The first sentence John Pollack ever spoke was a pun—but, unlike most people, Pollack made something of his talents. The 2-year-old who justified his bare feet by telling his mother that “bears go barefoot!” would one day grow up to win a bronze horse’s ass for being world pun champion.

Pollack, 32, spent almost three years as a free-lance journalist in Spain, an experience that moved him last year to co-author The World on a String: How to Become a Freelance Foreign Correspondent. Currently, he’s a Washington-based speechwriter for House Democratic Whip David Bonior. But three years ago, Pollack amazed his friends and himself by winning the 18th annual International Pun-Off in Austin, Texas.

It may be difficult to believe that such an event exists, but the participants are no slouches. Acting like improvisational comics, contestants must survive a grueling series of head-to-head single-elimination matches that put their wits to the test every five seconds. Sharpened by years of dinner-table punning with his dad, Pollack decided to stake his pride and a frequent-flyer ticket on the contest.

It works like this: A judge chooses a random topic from a hat. Two punsters—yes, that’s the recognized term—take turns riffing on the chosen subject. Each punster has five seconds to offer something punny—and if he fails, he’s eliminated. (Even foreign languages are acceptable; in his winning effort, Pollack punned in English, Spanish, French, Yiddish, and Catalan.)

As soon as one punster offers up a pun, it’s the other punster’s turn. Each one puns in turn until someone loses—or, if both survive the full seven-minute round, the winner is decided on quality, on the basis of an audience vote. (Groaning is considered high praise—although applause ranks even higher.)

In Pollack’s first round, the topic was flying machines. Facing an ex-champion, Pollack parried his opponent’s first effort by commenting, “I hope I picked the right flying machine.” At least, that’s what the judge thought Pollack said. On the verge of disqualification for failing to pun, Pollack explained that what he had actually said was, “I hope I picked the Wright flying machine.” The audience chuckled.

Later that round, Pollack’s opponent said he was “just winging it.” Pollack’s response: “U2?” “That was the best one of the round,” Pollack recalls, a little nostalgically. “It was concise, on point, and on topic.”

The semifinal round—using countries of the world—whittled five contestants, including three former champions, to two finalists. “People were not even taking their five seconds, and all the good countries went really fast,” Pollack says. That’s important, because a contestant cannot pun on a word previously used. Pollack’s best effort involved Tanzania; he suggested that African explorers used to wear shorts while hiking so that they could Tanzanias.

With Pollack facing an emergency medical technician in the final round, the topic seemed unfortunate: external body parts. But luckily for Pollack, his opponent ran out of puns first. The victory earned Pollack no money—only the horse’s ass—but it did land him in a few newspaper stories, a National Public Radio interview, and the local Fox news. On Fox, he recalls, “the host tried to hit me with a topic right as they were going to break. The topic was Father’s Day. So I said, ‘Dad’d be a difficult one to answer.’”

Pollack, who resists the temptation to insert puns in Bonior’s speeches, says that “there were some brilliant punsters there, and on any given day anyone could have won the championship. It’s all about hearing words as sounds, divorced from meaning. You have to be able to reshuffle sounds and reattach them.” But good as his efforts were, Pollack has decided against re-entering the competition, for a simple reason: He wants to keep his lifetime undefeated record intact.—Louis Jacobson