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Chatological Humor* (Updated 1.14.05)

I Smell a Rat

Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; 12:00 PM

*Formerly known as "Funny? You Should Ask."

Gene Weingarten's controversial humor column, Below the Beltway, appears every Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine. He aspires to someday become a National Treasure, but is currently more of a National Gag Novelty Item, like rubber dog poo.

Gene Weingarten (Richard Thompson - The Washington Post)



He is online, at any rate, each Tuesday, to take your questions and abuse.

He'll chat about anything.

This week's poll.

Weingarten is the author of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death" and co-author of "I'm with Stupid," with feminist scholar Gina Barreca. "Below the Beltway" is now syndicated nationally by The Washington Post Writers Group.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

We begin today's chat with a special challenge. If you click HERE you will find an upcoming "Pearls Before Swine" strip, which I am herein publishing with the permission of the cartoonist, Stephan Pastis. He may regret it. I will tell you that this is a bad cartoon -- a complete failure because of a very bad flaw -- and challenge you to tell me what it is. How subtle are your comic skills? What, precisely, makes the cartoon so bad? The very best explanation will win a copy of "The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death," which I will sign and dedicate accordingly.

I have already written the explanation -- the perfect explanation -- which I will cut and paste near the end of the chat.

I'd like to welcome to this chat new readers from far-flung places. On Sunday, my column suddenly tripled its circulation via syndication, debuting in fifteen new newspapers. It was an odd experience for me, having a sudden national presence. On Monday morning I eagerly checked my e-mail for signs of an excited new fan base. This was the very first one, reproduced here in its entirety:

"You're not funny. David J. Davin, Sahuarita, Az."

Yesterday, my son and I and Jeremy Fisher, my daughter's boyfriend, went out to dinner. We each wanted a different restaurant, so we decided to choose in the time-tested male fashion of a three-way rock-paper-scissors contest. On the first swipe, we were all the same. So we did it again. Same result. And again, same result. And again. Yes, we kept changing our choices. After four draws, we gave up. The odds of that happening purely by chance are one in 6,561.

We went to the restaurant of my choosing, because it was my dime. Chinese. The subject matter of our dinner conversation was time travel; we discussed, among other things, some recent scientific evidence that seemed the stuff of magic: a photon had arrived at its location before it was emitted. When we were done, we opened our fortune cookies. Jeremy's had the word "future" in it. Mine had the word "past" in it, and Dan's had the word "magic" in it. (On an unrelated note, we also discovered, from our placemats, that 2005 is the "year of the cock.")

Okay, let's see, we have discussed in this space many times the lamentable prudishness of the American media when it comes to objectionable words and whatnot. I direct your attention to the following link, which is from the Guardian, a highly respectable newspaper in England (you may need to register. It's worth it.) Please enter at your own risk. (Chatwoman, aka Edna Mae Prudheim, is forcing me to write this part.) This is not for the very easily offended; I have no idea why the very easily offended might be lurking in this chat, but consider yourself warned: Springer Claims Exaggerated, Says Comedian, (The Guardian, Jan. 7)

Take today's poll. It's a different sort of poll. No right answers, really, though I'll tell you what I chose, and why, midway through the chat.

The Comic Pick of the Week, stunningly, is today's Tank McNamara. Very, very caustic. The two runners up are Sunday's Boondocks (very, very caustic and on the same topic) and Thursday's Zippy.

Also, check out Saturday's Baldo. Is there any explanation for what that guy is saying?

Okay, let's go.

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Hall's Crossroads, Tenn.: Your "Below The Beltway" column hit home.

In our society (and probably all of them), women are defined by youth and beauty; men by status.

You'd feel as the professor probably does if you woke up tomorrow, went to work, put on a dorky hat and uniform and spent the day asking, "Fries with that, sir?"

I'm the same person I was when I was young and beautiful and men stared at me. Now men look through me. It hurts.

I realize that evolution fashioned our brains this way. The human race will propagate better if men are attracted to youth and beauty (denoting health). And women and their young will survive better if their mates are successful.

But still... it hurts.

p.s. Speaking of "hurts" -- I hope your back pain never, ever comes back!

washingtonpost.com: The (Very) Old College Try, (Post, Jan. 9)

Gene Weingarten: Wow. This is a pretty sober letter, here. And you're making some excellent points. But I think you're giving too much credence to the "men have to spread their seed" Darwinian argument excusing all sorts of lechery and whatnot. Guys really dig that argument, you know.

I like to look at good looking women who are my age. Really. I know I'm not alone.

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New York, N.Y.: Congrats on the syndication, Gene.

Are you going to claim that there is one correct answer for the first question in today's poll?

And I think the answers to the second question are already surprising.

Gene Weingarten: No, there is no correct answer, but there are revealing answers.

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Gene, how funny is facial hair (on men)? Are certain forms funnier than others? A friend insists that muttonchops are the funniest beard form going, but I vote for fastidiously groomed stubble, like that seen on George Michael and various members of the minor nobility in Europe.

washingtonpost.com: The Best.

Gene Weingarten: I think I'd vote for the Chester Alan Arthur look. Liz, can you link to a pic of Chet?

washingtonpost.com: Chester A. Arthur.

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Baltimore, Md.: More on the child v. child-less question:
How much do you think the intensity of responses on both sides has to do with the connection between being a "real woman" and having children? I am a 22-year-old woman who doesn't think she will have kids, primarily because I don't want to be married and think it's really, really hard to be a single parent. I definitely take offense at receiving almost condescending stares from other women.

While you hear a lot of arguments from both sides concerning the compensation (monetary or otherwise) that either side receives for its respective choice (does that make sense?), I honestly think that a lot of the intense feeling comes from the absurd notion that a woman isn't really a woman unless she has kids, and its corollary: a woman's choice to not have children is an indication that something's wrong with her wiring.

Gene Weingarten: I think your interpretation is a strong indication of the intensity of feeling on this subject.

I am still making my way, gingerly, in this area. I think the issue of having kids or not having kids carries all SORTS of baggage: America's sometimes unattractive worship of kids; doting parents' sometimes unattractive pride in kids and inability to talk about anything else; people's feeling that those who choose to be childless are somehow selfish hedonists, and more.

