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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten
(Illustration by Richard Thompson)
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Funny? You Should Ask
Hosted by Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2002; Noon ET

Gene Weingarten's controversial humor column, Below the Beltway, appears every Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine, generating more mail than Santa gets at Christmas. Not all of it is wildly condemnatory. Some of it is only mildly annoyed. Weingarten came to the Post in 1990 after being chased out of Miami at midnight by farmers with pitchforks and burning torches. He is also reputed to be close to persons thought to be familiar with individuals claiming to be authoritative spokesmen for the mysterious and reclusive Czar of The Style Invitational.

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

He'll chat about anything.

The transcript follows.

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.

Gene Weingarten: Speaking (as I did on Sunday) of lazy columnists mining trite subject matter for wan smiles, we've all read ad nauseam about so-called "guilty pleasures,‘ which are things you are not supposed to like but, to your slight embarrassment, do. (My two most prominent guilty pleasures are The Monkees and iceberg lettuce.) Well, it occurs to me that there is a more interesting permutation to a "guilty pleasure‘ that I will
call a "Sosumi.‘ These are things you are supposed to like but don't -- so sue me.
In my case, this would be Jimi Hendrix, Buster Keaton, and all Indian food. I'm sure someone will have some thoughts on this important topic.

That's all I'm starting with this morning, because I am in culture shock. First, my neighbor Phoebe reports that her 9-month-old son, Eli, has begun pooping in the toilet, which is simply restructuring my assumptions about the limits of human achievement. And second, Tom Shales reports todays that John Ritter's new sitcom is good. To me, John Ritter has always epitomized the worst of TV acting. No, he wasn't worse than Peter Lupus in the old "Mission:Impossible,‘ or The Professor on
"Gilligan's Island,‘ or Wilbur's wife on "Mr. Ed,‘ who is arguably the worst actress ever on TV. (I recently saw "Mr. Ed‘ for the first time as an adult, and realized for the first time precisely why she was on the show.) But John Ritter, as a sitcom star,
was the most cloying and least believable ever.

Are your rrready to grrrrrrrrumble?

Washington, D.C.: Women. Are they a piece a work, or what? You know what I mean?

Gene Weingarten: I know precisely what you mean. Precisely. Women are sources of mystery and surprise and I am in awe. I want to give you an example. My wife is funny, but she is very much the adult of our marriage. She is a lawyer with grave
responsibilities. She handles our finances. She restrains my more immature impulses. She is, unlike me, a serious human being. The other day we were in the car, talking
about something significant -- I think it was the brinksmanship of our foreign policy vis a
vis Saddam Hussein -- when a certain 60s song, "Good Morning Starshine,‘ came on the
radio. Without breaking cadence, my wife elided straight from one foreign-policy sentence into the song's refrain, which she nailed, singing along syllable for syllable without a misstep.
These were the lyrics:

Gliddy glub gloopy nibby nabby noopy
La la la lo lo/ Sabba sibby sabba nooby abba nabba
Le le lo lo / Tooby ooby walla nooby abba naba
Early morning singing song ...

She went right through to the unforgettable hook line, "Sing a song, song a sing,‘ and then returned
to Saddam, midsentence, on message.

I love women.

Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,
Is there going to be humor emerging from Bob Greene's abrupt end at the Trib?

Biting irony abounds, but I'm not sure if anything else will emerge from shtuping (sp?) a column subject.

Gene Weingarten: Well, as a fellow columnist I have to say I see nothing but tragedy in what befell Mr. Greene, who was a giant in the field, the ultimate pioneer.

I mean, who even KNEW you could use a newspaper column to shtup a teenager? The man was a pathfinder!

I think the gerund is shtupping. Or schtupping? Is Pat the Perfect around?

Hampton, Va.: Here's a question that combines news and humor judgment. A Monday Chicago Sun-Times article on Bob Greene's resignation from the Tribune caught me off guard with one of its quotes -- the story's kicker, in fact. The story's tone is straightforward and somber, except for this quote. But is it funny (because Greene is to blame for making himself a target)? or distasteful (because it's a rival paper taking a final pot shot)?

