Post Magazine: Secrets of the Great Zucchini
Monday, January 23, 2006; 1:00 PM
Eric Knaus, aka the Great Zucchini, is Washington's top preschool entertainer. He makes big money by making little people laugh. But there is more to the man than just that.
Gene Weingarten, whose article about Knaus,
Gene Weingarten is a Magazine columnist and staff writer.
Good afternoon. Many splendid questions await. Several raise complex and interesting issues of journalistic ethics in the pursuit of, and the telling of a story. I will get to them in a minute.
Two questions I received many times in different forms were, 1) Did I like the guy, personally? And: 2) What did Eric think of the story, and did he feel betrayed?
1) Yes. A lot. This is a sweet guy with a big heart and a terrific, self-deprecating sense of humor.
2) I don't want to speak for Eric. It's possible we may hear from him during the chat; he said he'd try to get to a computer and participate. However, I'm not betting on it, as it were. He admits to astounding, transcendent computer illiteracy. So we'll see. After talking to him, I think I can say that he did not dislike the story.
Because of the magic of interactive technology, I do have an opportunity here to do something journalists through the ages never were able to do: Triumph over their editors. Some parts of the story as I wrote it were deleted from the final piece, most of them reporting the events of two nights out I spent with Eric and his friends, where he was subjected to good-natured butchery.
I promised Eric that I would share the deleted material in this chat. (After reading 'em, you may wonder WHY Eric wanted me to post them, but that's another question, and it hearkens back to why I like him.)
Here are the deleted parts:
I ask Eric's friend John Rivers, who is a psychiatric social worker, to clinically diagnose Eric. John paused, giving this some professional thought. "Oh, he's crazy as [expletive]," he concludes, deadpan.
Someone else suggests Eric's psychological problems might be because of a small physical endowment.
"Tell him how smokin' I am," Eric begs Ami Bawa, a young daycare worker with whom he's been close friends for years. "Tell him about the parade of good-looking women going through my bedroom."
"You mean in magazines?" Ami says, dryly.
K.B. and Ray were prodding Eric to confess something, and when he wouldn't, they began to rat him out. It was a story about what happened one night at a club in D.C. Apparently, Eric got excited when a girl at the bar was eyeing him with frank interest, and asked her to dance. Eric finally laughed and said, "Okay, okay. When I've had a little to drink, I'm not always real good at spotting transvestites."
At a table nearby sat three attractive twentyish blondes. Eric walked over, knelt beside the table, and began to pitch himself. Within a minute or two, the women were exchanging knowing looks, but laughing just the same. At one point, Eric took a lighted cigarette, waved his hands theatrically, and, using a $2.99 novelty-store fake-thumb trick, made it disappear in his palm. It's an effective illusion, and he does it well. Now he really had their attention.
John gave Todd a look. Todd returned it. And suddenly, without a word between them, obedient to the mystical, ancient laws of guy dynamics, the two rose from their chairs in perfect concert, and bolted from the room at a dead run, like fullbacks finding daylight. They went out a door and into a small breezeway next to the bar, where lawn chairs were stacked up for overflow crowds. They pulled up chairs beside a picture window that was the only thing separating them from the Three Blondes, whose backs were to them, and Eric, who was facing them. John leaned forward elaborately, wide-eyed, chin in hand, as if watching a show. Todd rolled up a sleeve and flexed his muscle, bodybuilder style.
Eric couldn't suppress a laugh. The blondes turned and saw what it going on. Spell broken. Game over.
As Eric returned to our table, he was greeted with cheers and razzes. "That was WRONG, man," he told Todd, shaking his head and laughing.
Okay, then. Let's go.
Bethesda, Md.: I don't know if you recall Janet Malcolm's famous opening line on her New Yorker article about reporter-source relationships: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."
Your article is a perfect example of that. This guy entertains kids for an obviously exorbitant fee, and you capture the absurdity of the suburban parent culture that supports him beautifully. But why not leave it at that? Why did he deserve to have all his private problems put on display for the world? He trusted you, and you've probably destroyed him.
Gene Weingarten: This is probably the most succinctly negative view posted so far. I'm going to answer this question piecemeal, by answering several subsequent posts that raise more specific points, all related to this general issue: Did I betray or manipulate Eric?
Rockville, Md.: Hi Gene,Loved the story, but am a bit curious. Recently I read in Slate about a controversy involving a New York Times Magazine story, in which the author helped the subject of the story go to law enforcement authorities. You also became involved in the story, driving the Great Zucchini around, to as far away as Atlantic City, and acting in some ways like a friend, while simultaneously reporting everything. Did the editors have a problem with your involvement?
Gene Weingarten: No.
A famous extrapolation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics suggests that the mere observation of an event changes the event, to some degree. It's certainly true in journalism: The mere presence of a writer changes, in subtle or not so subtle ways, the actions of the person or event being observed. You try to limit this, as a writer.
Unlike the Times reporter in the case of the Internet porn kid, I did not induce Eric to do anything he would not ordinarily have done. I basically went along for the ride. I just happened to be the driver, for obvious reasons.
(By the way, I don't think Kurt Eichenwald of the Times did anything wrong. It was an extraordinary, unusual case, and he would have been criticized by some for whatever path he chose. In journalism, situational ethics is often required.
Washington, D.C.: How is taking Eric to Atlantic City any different from sticking a needle in the arm of a drug addict or buying an alcoholic a bottle of MD 20/20?
Gene Weingarten: A fair question, related to the previous one.
I would never have proposed to Eric that we go to Atlantic City. It was his idea. He goes to Atlantic City every few months, with friends. This was his normal behavior.
I didn't finance the trip to any significant extent. Didn't give him any money to bet with. Would not have bought him a hotel room had he needed one.