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Alexandria, Va.: What are your favorite comic strips of all time?

My top three:
1. "The Far Side"
2. "Calvin & Hobbes"
3. "Peanuts"

(Note: This does not mean I endorse newspapers running old comics. My current favorites would be "Foxtrot," "Non Sequitur," "Dilbert," "Doonesbury," "Zits," and my guilty pleasure, "Big Nate.")

Gene Weingarten: 1 and 2 stand so far above the rest that there is no meaningful ranking of a number three. Like the dropoff after Lincoln, Washington and FDR.

I would skip three and name a number four. You might give it to Doonesbury or Pogo.

Big Nate is not a guilty pleasure. It is a genuinely good strip, with a lot of personality. I used to consider my love of Creedence Clearwater to be a guilty pleasure, until a music critic informed me I need feel no guilt. Now my old guilty pleasure is Donovan, and the Monkees.

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Why Pearls is bad: "Oink oink" is a human way of expressing how pigs sound. For a pig to say "oink oink" is for a pig already to be anthropomorphized.

I'm curious though, if I win, or even if I don't, how can you tell who sent the winning entry and get in touch with them?

(in the event I win, my code word will be "dwarf cadaver")

Gene Weingarten: This is an interesting observation, and I am duly noting it.

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1 out of 6561: Wrong. 1 out of 729.

Gene Weingarten: Oh. Hm. You might be right. Please, someone else opine.

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New York, N.Y.: At some point, you should offer your services as a humor clergyman. People should confess their humor sins here in this chat (when they tried to be funny and failed miserably) and you could absolve them.

Gene Weingarten: I would be willing to take on that challenge.

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Iowa: Can we at least put Bloom County in the top ten list of comics?

Gene Weingarten: Oh, sure.

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Cross: I think that as one of the top 10 or 20 newspapers in the entire U.S. of A, The Washington Post ought to have a challenging crossword puzzle. What was the editor thinking?

Gene Weingarten: One of the top TEN OR TWENTY newspapers?

Yes, the Post is working on this. A horrible mistake.

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Rockville, Md.: Besides the column for the magazine, and answering some questions from people for an hour or so, what do you do the rest of the week? Do you have another job? Do you do editing? It seems like a small workload for the big Post salaries. Just curious.

washingtonpost.com: And what do you do -- besides submitting this same question every week?

Gene Weingarten: I also write sports stories under the byline "Mark Maske."

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Question on Iro, NY: I need your objective knowledge of humor to settle an argument between me and my father.

I believe that bathroom humor, such as you might find in a typical episode of "South Park," is funny as long as it has a layer of irony. That is, it's not the poo-poo that's funny, it's the fact that they're making a poo-poo joke. To someone who understands humor, the difference is always immediately obvious. ("South Park," yes; Farrelly Brothers, no.)

My father believes that poo-poo is poo-poo, and that I'm fooling myself if I think I'm not laughing from the part of my brain that got stuck in fourth grade.

What do you think? Can irony turn low humor into high art?

Poop!

Gene Weingarten: I've explained this in the past. Let me reiterate.

Both you and your father are correct, in a sense. Poop is funny because it is poop. Poop itself is funny. But the REASON it is funny is because of irony. We delude ourselves into believing we are a higher life form that animals; we are sophisticated; we are erudite; we think lofty thoughts. And yet, here is this ridiculous, foul substance resulting from a ridiculous undignified process, that reminds us what we are. Animals. Irony.

This is the same reason sex is funny.

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Funny Facial Hair: Chester Alan Arthur was not unusual in the style of his day.

I think the funniest facial hair of modern times (among those not trying to impress us with their facial hair, like ZZ Top) has to be Robert Bork. How someone can expect to sit on the Supreme Court when he can't decide whether to sport a beard is beyond me.

Gene Weingarten: Oh, also that big slugger on the Red Sox, whatsizname. David Ortiz. One of the worst beards in history. Liz, can we link to his beard?

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SuitlaND: 1 in 6561 is correct. On each of four attempts, there is a 1-in-9 chance of a three-way match.

9 to the 4th = 6561.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you! I'm believing you.

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What's wrong with Pearls: I can think of a number of things that are wrong with this idea, starting with the fact that meta-comics are only funny if rare, and of late meta-phenomena have been too frequent among strips in general and in Pearls (which I otherwise really like) in particular, even though Pearls usually does meta pretty well.

But in this case it doesn't make sense. Either Pig is a pig (oink) and Rat is a rat, or both are stand-ins for humans, in which case Pig should not be afraid of Rat (as humans sometimes are) because Rat is not a rat. It's the comic equivalent of a mixed metaphor.

Gene Weingarten: Hm. This is not a winner. It is interesting, but it is not a winner.

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washingtonpost.com: David Ortiz

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Long Island, N.Y.: What's your opinion on "Baby Blues?" My local paper does not have the greatest comics section so Baby Blues is one of the three or four comics I read daily. It's given me a few laughs so I was just curious what you thought. I want to keep my humor on track and all.

Gene Weingarten: A good strip. Consistently pretty funny. Characters have some depth and texture -- Zoe, in particular.

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Buffalo Grove, Ill.: Perhaps I have misplaced priorities, but I have been agonizing over something ever since Dave Barry's chat. I'm asking you, as the arbiter of all that is funny (and why), why you agree that the REAL punchline is "But first, a little roo-roo!" It seems to me that "Death... by roo-roo!" is a better punchline. It's a more ironic twist than the former, and I think it improves the joke. If I have misjudged, please enlighten me!

Gene Weingarten: You are misunderstanding the joke if you think "death... by roo-roo" is an acceptable punchline.

The only debate -- Dave and I disagree bitterly -- is whether the final line is "But first, roo-roo," or "But first, a little roo-roo."

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Bibliotek, Va.: One question and one observation:
After you reported the ethics offense, did your co-worker Beth Chang ever get counseled for using her work computer and printer for personal use after printing just one page of daughters spelling words? I'd like to know if there was ever any response to your ratting her out.

