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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, Aug. 6, 2002; Noon EDT

By popular demand, now a weekly show!

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: Good afternoon. Have you noticed that there are no good tomatoes anymore?
No, of course you haven't. This is because the degradation of the American tomato has been insidiously incremental, summer after summer, relentless but barely noticeable year to year, until now we are happily munching tasteless blobs of pink pulp.

We're like dogs. If you have a dog who is used to table scraps and you want to wean him off it, you slowly introduce kibble until that is all he eats. And eventually he forgets the past, and comes to regard processed nuggets of beet pulp, ground yucca fiber and desiccated chicken feet as every bit the equal of salmon steak.

Do you know whose fault this is, with tomatoes? You ready? You're going to be stunned. Greedy, rapacious American industry.

The perfect tomato, the tomatoes of our youth unknown to our children -- tomatoes that were baseball-sized, with paper-thin skins and sweet, pebbly, watery blood-red innards -- used to be everywhere. Until fast food chains. Burgers. There was a growing, insatiable demand for tomatoes the size of grapefruits, the diameter of a
quarter-pounders. Moreover, it had to have thick, leathery skin, so it could survive long days of transportation. Moreover, it had to be picked when still green, with fewer sugars within, so it could ripen during transportation. Moreover, no one really
cared what it tasted like because people who will consume quarter pounders will consume anything.

This forever altered the genetics of American-grown tomatoes. It is an atrocity for which industry must be punished, as it has assured that our children, and our children's children shall never know one of the elemental pleasures of life.

What does this have to to with humor? Nothing! I just felt like saying it. I have a weekly chat and you do not. Live with it.

Questions? Comments?

Alexandria, Va.: Gene, your pledge piece brought memories of childhood pledging to the flag "and the Republicans for which it stands" and singing the anthem to the "land of the free and the home of the Braves" -- I was a big, big Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Lou Burdette, Warren Spahn fan!

washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Aug. 4)

Gene Weingarten: Yes, I have heard from many people about this. A startling number of young 'uns appeared to have pledged their allegiance to "Richard Stans. Many felt the nation was "under guard," and "individual" and at least one reader recalls perpetually declaring that the nation stands for "liberty, injustice for all.

Arlington, Va.: Gene,

What do you think the women in this photo were discussing?

Gene Weingarten: My personal view is that they are discussing whether Jesus was an eschatological prophet, as historians contend, or if his teaching were less apocalyptic and more behavior-prescriptive, which is the prevailing position of most Christian theologians.

College Park, Md.: You ever explore the Post's comics page, check out ones they don't print? I'd say the best out there that we miss in the paper is "Get Fuzzy." I just caught on to this one after Scott Adams chat, and its Grade A stuff.
By the by, good decision by Ms. Tobin (whose job I'm both envious of and fear, kind of like the President) to print portions of the online chats. Who knew the Frank & Earnest guy was so verbose? Or that Cathy was actually married? I may be a 21 year old guy, but I still feel betrayed.

Gene Weingarten: Hm, this is interesting. See the next question.

Baltimore, Md.: It occurs to me that the ongoing debate over which character from a comic strip is the cutest has been woefully lacking in input from us chicks. That said, I'd like to nominate Rob from "Get Fuzzy." He's cute, he's funny, he understands cats, AND he's a Red Sox fan.

Gene Weingarten: Ooh, I just checked this strip out online. Looks nicely mean-spirited. Plus, the animals talk. That's refreshing. I never understood why cartoonists thought it was just too, y'know, unbelievable, to have animals actually TALK, but it is perfectly ok for them to THINK their lines, and have the human characters understand and respond.

So what about you gals out there? Who floats your boat on the comics pages? Women always CLAIM to dig a sense of humor, so that pretty much lets Mark Trail out, right?
How about Ted, from Sally Forth? Too Alan Alda-ish? Help me out here.

New York, N.Y.: First, congratulations on the rising status of your chats. Let it not be said that The Washington Post is not a democracy.

Second, my question. Which would bother you more: Your daughter dating someone not funny, or your daughter dating someone who tries to be funny and never once succeeds?