The trip did give me my second favorite expense-account item of all time. The Post permitted me to spend $200 of its money gambling, so that I could get an idea of what it was like, for the story. Yeah, I lost it all in about two hours of craps and blackjack.
Vienna, Va.: This is why I wish you wrote more long pieces for the magazine... but it's also why I understand that you can't possibly do this every month. What an amazing, bittersweet story.
One question: Gene, did you worry that an expose like this might hurt Eric's business at all?
Gene Weingarten: Thank you. Many people raised versions of this question. Some people wondered, with varying degrees of politeness, whether it was ethical to do the story at all, once I realized that it might well hurt Eric's business. It's a good question, with a complicated answer.
Initially, before I met him, I did not know what Eric's story was. I knew only from some parents that he was a complete over-the-top preposterous character. Also that he seemed to have cash-flow problems, and that his act had become less tidy over time. For all I knew, going in, he had a substance-abuse problem, or something even darker. Maybe he was doing something bad to kids.
So, basically, going in, I wasn't worried about whether the story might hurt his business -- for all I knew, he DESERVED to get his business hurt.
Once I began to realize what Eric was all about, I began to be very concerned about whether the story would hurt or end his career. And there is no easy way for a writer to deal with that.
Journalistically, I had done what was proper and ethical and necessary: Before we even began, I had warned Eric that though I would get to know him well over a long period of time, I was neither his friend nor his publicist. I told him that if he had any secrets, they would probably come out. I told him that if I did a good job, there would probably be parts of the profile that he would find uncomfortable. I told him that there was no way to predict with certainty whether the story would help him or hurt him. And from the beginning, even after those caveats, he wanted me to do it; for a while HE was trying to sell ME on it.
So, this was an arm's-length transaction, and I did not worry that I was breaking any rules of the craft, or being dishonest.
Still, I liked Eric, and the thought that telling the truth about him --which I had to do -- might irreparably damage him weighed heavily on me. It wasn't until I actually began to write it that I came to believe there was no reason to worry. I believe he may lose some clientele -- people who are particularly judgmental or self-righteous -- but that he would probably gain more new clients than he would lose. This reached a LOT of parents, many of whom never heard of the Great Zucchini.
But more important: This is not a story about a bad guy, or a guy who hurts children, or a guy who doesn't deliver what he promises. He's a terrific children's entertainer. Isn't that what would matter most to most potential clients?
It's still too early to know for sure, but so far, I believe, the reaction among his clients has been quite positive.
Gene Weingarten: I don't mean to be judgmental myself, here. Are there any parents within the reach of this chat who think they would be less likely to hire this guy -- or downright unwilling -- because of what they just read about him? If so, please give us your thoughts.
Bethesda, Md.: Well done, Mr. Weingarten. Very touching article about a complex individual.
Also thought provoking about what does work for different ages and why. As a "humor expert" I glad to see you intelligently explore what is funny when you are four.
I think the same is true of literature. It is interesting, isn't it, how a really successful children's book author can't translate to adult literature. Think Judy Blume. "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" is brilliant stuff, but her adult books are only so-so. And when a really successful adult author tries to write a children's book, it often falls flat. One exception might be Roald Dahl. "The BFG" remains one of the great read aloud successes at my house and Dahl is the author of some of my favorite short story collections (Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss.)
Thanks again -- really nice article.
Gene Weingarten: Interesting point. Probably the best example of a writer would could move seamlessly from one realm to the other is E.B. White. Charlotte's Web may be the best children's book ever written.
Dave Barry did very well, too, though you may argue whether it was as much of a change, for him.
Washington, D.C.: Was that your thesis, on the meaning of peekaboo? Original philosophy, in The Washington Post?
Gene Weingarten: Alas, no.
There are two ways of interpreting (cough cough, ahem) the ontological basis of humor. One is mechanical; the other, philosophical.
Mechanically, humor involves the element of surprise through the introduction of conflicting frames of reference. Peek-a-boo fits this model, obviously: The child is surprised by the disappearance of a face, and then its reappearance, and the incongruity that presents. I have written about this before.
But on a psychological level, humor is a way to deal with elemental, existential fears. Peek-a-boo fits this model, too. I first read about this connection a few months ago in a paper by Neil Elgee, who is the president of the Ernest Becker Society. EBS is dedicated to promoting the work of the cheerful social scientist who argues pretty convincingly that our personalities are an elaborate construct to avoid facing our own mortality. I first became acquainted with the work of Becker when working on a magazine cover story about the effects of terrorism on the psyche.
I was going to quote Elgee's paper in the story, but a quick google search showed he wasn't the first to make that connection between peek-a-boo and fear. It's out there. Not my original insight.
Annapolis, Md.: Congratulations on a nice save. Judging from chat hints, you started off to do a piece on the nature of humor, using kids and TGZ as exemplars... and then you realized TGZ was himself a great story.
You did sneak in your "humor is a reaction to fear" line, which I happen to totally disagree with. I do so on the basis of my authority as ... well, OK, I have no standing. (Although I did win two of three Style Invitationals I entered, which must be a record lifetime winning percentage; I still haven't listened to the Bob Graham CD.)
I firmly believe laughter is an expression of joy, a form of delight at finding the world is weirder or more wonderful or creative than we had hoped.
I realize that joy and despair are on a continuum, and we're both saying laughter is a reaction to a jump along that continuum, but my theory allows laughter even if you're already happy; yours needs some pre-existing fear or dread, which limits it.
If God exists, under your theory, She could not laugh, having no fears to work through. What a boring deity that would be.
(I'm not saying internal dread and angst can't drive people to create comedy, but that's different from why people react to it.)
Gene Weingarten: Well, you're wrong, but it is certainly an upbeat little interpretation you have there. Far be it from me to burst the little soap bubble you are skating on!