The last two paragraphs of the story:

Popular radio host Steve Dahl, who, with Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, made comic fodder of Greene's often-sentimental columns in a weekly "Bob Greene Watch" segment on WCKG-FM (105.9), said he was surprised by Sunday's announcement.

"I always thought he'd get fired just for being a bad columnist," Dahl said.

Gene Weingarten: It was too easy, but right on target.

Readers of the Post never got to see Bob Greene's columns. They have become, in recent years, almost comically lazy. They have been funny primarily because they have been so lame.

Washington: Did you guys stop to think about taste before you published that Style Invitational item about Charleton Heston on Sunday?

washingtonpost.com: Style Invitational, (Post, Sept. 15)

Gene Weingarten:

Stop to think? We don't even stop to
READ them. We just choose a few dozen at
random, and print them.
Yes, the Czar, the Auxiliary Czar, and I
debated this item for some time. We took
long lunches in fashionable restaurants. In the end, we decided it was publishable for three reasons.

1. It was funny. Believe it or not, this
is a key element in all taste decisions,
because if it can't clamber over this threshold, no
other debate is necessary.

2. It was not about Alzheimer's. Nothing in the joke was making fun of the disease or its symptoms -- in fact, the joke would have been the same if it had been any
ailment, or indeed any other news about Charleton Heston.

3. The pivot of the joke was unrelated
even to Heston's condition: It was making fun
of his politics.

So The Czar decided yes. Pity the Czar. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. (Sometimes, it's just a hangover.)

Virginia: Shelly Fabares on "Life with Father." Hot.

What's up with Bob "Personal indiscretions of which I am not proud" Greene? (Personally, before I commit a shameful, repulsive, possibly criminal indiscretion, I ask myself whether I'll be proud of it later, should it ever be Page One information.) Do you have any past indiscretions you want to reveal? Particularly those involving subjects of your column?

Gene Weingarten: I have, in fact, had sex with people I have mentioned in my column. Heck, I've had sex with at least one person I've mentioned in this chat!

Washington, D.C.: How bad does a football team have to be when the opposing team has been pepper-sprayed, and they still lose the game?

Gene Weingarten: This is a very good question.

Reston, Va.: Starbucks does have a drink smaller than the "tall." It's the "shor." I know this because I read about it in the Washington Post, and The Post wouldn't lie to me!

Would it?

Gene Weingarten: I said speciality drinks. They'll give you an eight-ounce cup of coffee and call it a short. No one orders it.

Chicago, Ill.: This isn't a humor question, really, but I wonder if you might note the sad news that Warren Zevon has inoperable lung cancer.

Maybe it is humor -- I read that Zevon gave copies of his last two albums to his pulmonologist to explain how he was taking the news so well. The titles are "Life'll Kill Ya" and "My Ride's Here."

So in that vein, and with total respect, I will quote Mr. Zevon and say that lawyers, guns and money will not get him out of this.

We'll miss you, Warren. Rock doesn't seem to produce any great cranks or satirists anymore.

Gene Weingarten: I'm with you, here. I met Warren years ago (he guest-sang with Dave Barry's band, The Rock Bottom Remainders)and he is a sweet guy with a terrific disdain for all the bull of stardom.

When I wrote my book I titled the last chapter -- where I disclosed that I had a fatal disease -- "Is Death a Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not."

A sense of humor is, basically, a recognition of the joy of irony. Warren has that. He'll do fine.

Olney, Md.: You have a fatal disease?

Gene Weingarten: Hepatitis C. Now cured.

Maryland: Who is the most humorous president in my lifetime (since 1970)? I submit Reagan with his ability to pretend he know nothing about his job yet still be an effective leader. Ford was funny, but slapstick funny. Clinton just seemed to enjoy the fact that he got away with it all.

P.S. You had sex with Charleton Heston?!

