Zahid Dewji and Gabe Bravo with last year's guest judge, Dusti Rhodes (center)

Jokes that provoke cringing and groaning rank among life’s crueler pleasures. But at cozy EaDo club The Secret Group, bad puns produce good results. The venue’s One Off Pun Off event, taking place this month, celebrates the form by lavishing winners with cash prizes and sweet sponsor swag like the Evel Knievel–style jumpsuit a lucky punster won at a previous showdown.

“We all wanted to wear it,” admits Pun Off host Zahid Dewji, co-founder of the event with local comedian Gabe Bravo, who’s also his partner in HTX Comedy, a local promotions group.

Those who think they’ve got the write stuff can sign up at htxcomedy@gmail.com, but be advised: The competition can be pretty stiff. Jokes often die agonizing deaths in front of about 250 people, assuming this, the third edition, draws another sellout crowd.

“It’s not what life’s about,” Dewji says, “but it’s fun to celebrate winners and brutally roast and make fun of losers for being bad at what they do.”

Bravo concurs. “Everyone has a different approach, but one guy that we know had built up this giant premise,” he recalls of a past Pun Off. “The whole idea was, he had a clock around his belt and he was ‘waisting time.’ It was so funny to watch it bomb. It was so bad.”

Distinguishing between good and bad puns is a matter of taste, of course, but when that rare good one drops, the effect is instantaneous. Houston comic Katie McGee won last year’s contest with this tarnished gem: “He may just be a high-schooler working at Medieval Times, but the knight is young.”

“When you can tell a pun is really good, I think, is, you’ll hear the audience react,” says Dewji. “With groans but also with ‘damn, that was awesome.’ Sometimes people get applause breaks.”

The Pun Off is just one arrow in The Secret Group’s quiver of popular recurring events—a monthly Wheel of Fortune–style game show called The Wheelhouse; roasts of, for example, Harry Potter characters; the “$2 Bill” weekly showcase—that have turned it into the hub of Houston’s thriving underground-comedy scene.

Slowly, by putting together good-quality shows, we’ve built an audience of people willing to come see comedy without even knowing who’s going to be on the show,” says Bravo. “That’s pretty awesome. There’s not a lot of other comedy scenes in the country that have that.”

One Off Pun Off. Aug. 18 at 11 p.m. From $2. The Secret Group, 2101 Polk St. 832-898-1088. 

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