God, however, should she exist, must definitely have a sense of humor, given the completely absurd condition to which she has consigned humankind. Ergo, she must know fear; ergo, the fear she knows is a fundamental discomfort with her own tendency to take joy in the misfortune of others. She is conflicted by her own Schadenfreude, and fearful of what it implies about her character -- an enormous and nearly incapacitating fear, given the fact of her supposed infallibility and goodness.
So she gives men nipples, and laughs at her work.
Washington, D.C.: It is obvious from your article that the "Great Zucchini" has a magic touch with children. In terms of what you would like children to learn, what do you believe is the #1 lesson the Great Zucchini can teach?
Gene Weingarten: When you put a diaper on your head, it is funny.
Alexandria, Va.: So... How does one, um, get in touch with the Great Zucchini?
Gene Weingarten: One, um, asks directory assistance for the number of The Great Zucchini. Also I think his phone number is on his Web site, thegreatzucchini.com.
Washington D.C.: How much time did you spend with Eric?
Gene Weingarten: I watched him perform at ten or eleven parties. Our trip to Atlantic City was a 20-hour marathon road trip. Drank and caroused with Eric and his friends on two long nights. And we did a lot of talking in coffee shops and during car rides. In short, a lot of time.
When I talk to young journalists about feature writing, one of the main points I make is that good writing is completely dependent on good reporting. The more information you have, and the more observant you have been, the greater choice of material you have, and the more you understand your subject. I was fortunate in that I had the luxury of magazine deadlines, which means the luxury of time. I could really hang around Eric a lot, which gave me plenty of time to understand him, draw conclusions, test theories, and whatnot.
Luck and perseverance also enter into it. There was one day when I considered not joining Eric at two parties; I was tired, I'd already been to a LOT of parties, I had good material, I wanted to sit down start writing. But I forced myself to go. The first turned out to be the party in the Coxes' house at the top of the story; the second was the party at the Sissons' house, at the end.
Drive, he said: How would Eric have gotten to Atlantic City if you hadn't driven him? The answer to that question, IMHO, will determine whether or not you served as his enabler. If he would have gotten there anyway (via bus or whatever), then you weren't an enabler. If he couldn't have gotten there without great difficulty, then you enabled him.
Gene Weingarten: He never goes alone. He would have gone in a friend's car.
That "begs" the question: What was your favorite expense item?
Gene Weingarten: $100 for a visit to a massage parlor. Long story. Liz could you link to this? Search for me, massage, and WTOP. That should do it.
washingtonpost.com: The other expense... Below the Beltway , ( Sept. 2, 2001 )
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: At first I laughed out loud and read parts of the piece to my girlfriend - until I realized how pointless and voyeuristic it was. The piece is well crafted, but I can't help feeling ashamed for having liked it. What possible good can come from that dissection of a life? No, dissection is the wrong word - vivisection is more accurate because of course Eric Knaus will have to live with the fallout from your expose. My question is this: do you think he realized the impact your piece would have on his life while you were interacting with him or will he find out only now, after the fact? I also wonder, how many Post reporters have addictions or moral shortcomings or are failing in some aspect of their personal lives? Of course, we'll never know. Reporters are all too aware that the magnifying glass they hold up to inspect others can also be used to burn.
Gene Weingarten: Well, he will find out now. There is no way he could have known for sure, before the piece was published. Though, as I said, I took pains to let him know what to expect.
Did you notice that in the story I confessed to having had addictions of my own, and to being nearly as dysfunctional as Eric? So, you know about at least ONE Post reporter.
Great Article: Did you it bother you to keep pressing him about the people across the hall? He was obviously upset, but did you ever think of backing off?
Also my uncle was a gambling addict. He ended up robbing a bank three times, went to jail for 13 years and died of a heart attack three years after he got out. It was pretty rough on my family.
Gene Weingarten: Hm. Well, I was confident that after a while he would turn it into a joke, which is what he did. THEN I backed off. He had reduced pain to humor, which is what the whole story, ultimately was about.
Verihelpville: That guy sure is dreamy. I'm sure that if we were a couple, I could help him lick his gambling and organizational problems.
Oh, wait. I'm a straight man. Never mind.
Gene Weingarten: Okay, then.
Washington, D.C.: Maybe this is a question for the techies, but I'll give it a shot anyway.
Online, the story is split up into five pages, but the last page is significantly longer than the first four combined. Was this intentional, as a way to lull the reader in with four pages of fluff, and then drop the stomach punch at the end? It worked.
washingtonpost.com: It's actually pretty mundane. Our system only paginates up to five pages, so the bulk of a long article always ends up on that fifth page.
Gene Weingarten: And oranges glad for that fact? I find those initial short takes to be annoying.
Alexandria, Va.: Enjoyed your article about the Great Zucchini. Had heard about him before and have had friends that have hired him and some that plan to this summer. However, after reading your article I wouldn't want the guy anywhere near my kids. He is an addict and has problems that, in my opinion, could force him to do unsavory things to pay off his debts. I would never let my kids go to a party where he would be entertaining as I believe he sets the wrong example. Why would the guy allow such an expose detailing his problems? I commend you for your work and I'm sure that the Great Zucchini won't be great anymore... you effectively, for better or worse, ended the guy's career. In fact, a friend who was planning on hiring him this summer has decided to go a different way. All I can say is WOW.
Gene Weingarten: Hm. Well, I asked for this, and got it! Because this is an anonymous forum, I don't feel bad responding this way:
I think I like The Great Zucchini more than I would like you.
Washington, D.C.: Gene: last week, I heard one Post radio advertisement for the Sunday magazine, and absolutely knew it was you who had written the article on The Great Zucchini when I heard the words "oddly disturbing." (Obviously I'm a huge fan of Chatological Humor). This story was oddly disturbing, and sad. Has Eric gotten his life together since you started the story?
