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

Tuesday, March 11, 2003; 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: Good afternoon.

You ever see "Of Mice and Men'?

You know the Goofy-the-dog tone of voice Lenny the Idiot uses when he says "George'?

Wouldn't it have been great if one of the all-too-respectful questioners at W's press conference had addressed the president that way? It might have broken the icy politeness. Somebody needs to. There is something fundamentally terrifying about marching off to war with as much spirited legislative debate as usually accompanies
resolutions wishing Mrs. Eulalia Frimpnick a happy hundredth birthday.

Also, I would respectfully request that W stop telling us about his faith in God, and his firm belief that the deity is on his side. It's not that I doubt his piety, or his sincerity, but the guys who flew into buildings were also pretty darn sure of what God wants. This sort of certitude emboldens people to act in exceedingly decisive fashions.
I'd much rather that a president express extreme uncertainty and anxiety about what God would want. Concern for the fate of one's mortal soul is good, when -- right or wrong -- you are about to kill a lot of people.

Cartoon pick of the day is, unfortunately, Pearls Before Swine again. Today's. No one
else is doing much of anything interesting on the comics page, and Mr. Pastis is.

Questions? Comments?

washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Swine, (March 11)

Oh, VA: On the topic of your not understanding why women take their husband's name following marriage:

I feel the same way, though I reluctantly took my husband's name when I married him a year and a half ago. (Very conservative in-laws who would have absolutely flipped had I not taken his/their name. I love my husband but regret my decision to take his name. I'll save that for Carolyn Hax, though.)

Anywho. I was wondering about another bizarre tradition. When a couple gets married (or even engaged), one says to the man "Congratulations!" and one says to the woman "Best wishes!"

What up with that? I've heard it explained as follows: In days of yore, you congratulated a gentleman on his "catch", much as one would congratulate him on bagging a mountain lion or getting a promotion or something. (What. Ever.) Since the woman had no say in the matter, one needn't congratulate her on anything, only wish her the best in her future life, ripped from her home and family.

I think we should come up with some new phrase, usable on both parties. I'm hoping you'll suggest something that's in rather questionable taste.

Gene Weingarten: I never heard of this convention, but if it is true I suspect slightly more benign etiology. I think the playful conceit at a wedding is that the man has lucked into a woman far more desirable than he deserves. There is actually some sexist condescension afoot
here too, but far less than in your scenario. Also, it probably is usually true.

A think a nice, non-biased gender-neutral greeting might be: "So, when is the baby due?

Detroit, Mich.: I thought you might enjoy this aptonym, which always made me giggle as a kid -- the Goodnuff Burnham Funeral Home in Redford, Mich. I drove past it last year only to find that, sadly, the proprietors have dropped "Burnham" from the name.

Also, Sunday's look back at classic Style Invitational entries reminded me of two of my all-time favorites, both of which were from the same contest. Unfortunately, neither made the cut in last Sunday's paper. The contest, which took place several years ago, asked readers to come up with inappropriate mascots for products or companies. The two entries that still make me laugh: "Cheez-Its of Nazareth" and "Chompy the Alligator, urging travelers to fly ValuJet."

Gene Weingarten: Several alert people have noted something interesting: Sunday's Style Invitational,
which reprinted the best entries of the last ten years, included many that won first runner-up. In many of those cases, the entry that WON the contest was not printed.
The question is: Was the czar actually, stunningly, admitting error?

The answer is: No. The Czar, like the pope, is infallible. He did decide that some winners -- hilarious at the time of publication -- would seem dated now, or relied for their humor on details long since forgotten. Like your Valujet thing.

Fairfax, Va.: On another chat, Bob Levey has the exec director of the National Scrabble Foundation, or some such thing. Could there possibly be a MORE boring online chat?

Do you have any funny Scrabble stories, Gene?

Gene Weingarten: No, but I have a funny Levey story!

Last week, Bob and I met -- as we do every Tuesday, five minutes before our chat -- at the Washington Post urinals. I noted this fact to Bob, observing that we were on the identical cycle. Bob observed that this was exactly like women roommates, whose menstrual cycles tend to align. We both burst out laughing, and I noted that one of us needed to write about that.

"You," he said.


Washington, D.C.: Gene, I'm a little hurt. Even though I've been a contributor to the SI since early on (within the first 10 weeks) and was one of the Losers highlighted during your last hiatus, NONE of my entries made it to the Decade's Best. Should I take this as a hint?

On a different note, I applaud the return to roman numerals. I like big numbers.

Gene Weingarten: Some of the very best entrants didn't make it, for some reason. Ken Krattenmaker. Bob Sorensen. It's okay. Tomorrow will dawn.

By my calculations, if it continues without further hiatuses or hiati, The Style Invitational will take its place as the longest running humor contest ever on or about August 11, 2009.

