The Style Invitational has reached so many milestones in the past couple of years, we’ve practically been tripping over them:
Half a year after that, we hit Week 1000 , commemorating our march into four digits with perhaps our most famed contest, to create neologisms by changing an existing word by one letter.
This past March we celebrated the Invite’s 20th anniversary in a big, splashy way, with a retrospective that started on the cover of the Sunday Style section, took up three inside pages, and included a feature story about the Loser Community.
This summer, both Stephen Dudzik and Elden Carnahan — both Losers since Year 1 in 1993 — became the eighth and ninth members of the Style Invitational Hall of Fame as they each scored their 500th blots of ink. And just last week, Chris Doyle became the second Loser to reach the hall’s Inner Inner Sanctum by racking up 1,500.
Now we have the Empress’s 500th contest since she deposed the Czar in December 2003.
When the Czar told me — I don’t remember when, exactly — that he’d be giving up the Invite because he would be writing full time for The Washington Post Magazine, he asked me if I wanted to take it over. Not that it was his own ultimate decision; that was the call of Gene Robinson, who was the editor of the Style section at the time (he’s now the famed political columnist and TV pundit). But even though I was unknown outside The Post and not that well known inside — copy editors don’t get bylines — I had worked with the Czar informally as a sounding board since Week 1, had occasionally helped him cull the entries, and had filled in as “Auxiliary Czar” in three multi-week stints over the years. Except for the series of aides who handled the clerical end of the job (when The Post had money to burn on such luxuries), and for Sunday Style Editor Tom Shroder, who played “Uberczar” during my 2001 fill-in stint, no one else at the paper had had anything to do with judging the Invite — or expressed any interest in doing so. So it pretty naturally fell to me to take it over.
Of course I was daunted by the enormously tough act I had to follow. Immodesty notwithstanding, the Czar was the creator — and one of the most creative minds in American journalism, a superb writer who would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes. Me, I fixed other people’s commas and wrote headlines with puns in them. But I knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t try — especially if it meant that the Invitational would be conveniently killed if there were no one to take it over.
If you look at my first year or so of columns, I think you’ll see that they basically struggled to imitate the mock-imperious, callous tone of the Czar. And I went out of my way to try to establish an “Empress” persona, trying to mention the name in every column. (The Czar thought I was being wildly self-indulgent, but I still occasionally get e-mails to “Czarina.” I had no byline; I had to do something to make it clear that a single human was running the contest, and not some amorphous they at The Washington Post.)
And while I knew that I would never measure up to the Czar’s creativity and writing style, I did feel confident from the start that my judging of entries was as valid as his. I know lots of stuff on a superficial level, and so I tend to get the references in the Invite entries. As a creature of suburbia, I could relate to the domestic-life observational humor of many local entrants; I remember that the forever-urban Czar had never heard of Sam’s Club. My job as a copy editor did involve writing Style’s pun headlines that people still complain about, so I did have some wordplay cred. And while some people were convinced that I preferred droll-highbrow to gut-laugh-lowbrow, I don’t think the results over the past decade have reflected any great shift from the Czar to the Empress.
It’s funny that one of the five “warning” cartoons of Week 535 was supposed to convey that “potty humor will be frowned upon”; obviously that didn’t happen, though I’ve probably given ink more often to risque sex jokes than to risque toilet jokes. But basically I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the jokes in the first decade of the Invite and those of the second. (I regularly still use the Czar as a sounding board when I’m down to my short list of entries, just as he used to use me; we just happen to think alike for the most part when it comes to humor.)
And I also compensated somewhat for not being the Czar by being a little nicer. While the Czar’s distant, (somewhat) mock-contemptuous attitude toward the contestants did result in a perversely worshipful fandom — I’d get e-mails from people wanting to know when his birthday was — I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know the Loser Community (and a number of the Losers personally) and participating in their events, from the brunches to the annual Flushies awards to the holiday parties. I do enjoy sending out notes along with the magnets every week (even though they’re shorter than they used to be — the notes, not the magnets). Also, I’m wayyy better at getting the prizes sent out; for much of 2004, I fielded complaints week after week from people who’d never received their T-shirts or bumper stickers. I remember getting an e-mail from an Empress-era contestant who noted that it was already four days after the results ran and he still hadn’t gotten his magnet; you have no idea, you spoiled, spoiled man, I told him.
As the Czar put it: “I was the stern father. You are the nurturing mother.”
So will we be gleefully announcing, around 36 weeks from now, that next milestone: that the Empress has put out more Invite columns than the Czar did? Well . . . We really don’t know what’s in store for The Post in the coming year — it seems nobody does, except, maybe, Jeff Bezos. So we’ll deal with that milestone in the event we reach it.
Once again, the formerly named “air quotes” neologism contest drew well over 1,000 entries, most of them getting the idea that the word marked off inside the larger word or name should relate to the original in some wry way. There were a few entries that didn’t but were still funny, such as “Pee‘rage’: Anger when finding the preceding man in a public stall did not raise the seat” (Jim Stiles), or ‘Sym’pathetic: Beginners’ orchestra (Joanne Free). But they couldn’t Fosbury-flop over the high bar of this week’s three dozen or so inking entries.
I feel only a little bit bad when I can’t use someone’s entry because it’s based on a misspelled word or name: “Mc‘Done’ll: Virginia g‘over’nor” would have gotten ink if the woeful chief executive actually spelled his name with just one N.
It’s the fourth win, the 16th blot of “above-the-fold” ink, and almost the 100th ink overall for Loser Barbara Turner (her Loser Stats anagram: Rear-Burnt Arab isn’t quite relevant to her entry, but it’s at least similar subject matter) since her debut back in Week 524. Barbara hadn’t been entering much of late, so it’s heartening to see her name back on the page. And it’s another veteran, Mike Gips, who gets to treat his family to a breakfast of Holy Crap cereal (talk about your Rear-Burnts). It’s Mike’s 122nd ink, 15th above the fold.
It’s always exciting when I look up my winning picks to see who wrote them (in a short-form contest like this, I rarely have a clue) and especially fun to find that the winner or a runner-up is by a brand-new name. Lela Martin’s double entry — it wouldn’t work as just one part — gets her a mug or bag (her choice) as well as her FirStink air “freshener” (spelled “freshner” on the Little Tree itself, by the way). I hope to hear lots more from Lela. And the other runner-up, a very occasional entrant, is someone I more or less recruited: I met Yuki Henninger when she and I were filling in for ailing choir members at a local church’s Palm Sunday service a few years ago; she mentioned that she was a fan of the Invitational but never entered. Enter, I decreed. Hey, I felt powerful — I was wearing one of those robes.
Not that any of the following is very shocking, but I didn’t think they were worth fighting over when I can share them down here in the no-complaints-allowed department:
C“hardon”nay: White wine fortified with Viagra. (Mark Raffman)
“Tit”anic: Due to design flaws, sinking is inevitable. (Elden Carnahan)
M“anus”cript: A crappy piece of fiction. (Vic Krysko, from our Surit Thani, Thailand, bureau)
De“bris”: the bit they throw away. (Vic again)
“Turd”ucken: Even worse than the original three-meat combo. (Charles Mann)