The library I used to work at carries all the Garfield anthologies. The books are oblong shaped and don't shelve well. Because they are so popular the library has lots of them and because they are so frequently checked out and removed from the shelf by casual readers, the library just keeps them in bins on the lower shelf. Who checks these books out? Boys, specifically boys betweeen 7-12. Never had a female of a male adult check them out.

washingtonpost.com: Life at the Post-Tattler, (Post Magazine, Dec. 12, 2004)

Gene Weingarten: Shortly after I wrote the column, but weeks before it appeared, I got a phone call from Mary Ann The Lawyer, one of the top executives at The Washington Post. She was following up on my "complaint." Mary Ann is a longtime friend, but this call was apparently Required Under The Sarbanes Oxley Act. So she asked, all formal-like, no introduction or howdydo, if I Wished To Pursue This Complaint. I burst out laughing, and said no. Only then did she call me a, you know, glass bowl.

Isn't government great?

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Woodstock, Md.: What religion has the funniest name? For me, I would giggle every time I had to tell someone I was "Episcopalian."

(By the way, I am Methodist; there is plenty funny about us, but not our name.)

washingtonpost.com: Hare Krishna.
Falun Gong.

Gene Weingarten: I confess I consulted a Thesaurus, but I would have to go with:

Homoousianism and Puseyism, and Swedenborgianism.

You're welcome.

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Not just for blue states anymore!: Did you notice that right wing writer/blogger James Lileks called your column "gutbustingly good?" It's nice to see that at least one conservative reads you.

Gene Weingarten: Lileks is terrific. Lileks.com. Once you get in there, snoop around. Wait till the end of this chat, though, because you will get lost in there.

Make sure you read his collection of Art Whatsizname's art. The last name escapes me. An illustrator from the 50s who only drew pictures of women whose panties have fallen to their ankles.

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Iowa: Given your considerable knowledge and expertise about comics/cartoons, have you ever tried editorial cartooning or creating a comic strip? (And of course this involves different creative skills than editing copy or writing columns or books.)

Gene Weingarten: Yes, in fact, I have. Only once!

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Your number: No, your number isn't correct. There are three possible matches each time you picked. Any match counts. Your number assumes a SPECIFIC match.

Gene Weingarten: Two people said that. So what is the real number?

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washingtonpost.com: Art Frahm. Watch for the celery. Gene Weingarten: Yes, thanky!

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Pearls Question: The first panel should have had "thought bubbles". Like Garfield and friends...

Gene Weingarten: WRONG!

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Dwarf Cadaver: You revealed my secret code word!; Either that means you think I have no chance of winning the signed copy of your book with my answer (which you "duly noted), or you didn't understand that I was giving you a way to recognzie me once I did win, and not give my prize away to some other joker who pretends to be me.

(in the even that I still win, my new code word will be Mosquito Lamb)

Gene Weingarten: Noted.

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Waltham, Mass.: Why has Liz stopped dating? Why the disclosure of such an intriguing, personal fact, but no explanation?

I do hope it's because she's become involved with someone, and not for any kind of sad reason.

washingtonpost.com: It is, regrettably, a sad reason. I've vowed never to date anyone again because I can't have Gene. I, like many women my age lately (as evinced by the recent onslaught of love-letterish postings), am completely gaga for him. On the up side, since I'll have my evenings free I plan to start a support group for the similarly afflicted.

...

Okay. That is so not true. Truth is I got engaged over the holidays. I don't think Matt would mind me dating, but I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.

And on the creepy recent phenomenon of women practically lobbing virtual undies at Gene via this chat... enough already. If you don't stop, we'll post a real photo and audio of Gene talking on this page.

Gene Weingarten: Virtual undies!

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Gene:

Can I assume that you saw this in Editor and Publisher?

L.A. Times' Drops Daily 'Garfield' as the Comic Is Blasted and Praised, (Editor & Publisher)

Any retort to the Universal Press Synidicate spokeswoman's response to your comments? Any thoughts about becoming a nationally known comics pundit?

Gene Weingarten: I think her response is wrong; I would say the parents of disappointed kids are MORE likely to write in complaint than the general adult population would be.

I also feel that kids -- even young kids -- are smarter than some comics editors give them credit for. They are subjected to quite sophisticated humor on TV, much more sophisticated humor than we all were at their age. I think bad is bad, and Garfield is bad.

I also have to remember that, terrifyingly, these chats become part of the archive of The Washington Post, even though some of the things written are written in an instant, without editing or entirely coherent thought. I have no problem with what I said about Garfield, and stand behind it, but I've writ many other things in these chats that I'd hate to see quoted, as the words of an authority.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: The Pastis strip is internally inconsistent. If the characters are anthropomorphized, Pig would recognize Rat as if Rat were a human, and not fear him as a real human would fear a real rodent.

Gene Weingarten: But isn't this irony the whole POINT of the strip?

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Anthropomorphobia: The simple answer is that the strip is not anthropomorphized, the characters are.

Maybe it's too simple. The anthropomorphized pig should be more worried about sitting in a mud puddle than being near a rat, who, if also anthropomorphized should not alarm the pig.

Gene Weingarten: Well, several people made this point, but it's a mild semantic argument, not a serious criticism, no?

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Cantthinkofanythingfun, NY: Hi Gene! I thought of you this weekend when watching TV and I saw a commercial showing a guy first buying tampons while a girl waited in the car, then folding girlie underwear with the girl in a laundomat, then doing some kind of yoga with girl, then sitting on couch with girl watching TV. The song playing was "I would do anything for love," and the "but I won't to that" part showed him failing to share his Dr. Pepper with the girlfriend. Admittedly it's no Vagisil commercial, but is the buying tampons followed by washing underwear funny? In extremely poor taste?

Both? Other?

Gene Weingarten: This seems like a weak version of the great Heineken "For Use Only In Emergencies" commercial, with the guy sitting on the couch next to his girlfriend, who has fallen asleep.

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(I probably need a life):: Gene, is there a reason you don't update the chat on Mondays? Is that you or Liz's day off? Are you unable to get out from under the deluge of enraged e-mails you received in response to Sunday's column? Or did I miss the explanation somewhere?