Gene Weingarten: Well, someone who tries to be funny and never succeeds is perforce someone who is "not funny." I think I can safely say that, with my daughter, this is not a problem. She and I and her boyfriend, Jeremy, were recently driving
in D.C. when we slowly rolled through a stop sign at an empty intersection. A do-gooder female pedestrian self-righteously shook a fist at us and yelled "That's
illegal, you know!" And Jeremy yelled back, "So is prostitution!''

So I'm not worried about my daughter, in this respect.

Laurel, Md.: Gene, the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance is to:

1. Get the kids to stop talking so class can start
2. Teach right from left

People who fret about about this "God" business don't get it at all.

Gene Weingarten: Right from left?

Rockville, Md.: Have you noticed that there is a spokeswoman for Montgomery County police who is named Joyce Utter? She is often quoted in The Post.

By the way, I am a female who is an excellent speller. For example, I can successfully spell "chartreuse." Just thought I would give you a thrill.

Gene Weingarten: You insult me. I am not that easy. Takes more than that to turn me on.
Chartreuse is one of those words that 1) sounds reasonably the way it is spelled, and 2) SHOULD be known by women inasmuch as it is a color, and if there is one thing women know, it is colors. I can spell it, for example, but I do not have even a clue as to what chartreuse looks like.

Now, if you had been able to pronounce terpsichore, or spell syzygy, then you'd have me.

Nice accent you have there. New Jersey?: Don't you just hate those poor schmos at amusement parks who are stuck working in the game/prize booths, but are so into their job that they are beyond annoying. Well, my friend came up with a solution for this unique breed of "carny." Last time at Six Flags when the guy in the Water Gun Shoot prize booth was heckling us to "be men and come play the game," my friend simply turned, looked him in the eye, and said "if I had your job I'd kill myself." Needless to say he did not beckon us to play his game after that.

Gene Weingarten: I don't share your contempt for carnys. I basically think all work has dignity, except maybe telemarketers and bathroom attendants in really snooty hotels. However, I DO think it is neat to beat carnys at their own scam. Many of their seemingly easy games are virtually impossible to win, and so I don't try (the basketball hoop that is about
one inch wider than the ball, for example, or flipping a ping-pong ball into a bottle) but others are skills you can learn. Years ago I figured out how to get the softball
into the big milk can with the wide mouth but narrow neck. (A high arc with dramatic backspin.) My kids grew up with a five-foot high stuffed gorilla, obtained for one $2 toss.

Comical Men: I like General Halftrack, from "Beetle Bailey." Good income, always out golfing or at the bar, which means I can entertain Peter Parker at home in the afternoon without losing commissary privileges.

Gene Weingarten: Noted. Thank you.

Washington, D.C.: I recently had very good tomatoes in Pakistan.

Gene Weingarten: Also noted. I believe you are proving my point. How many McDonald's are there in Karachi?

Tomatoes!: Gene, take it from a former (roadside) produce professional there are still great tomatoes out there. Why aren't they popular? Because they are UGLY -- and by ugly I mean bumpy, misshapen blotchy in color ugly. You can find these delicious tomatoes out in the country -- there is a great spot in Westchester, Md., called Baugher's Orchard (their mascot is a smiling apple man -- very funny and wearing overalls). I also found some yummy red tomatoes at the Whole Foods on P Street and guess what they were labeled as -- Ugly Ripe.

Gene Weingarten: I question the accuracy of this, but am publishing it as a public service. I think these may be BETTER tomatoes, but we are all still dogs with kibble.

Fly-Over Country: The Pledge of Allegiance isn't the only thing that children slaughter, verbally speaking. My daughter used to sing America like this:

My country tiseree
Sweet land of liberee
Of ee I sing
Land where my father eye
Land of the pilgapie
From every mountain sigh
Let freedom ring.

I think that's pretty funny.

Gene Weingarten: It is!

Washington, D.C.: Gene,

I don't know how funny this is, but has anyone else wondered why the rescue workers didn't send some handi-snacks or a tube of pringles down the 6" air hole to those trapped miners? Also, I was thinking they could have maybe a dropped a note when the drill broke: "Guys, the drill broke. We are having another one sent. Don't worry. Here are some snacks to tide you over."

Gene Weingarten: My best guess is that the rescuers did not wish to take the risk, however slim, that a package of Ho-Hos would clog the pipe and kill the men. Very, very bad risk-to-benefit ratio. You know?

