Once a month, Jo Firestone and her father Fred host Brooklyn’s most popular pun-related game show. The event is called Punderdome, and in the three years that Firestone’s been hosting, it’s become a veritable institution. At Littlefield, where the Firestones host the event, eager punners pack the space, many appearing regularly. (Contestants of events past have gone by names like PUNda Express and the Black PUNther.) But in 2011, when Firestone planned the inaugural event at the now-defunct Southpaw, she didn’t really have any idea how it was going to go. “I tend to book venues first, and figure out the show I want to do in that space afterwards,” Firestone said. Then, thanks in part to a glowing review from The New Yorker, Punderdome blew up. The last Punderdome at Littlefield was Firestone’s 47th. “That’s so many hours of puns. I’m now good enough at puns to annoy the people around me, which is the true mark,” Firestone said.
But Punderdome is far from Firestone’s only show. She’s a serial show-planner, cramming dozens of events into her schedule every month. Aside from Punderdome, Firestone also hosts A Hastily Written Masterpiece Starring the Audience, a pop musical that is exactly what the title suggests, and Your Fantastic Life, a show where audience members with problems put their name in a bucket and are assigned to a comedian, who has ten minutes to make their lives better. That’s just naming a few. Talk to Firestone for a couple minutes and you’ll realize that she is just about always brimming over with ideas for shows, testing the limits of what will work in front of a live audience.
“I think I drive myself a little crazy,” Firestone said. “I’m trying to narrow in on what I want to do. I’ll think, this show was good in one way but not in another. So I’ll try to figure out another direction. It’s guess and check, a little bit. But I don’t like to do it half-assed. I like to figure out if it fails or not.”
This dedication has resulted in some spectacular flops, like a contest in whip people had to eat as much soup as they could while listening to stories about diarrhea. “I didn’t really understand the full implications of that until I was there,” Firestone winced. Another show, a Christmas Spectacular, left Firestone out $1200. “It was the worst show,” Firestone said. “I flew in a Liza Minnelli impersonator from Ohio and I got a chip sponsorship but the chips were all expired. The room smelled like pickles, and nobody came. Like maybe 20 people came. It was a disaster.”
But half the fun for Firestone is seeing what she can get away with. Before Thanksgiving, she sponsored an art installation called Beat It, in which gallery visitors were encouraged to destroy pinatas with foam bats in order to get out their aggression before the holidays. Firestone made the pinatas herself, and filled them with odd ingredients. “My friend made a Gwyneth Paltrow pinata and filled it with kale,” Firestone said. Another show, “The World’s Tiniest Comedy Club,” had visitors tell jokes to a small room crowded with dolls. Depending on the joke, the dolls would laugh or cry in unison.
“I think I have a graveyard now of maybe thirty shows that have been horrible. And I am about ten shows now that I’m doing and those will probably die, and I’ll have a bigger graveyard,” Firestone said. But she’s being modest. Over the last few years, Firestone has become a lynchpin in the weirdo comedy scene of Brooklyn, and a recurring host at places like Union Hall, Littlefield, Pete’s Candy Store, and WFMU, where she has her own game show-related radio show. (“Truthfully, I don’t love game shows, but I do love the chaos that ensues from live ones,” Firestone said.”Game shows give it a framework that people feel comfortable throwing themselves into, and that’s what I’m going for, to enable the chaos.”)
“Basically, I have an idea for something that I would like to see and then I try to make it happen,” Firestone said. “I think about what would get me to come to a show. And I try to make a community around it. It’s all getting weirder and more interesting, I hope.”