Gene Weingarten: I update the chat Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I don't update it Monday because then it would officially be a Blog, and I want to continue to annoy Chatwoman by refusing to do a Blog.

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Arlington, Va.: Gene, you're a humor columnist. Quit whining about your aching back and go do something funny about it instead. Go get acupuncture and then report back. Get rolfed. Go see a female chiropractor.

Best of all, go to one of those "oriental massage" parlors that advertise in the Sports section, and tell them with a straight face that your back hurts and you need a real massage -- they'll be taken aback. So to speak.

washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Sept. 2, 2001)

Gene Weingarten: Boy, I'm glad you brought this up. This is one of my favorite columns of all time. It led to my favorite expense acount item of all time.

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Trompe L'Oeuil, VA(y): Those of us reading your snail-paper version of the BtB column this Sunday got a jolt when we turned from the front page of Style to the jump page 3.

Page 1 ended with you musing about your hottie college professor from way back when. You wrote, "Hmm, I wonder if there are any recent pictures of her on the Web?"

We turned then to page 3 where there was a stunning photo of Miss USA. All I can say is Thank God for our new Home Defibrillator.

Fine article, Geezer Boy.

washingtonpost.com: The (Very) Old College Try, (Post, Jan. 9)

Gene Weingarten: I know! It was great! Several people have noticed this.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you know the etymology of warfarin? You know warfarin, don't you? Rat poison. Well, it's name came from Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) + coumarin (which is an anticoagulant with medical uses.) I've often wondered whether they set out to make a better rat poison ("Alumni Fund Takes New Direction") or whether they were trying for a new formulation for human use, got a real surprise during the animal testing phase, and decided to make lemonade from the lemons the new formulation handed them.

Gene Weingarten: Well, you are ignoring the coolest part, which I am guessing was an accident. Warf. Wharf. Wharf rat. Well, maybe I am just a dweeb.

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Gene Weingarten: Okay, the poll.

Well, as to the first question, there is an interesting dispersal of answers. To me, there is only one good answer. With financial improvement no longer a goal, i would want the job that would let you strive to be the Best in the World at what you do: Car mechanic. All the other jobs, really, are just jobs, you know? Not sure why you all want to be piano tuners. It's a very mechanical thing. Edward Compton,my clock-watch repairer friend, also tunes pianos though he barely plays.

If you chose bathroom attendant, you are lazy. Cabbies would value experiential stuff, which I understand. You're out, you move, you meet people. It's the only other answer I really understand.

More on the other two questions in a minute.

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Gene Weingarten: The men-women question results astound me. I expected women to favor contact without love, which they do, and men to favor love without contact, which they do not. Good for you, guys.

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Gene Weingarten: The third question was a trick. Chatwoman disagrees with me on this, but she is wrong.

The name is irrelevant. Of course the Esq. is the funniest name, but we are talking about REALLY WEIRD animals in your backyard. That's all that matters.

The giraffe. Would make you laugh outloud in a way none of the others would. Sorry.

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Piano tuner: I thought being a piano tuner would give me the opportunity to see and meet new people and places, rather than being in one place.

Gene Weingarten: So would cabbie. And roofer.

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College Park, Md.: I think you missed the point of piano tuner. It's probably mainly guys chosing that one because, well, we all know about those infamous letters to that infamous magazine that start something like, "It was another ordinary day tuning pianos when I went to this woman's house..."

Gene Weingarten: I see.

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McLean, Va.: Since someone brought up Beth "Fighting Irish" Chang: I wanted to tell you that I'm a corporate attorney who does a lot of work related to compliance programs. I forwarded your column on those policies around to my co-workers, and we all had a nice laugh. (Yes, even corporate lawyers laugh.)

Also, Pearls Before Swine usually does the meta thing so much better. Sunday's swipe at Cathy was pretty good, much better than this "oink oink" strip.

Gene Weingarten: Okay, okay. I've had enough. I am going to declare winner and explanation now. There are three winners; each will get a book. I am going to print em now, followed by my explanation.

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Pearls Before Swine: This is a trick question. This comic is funnier then the CPOW. You're trying to find the most asinine reason why this funny strip isn't funny. This is a very clever ploy.

Gene Weingarten: This is Winner One.

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Re: Oink: I don't buy this explanation. If Pastis is "not allowed" to use onomatopoeia, how exactly is he supposed to connote Pig's vocalization? That said, I have no idea what's wrong with this strip-- I thought it was funny.

Gene Weingarten: This is Winner Two.

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Pearls: The timing is off. There should be an additional panel after the second, in which Pig contemplates this before acting.

Gene Weingarten: This, Stunning Accurate, is Winner Three.

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Why PBS is bad: Actually, I laughed. It caught me off guard (maybe because I was concentrating on reading the poorly-scanned image, that the punch line took me by suprise). So, Steve, don't believe EVERYthing Gene says -- in this case, in my opinion, he is wrong!

Gene Weingarten: SORRY, This is winner Four. And now, my explanation:

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Gene Weingarten: Okay, here is the answer to the Pearls Before Swine challenge. Alas, I deliberately misled you in the introduction. My apologies. Deception was necessary to conduct the experiment properly.

This is the correct answer to what is wrong with the cartoon:


"Just about nothing is wrong with this cartoon. The only flaw is a very small matter: There should be a fourth panel; it should be between panel two and panel three, and should just be Rat and Pig staring at each other. This is better, for pacing. Other than that, this cartoon is ingenious. Perfect. Brilliant. Magical."

Back story: Several weeks ago, I received a friendly email from Pastis, teasing me for setting myself up as a critic of comics, without, you know, ever having DRAWN a comic, etc. He said being critical is easy, and criticism hurts. So he made me a challenge: He challenged me to come up with a concept for a Pearls cartoon - write it completely, dialogue and all - and he would draw it. Then I would publish it in the chat and CALL FOR criticism. Call down an airstrike on my own position.

The cartoon you saw was written by me and my son, Dan. It took us about two hours of fighting. It is hard, inventing a comic. Pastis wins on points.