Gene Weingarten: None of them. Nixon wins, hands down. This was a man uncomfortable in his own skin. I think of Nixon, I think of that fabulous alien-overtaken character from "Men In Black" who was LITERALLY uncomfortable in his own skin.

Reston, Va.: Hepatitis C? Isn't that sexually transmitted?

Gene Weingarten: Nope. A different SORT of injection.

Gene Weingarten: ... Speaking of which, I have a Christian friend who is married to a Jewish guy. She tells people that she is "Jewish by injection."

Bethesda, Md.: I adored your book and have given it to several hypochondriac friends. My question is: What did you do with the billion orange candy canes?

Gene Weingarten: It was 40,000 candy canes, and they weren't orange, they TASTED orange. We made a clue out of them for the Tropic Hunt.

Dulles, Va.: Gene! You're a Monkees fan too?? I'm a second-generation Monkees fan, and underwent mass mocking in high school when I attended their concerts every single year.

What was your favorite song and episode? And, what was your favorite non-popular song? Mine still remains Auntie Grizelda, simply because of the same kind of nonsense your wife quoted in "Good Morning Starlight" or whatever it was.

Boy, they were ahead of their time in TV comedy, weren't they?

Gene Weingarten: One of the best albums I own is "The Best of The Monkees." It is really terrific. Yes, they got a lot of songwriting help (James Taylor wrote several) and their albums had a lot of juice from excellent studio musicians, but to me that is all part of the package. My favorite Monkees song is "D.W. Washburn," about a bunch of Christian do gooders who try to rescue an old wino who does not want to be rescued.

Reston, Va.: Whoa! You were shooting smack!

Or is there another way to get hep?

Gene Weingarten: You can also get it from blood transfusions or other blood swapping. I never had a transfusion.

What's wrong with the Style Czar?: Has the Style Czar lost his sense of what is funny? How could he not have been bowled over by my entry for Week CXXXIV:

"George W. Bush doing tongue twisters is possible, but not prudent, like George Bush doing tongue twisters."

This has such beautiful symmetry and the mental image of the two Bushes attempting "She sold seashells by the seashore" is darn funny.

Tell the Czar to recalibrate his humor detector.

Gene Weingarten: I will leave it up to the chatters to decide whether the Czar erred on this one.

Boy, you are leading with your chin.

Alexandria, Va.: I read last week's chat after it was over, and I must say the czar's attribution of a scatological joke to an eight-year-old is not very funny. Especially in light of the fact that the contest was won by a very young fellow in the past (I recall his entry as having been something about his mommy's dirty underwear). It would have been much funnier if the entry was actually from an eight-year-old. Although a kid would have used doo-doo in place of doo.

Gene Weingarten: The young gentleman who won the Invitational a few years ago did not do so with a comment about his mother's underpants, and on behalf of the Czar I must protest against this scurrilous besmirching of the contest. We are too often accused of vulgarity. It is a baseless charge. The young man who won the Invitational a few years ago did so with a comment about his mother's fat behind on the toilet.

Dependent, CO: So I'm at the Big Electronics Store, and the salesdroid gives me a 5-minute revival pitch on why THIS brand of TV is so much better, higher-quality, assembled by PhDs, etc. than THAT brand of TV. And the moment I choose my television, the salesman launches into the whole "extended warranty" spiel.

Is it me, or it not internally consistent to say "This astonishingly jewel-like, meticulously-crafted, high-quality item is gonna crap out just as soon as you get it home, so you'd better buy the warranty"?

Gene Weingarten: Right. I have never met a salesman who made this elision gracefully. It is impossible.

Lexington Park, Md.: Gene,
I have a hard time shuttling between this chat and Kim's and Marty's every Tuesday, so I propose that you roll all three into one. It could be titled "Delicious low-calorie dishes that boost your metabolism and make you fart like an old Buick." What do you think?

Gene Weingarten: I like it, but we are not allowed to use the word "fart."