Gene Weingarten: Maybe slightly. He really is taking steps to control the gambling.
Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Gene: I very much enjoyed the fascinating article, and the amount of empathy displayed towards Mr. Knaus. It is also quite apparent that you stepped over the line as an objective observer, and tried to help him overcome the demons of his private life which were threatening to derail his professional life. I would not be surprised if the idea of a new set of clothes for court was your idea, for example. Rarely do reporters acknowledge their personal reaction as explicitly as you did in this article. I personally found it refreshing, but wonder if you have been receiving any criticism from colleagues because of that.
Gene Weingarten: Honestly, I did not try to help him overcome anything. I think, under the circumstances, that would have been stepping over a line. He decided to dress well for court, and bought an outfit without any suggestion from me.
About the only advice I gave Eric, during our many hours together, was: Find a good woman, dude.
Anonymous: As a parent, I feel sorry for the children of the woman that said that she couldn't have a party featuring pin the tail on the donkey or musical chairs because that kind of thing just isn't done in this part of D.C. That's a load of hogwash, and shows terrible judgment as a parent. I fully expect that she's going to end up with some maladjusted kids.
Gene Weingarten: Pretty harsh, there. And judgmental.
I know this woman very well, and her husband. It would be hard to find better parents anywhere. And all I can tell you is that a half dozen good parents expressed similar sentiments to me. It's reality of life, and it has less to do with worrying about social pressures (though that's part of it) than with not disappointing your kids.
I remember paying for a cooking party, for my daughter, and a karate party, for my son. They wanted it. We could afford it. We caved. They had fun. I don't feel like I spoiled my kids.
Silver Spring, Md.: Has the response been as expected for you?
Gene Weingarten: I am going out of my way to post negative comments. The overwhelming response has been almost embarrassingly positive.
Bethesda, Md.: I've seen the Great Zucchini three times: a kid's birthday party, at a huge outdoor event with hundreds of kids, and at my daughter's preschool. Your depiction is dead-on. He makes all the kids feel brilliant by making himself into an idiot. But I disagree with his mother. If Eric was to magically become mature, organized, and responsible, he'd still have his great intuition with kids, and he'd still kill at five-year-old birthday parties.
My daughter just turned seven, and at her party, we had two entertainers. We had a man from "Reptiles Alive" come and show us snakes, turtles, lizards, and frogs. And after that, I spent 30 minutes tussling with all six girls, trying to roll a giant and light bean bag (a "poof") onto them while they tried to roll it on top of me. They giggled constantly, and enjoyed particularly when they victoriously rolled the poof on top of me and all climbed on top of it, as I reached out and tried to tickle them to get them off. I'm very mature, organized, and responsible, but I do great with seven-year-olds.
Gene Weingarten: But how would you do with 20 two-to-five year olds?
I understood what his mom meant, and I am going to go off on a little tangent here to explain. Many years ago, I was asked to speak to a room full of editors about how to manage creative people (I was, at the time, editor of a magazine that regularly dealt with such brilliant people as Joel Achenbach, Madeleine Blais, Dave Barry, David Von Drehle, etc.) My main message was that the central goal of handling geniuses is to coax the best out of them without upsetting the delicate mix of qualities that seems to give them their inspiration. Geniuses are often eccentric. One may look like a homeless person. Another may be so crippled by anxieties that he is laughably self-conscious. Another may pick his nose all the time. The key is not to go in and try to "civilize" them or modify their antisocial or self-destructive behavior. You must compliment them on how WELL they pick their nose.
Everyone laughed and thought I was kidding. I wasn't. Vincent Van Gogh would have been ruined by Prozac.
I know what Jane Knaus was talking about.
You know what Eric needs? More than any human being I have ever met or heard about -- more than Kurt Cobain, more than Mohamed Atta! -- Eric is in need of the care of a competent woman who will love him unconditionally, and make his life sane. Boy, does he need a wife.
Springfield, Va.: Your article made me cry. The analytical first part was pretty boring, the gambling second part made me worried that the Great Zucchini was going to lose all of his business from all the snobs in Bethesda, and the last part just made me cry because, well, it's not fair that when good people are able to stay good people despite bad luck in their life, but then something clings to them that they can't escape from, like an addiction. That doesn't make them bad people but makes their life so much harder than it could be.
Do you think that addiction is something we are born with or the result of an unfortunate series of events? Do the cravings ever go away, completely and totally? If not, how do you enjoy living without giving in? I don't think humor is the solution to addiction but it's better than crying.
Gene Weingarten: I am not an expert on addictions. But I think we are all susceptible to them. I think many of us have addictions we are unaware we have.
Obviously, there are many different types of addictions, ranging from things chemical to things sexual to, say, watching too much TV. Video games. Gambling. Overeating. What they seem to have in common is that each reliably delivers a fleeting feeling of comfort against the backdrop of a very scary world. We are all alone, you know? Scary.
State of Disorganization: Wonderful article, Gene -- to use a cliched phrase, I found it both hilarious and heartbreaking.
As somebody who suffers from most of the same problems as Eric Knaus (except I don't, thank gawd, have a gambling compulsion), I wanted to pass along the information that one of the symptoms of a particular form of Attention Deficit Disorder is impaired organizational function. When I was first diagnosed with ADD at age 47, it was a great relief to have an explanation for behavior that I'd always attributed to flaws in my character (laziness, sloppiness, etc.). To deal with my complete lack of organization, I now take meds, attend Debtors Anonymous meetings, and work with a personal organizer and an ADD coach. My life operates a lot more smoothly now, and I'm a lot happier.