Somewhere, USA: Dear Gene:

Well it's about time! A weekly chat with the man who (usually) gets better and better. Would you agree that the less people take themselves seriously the better they are? Any exceptions?

Gene Weingarten: You know, I like this question, and am stumped for an answer. Who on Earth would we prefer to take himself more seriously? Surely not the pope or the president. Maybe the brain surgeon about to operate on oneself or one's spouse. I would not mind this person being a humorless, self-important weenie. Any other thoughts?

Milford, Conn.: Any chance you could get the czar to post the honorable mentions from Sundays Style Invitational?

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, I saw that for some reason they never posted them. I shall speak to the squinks in charge.

Washington, D.C.: Greetings, Gene!

I agree wholeheartedly about tomatoes. What used to be delicious, delicate fruit has become a hard, tasteless, tomato-shaped piece of crud. Yuck! It isn't a tomato if it is hard and mealy. What do they use to make them red?

I have a theory that the almighty and powerful super rich (and their corporations they love to hide behind) would like to keep the majority of us malnourished, unhealthy, and thereby dependent on prescriptions, supplements, and SUV's to get to giant box stores or low quality goods.

This factory farming has got to stop. Heck, even Zimbabwe is smart enough to refuse our genetically modified corn, and they are literally starving.

There is an answer. Plant some seeds. Grow your own vegetables. We've done it for thousands of years with no problems on planet Earth. The corporations would love for us to forget that we can do this on our own. We need to stop supporting them and enjoy the fruits of our own labor.

Gene Weingarten: Y'know, for several years, I tried this. And the tomatoes I grew were better than the storeboughts, but nothing like the tomatoes of my youth. I do believe the gene pool has been permanently debased.

New York, N.Y.: Which is inherently funnier: New York or Washington, D.C.? Why?

Gene Weingarten: Oh, Washington is MUCH funnier. There is no comparison. It is because Washington is unaware of its own ludicrous pomposity.

Fairfax, Va.: There are SQUINKS in charge at the Invitational!?

What's this world coming to?

Gene Weingarten: No, there are squinks in charge of the online Post. I am excepting ms. washingtonpost.com, who is not a squink. Or a squank.

More Aptonyms: According to the Post (8/2), a Russian Olympic committee spokesman said that the indicted figure skating fixer could not have affected the outcome. No doubt the spokesman, Gennadi Shvets, tried his best to remain calm.

Also, have you heard about the Israeli (born in Minsk) tennis player named Anna Smashnova?

Gene Weingarten: Public service announcement: In Yiddish, "shvitz" means to sweat.

Yoom, OR - US: On humor theory:

There are times -- at the movies, at a comedy club, at houses of worship -- when almost everyone is laughing at things a humorous very close associate of mine finds boring and predictable.

What do you think of the idea that it's harder to make funny people laugh than non-funny people?

Gene Weingarten: It is an entirely different enterprise, trying to make funny people laugh, from trying to make non-funny people laugh. Two separate skills. Both highly paid. Bob Hope got rich and adored by making non-funny people laugh.

Chicago, Ill.: The people in Zimbabwe are not starving, they are politically repressed and killing each other over who owns what land, but they are not starving.

Gene Weingarten: Um, okaaaaaaaayyyyyy....

Somewhere, USA: Chartreuse

Gene Weingarten: Thank you.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Sally Forth is an abomination unto the sight of the Lord. Make the characters stop smirking! They're like stand-up comics laughing at their own jokes, which is permissible only if you are Red Skelton.

Gene Weingarten: This is a good point! They ARE smirking! I've notice this, but never quite put it into a coherent thought. I knew the guy who started Sally Forth 15 years ago. He was a lawyer who could not draw. His early cartoons were just TERRIBLE. And because they were terrible, they were sort of charming. Then he hired a slightly better (but not good) cartoonist, and things went downhill rapidly. Sally Forth is one of those comics that is listless because it is no longer drawn by its creator. Others: Shoe (MacNelly, tragically, is dead)and Hagar (now by the creator's son)

Sterling, VA: Apropos of nothing, I present Greenrd's Law for online chats:

"Evey post disparaging someone else's spelling or grammar, or lauding one's own spelling or grammar, will inevitably contain a spelling or grammatical error."

washingtonpost.com: (unedited)

Gene Weingarten: Well, I was going to say that this post disproved the law, but then I reread the first line.