Only humor is left: The current administration has led me to the realization that it is out to destroy the world, via whatever methods available to it (economic, environmental, war, etc.).

I find that this realization is too big to be fully absorbed for more than a few moments at a time (otherwise I would crawl into a closet and hide there). Therefore, I resort to what I always resort to, laughing at just about everything. I thank you heartily for assisting me with this course of action, and respectfully refer you to a site mentioned, yes, in People Magazine (a guilty pleasure of mine, although Us Weekly is much better -- People is straight, Us is very ironic):

Men Who Look Like Kenny Rogers

Check it out.

Gene Weingarten: ok.

Washington, D.C.: The Czar made the right choice. The "tongue twisters" entry is just not funny. Why? Because nobody can do tongue-twisters. They're supposed to be impossible, otherwise, they'd be called "sentences."

Gene Weingarten: I can do any tongue twister. There is a trick. It was taught to me forty years ago by an old man who died the day after he told me. True story.

Chicago, Ill.: The Bush Style Invitational sentence is definitely not funny, but on a more troubling note is your obvious bias against Neil Diamond, first you write that his lyrics are jibberish, and now you refuse to give him credit for writing a great deal of the Monkees songs, come on man.

Gene Weingarten: He wrote at least two Monkees songs, that I know of. His own songs contain some of the worst lyrics ever written. He grew up two blocks from where I grew up.

Gene Weingarten: By the way, votes are about 12-0 against the Bush Invitational entry.

Bowie, Md.: Do you think it would help to ask the Big Box Electronics salesdroid:

"I'd like a TV so good, you wouldn't recommend taking the warranty."

Sort of the like stone God can't lift. Hmmm... germ of an Invitational in this.

Gene Weingarten: Excellent.

And .... : What's the trick??

Gene Weingarten: The trick, very simply, is to not think of what you are saying as a sound, but as individual words, and think about their meaning. Don't try to lurch out "rubber baby buggy bumpers," but think of it as four words, each with a meaning. It works brilliantly. I can even do toy boat, which is an impossibility for most mortals.

Imacommin, IN: Gene --

Almost every day, in my e-mail, I get a whole pile of unsolicited ads on how to increase the size of a Certain Significant Body Part. My question is, how do all these people KNOW? Who told?

Anything you can do to clear this up would be helpful. Thank you.

Gene Weingarten: This is an excellent place name.

Nooby abba naba: I loved that thing about your wife. It's very impressive. So how did a goofball such as yourself end up with such a great catch?

(I know this is a straight line, but I really am curious.)

Gene Weingarten: See previous.

Pat the Perfect, ME: Schtupping, shtupping, whatevah... it's a transliteration; you can use either. Yiddish, though it uses Hebrew letters, is based on German, so the "sch" spelling is perhaps more "authentic."

Reminds me of one of my mother's admonitions: "No chupah, no schtuppa."

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. What is chupa?

Arlington, Va.: OK, now if Gene dies tomorrow, we all know that none of us--EVER--are to give away the tongue twister secret.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. I would appreciate it.

Rock Ridge, Rock Ridge: The word shtupp reminds me of Madeline Kahn's character in "Blazing Saddles", Lili Von Shtupp. What always amused me was that when the movie is shown on network or "family friendly" TV, they always bleep out her name when it is spoken -- even though in one scene, behind the actors, is a sign with her name on it. I assume that the censors think that the audience for "BS" is illiterate.

Gene Weingarten: Wow. Of course nothing rivals the incredibly idiotic TV-editing of One of the Die Hard movies, where Bruce Willis is made to stand naked in Harlem with a sandwich board sign that reads "I Hate Niggers." On TV, it reads "I hate everyone," which makes the incredibly hostile reaction from citizens seem COMPLETELY INSANE and ultimately does a terrible disservice to black people.

Washington, D.C.: Chuppa -- a wedding canopy, used in a Jewish wedding ceremony.

Gene Weingarten: Ah, thank you.

Fairfax, N.Y.: An even harder tongue twister: Unique New York.