Anyway, that's the story, and I have to say, you responded nicely.

(I had intended that extra silent panel, but because of a miscommunication between Pastis and me, it wasn't drawn.)

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Poll land: I chose car mechanic, but for a different reason. I am a female. I picked the job that would be the sexiest if done well by a girl. It's all about nookie potential.

Gene Weingarten: Do you know that nookie is considered a really dirty word? I learned this when I used it in a story once. Fortunately, it got past Chatwoman, here.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Liz -- Congratulations on your engagement! Here's an interesting question: Are you planning on having a traditional wedding and if so, will Gene attend, given his distaste for them?

washingtonpost.com: No, no traditional wedding. I share his distate, though not his opinion on the only acceptable reason for the institution of marriage.

Gene Weingarten: Yayyy. This is the first I heard of this.

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Areyououtofyourmi, ND: You want me to be an auto mechanic? Work in a noisy, dirty garage and breathe exhaust all day, then come home with grease all over my hands and arms? Yeah, that sounds better than going to rich people's houses and fancy concret halls to spend an hour or two making a gorgeous musical instrument sound right.

Gene Weingarten: It depends on what your goal is. Mine would be to be fabulously great at what I do. I contend that there is no such thing as a Great piano tuner.

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The Pond: Jeremy Fisher is a character invented by classic children's book author Beatrix Potter. He is a frog. His friends are Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton.

Gene Weingarten: That is correct. Jeremy is not unaware of this.

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Kensington, Md.: Gene, have you ever "roofed?" As a teenage girl, my father thought a great family summer project would be to build a huge covered deck with an attached dark room. I have roofed. Midsummer. In Florida. Twenty years later, I still sympathize whenever I see a crew out on a site.

Gene Weingarten: I have roofed. It is one of the scariest things I ever did.

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We heart Gene: Actually, after reading "I'm with Stupid," I can see why you are in love with your wife, even with the virtual panties all around you. But, um, may I ask... why do you think your wife is so smitten with you?

Gene Weingarten: Who says she is? My assumption all along has been that she barely tolerates me. It's actually a good way to think about these things. Keeps you on your toes.

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Re: Giraffe: All the giraffe does is eat leaves. The gorilla is much funnier because it would scratch itself inappropriately.

Gene Weingarten: But it's a FEMALE gorilla.

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Bravo!;: Great job on the comic!; But you wouldn't want to do it as a career, would you?

Gene Weingarten: I couldn't. It's really hard, and doing this seven days a week would drive me crazy. New found respect for these guys. Dan and I fought like Rat and Pig. I came up with the storyline, he came up with the punchline.

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OK, but seriously: How DO you know who sent in the winning entries?

Does chatwoman have a way of determining where all the "queries" come from?

washingtonpost.com: You need to send me your name/address.

Gene Weingarten: Noted. No cheating. We'll know.

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Not All Are Created Equal: Just because you are the arbiter of humor doesn't mean that you know anything about pianos. A good tune can make a bad instrument sound good, and a bad tune can make a good instrument sound bad. And I'm not talking about whether or not the notes are "on pitch," but how well it blends and fits the tenor of the piano. You see, the notes aren't evenly spaced in terms of pitch, that hasn't been the case in years (at least for good tunes) since it leads to wierd sounds.

Gene Weingarten: I'll accept this because you seem to know what you are talking about, but isn't one simply a good tuner or a bad tuner? I mean, can one aspire to be the best piano tuner on Earth? If the answer is yes, I'll eat crow.

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Your wife: But you don't think your wife thinks you barely tolerate her? That would not lead to Unjealous wife... Are you a jealous husband?

Gene Weingarten: My wife knows I do not Barely Tolerate Her.

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New York, N.Y.: What did Pastis think of your cartoon?

Gene Weingarten: Good question.

He said that he regarded my cartoon in the following fashion: As though he were playing a sonata on a piano, and I came up and smashed my fist on the keyboard!!!

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Bowie, Md.: I didn't send an entry because I thought PBS was really funny and couldn't think of a criticism.

Do I get a book for that?

Gene Weingarten: No.

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Anonymous: Wow. I surprised myself with the stunningly correct answer! What do I have to do to get the book?

washingtonpost.com: If you're the winner. Send in your address here. We won't post it live.

Gene Weingarten: Noted.

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Bal-D'oh: You're asking the wrong question. The real mystery is why this strip exists, unless it's to serve as the "Curtis" to some future Hispanic "Boondocks." (Was that the name of that black-charactered strip that started in the 70's?) You know, to blaze a humorless trail for a new ethnic/species category to actually be, you know, funny. Sort of like "Garfield" did for Bill the Cat.

Gene Weingarten: I like this notion! And by the way, several people assumed the guy was talking to his wife, about some impending antique purchase or some such.

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Crystal City, Va.: You are giving copies of your book the winners. Were you given a bunch of copies from the publisher, or do you now have to buy copies from a store when you do something like this?

Gene Weingarten: I have some copies.

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New York, N.Y.: Gene, I think my wife barely tolerates me, too. If I don't do the dishes tonight, that will be it... etc. It just makes things easier.

Gene Weingarten: Precisely. It is a great mechanism for harmony in a marriage, particularly a marriage, like mine, of unequal worth.

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Way out du, DE: Donovan!;!;!;!; Is there any song stupider than "Cosmic Wheels"? (And for Donovan, that's saying a lot... cf "Mellow Yellow").

But then, some of his weird jazzy stuff was kind of cool.

Gene Weingarten: I like a lot of his early stuff, in the Hurdy Gurdy Man days. Sorry. I SAID it was a guilty pleasure.

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Roo Roo: Okay, can you explain why we are misunderstanding the joke? I agree that it's better with Death... by Roo roo. Even my wife who thought the joke incredibly tasteless after asking about it from a Dave Barry column thinks it is slightly improved by "Death by roo roo."
What is it that we are all missing?

Gene Weingarten: You don't seem to be telling it right, or some such.

The second missionary is given the option of sudden death, or roo-roo. After what he has just witnessed, he chooses sudden death.