On the question of whether Mr. Knaus would be able to connect with kids at the same deep level if he "grew up" and was able to handle adult responsibilities like paying his bills, I can attest that I feel a lot more creative, and have a lot more psychic room to get goofy, now that I'm not carrying around the weighty set of subconscious worries ("Did I pay the phone bill? Is my cell phone going to get cut off when I'm waiting for an important call? Is that cop car behind me about to pull me over for an insurance violation?") that used to hang like metaphorical millstones around my neck. Sure, it's important to leave room for creative chaos to erupt, but paying the bills doesn't hamper that creative chaos -- it makes room for it, in a very real sense.
P.S. I'll wager that you get lots of messages from women offering to take care of Mr. Knaus. Having a sugar mommy or daddy doesn't help -- it only adds a layer of shame. Once again, I know from experience.
Gene Weingarten: Thank you for sharing this with us.
A few people have mentioned ADD. I just don't know. But I'm sure -- eventually -- Eric will read this. Or his mom will, and tell him about it.
Sterling, Va.: I thought your piece on the Great Zucchini was fantastic and very well written. I was so intrigued by the nature of what he does that I visited his Web site last night and upon clicking on it received a spyware virus which took a few hours to remove with free software... but nonetheless, I wondered if you could get in touch with him to let him know that his Web site is indeed infected. This would help others get to the site without acquiring any nasty Web viruses because I'm sure it will be flooded now! I thought since you have had direct contact with him that you could let him know about it.
Gene Weingarten: Yikes! Has this happened to anyone else?
Wait a minute ... it's impossible to receive a virus by just clicking on a site, isn't it? Don't you need to download something? Can some IT person verify?
Prediction...: As a young mom (not single) I predict that Eric will receive lots of calls from single women (moms or not) interested in him romantically.
He seems like such a sweetheart, although one with plenty of problems that need fixing--and there are lots of women who like to fix that sort of thing (organizing someone else's life, etc.).
Gene Weingarten: I predicted as much, to Eric. He was not overly upset at this possibility.
Vienna, Va.: Understanding that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, how can someone with such a gift be so totally helpless at day-to-day life? Do you think he has attention deficit disorder or similar problem?
Gene Weingarten: I am less astounded by Eric's dysfunction than are most people, because I share it, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. But I definitely empathize. I am either shrewd enough, or lucky enough, to be married to an incredibly competent and forgiving woman who is willing to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for keeping us going.
I don't know what it is, exactly. I've never been able to quite figure it out, in myself. It's a combination of absentmindedness and a complete disregard for those somewhat mundane things in life that are not directly connected with career or love or children, but that are necessary to remain solidly grounded as a citizen and a human-type person.
When I was living alone in Michigan, between marriages, I also tended to pay my electric bill when the lights went out. I lived with a dog and a parrot, and I would to remember to feed the dog around ten at night, when she basically came to me and pointed to her mouth. I never had any dog food in the house, and never had much cash, so I would run to the convenience store, where I could only afford a single can of food. The same sequence of events would occur the following night.
I know, I know. As I said, I got lucky.
After reading the article: I feel like I should make a funny vest and mail it to him...
Gene Weingarten: Ha. Well, he'd lose it fairly quickly...
I-270 lane divide, Md.: Is is your standard practice to run background checks on the subjects of your article or did the Zucchini throw up enough red flags for you to investigate him?
Gene Weingarten: Well, both, sort of. If I were profiling, say, Donald Rumsfeld, I would not bother with background checks. But if I am doing an elaborate character study of someone no one knew too well, any reporter would be an idiot not to check.
Washington, D.C.: Technical question: How do you KNOW that Eric doesn't have drug problems? I mean, how can you prove a negative? Can a reporter ever know something like that?
Gene Weingarten: No. But a reporter can be pretty sure.
I spent a lot of time watching Eric, talking to Eric, and, perhaps more important, talking to his friends. And readers of my regular chat know that I am not naive about drugs. It is possible I misjudged him, but I'd be stunned to discover that. Perhaps Eric will be arrested tomorrow in possession of six pounds of coke. If so, that won't be his biggest problem. His biggest problem will be that I will have no choice but to kill him.
Bethesda, Md.: I just want to state for the record that as the mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old in perhaps not-so-trendy "East" Bethesda, I've been to numerous birthday parties throughout Bethesda and the surrounding areas and have never been to a party so over-the-top as the ones you describe. Thankfully there are still many parents out there (although we don't make such good copy) who think spending $300 on entertainment is ridiculous and would instead prefer to perhaps save that money for college or donate it to Katrina Relief, church, or some other good cause.
Gene Weingarten: I would just note that there is pretension everywhere, including people who like to say they live in "East Bethesda" instead of someplace less classy sounding. I used to live in Kensington, though apparently that is now "North Bethesda."
Washington, D.C.: Eric has cash flow problems, and happens to enjoy gambling, which happens to be perfectly legal in Atlantic City. In your time with him there is no mention of bookies or loan sharks threatening Eric harm, no mention of child support payments deferred by gambling losses, only a man who makes a lot of money and seems to fritter a lot of it away, but without dissolving into destitution or despair. So what exactly are people claiming you enabled? An adult spending his money on entertainment he legally enjoys?
I suppose you enabled his potential future lung cancer, too, if you hadn't stopped your car that would be one less cigarette he smoked! You are a bad man, Mr. Weingarten.
Gene Weingarten: Um, thanks. Really.
I'm not saying I agree with some of these posts, but I'm posting 'em.
