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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. 20, 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. In response to Sunday's column about minuscule standardized serving sizes (based upon survey data in which people had reported their customary eating habits), I heard an interesting tale from reader Dennis Malone. In the late 1960s Dennis was hired by the University of Iowa to analyze the results of liquor-consumption survey in that state.
The analysts had two separate pieces of data: the results of a Gallup Poll of Iowa residents about their liquor consumption, and the records of liquor sales provided by the state. The consumption figures were, of course, subjective, and depended on the honesty of
the respondent. The sales figures were objective and concrete. Well, Dennis weighed the first against the second, and reached a startling conclusion -- which he
reported, straightfaced, to his employers: The residents of Iowa were buying a lot of liquor but, apparently, POURING HALF OF IT DOWN THE TOILET. (This conclusion was never published.)

It is true. In polls where people are questioned about socially questionable behavior -- drinking like a fish, eating like a pig -- they lie like a rug.

Questions? Comments?

Ballston, Va.: Gene,

I laughed out loud at your article regarding the paltry and downright absurd serving suggestions on food labels. I'll think of you the next time I am pan frying my 3.5341 ounces of chicken breast (suggesting serving size) on an invisible disc of cooking spray (one millisecond of a spritz) while simultaneously nibbling on the three crisps that have been allotted to me by the generous purveyors of Pringles. Will someone stop the madness?!

washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Aug. 18)

Gene Weingarten: You know, I'm not sure I want the madness to end. It is ridiculous, but it does sit there on the packaging like a stern schoolmarm, delivering a spoonful of guilt about how much we eat. And we DO eat too much. We are a big-butted society. They make fun of us in Europe. Candidly, I think the current system, as insane as it is, might be better than the truth. I don't think we need to read that a pint of Haagen Dazs is "one serving.'' Even if it is.

Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Weingarten,

Is an appreciation/ understanding of tragedy useful for creating good comedy?
Do you think many comedy writers and performers who benefit from reading Aristotle's "Poetics," which describes and defines "tragedy"?

Gene Weingarten: I have not read this, but I suspect it is more valuable in helping to understand humor than any published material actually attempting to understand humor. Fifteen years ago I was on a fellowship at Harvard and took a hotshot course on film humor. The only assigned reading was a famed late 19th-century monograph on humor by famed French humor expert Henri Bergson. You may have
heard of this -- it is assigned reading in every humor symposium/course/workshop ever conducted anywhere in any language. It is the dryest, most stultifying, most relentlessly humorless thing ever consigned to paper.

Lexington Park, Md.: Gene:
What's your middle name? I'm asking because I remember (and just looked up) a past chat in which your son's tooth fairy letters were all signed "Bernard Fensterman" and I thought that was a really great idea, and was all set to plagiarize it for my own son's wiggling incisors, but then I thought that a name like "Eugene P. Weingarten" would be just as funny, and would have the bonus of being an inside joke that no one else in the family would get. (I recall you've stated that your name is Gene, not Eugene, but I'm taking the liberty of changing it here because Eugene is just funnier.) If your middle name is something truly egregious you don't want to reveal, could you at least disclose the initial?

Gene Weingarten: Good for you for understanding, intuitively, that Eugene is much funnier than Gene. I have tried to explain this for years, and some people just don't get it.

I have a very, very, very bad middle name. I never use it. It is the only serious error my parents made, and it led to the only thing my otherwise perfect wife ever did to irritate me. While we were waiting at the Motor Vehicles office, she filled out my driver's license application form and, unbeknownst to me, included my middle name, so now it is on there, right on my license, forever. I may someday forgive her.

My middle name is the surname of the international financier and British peer who was the governor of the Bank of England for the longest tenure in British history, an ardent advocate of the Gold Standard. First person to get it wins a t-shirt.

Atlanta, Ga.: My girlfriend has a wonderful sense of humor, which is one of the many reasons I want to marry her. Can you (or the readers in the audience) think of a clever way to propose?

Gene Weingarten: I'll just throw this out for general consideration.