The punchline is uttered by the chief. It begins, "Very well, ...." So clearly, there are only two possible punchlines, and yours is not good.

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Cold Shoulder: Hoping you can help. My live-in boyfriend acted like a selfish jerk on Sunday. I have been ignoring him since then because I don't want to talk to him until he apologizes. The problem is that he continues to talk to me like I'm not ignoring him ("What do you want for dinner?", "How was your day?", etc.) While I actually find the fact that he's doing this to be funny, I cannot let him know that. So, how do I get him to own up to acting like a jerk before I bust out laughing the next time he tries to carry on a conversation with silent me?

Gene Weingarten: Um, he has won. Don't you see this?

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Hypochondriac: It is like always thinking you ahave a fatal disease, thinking your wife will, at any moment, decide you aren't worth it. I wouldn't want to live like that. But then again, I am female.

Gene Weingarten: Wrong, wrong wrong.

It is more like being successful because you are very afraid of failure. It works.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Gene, you may have to answer this without actually posting my post. In respect to the Boondocks comic above (which I agree is great), would there be a suitable contrasting joke? I'm thinking that a very similar (though opposite) joke would be the same scene (white guy in shorts and t-shirt, black kids in heavy jackets, baggy jeans, knit hat) yet in the summer instead of the winter. Of course, the white guy would be saying "black people." I see this as the same joke but also see that this would never pass in the same way. Is this true/right/logical? Makes you question a lot.

Gene Weingarten: I would say you are right; whatever the inversion of that joke would be, it could not be printed.

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Failure: Okay, I see your reasoning now. But I still content it wouldn't work for most women, just for men.

Gene Weingarten: Interesting! I agree.

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Anonymous: How can someone be the best auto mechanic on earth? At some point, the car is running well, or it's not. You charge a fair cost for your expertise, or you don't. Same goes for the best roofer the best roofer, or cabbie. You can distinguish between good and bad (the job is done efficiently or not), but there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for "very best".

Gene Weingarten: Nope, you can have a genius diagnostician.

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New York, N.Y.: Re: Pastis's comment. Ouch.

Gene Weingarten: Wasn't it GREAT? Pastis is a very funny guy.

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Or roo-roo: I have also been wondering why "Death,... by Roo-Roo" is not the better punchline, and now understand. It's because you are telling a different joke. In the version I am familar with, the missionary is offered the choice of "death" or roo-roo, not "sudden death" or roo-roo.

Gene Weingarten: Even GIVEN that, it is not as good. Think about it. The "but first" makes it a better joke.

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Your closing words: Sometimes, I am sad you don't post anything I say. Then you say something at the end like, oh, so many good posts, sorry I couldn't get to them all. Now I wonder... are you being patronizing?

Gene Weingarten: No. I have already looked at 450 posts, and Liz has withheld probably another 200. I never get to answer all I want to answer.

But hey, you got in!

Thank you all. Huge responses are becoming commonplace, and it is both heartening and disheartening. Apologies to the many people with intriguing observations: But check the archive the rest of the weeek. I'll try to answer many more.

Thanks. Next week, same time.

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UPDATED 01/12/05

Gene Weingarten: Urgent Update! My son, Dan, came up with an even funnier-sounding religion than I did. I'm just going to throw this one out there, and then hustle away before anyone notices: "Christian Scientists."

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Gene Weingarten: Several people who took the minority position in the poll -- they’d sooner that their lover loved another but never cheated, rather than cheated without love -- submitted an interesting explanation for their answer. This one says it best:

I heartily disagree with your assessment of the answers to question number 3. For the record, I am a guy. But favoring contact over love is asinine. That's betrayal, pure and simple, and the absence of love means the betrayal was meaningless. I'd rather have my girlfriend leave me for the love of her life than for pure animal lust -- in the former case, at least my misery is for a reason. In the latter, I'm still betrayed and my former girlfriend is a total scumbag. By the same reasoning, I'd rather be robbed by someone who legitimately needs the money than someone who's just doing it for kicks. You support the answer that everyone assumes is correct, but it doesn't hold under scrutiny.

I see the logic, but feel differently. I would not want to remain in a relationship where I knew that the person I loved was pining for someone else; in fact, if I wanted to stay in that relationship, I’d probably URGE her to consummate it, and figure out where she stands. I could not live with not knowing.

On the other hand, I think I could forgive a stupid meaningless sexual infidelity. I did not expect most men to agree with this, but apparently they do.

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Roo roo again: I still don't understand. "Death by roo roo" (and I agree that the version I know does not involve sudden death) has the irony of a guy who is trying to get out of roo roo ending up getting it twice over. "But first roo roo" simply implies that the chief is a jerk and not actually giving the guy the choice he requested. NOT FUNNY. And even the inclusion of "sudden" doesn't help. "Sudden" implies that the death should happen immediately, not after a "but first". Otherwise you could say "Sudden death, but first 50 years in prison" which is just as stupid.

Gene Weingarten: Okay, okay. We have to put this to rest. Dozens of people have written in, arguing for their punchline. Sorry, there is only one good version of this joke, and only one good punchline.

Joke: Two missionairies captured by a savage tribe. The chief gives the first one a choice of sudden death or roo-roo. The missionary, figuring what the hell, chooses roo-roo. It turns out roo roo is an extremely bad thing indeed, perpetrated upon him for hours, serially, by every tribesman, until he dies of shock and exhaustion. The second missionary is given the same choice, sudden death or roo-roo. He says "SUDDEN DEATH!" And the chief says, “Very well, but first... a little roo-roo.”

With this setup, there is no alternative punchline that works. The joke is funny because it becomes apparent, at the end, that there had never been any choice at all and that (this is the key) the tribe just sorta, y’know, LIKED doing roo-roo. That is why, despite Dave Barry’s arguments, the "a little" helps the punchline.

Now I gather there is a certain other version of this joke, in which the first missionary does not actually die. Then the second missionary is given the choice of death or roo-roo, and he chooses death, and the chief says, "okay, death... by roo-roo." I contend this is an inferior version. For one thing, it strains credulity to think anyone would choose death over virtually any indignity that left you alive. But also, the whole engine is weaker. For one thing, offering "death OR roo-roo" is a lie. "Death BY roo-roo" contradicts this. It is simply a weaker setup.