Washington, D.C.: Great Job, Gene. I have known Eric for a long time and must say I was NOT the least bit surprised about anything in this story... even the things I DIDN'T know already. Eric is the BEST at what he does. The fact is, he has poor life skills... but so do a lot of us. I heard comments from people who read the story and had problems with the gambling element in his life. The fact is this... He gambles in Vegas, A.C. and off-shore. NONE of which is illegal in this country. I understand the notion of being a role model but he does not gamble in front of children, moreover, engage in the antics of some noteworthy "role models" Terrell Owens, Ron Artest, Ray Lewis, 50 Cent, et. al. What he does in his private life is his business. What he does in his professional life is make a 4 year old happy. We should all strive to make someone happy!
Gene Weingarten: Touche.
Alexandria, Va.: Gene, that was maybe the best things I've read of yours.
It brought to mind an argument made in the movie Capote, that Capote was attracted to the individual he wrote about because he saw a lot of parallels with himself and his own life - almost like he could have been that person if fate had gone a different way.
I felt reading your article that you related to your subject in a similar way. Am I right?
Gene Weingarten: Absolutely. He and I are not that different.
Question: When you write an article like this, does it totally take over your thoughts? You seem to jump in so deep into a subject that there wouldn't be room for much else.
Gene Weingarten: Yes, and I am not pleasant to be around. I have an incredibly understanding wife.
Another mother - Alexandria, Va.: Oh please...I would invite this guy to entertain at my kids party in a heart beat. He is obviously great at it, and I KNOW his "secret". What about some clown out of a phone book whom I DON'T know anything about!
Gene Weingarten: I hadn't thought of that point, but it's really good. You have seen INSIDE this guy.
Arlington, Va.: I'm always impressed by the parents of my children's friends who fill birthday parties with classic party games -- it takes a huge amount of effort to pull it off. We've hired The Great Z for two parties, and we'd hire him again. After reading your article, though, we'd be sure to call a few days in advance as a reminder, just in case he spilled coffee on his date book.
Gene Weingarten: But here's what's interesting: He's never missed a party. He has once or twice arrived at a scheduled party, to find an empty house. But he's never reneged. It's too important to him.
Orlando, Fla.: You can indeed get viruses/spyware on your computer from going to a Web site, since your computer will download images, etc. from the Web site.
Gene Weingarten: Ah. Okay. Has anyone else picked up a bug from TGZ's site? I'd hate to slander it for no reason.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: I'm sensing a paternal vibe from you towards TGZ. Who's funnier, him or Dan?
Gene Weingarten: Dan.
Dan is the funniest guy I know.
(For the non-cognoscenti, Dan is my son.)
Ville of Rocks, Md.: So I never quite got how he got the name "The Great Zucchini". Can you explain?
Gene Weingarten: Well, I don't think it is for the reason some moms playfully suggested.
His father came up with it. It sounds like "Houdini," only is cute and kid-funny.
Alexandria, Va.: That comment TGZ made about "someday I'll clean my apartment just to show I can do it..." That's me, too. I thought after I retired, I would finally have a neat, orderly home. Hasn't happened yet, two years later. You said you're the same way, saved by a competent wife. In my case, I'm the wife. So what's up with people like TGZ, you, me, that it's so impossible to keep things orderly? Is that a psychological disorder, or just a point on a neat -- messy continuum?
Gene Weingarten: Hey, if you married the Great Zucchini, you guys would probably starve to death or something.
Gene Weingarten: Could the person who just wrote in saying he is a friend of Eric's identify himself by name, or tell me something else that will make me KNOW you are his friend? I won't use it, but I need to authenticate your post before publishing it.
Arlington, Va.: How did you get Broccoli the Clown to comment for the article? I found his observations of Eric's gift the strongest and the most generous (one professional to another).
Gene Weingarten: I really like that guy, too. He didn't have to do that. He is a generous and honest man.
Alexandria, Va.: Why was it a good thing for Eric to get a continuance on his court case? Isn't it better to get that stuff over and done with? I didn't get the point of that.
Gene Weingarten: I think he wanted time to pay the tickets. And he did. He got his license back last week.
Centreville, Va.: TGZ will be entertaining at my son's birthday party this coming Saturday. I booked him long before your article was published, and having read it I have no intention of canceling. In fact, a lot of parents have called to ask if they both may attend and bring their younger kids along! Honestly, I feel a bit uncomfortable knowing so much about Eric's personal life, but I'm certain that my son won't mind that he takes an occasional trip to Atlantic City. Your article made one thing perfectly clear -- children love him, and he loves them right back. We are looking forward to seeing his show and he has even promised to help us pass out the birthday cake! I don't believe that your article is going to hurt his career. It has certainly intrigued many of our friends and I'm sure the same holds true for many others out there. See you on Saturday, Eric!!
Gene Weingarten: Excellent. Hope it goes well. My prediction: You'll have no idea what all the fuss is about, once the show starts. Then you will notice how your kids are reacting, and Get It.
Washington, D.C.: As a friend of Eric's, Mr. Weingarten's article has had a healing effect on him. "The Great Zucchini" is walking around with a great big smile on his face feeling good that his problems are "out". He knows that he is a human being, who like the rest of us, all have problems. I think he is a courageous and inspirational person... a person who has acknowledged openly his flaws which is the first step in dealing positively with them. As far as his losing business... he's getting more calls than ever!
Gene Weingarten: This has been authenticated. Thanks.
Baltimore, Md.: This was a well-written, moving piece. What's was Eric's motivation for letting Gene write about his personal life? Does Eric think that he has a "problem" or is he generally content with his life?
Gene Weingarten: I think Eric's motivation, initially, was the obvious one: Invaluable publicity for someone whose business depends on word of mouth.
As things unspooled and he realized this was going to go a great deal deeper than he had anticipated, I think he kind of got into the idea of understanding himself better. He never tried to talk me out of writing it, even after it became apparent that I had learned many things about him that would not come across as adulatory.
