Commanding a Crowd with Courage and Integrity

Fred Firestone,  the co-creator of a monthly pun comedy competition, steps into “the arena” and takes center stage.

Some know Fred Firestone as the co-creator of a monthly pun comedy competition based in New York City. Others know him through his training, motivational speaking and consulting services to a variety of companies and organizations.

These are two very different worlds for many. But for Firestone, both are what he calls his “arena,” where he takes center stage.

“I’ve been on this stage for 30-plus years,” said Firestone. “‘I use comedy as a way to get the audience engaged. In the big-business speaking structure, I ask myself how I can use a vessel to deliver what’s going to keep my clients engaged and enhance their products and services.” 

Firestone draws the arena analogy from a famous excerpt in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech – Firestone’s personal favorite – “The Man in the Arena.” He says that courage and integrity are tools that not only help him stand tall in his arena, but they also create the bridge of trust, credibility and partnership between him and his audiences. Firestone is an example that courage and integrity, while two core values of the Medal of Honor, can be attained by individuals from all walks of life—something that the National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership helps people realize through its tailored, values-based leadership education programs.

Courage certainly played a hand in helping Firestone start Punderdome in New York City after having no experience in puns. The main driver was his daughter, now-established comedian Jo Firestone, who was up-and-coming at the time.

“Jo’s modus operandi was to rent a bar space in New York City, but she didn’t know what she was going to do with it,” he said. “So a friend of hers suggested that she consider doing a pun competition, similar to the O. Henry Museum Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas.”

Jo called Firestone while he was living in St. Louis for his advice on how to make the competition unique. Although he didn’t have experience in puns or comedy, he knew how to engage an audience through his experience as a motivational speaker for businesses. “I thought if I could develop significant content based on integrity and value while integrating fun ways to engage an audience, then I had a greater opportunity to get buy-in. So I worked on building content for clients, while using things like a game show set in my garage.”

Included in the game show set was a “clap-o-meter,” which Firestone said was inspired by the applause meter used in the television game series Queen for a Day. He used it to get real-time feedback from his clients on his programs, measuring how loud they would cheer.

"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

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9 18 Dome pic 1. credit Martin Lei

After Firestone and his daughter talked it through on the phone, they produced the very first edition of Punderdome, four days later in New York City. That was May of 2011, and since then, there have been close to 150 editions of the show. Touted by The New York Times as “NYC’s hilarious cult-favorite pun competition,” Punderdome has a home at the Littlefield in Brooklyn.

The premise: A pool of contestants are given a topic, write puns on the spot based on the topic, and then present a two-minute, stand-up style monologue based on what they wrote. The audience votes for their favorite monologue using the “Human Clap-O-Meter,” then the winners advance to the next round. The tournament boils down to two contestants, who trade puns back-and-forth with no preparation based on a given topic. The audience determines the winner.

Firestone attributes the success and longevity of Punderdome to the audiences’ unwavering investment – something he also finds invaluable in his motivational speaking business. 

“You need a way to engage them. If the audience is inextricably linked with the outcome, they’re much more favorably disposed to own it. That’s also how I feel with my clients. If I come in and tell them what I can do for them, that’s disingenuous. But if I can show people that I really understand the issues they’re dealing with, while having integrity and some fun in the process. They’re more predisposed to see me as part of the solution than someone trying to sell them something they don’t need.”

Firestone’s unconventional style of engaging his clients comes with risk of failure, which he says must be embraced.

“It’s about getting in the arena and swinging away,” he said. “And you’re going to miss some things. Sometimes it’s not going to work. “But that’s the only way you’ll know what does work.”

You can lead an impactful life by adopting the six core values of the Medal of Honor – Courage, Integrity, Commitment, Sacrifice, Citizenship, and Patriotism. To get started, visit the National Medal of Honor Center for Leadership’s website at