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Gene Weingarten: There was also much defense of the piano tuning profession, and I will yield on this one. Best summary:

Great Piano Tuner:The term is really a misnomer -- piano technician, or even mechanic, would be more accurate. The piano tuner knows how to make pianos sound good, how to repair them when they're broken, how to optimize their sound. An incompetent technician doing the wrong things to a great instrument can make the instrument sound awful, and a good one can make a marginal instrument sound halfway decent. They rehab old instruments that have sentimental value. They can baby an instrument that's been treated badly for many years, coming back every few weeks to gradually bring the tuning up to where it needs to be, and bringing it back to almost new. A good piano tuner is worth his/her (mostly his in my experience) weight in gold, so to speak. That plus the no-boss aspects makes it an ideal profession.

There are also different systems of tuning, but I won't even try to go there. The only down side is the proliferation of good-sounding electronic keyboards has probably lowered demand.

Here's a linkto an academic paper on the topic I found via Google, which may explain some of the subteties that would make it possible for someone to be the best piano tuner in the world.

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Gene Weingarten: Regarding the "Pearls Before Swine" strip my son and I created, there was this observation:

Alexandria, Va.:You have misjudged the comic issue again. The major flaw with your "Pearls Before Swine" that makes it completely unfunny (and Pastis' comment so accurate) is that the great joy of PBS is the deadpan. They talk and talk without expression or movement, and this makes everything they say slightly more pithy. You, by granting Pig an expression, and an exaggerated one at that, have struck an obscenely wrong note, and have perhaps permanently ruined the source of the strip's humor. Good job, ruiner.

Which is pretty close to the truth. I finally heard from Pastis:

Stephan Pastis, Santa Rosa, Calif.:I thought the giveaway that it wasn't me was having Pig running away and screaming in the last panel. I think almost all Pearls strips end with something understated, and they rarely show emotion in that last panel.

Also, Gene is not telling you that in the grassline I hid the words, "Weingarten is ruining my damn strip."

That last bit is true, but it was too small to be seen online.

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UPDATED 01.13.05

Alexandria, Va.: I don't know if you watch a lot of movies, but if so, what was the funniest movie you saw in 2004?

Gene Weingarten: Sadly, the funniest movie I saw in 2004 was the original "Dr. Strangelove." The second funniest was "Top Secret" (1984). Have you seen "Top Secret" recently? A tragically forgotten comedy. The most recent "comedy" I’ve seen was "Dodgeball." Gawd, what lameness. The lamest part was that the sexy, female lead -- the woman you were not only supposed to lust after, but to respect for her intelligence -- was the same actress who played Marcia on the "The Brady Bunch" movie.

washingtonpost.com: That would be Ben Stiller's wife. And, really, isn't it weird that she looks EXACTLY like the real Marcia Brady? Was surgery involved? Are they related? This has kept me up nights.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene,

I've been reading "Loose Parts" per your recommendation, and it strikes me as being a blatant Gary Larson rip off. Is that why you like it?

Gene Weingarten: Virtually every good weirdo-themed single-panel strip is a Larson rip-off -- some ("Loose Parts") more than others ("Speed Bump.") I’m a Dave Barry rip-off. Dave is a Robert Benchley rip-off. Benchley is a Jerome K. Jerome rip-off. And so forth. If you are going to start penalizing rip-offs, you won’t be reading much. You could do worse than rip off Mr. Larson. By the way, "Brevity," another good Larson rip-off, is what replaced "Garfield" in the LA Times.

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Washington, D.C.: So this morning the pediatrician tells me it's nothing serious, my daughter only has the Coxsackie virus. I get a dirty look because I laugh out loud after she gives me this diagnosis. Don't you think this is one of the more hilarious names for a disease?

washingtonpost.com: Coxsackie Virus

Gene Weingarten: Well, it is funny. I lived in the Albany area early in my career, and there was a town there called Coxsackie, from which (I believe) this virus derivates. So I became callused to the humorositudinousness of this name. My current favorite illness name is "thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura."

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Penny Vanilla: Doesn't that new "conservative" comic strip have at least some obligation to be either funny or well drawn. Further proof that conservatives ahve no sense of humor.

Gene Weingarten: I'm really disappointed in "Prickly City" so far. But we need to give it more time. I’ve been somewhat disappointed by "Candorville," too, but I KNOW that’s a good strip. No fair making a judgment for at least two months. (I remember being underwhelmed by "Get Fuzzy" in its first few weeks.)

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UPDATED 01.14.05

Fairf, AX: Zits and Charlie Brown: I noticed something odd in Thursday's "Zits." The mother is wearing a yellow zig-zagged striped shirt similar to Charlie Brown. That plus the hang-dog look in the last panel made me wonder if it was a Peanuts homage.

Opine Gene!

washingtonpost.com: Zits, (Jan. 13)

Gene Weingarten: Nah. If so, he would have delivered some other clue.

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So...: ...when will your PBS be published? If at all?

Also, that picture of you on the discussions page of washingtonpost.com makes you look like Peter Sellers. Which is cool.

Gene Weingarten: I think it will be published the first Tuesday after Hell freezes over.

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Arlington, Va.: This past week, I started off a new semester of college, and with it came the inevitable trip to the college bookstore. In one trip, for two classes, I spent $355. You have several times mentioned that you don't actually make money off the sales of your book. Have you ever considered writing a college textbook? If you write it with Gina (being a professor and all) she can force her classes to buy it, and you can charge whatever you want. Or, you could just call "I'm With Stupid" a textook (add some graphs from chat poll results, some graphics of things that look important, a picture of a manatee, stuff like that), and see if that works. Even if you don't get any professors to use it, The Daily Show, after 15 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, has shown that fake textbooks do well.

