little DIY and punk (or pun-k!) rock. This is the true modern Brooklyn aesthetic: you find a crack in the hard shell of the city’s creative scene and hustle your way through it until you’ve set up base camp on the other side. I don’t know if Mel B has ever graced one of these events, but I know my friends have, and so have guest judges such as Michael Showalter, Jon Glaser, City Councilman Brad Lander, and even both my current bosses, from Brokelyn and the Post. I would never begrudge anyone trying out for America’s Got Talent; but the talent of New York is more interesting.
Sure, winning a Wonder Woman apron is no million-dollar prize. It’s no headlining show in Vegas. But to be honest, Vegas wouldn’t get it anyway. And we probably wouldn’t want them to.
Tweet to vote for Sanjaya: @timdonnelly.