Washington, D.C.: Gene,
Just wanted to say how much I love your sense of humor. I need to find someone who can make me laugh. Where can I meet someone like you?
Single chick in DC

Gene Weingarten: See, the problem you are going to encounter is that a lot of people who think like me also look like me.

Virginia: Gene - Re: sexism, seriously, who's the hottest dame in the Post newsroom? Based on what I've seen online, amy joyce is a BABE, followed by Carolyn Hax.

Gene Weingarten: I do not view my professional colleagues in this fashion. To me, they are all equally lovely. Not that "lovely' matters. I mean they are equally good-looking. Or ordinary looking. Not that they are ordinary looking. Actually, I don't know because I don't look at them. I avert my eyes.

Boy, if ever a question was designed to elicit a harassment suit, yours was.

Somewhere, USA: Your middle name is Houblon.
- Matt Burke

Gene Weingarten: No.

Alexandria, Va.: Oldie, but goodie for proposal: Give her a lump of coal on her ring instead of a diamond. "I'm ready to make a verrry long term commitment."

Gene Weingarten: I never heard this. It isn't bad.

Arlington, Va.: I'm a Miami girl, born and raised, now living here and one of the things I miss the most about home is the Tropic Hunt. My friends and I lived for that giant scavenger hunt and we almost won it our senior year, coming in just minutes behind the guy who took the prize. So now that the Tropic is no longer and I can't go home and play, couldn't you stage a similar event here? D.C. seems like a prime location and I know it would be a huge hit.

Gene Weingarten: I agree. And the editor of the magazine is now Tom Shroder, who had been the editor of Tropic, and did the hunts with me and Dave Barry. Email Tom at shrodert@washpost.com.

Names: Your middle name is Disraeli.

Gene Weingarten: No. C'mon. Disraeli would be a GREAT name.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Norman?

Gene Weingarten: This person wins the shirt. The polls are closed.

washingtonpost.com: Capitol Hill winner, please send me your address so we can mail you your T-shirt. It won't be posted.

Alexandria, Va.: Gene,

Where do you live? Which state/city is funnier -- Virginia, Maryland, or D.C., and why?

Gene Weingarten: I used to live in Maryland, now live in D.C. In my judgment, Virginia is the least funny, Maryland next, and D.C. is the most funny. Listen, Marion Barry gave the citizens of D.C. DECADES of hilarity, and now we have the following situation: The mayor of D.C., an unquestionably excellent mayor, so beloved and appreciated and generally acknowledged as competent and decent that no one even considered running against him, is now reduced to running on a ballot in a position less enviable than that of a septuagenarian trumpet-blowing exotic dancer named Faith. D.C. wins.

Helena, Mont.: When Anna Nicole Smith finally explodes will Fox broadcast that live?

Gene Weingarten: Absolutely. Have you any doubt?

Alexandria, Va.: Do you ever shoot the breeze with Carolyn Hax? What's she like?

Gene Weingarten: I do. I like Carolyn a lot, and I love her column, but I am afraid of her. It's like she can see through you. It's like she is wearing X-Ray Specs of the Soul.

Alexandria, Va.: Gene,
After reading the piece on Faith Dane today, I know where Dubya gets his "Faith based initiatives"! You need to tap into this woman. She is a mother lode of absurdity.

washingtonpost.com: Trumpeting Faith, (Post, Aug. 20)

Gene Weingarten: This is a terrific story. I love her quote about the suppository from hell.

15th and L: You know Gene, it could be worse, since I don't have a middle name. My friends look at me like I have three heads when I tell them this little morsel of information.

Gene Weingarten: I know I have said this before, but the winner of the bad middle name contest run by the Style Invitational was a little boy whose parents named him during a bucolic vacation that they were just a leeetle to swept up in. His middle name is "Assateagueponyfootfalls."

My father has no middle name. In the army, this was written as NMI (no middle initial) so many people perforce, in public records, got the Asian-sounding middle name of reading Nmi.