Gene Weingarten: Gina's husband, Michael Myer, is the editor of The Bedford Introduction to Literature, which is simply the greatest English lit textbook I have ever seen. Hundreds of short pieces, brilliantly selected, perfectly integrated, with smart introductions and analyses. I read it often, simply for enjoyment. It is used in many, many colleges for their intro to Lit courses. Michael is not an impoverished man, either intellectually or otherwise.

But here is the best part: Every few years, he "updates" the collection, removing some pieces, replacing them with more contemporary ones. THE SCHOOLS ALL HAVE TO BUY THE NEW ONE.

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Can this only be told out loud?: Did you hear the circus is coming to town? Gonna be INTENSE.

Gene Weingarten: Or, not at all. That would be fine, too.

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UPDATED 01.14.05

Fairf, AX: Zits and Charlie Brown: I noticed something odd in Thursday's "Zits." The mother is wearing a yellow zig-zagged striped shirt similar to Charlie Brown. That plus the hang-dog look in the last panel made me wonder if it was a Peanuts homage.

Opine Gene!

washingtonpost.com: Zits, (Jan. 13)

Gene Weingarten: Nah. If so, he would have delivered some other clue.

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So...: ...when will your PBS be published? If at all?

Also, that picture of you on the discussions page of washingtonpost.com makes you look like Peter Sellers. Which is cool.

Gene Weingarten: I think it will be published the first Tuesday after Hell freezes over.

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Arlington, Va.: This past week, I started off a new semester of college, and with it came the inevitable trip to the college bookstore. In one trip, for two classes, I spent $355. You have several times mentioned that you don't actually make money off the sales of your book. Have you ever considered writing a college textbook? If you write it with Gina (being a professor and all) she can force her classes to buy it, and you can charge whatever you want. Or, you could just call "I'm With Stupid" a textook (add some graphs from chat poll results, some graphics of things that look important, a picture of a manatee, stuff like that), and see if that works. Even if you don't get any professors to use it, The Daily Show, after 15 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, has shown that fake textbooks do well.

Gene Weingarten: Gina's husband, Michael Myer, is the editor of The Bedford Introduction to Literature, which is simply the greatest English lit textbook I have ever seen. Hundreds of short pieces, brilliantly selected, perfectly integrated, with smart introductions and analyses. I read it often, simply for enjoyment. It is used in many, many colleges for their intro to Lit courses. Michael is not an impoverished man, either intellectually or otherwise.

But here is the best part: Every few years, he "updates" the collection, removing some pieces, replacing them with more contemporary ones. THE SCHOOLS ALL HAVE TO BUY THE NEW ONE.

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Can this only be told out loud?: Did you hear the circus is coming to town? Gonna be INTENSE.

Gene Weingarten: Or, not at all. That would be fine, too.

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But last, a little roo roo: From your last comment on the joke:

For one thing, offering "death OR roo-roo" is a lie. "Death BY roo-roo" contradicts this.

So how does offering "SUDDEN DEATH or roo-roo" become true if the punchline is "roo-roo then sudden death?" There still is no choice, and the chief is lying.

(That said, having finally heard your setup to the joke, which I find inferior to the one that I know, I agree that "a little" is necessary, as the setup implies that "roo-roo" will result in agonizing death, while "a little roo-roo" might not)

Gene Weingarten: BECAUSE death is still sudden, even if it comes after extended roo-roo. Sheeeesh. If you perform 27 minutes of roo-roo, and then impale a man through the ears with a spear, that is still sudden death. So long as the ENGINE of the death -- spear, not roo-roo -- is sudden, the death is sudden.

Death BY roo-roo is not sudden.

I am surprised I need to tutor you people in this.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: I'd like to get your professional opinion on today's "Get Fuzzy" (1/12) to end an argument I'm having with a co-worker. I'm of the opinion that the strip would work better without spelling out the pun (i.e. panel one is Rob asking if Bucky's getting ready for the brawl, panel two looks the same, but with Bucky's answer of "Feel the burn"). My co-worker says it wouldn't be as funny because too many people would miss it.

Could you set this poor, misguided man straight please?

washingtonpost.com: Get Fuzzy, (Jan. 12)

Gene Weingarten: Hm. Well, I think it is pretty perfect as is. "Feel the burn" is really a secondary pun (the main puns are "pumping iron" and "on the juice"). If "feel the burn" is not said, no one would think of that. (Plus, the iron is unplugged, so there is no "burn.") So, I like em all. The reason this strip is funny is that it is dumb, filled with dumb punz. The more the merrier, in this case.

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Love and Betrayal: Your 1/11 poll makes one fatal assumption: That a person can only love one person at a time. Many of us know that this is not true. I am a woman, and I chose love not acted on. Like your other poster, I agree that sex without love is a betrayal for no reason, and if I'm going to be hurt, I want it to be for a reason, not just because my husband is a jerk.

I am engaged to marry a man who was married once before. He fully acknowledges that there is a part of him that will always love his ex-- in his words, "you can never really stop loving someone. People can betray you and hurt you to the point that you can no longer remain in a relationship with them, but love is such a wonderful thing that you can never really regret being in love, even if it means that you get hurt." He has no desire to ever live with her, build a life with her, or even sleep with her again, but he can't -- and shouldn't -- forget that he once loved this woman more than anyone else. Now he loves me, I love him, and I know that he would never willingly do anything to hurt me. But I don't pretend that I'm the only person that he has ever loved or ever will love. However, I expect him to respect me enough to not act on whatever else he may feel.

I hope this makes some kind of sense. I'm not saying that I couldn't forgive a meaningless sexual liason, but my respect for him would be greatly diminished and my trust would be broken. That is far more serious than finding out that he loves someone else, even if it means that I lose him. It's just what I feel.

Gene Weingarten: Understood. I don't think this is an unreasonable position, several people have expressed some version of this, but you've explained it the best, so far.

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Washington, D.C.: My lady and I lived together for over 15 years without either of us ever mentioning marriage. We are childless and will remain so. A few months ago she said, "My accountant says we can save 40 grand by getting married before the end of the year." I said "let's get married," and we did. I didn't check up on her claim because I am a lazy sack of sh**, and I love her too much to argue. Did I violate Weingarten's rule?

Gene Weingarten: No. At least not if she was right.

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