Alexandria, Va.: Excellent story. Did the GZ see a final version of the article before it went to press, and did he worry at all about how this might possibly impact his career? Not that his history includes anything truly scandalous or malicious. While he will have lost some level of "mystique" -- I doubt his real audience very much cares or will ever even know so long as he keeps putting the dirty diaper on his head.
Gene Weingarten: He didn't see it in advance. That's very much against the rules of The Post. I did give him a pretty good idea of what it would contain: I didn't want him to feel sandbagged on Saturday morning.
Chevy Chase, Md.: I have known Eric for several years -- when he worked at my son's preschool as the rec director and as the Great Zucchini. The guy has an incredible gift with children -- at drawing them out, making them giddy (as you brilliantly illustrated), and lifting their spirits. So what if his personal life is a bit messy! There's no doubt his heart is in the right place when it comes to interacting with kids. In this respect, he serves as an example many adults could learn from.
Gene Weingarten: I also learned something just recently, after the story was published. A long time ago, Eric lost a daycare-type job because he was too friendly with the kids, and they liked him too much. The bosses worried about that, because he wasn't a stern enough disciplinarian.
He doesn't NEED to be a disciplinarian. When he talks, they shut up and listen.
Olney, Md.: Gene, have you considered that maybe Eric was trying to confront his demons, and he used you to make it harder for himself to pretend they didn't exist? Not in a bad way, of course, but I saw someone who was fighting hard to change, and maybe he wanted to kind of shame himself into being more aware of his bad habits. (The hardest part in fighting addiction is stopping what you're doing and taking a good look at what you're doing objectively, instead of just giving in to your compulsion.)
Gene Weingarten: It's not impossible, though if so, I'm pretty sure it was subconscious.
Arlington, Va.: Dear Gene --
It is Saturday morning, and I have just finished reading your article for the third time. My son just asked me why I am crying.
Gene Weingarten: Thank you.
Now, continuing the theme we have been developing -- ask yourself why you were crying. Ernest Becker would say it was because you came face to face, heart to heart, with the central fact of the pain of human existence and our continuing fight to transcend it.
You either have to laugh, or cry.
Up North: Mr. Weingarten-
I can't find the blurb now, but yesterday on the WP homepage, your story about Mr. Knaus was described as inspiring. This seemed remarkably inapt, as though the blurb writer hadn't read the story and put a generic human interest label on it. But then I thought, in some ways, his struggle to maintain his little bubble of existence, his and his audiences' innocence, could be construed as inspiring. What do you think?
Gene Weingarten: That word was taken from the headline on the cover of the magazine, and I wrote it.
And yes, you nailed it. In my opinion, there is something heroic about Eric's ability to transcend his problems, and compensate for his limitations, and make the most of his skills in this one important area of his life. And yes, it is all about innocence.
Washington, D.C.: The Great Zucchini is the Anti-Krusty
Gene Weingarten: Precisely.
Centreville, Va.: I had the honor to work with Eric as a camp counselor for several summers. He is truly great with kids. To the best of my knowledge he is not ADD and does not have any substance problems. I don't know why people always jump to these types of conclusions. Your description of his work was excellent, but I don't think it is possible to adequately put how he works with kids into words. Did you try to secure additional parent testimonials for the article to give some additional viewpoints? If so what were the parent reservations for giving them?
Gene Weingarten: Oh, there was no shortage of parents' testimonials. I did quote one woman who called him an "artist."
Fairfax, Va.: I am like TGZ, and so is my husband. And so is our son. Fortunately, our daughter looks like she inherited the qualities I did not get from my parents but I'm glad to see that I was able to be a carrier.
We are not on the streets because we live in an age where you can set auto payments for your bills and hire people to show up to mow your lawn or clean your house, etc. Fortunately, we both have good jobs (and like TGZ we are very good at them) so we can afford to do this. And neither of us has a costly addiction.
Gene Weingarten: Now, see, you are not all that dysfunctional. Seriously. You figure out how to auto-pay.
I believe if I did not have a wife, I would never file for medical reimbursements. I would pay all my bills in cash, even though the Post offers excellent insurance. I just could never handle the paperwork.
Alexandria, Va.: I am a woman. I LOVED that he did not hook up with the woman in Atlantic City. There's a kind of innocence in that; he's not a guy on the make. He may have other problems, but I loved that little snippet of his character.
Gene Weingarten: Well, you could argue that he was choosing one rush over another. But I like your attitude. It's very sweet. Women are great. I know that is a generalization, but I'm comfortable with it. Women are great.
Spyware? Yes, Unfortunately: The Great Zucchini's Web site contains code to install a program called CometCursor, from Comet Systems. Here is its description from Symantec .
It's not a virus but spyware, in that installs itself without permission and then monitors your web behavior for the benefit of others.
Apparently, if you have your security set to medium or high, you will be asked to install it (Don't). If you are set to low, you get it (stupid of you, really).
It could be easily removed from the page without changing the rest of the site.
And, of course, us Mac users are immune.
Gene Weingarten: Thanks, dude. You are now all warned.
Stevensville, Md.: Hygiene,
Very much enjoyed the article, mainly for how much TGZ mirrors myself. I'm a 37-year-old man, also worked for daycares and discovered the gift of entertaining kids. I channeled that into becoming a second grade teacher, though now that I see what he pulls in... dang! Anyway, I wanted to reinforce your belief that he needs a good wife. I come with similar organizational problems and am treated for ADD, but my wife, like yours, really keeps things together in my life. I don't know what I'd do without her. So listen to Gene, Eric. And all the best with your gig!
Gene Weingarten: Noted. Thanks.
Washington, D.C.: Gene, I loved the article: another beautiful piece of work. Thank you. I am also a little flattered at your view of women as having the potential to civilize life for men who might come up short in some areas. What, however, do men offer to us women, then? (I can thing of a number of things, apart from the sexual dimension, but would like to know what you think.)