Falls Church, Va.: I couldn't have agreed with your Sunday column (re the Pledge) more! Even as a youngster I thought it was more suited to Soviet classrooms than our good ol' individualistic USofA. How silly is it to have a bunch of first graders stand up and recite something they don't even begin to understand in hopes that it'll make them grow up to be single-mindedly patriotic in the officially sanctioned manner? And what business do first-graders have in making official public pledges to ANYTHING, for goodness sake?

I'm assuming you have been getting a fair amount of hate mail on this subject, however -- would you say more people have been agreeing or disagreeing with you?

Gene Weingarten: More have been agreeing, shockingly. I have not gotten much hate mail.

Who floats my boat?: As the married, white, female, 40+, mother of a 4-year-old boy, I want Calvin's dad. Badly. His humor, his sarcasm, and his occasional oblivion are all sublime. Were all sublime. How I miss him.

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, I think if I were a woman, I would have gone for him, too. Remember his explanation to Calvin about how the reason that old photos are black and white is that the world used to be black and white, until about 1949?

Baughers Orchard is in WESTMINSTER, Md. : Good for you Gene, for questioning the accuracy of that false posting. I grew up in Westminster. Baughers does have good produce, but the tomatoes aren't nearly as good as the ones Mom grows from heirloom seeds hoarded year after year. You'd like Mom -- she has a personal grudge against supermarket tomatoes, is multi-lingual and can spell beautifully in several languages.

Gene Weingarten: Sold. I'll take your mom!

Um, please tell me you are 20 or under.

Bowie, Md.: Historic note about the Pledge:

Originally, about mid-way through it, the kids would extend their arm out straight.

This practice was discontinued about 60 years ago.

Gene Weingarten: I didn't know that, but if true, that's a neat fact.

On Making People Laugh: So, do you get paid to make funny or non-funny people laugh? To the best of my knowledge, the afterlife does not have access to washingtonpost.com, but on the other hand, you have some damn funny submitters. Thoughts?

Gene Weingarten: I believe, fervently, religiously, that I get paid to make funny people laugh. Unfortunately, I suspect Bob Hope believes the same thing, equally strongly, about himself.

The 40 or so Style Invitational regulars -- the names you see all the time -- are funnier than I am. I am in awe of them.

Female spelling: I'm female and I can spell "zymurgy". I even know what it means.

I may be a closet male, however, since I see no discernible difference between the colors "plum" and "raisin". Perhaps "raisin" clothing should have little wrinkles.

Gene Weingarten: No, you are a girl, because you know "plum" and "raisin" are colors.

Washington, D.C.: If someone hadn't died, the incident about the Houston dentist who ran over her orthodontist husband WOULD have been funny. She ran over him three times, then stopped on top of him, got out of the car and told him, "I'm so sorry, I love you, keep breathing."

Gene Weingarten: Yes, I saw this, but I am not tasteless enough to publicly suggest there was anything funny about it.

The comics page: "Sally Forth is one of those comics that is listless because it is no longer drawn by its creator."

This suggests that Sally Forth was once good. The other strips you mention were once very funny, and even now have a good day from time to time. Sally started bad and never got better, but it's still around because it targets the strategic two-career couples audience demographic.

Gene Weingarten: Absolutely untrue. Sally forth in the mid to late 1980s was quite good. Hillary, the daughter, was a beautifully sarcastic and sardonic 8-year-old. It got tamed, rather rapidly.

Washington, D.C.: Gene,

Have you ever considered consulting Kim O'Donnel about your perplexing tomato problem? I am sure she'd be able to help you out in that arena (and teach you a bit about Zen in the art of cooking).

Gene Weingarten: There have been a lot of posts (unprinted in this chat) from people who are telling me that heirloom tomatoes, grown in backyards, are like olden days. I have tried them. They aren't.

I retain a photographic taste-memory of tomatoes in the late 1950s to late 1960s. We do not approach them anymore.

Long Island, N.Y.: Is it funny that a woman who ran over her husband was caught on tape by the private detective she hired to follow her husband?

Gene Weingarten: That would be very funny if the entire episode were not so sad and therefore unworthy of comment.