When my wife just started out as a prosecutor, she came home one day, amazed at how many perps in Miami had the last name Lnu, and we tried to figure out its nationality. Turns out it meant "last name unknown."

Alexandria, Va.: I believe that Washington did have a scavenger hunt-type event here around 1980. I remember being a teenager and reading the clues in the Post.

Gene Weingarten: It's not exactly a scavenger hunt. You would have to experience it to understand it. Very odd, very exciting. Huge prizes (trips to Paris, etc.)

For the proposal guy...: even a girl with a good sense of humor wants a romantic proposal. Don't try to make it too much of a practical joke!

Gene Weingarten: You know, I actually think this is good advice. I hate to say it. But clown shoes may not go well with a proposal of marriage.

Having said that, I consider marriage a minor commitment. Of negligible importance, mostly a bookkeeping thing. Seriously. I consider having children the huge, lifelong, gigantic, cosmic commitment that must test you to the depths of your being. My wife and I got married on our lunch hour, with no one present.

Okay, now you can all yell at me.

Annapolis MD: Scientists in Britain have confirmed what the rest of us have known for a while now: Scientists Say Alcohol Makes Others Better Looking, (Reuters)

Gene Weingarten: This is great!

Annapolis, Md.: Have you ever noticed how many servings are in the small Dorito bags? They are classic.
And this all brings up a question, If Lays knows, and blatantly advertises, that you can't eat just one, that you have to eat the whole bag, how can they justify their six chip serving sizes?

Gene Weingarten: I had this in my column, but had to delete it for space reasons. It is an excellent conundrum.

Rockville, Md.: Any hints for a 15-year-old boy with a very sarcastic wit on how to get into stand-up comedy?

Gene Weingarten: Bill Hicks started at 15. You have to screw up the nerve and take the mike at an open-mike night. But first you have to write some good material. And then you have to have skin as thick as a mattress. Not a cheap mattress. One of those air mattresses advertised by that sportswhore on WTOP. Boy, I dislike that guy. Dave Johnson, right? Either you are a media person or a pitchman. You can't be both. I also hate people who can't keep a train of thought going.

New York, N.Y.: Can you ask the Czar to dip into the Style Invitational's censored file to bring us some more entries that are too offensive to print? Can you post them after he gleefully offers them to you?

washingtonpost.com: (squirm)

Gene Weingarten: Liz gets VERY nervous at moments like this. I will report back when The Czar comes up with one. I will say that this week we received an entry that I consider the most disgusting entry ever. Just loathsome. And it made me realize that there is a point at which something is so tasteless that any humor lurking within it evaporates.

I actually had not had occasion to realize this before.

Okay, the Czar just weighed in. Early in the contest someone submitted this, for a limerick contest using the name Kevorkian in it....

There was a young lass from Nantucket
Who wanted help in kicking the bucket
No problem, my child,
Doc Kevorkian smiled,

The last line contained the word "tailpipe." Figure it out.

You may exhale now, Liz.

Bethesda, Md.: What is funniest about the President's appearance at Mount Rushmore last week:

(a) the fact that, though the most recognizable national monument of the country was available for scenery, the rostrum was set up in front of a wall painted to say "Mount Rushmore" (and featuring scenery of the Black Hills anyway);

(b) the fact that the President's staffers allowed photographers to stand way off to the side and get pictures of Bush with his head roughly the same size as the carvings in the distance; or

(c) the fact that most of the photographs taken by the photographers mentioned in (b) captured the President in mid-consonant so that he looked constipated at best?

Gene Weingarten: b)

Springfield, Va.: You were socially conscious during the 70s right? Did you ever try to get funky?

Gene Weingarten: I was sort of socially conscious. I was a student journalist, so I was not a "player." I was not really into the anti-war movement. I was more into the drug, uh, movement.

Query: Is it funny that a New Zealand woman caught fire during her own C-section?

(I'm debating this, and I'm female.)