Gene Weingarten: I just said it five times, fast. Yes, hard.

Charm City: Gene, you don't have to feel guilty about liking iceberg lettuce...both James Beard AND Julia Child believe that it can be very tasty, so you're in good company.

I like the idea of the Sosumi list. Tops on mine: all Japanese movies. Even Kurosawa. I feel so ashamed.

Gene Weingarten: You know -- I agree. Desson Howe would laugh at us.

Imacommin, IN: Thank you. This, with "Howdy, Tex" and "Ack-Ack, AK," is my third "excellent place name" citation in recent weeks, and I will now do a little end-zone dance.

Gene Weingarten: I'm impressed. Give this man a hand. (I know it's a man, because of this last one.)

Reston, Va.: Kim has decided that beef tongue with raisin sauce is more exotic a food than fried silkworms.

Question: Is it funnier? What is the funniest meal?

Gene Weingarten: Anything with tongue is a funny meal. I remember, at the age of 10 or so, suddenly realizing that tongue meant "tongue." The Japanese eat "beef rectum," packaged like that. Hard to top that, funny wise."

Vienna, Va.: Sosumi:

Never liked Elvis Presley or Barbara Streisand -- for completely different reasons.

Gene Weingarten: I think this is a subcategory of Sosumis, because now it is somewhat hip not to like either of them. If you could have said this about Presley in '61 and Streisand in '75, then they would be genuine sosumis.

Seattle, Wash.: Y'know, Dave Segal did your Sosumi idea (although he didn't call it that) in his pop music chat several months ago.

That said, I still think it's fun, and my Sosumi's are The Who, I Love Lucy, and Gone With the Wind.

Gene Weingarten: I didn't know that about Segal. GWTW is another of mine. I consider it unwatchable. I don't believe anyone can ever call Casablanca unwatchable.

Wilbur's wife--why?: Haven't seen the show as an adult and can't find any pictures. Is she va-va-voom or something?

Gene Weingarten: Wilbur's wife has the largest breasts ever seen on TV, and they always appear beneath an angora sweater. The are bizarrely pointed, as though they are some industrial product.

Sosumi: I dislike the Rolling Stones, I hate almost all of their music.

Gene Weingarten: Whoa. You may be alone there. You may be stranded on an island -- stranded by a rare sosumi!

Frederick, Md.: I married the most wonderful Jewish man and am now converting. He says I can't say challah and Hanukhah correctly because I'm Catholic (probably didn't spell them right either). After I convert will I be able to make that throaty sound? (My rabbi mentor says to pretend like I'm throwing up but stop before anything actually comes up).

Gene Weingarten: No. Your rabbi's advice is good, but fruitless. You are genetically incapable to make this sound, as is my wife. He will love you anyway (your husband, not the rabbi.)

Philistine, DC: Gene --

Have you been to the exhibit that Blake saw? (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13548-2002Sep13.html)
What did YOU make of the radishes and brioche?

(Maybe I should ask Kim)

washingtonpost.com: Sensual Still Lifes: Built to Lust?, (Post, Sept. 15)

Gene Weingarten: This was an astonishing story. a must read. I haven't seen the exhibit.

Arlington, Va.: Does Robin Givhan make you nervous? When she comes by, do you make sure your shirt's tucked in and your socks are pressed? Does The Post have a casual Friday policy, and if so, does she participate?

Gene Weingarten: Robin, fortunately, lives in New York. But to be honest, she doesn't intimidate me. I am too far gone, fashion-wise, to care. My daughter recently informed me that I was wearing unmatching shoes AND one sock inside out. She was right, but i didn't change.

Sosumi Tsunami: The Stones don't suck, they're just grossly over-rated. There's lots of sosumi out there for the Stones.

Parades. I hate parades. Also, fireworks, unless I can watch them from my home.

Gene Weingarten: I'm with you on parades of all types, unless they are REALLY REALLY tacky bad.

Clock says it is time to go. Sorry about all the many questions I could not answer. See you next week.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company