Washington, D.C.: Gene --

Why isn't there anything/anyone funny on the radio in Washington? I've lived in several other cities where I was always able to start off my day with some genuine laughter. But the morning shows here are either trying too hard to shock us (probably not possible anymore) or are sticking to a very tired (and unfunny) formula. Where are the funny people?

Gene Weingarten: I'm gonna get into trouble here, but humor is a tough taskmaster.

The funniest man on the radio, past or present, is Doug Tracht, the Greaseman, who is back on the air on 700 AM after a well-deserved three year forced retirement due to an unconscionably awful racist statement he blurted on 94.7.

He deserved the punishment. But he's back. I welcome it. It's hard to hear him because the Frederick station has very little power. But he's still good. And I'm praying he has learned the error of his ways.

Hey, Mass.: Your recent column with Grover Norquist proved that conservatives can be truly funny. Has the Czar ever indicated to you how many of the regular Invitational submitters (those you are in awe of, and rightfully so) are liberal or conservative?

Gene Weingarten: The Czar does not fraternize with anyone, especially the Style Invitational regulars, because he wishes to show no favoritism. So he knows almost nothing of these people. Judging from their entries alone, they seem to run the political gamut. And Norquist was, indeed, terrific. As soon as he saw what I was doing, he got with it. Surprised the hell out of me.

Arlington, Va.: "I retain a photographic taste-memory of tomatoes in the late 1950s to late 1960s. We do not approach them anymore."

Perhaps the tomatoes are the same but your taste buds and nose have changed over 50 years.

Gene Weingarten: Alas, my nose has changed not at all.

Connecticut: Did you hear President Bush's recent quote on the terrorist threat? (This was shown on "The Daily Show" last night.) He was quoted during a golf game:

"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers," said Bush, golf club in his hand. "Thank you. Now watch this drive."

Funny or just pathetic?

Gene Weingarten: Actually, if he said that, it's pretty funny! I hope it was intentionally funny. I PRAY it was.

Alexandria, Va.: What with the fervor (and furor) this area hold the Redskins, are you ever able to use them to humorous ends?

P.S. Since when did "raisin" become a color?

Gene Weingarten: To women, ANYTHING is a color. I bet all the women on this chat right now could tell me precisely what color, say, "arrogance" is.

Gaithersburg, First Suburb of American Humor, Md.: The daughter in "Sally Forth" was funny in the early days? Not surprising. As time goes by, some comic strips, like some situation comedies, go bland. Catch them early. Radar O'Reilly in the teevee version of M-A-S-H was a smartass conniving little operator, not a wide-eyed Iowa farmboy, in the first season. Even the early episodes of "Webster" had great funny tension between the Alex Karras character and his wife's obviously gay assistant. Then it went all gooey and sentimental, and soon the ads had slow-motion shots of them all crying and hugging. It's comic entropy.

Gene Weingarten: I agree with this totally.

Connecticut: Getting back to comic couples, I think Cherry from "Mark Trail" should run off with someone, perhaps Duke from "Doonesbury."

Also, I think "Garfield" is perhaps the worst comic ever drawn -- it was bad when it first came out, and I haven't seen a new joke in over 10 years.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, Garfield is totally dreadful. "Marvin" is worse, though.

Washington, D.C.: "That would be very funny if the entire episode were not so sad and therefore unworthy of comment."

Gene, what's with this sudden outbreak of good taste? We thought you could find humor in anything. I remember a '60s interview with Mel Brooks, when he was developing the script for "The Producers." He talked about Hitler's unknown side, like the fact that Hitler had a German shepherd named Bob. The whole interview had a zany, insane, hilarious slant to it. If Brooks could do that, is there ANYTHING that's off-limits?

Gene Weingarten: Um, with all due respect, you may be missing my point.

Bowie, Md.: Re: The Greaseman

He was a scapegoat. That 94.7 station had racial humor all the time. Yeah, he crossed the line and deserved punishment, but his station tried to pretend that it wasn't what they paid him to do and they was lyin'.

Gene Weingarten: You know, this is true. But it was up to him to understand where the line was. If I did something that stupid, and got fired, I would not blame the Post for giving me leeway. I appreciate the leeway. With it comes a responsibility.

We're done for today. I enjoyed this. See you next week.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company