Gene Weingarten: Wow. I didn't see this. Here is something funny: Certain colon procedures involve using a snakeline thing with a light at the end. Before these instruments were perfected, they sometimes sparked. Methane ignites. True story.

Alexandria, Va.: Forgive me if someone's already sent you this apt name for a female tennis player: Anna Smashnova. (Her name was in an article on Martina Hingis in today's NY Times)

Gene Weingarten: With aptonyms, you gotta be fast. She made last week's chat. See next question.

Lee's Bunion, Va.: Gene, several months ago I asked you about your name being an aptonym, and you promised us that this would be the subject of an upcoming column. Well where is it? You slacking off? We all hunger for this in our souls, Gene.

Gene Weingarten: I am writing it this week. And to the person who submitted the aptonymic name of a doctor for this chat: Thank you. It is manna from heaven. I am pursuing it.

Washington, D.C.: My mother's friend's daughter just named her newborn son "Fenway Parker Smith" or whatever her married surname is. The husband is a big baseball fan; thank goodness Fenway wasn't rebranded Dorito Park or some such thing.

Gene Weingarten: Fenway Parker is a great name. It is the best ballpark-induced name I can think of.

Arlington, Va.: Do you think that toilet paper should flow forward over the top of the roll, or backward behind the roll?

And do the toilet paper people really think that anything could be accomplished with a single square, or are the perforations simply there so it's easier to tear your personally-sized section?

Thank you for answering this borderline vulgar question.

Gene Weingarten: This is not remotely borderline vulgar.

The proper toilet paper dispensing is to roll out from the bottom.

I actually explained the one-square thing in my book. There is a reason the squares are so small, and -- counterintuitively -- it actually makes sense. No one uses just one square, but some people use two squares, and others use three. By having small squares, it allows both types of people to choose, and actually conserves tissue.

Rockville, Md.: I'm the mother of the 15-year-old boy with the sarcastic wit. Any hints on good comebacks when he practices his sarcasm on me? And would you like to have him for a while?

Gene Weingarten: I am just getting rid of an 18-year-old boy. Your offer is about as tempting as a Devil's suppository.

The only defense to sarcasm is better sarcasm.

New York, N.Y.: I am re-submitting this question to make Liz squirm again. In your book you note that the medical record for number of farts in a day is 155. How is this measured? Is this still the record?

Gene Weingarten: I believe that the man who measured it, the brilliant and world-renowned fart expert, Dr. Michael Levitt of Minneapolis, accepted the man's count. The reason for this is that the rule of lying does not apply when the high admission is negative. (Shortly after the Lewinsky story broke, I talked to a renowned lie detector expert, Warren Holmes, and asked him if he thought she was lying. "She is definitely telling the truth," he said. Why? Because her admission made her look so bad. She looked like a stupid slut. Had she been making it up,she would have romanticized it.
Same thing with fartman.

Interestingly, after I conducted my interview with Dr. Levitt, one hour on the phone talking only about farts, he asked me one favor: Don't actually quote him using the word. This became a difficult task of editing, but if you read this chapter, you'll see I didn't.

Teepee, Va.: You mean there are people who only use two or three squares? (You said yourself we are a big-butted society.)

Gene Weingarten: Yes. Well. It also makes choosing seven possible.

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

Ok, so my last name is Champion. If I name a kid "Undisputed Heavyweight" am I just asking for trouble?

Gene Weingarten: Well, it's a great name, but she would be known as "Undies." Not good.

Bethesda, Md.: Re: Polls and the truth. The classic example was a poll that asked (heterosexual) people how many sex partners they'd had. You can prove mathematically that the average number of sex partners for men will be equal to the average number of sex partners for women. In the poll, the average number of partners men reported was about double the number that for women.

Gene Weingarten: I'm not surprised, but I am also not sure your thesis is right. If you had a closed society of ten men and ten women, and all the men had sex with one of the women, and there was no other sex had, would the averages work out the same?

Washington, D.C.: What's your sign?

Gene Weingarten: "Void Where Prohibited."

That's it for today. Thank you all. See you next week.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company