Dion Black, 37 — a Washington lawyer when he’s not crafting gags for a ridiculously passion-inspiring Washington Post humor contest — fingered one of the labels and recalled the time the silly stickers yielded an epiphany: The week’s assignment had been to coin and define a word or term with a palindrome. He came up with “Nametag-Gateman,” whose meaning he recites by heart two years later: “The conference organizer who won’t let you enter until you’ve ruined your jacket with adhesive paper.”
Clever, but Black was still a Loser, by the merciless code of this society, because he did not win: He came in third. He was given the choice of receiving a coveted Style Invitational Loser T-shirt or a Loser Mug.
“We’ve had some spectacularly cuckoo prizes,” says Nan Reiner of Alexandria, 57, another lawyer at the brunch, wearing a decorative pin she fashioned out of four Loser Magnets. “There was the mink baculum. Do I have to translate?”
“The penis bone of a mink.”
It’s about the size of a sewing needle, and Reiner won her very own in November for coming in second with the suggestion of a question to which “mink baculum” could be the answer: “What does Donald Trump give his fired employees instead of a golden parachute?”
Black continues: “Nobody does this to get a penis bone or a T-shirt that doesn’t fit.”
“Speak for yourself,” says Stephen Dudzik, 56, of Olney, an engineer wearing a bright yellow Loser T-shirt.
Some are born Losers, some achieve Loserdom
No reasonable person would have predicted 20 years ago that a newspaper humor contest trafficking in quirky wit and questionable taste would spawn a durable community with its own folkways, lingo, rituals and traditions, independent of the newspaper itself.
The brunches, rotating monthly among Washington, Maryland and Virginia, are just a teeny taste of the communal life of a Loser. “The Invitational is a very odd way to build a corps of friends and associates, but that is what’s happened,” says Elden Carnahan, 60, a federal employee from Laurel, a founding pillar of the Loser community.
Since the beginning, 4,600 people have gotten “ink,” which is to say, they saw their names mentioned in print or online for at least one submission deemed worthy by the original contest judge, the Czar (columnist Gene Weingarten), or his successor, the Empress (editor Pat Myers). Of those, many dozens have built Loser culture. (Early on, they styled themselves the Not Ready for the Algonquin Roundtable Society — a reference to the New York literary snarkpit starring Dorothy Parker’s crowd.)
A pre-Internet newsletter called Depravda gave way to an e-mail user group called Losernet and a Facebook page, Style Invitational Devotees, with 495 members. Losers hail from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries. (The foreign count may be skewed by Losers who file even when they vacation abroad: “I remember the panic of ‘What if I can’t find an Internet cafe to send the stuff in?’ ” says Chris Doyle, 68, of Ponder, Tex., a retired chief actuary for the Department of Defense.)
One Loser wedding and one Loser funeral have been attended by fellow Losers, not to mention other milestones. Carnahan walked into a Cheesecake Factory not long ago and found a surprise 60th-birthday party thrown by his daughters — and attended by “my church people, my family and my Losers,” he says. “It was really the three groups most important to me.”
Periodically, a dozen or more Losers take weekend field trips called Loserfests. One year it was to New York, where they stayed in the Algonquin Hotel.
Annual Loser Olympics are staged at the Gambrills home of Sarah Worcester Gaymon, 59, a retired information technology specialist for the Library of Congress. The athletics include tennis, HORSE (renamed LOSER) and distance water balloons. Last year the swimming pool event was to maneuver a wood block representing the doomed cruise ship Costa Concordia.
Carnahan is the statistician. On vast spreadsheets, he has recorded each week’s contest challenge, as well as the names of all who have earned ink, on the Web site NRARS.org. This project allowed Russell Beland, 55, a deputy assistant secretary of the Navy from Fairfax, to invent the Flushies — an annual awards ceremony to salute Loser of the Year, Most Imporved (sic), etc. Song parodies are sung, toilet paper is flung.
At last count, Beland led the league with 1,516 lifetime inks, followed by Doyle with 1,452. The winningest Loser in recent years is Kevin Dopart, 56, an engineering consultant from Washington.
In spite of rivalries, friendships form. “The first time I met Mae [Scanlan] was at a brunch,” says Beverley Sharp, 69, of Montgomery, Ala., a former French teacher recently ranked No. 12 with 369 lifetime inks. “I said to her, and I meant it, ‘I knew from reading your entries I was going to like you so much.’ ”
“It’s fun to meet somebody whose writing and wits you’ve been reading for weeks and weeks,” says Scanlan, 81, a retired photographer and a light-verse ace from Washington, ranked No. 26 with 213 lifetime inks. “I have what I call the pastor test. If I wouldn’t want my pastor to see it, I don’t send it in.”
A modicum of fame comes with being a Loser. Chuck Smith, 66, of Woodbridge, a personnel contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency wore a Loser T-shirt to the Nissan Pavilion one time and someone asked, “Do you know Chuck Smith?” At a Dave Barry book-signing, he asked the author to make it out to Chuck Smith, and Barry said, “Chuck Smith from Woodbridge?” Smith recalls.
Senior officials in the Pentagon have commented favorably to Beland on his contest zingers.
So it is not surprising that, at the recent Sunday brunch, a woman in the restaurant comes over to hail the Losers. Someone informs her that yes, the great limericist Brendan Beary, 51, a Navy software engineer from Great Mills, is in the house.
“Really!” says the Losers fan. “You guys are great!”
But it’s really not about the fame, says Loser Black.
“If it weren’t for this contest, there is no shot of me meeting any of these people,” he says.
After a friend of Black’s was killed in a car accident, he ran a half-marathon in 2011 to raise money for the ASPCA, one of her favorite charities. He announced it on the Style Invitational Devotees Facebook page. Of the $3,000 he raised, $2,500 came from Losers. He gets emotional talking about it.
“That’s community,” he says.
Be sure to check out the many other segments of this 20th-anniversary Style Invitational retrospective: classic limericks; song parodies; neologisms (new words); horse “breeding” and “joint legislation”; and dozens of other winning entries from the past decade. Plus how to enter this week’s new contest — and more!. And more! See the index of articles here.
Next: The “Bad Analogies” and other viral Invitational ink