Gene Weingarten: Unconditional love. Intense, genuine gratitude. Loyalty. Honesty. Protection. A good income. A friend to talk to. Someone willing to overlook her own problems, whatever they may be. Slavish devotion. Etc.
Bethesda, Md.: Hello, everyone -- This is The Great Zucchini. I realize I took a big chance with this article. The responses I have received from parents about this article have been very positive. Most parents tell me that everyone has issues, and that I was very brave to lay it on the line. What I can tell you with the utmost sincerity is that Gene Weingarten was completely honest and sincere every step of the way. There were no surprises when I read what was written. As the title of the article states, it has strangely inspired some people. I know where my heart is, and who I am, and I am going to a Gambling Anonymous meeting tonight. If I could have picked anyone to do my article, there is not a person in the world I would have chosen besides Gene Weingarten. I trust him, and this was all my choice. Eric Knaus.
Gene Weingarten: Ah. Here we go.
And thank you, Eric. I've never written about someone who was as open and trusting and willing to take risks. You're makin' me misty here, dude.
Falls Church, Va.: What I like is that it reminds us that people who are good with kids are often people who might not fit parents' ideas of success stories. As a result of your article, I have had to revisit my own bias against my one of the teacher's helpers at my daughter's preschool. This woman has tattoos, a tongue stud and her car is a heap. I've always been uncomfortable about these things. Yet, my kid loves her and admittedly, she has a great rapport with the children there. Let's face it, how many investment bankers and Harvard law professors can successfully entertain and teach four-year-olds for several hours a day?
Gene Weingarten: You should see MY car. It ASPIRES to be a heap.
Northwest Washington, D.C.: We had the Great Zucchini perform for our daughter's second birthday, three years ago.(Apparently during his high-budget days -- he wore the vest.) Anyway, they still talk about the diaper-on-the-head-gag. What impressed me about him was that one of the girls (we have triplets), was timid about the whole thing, and had to spend the whole show on my lap. After it was over, she overcame her shyness and walked right up to him. He made a point of talking to her, and she was very happy about the whole thing. While part of me hopes, for his sake, that he can add a bit of order or maturity to his life, it would be a shame if it came at the cost of his unique rapport with the kids.
Gene Weingarten: Thanks. I just have a strong feeling it will all work out.
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I am also hopeless at organization and bill-paying and stuff, although not as far along the hopelessness continuum as TGZ. It takes a lot of effort for me to keep it together, though, and if I weren't shamed into it for other people, I would never apply for reimbursement either. (Expenses at work are the worst.)
Anyway, here's my question for you: could you write a profile of me next so all those organized single men out there can get in touch? I'm a reporter, which is a little duller than a kids' entertainer, but you could make it into something, right?
Gene Weingarten: Being a reporter is not dull!
You might have to rob a bank or something. Then I'm on your case.
Arlington, Va: I'm a mom with two young kids in North Arlington, another community with some pressures to have over-the-top birthday parties. And Gene is right, the question isn't "Will the neighbors think I'm cheap if we just play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey?" The question is, "Will my daughter be disappointed if we don't have as fancy a party as all the ones she's been invited to?" We can afford the Great Zucchini, but we try to keep it special without forking over so much cash (or scruples). It's a tricky balancing act.
Eric's insane life wouldn't make me hesitate to hire him, by the way, but that's due in large part to the fact that I trust Gene's judgment over just about anyone's.
That said, I'd like to play party games WITH the Great Zucchini, but that's another topic...
Gene Weingarten: Oooooh. ...
Bethesda, Md.: Why do you think Eric's mom wanted to divulge so much of Eric's personal history, especially the story about the murder of the people across the hall? Eric obviously did not want to talk about it when you brought it up with him. It seems like his mother did not consider whether he wanted this story told. Of course, the article is much more compelling because she told it. Your article implies that the trauma of that incident, combined with the abuse from Rodger, contributes to Eric's absolute dedication to the kids and his own childlike qualities.
Gene Weingarten: Eric's mom is an extremely intelligent and perceptive woman. I think she knew exactly what she was doing when she disclosed those things, and I think it worked to Eric's benefit.
Slobbering City: This is turning into a big, wet lovefest, for cryin' out loud! As Archie would say, "Stifle yerself, people. Geez."
Gene Weingarten: Well, all chats have certain personalities dynamics. I think this one took a dramatic turn after about ten minutes of people piling on.
Chevy Chase, Md.: So glad to see Eric is here for the discussion! I thought the article was great, and am so proud of you for letting all this out. You know I love you like the brother I never had... you also know that I believe so firmly in "tough love". You owe me a night of bowling, dude! Kim
Gene Weingarten: Awwwwwwww.
Washington, D.C.: Eric sat next to my 6-year-old son in church on Easter Sunday. My son scribbled a note to him that said, "you are my best friend." Eric wrote back, "You're my best friend, too." My son beamed. Eric was even better than the Easter Bunny!
Gene Weingarten: I think we have Liz in tears here. This is very sweet.
Arlington, Va.: A few questions back, someone asked about parent testimonials. The best one I can offer is this: Many parents use a birthday party as a chance to drop off their children and get a few hours to themselves. When people heard we were having TGZ, they stayed for the party.
Gene Weingarten: EVEN THE DADS???????
Washington, D.C.: Gene,While I love Below the Beltway, your longer features are simply amazing. Is there any consideration to do more than three or four a year, or would that be too taxing on your own emotional psyche?
Gene Weingarten: Thank you. I can't really handle more than two of these a year.
Thank you all. This was an incredible chat, filled with remarkable questions, testimonials, accusations, and philosophy. You made it that way. I appreciate it.
I'll see the regulars tomorrow at noon. And thanks for dropping in, Eric. Good luck from all of us.
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