Aptonym from D.Barry, Genius: Hi there Gene,

A truly great aptonym that's been under our noses for zillions of years yet had to be pointed out by Dave Barry in last Sunday's column -- Ted Kennedy (D-Mass).

Gene Weingarten: True.

Vatican City: I tend to think of organized religion as much the same sort of thing as alcohol or marijuana: something mankind would do well to avoid, but which seems to cause even more problems when banned.

Gene Weingarten: This is quite a thought. If it is original, it is brilliant. Actually, it's brilliant even if it is not original.

And yes, when Communist China banned religion, they wound up eating their own babies to survive.

15th and L: In Sunday's Outlook section, the 33rd POTUS was referred to as "Harry S Truman". I thought the Post's stylebook holds that the period must be included even though it is inaccurate and incorrect. Have you been able to convince other editors to agree with your position and drop the period?

Gene Weingarten: I am not sure but I will look into this. My guess is that it was a Grievous Error and Heds Will Roll.

(Previous was a funny in-joke that will be gotten only by journalists.)

Washington, D.C.: Would it be worthwhile to submit to this week's contest brilliant entries that the Czar, perhaps due to a cosmic ray striking his brain at the moment of judging, failed to appreciate? (I am writing as an occasionally published entrant, so I believe am not totally lacking in humor judgement.)

Gene Weingarten: It would be futile, but be my guest. The threshold for this contest is going to be very high.

Hometown, USA: Dear Gene,
My 12-year-old daughter is home sick from school, but she's not feeling bad enough to be in bed. How do I keep from killing her?

Gene Weingarten: Show her a picture of the Al Qaeda guy in the undershirt. Tell her he is a "bad-little-girl flogger" who is on call.

Fairfax, Va.: Man, "Pearls before Swine" is just hilarious. Have you corresponded with the artist at all? Any chance of getting an SI contest somehow based on PBS?

Gene Weingarten: I have, and that is a good idea. Thanks.

New England: OK, Gene, I need to confirm my newfound loyalty to you and your chats. This is key.

Letterman or Leno?

Gene Weingarten: Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog, on Conan.

Atlantis, East of Annapolis, Md.: The funny part is that the director of the National Scrabble Foundation is named William Axkropj.

Okay, it's not true. But I can dream, can't I?

Gene Weingarten: It made me laugh.

Humor, ME: So what other "long running" humor contests are out there ? And what's the competition like ? (and why no by-line on the Sunday SI article ? )

Gene Weingarten: There was no byline because it was written by God. The longest running humor contest, to my knowledge, was The New York Magazine Competition, which the Czar blatantly ripped off when he started the Style Invitational. It ran for 856 weeks or something like that.

The great Mary Ann Madden, creator of the NYMC, never forgave The Czar for, as she once put it in a letter to a reader, "arrogating" her shtick.

Comics Try-out: Gene: Have you been following the comics auditions this week? Are you voting? Personally, I hope that the comics editors keep trying. Talk about lame. Maybe there will be a true gem later this week.

Gene Weingarten: I thought today's showed some moves.

Dulles, va.: Hilarious news story -- man hit in head with SHEEP'S HEAD at concert!

washingtonpost.com: Concertgoer Injured at Mayhem Concert, (AP, March 11)

Gene Weingarten: Ewe.

Washington, D.C.: I know this question is more appropriate for Warren Brown's chat but I can't wait until tomorrow. Why don't car turn signals have timers on them? If the steering wheel (or whatever mechanism)isn't turned enough to disengage the turn signal within 30 seconds the signal would automatically time out or something.

I think this would reduce roadrage in States like Florida where senior citizens congregate, not too stereotype or anything.

Gene Weingarten: The mechanism to do so might take up too much room on the dashboard, making it impossible to have that dial that controls the precise intensity of the dashboard light.

What the hell is that thing for, anyway? Who cares how bright the dashboard is?

Comic, AL: Gene -- do you interact any with the comics folks ? I recall the last survey had what looked to be "suspect" results (namely, Dennis the Menace coming out #1 for a number of age/gender groups).

Personally, I fault the internet voting, as it is trivial to forge answers/results. I don't think the washpost will do much better by requiring an email vote, as that's easier to spoof/forge than a web form to fill out. Don't the IT guys tell them that ?

Gene Weingarten: No one asked my opinion on the comics survey. I think it is a terrible idea. I think it reflects a timidity on the part of the editors, a terrible, destructive reluctance to simply decide for themselves what is good, and go with it.

If the whole newspaper were run the way we decide on comics, the front page would be a soup of celebrity news and sports. The Washington Post is great because its editors are strong, and sure of themselves.

The comics should be selected by one person who knows for certain what is funny.

Stet, Del: Who cares how bright the dashboard is?

Meat Loaf.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, but you are making my point. You want maximum light at all times. Why even have a control?

Alexandria, Va.: I seem to remember you got off a lot of yucks about Republican Trent Lott's recent stupid remarks about Strom Thurmond, how's about something abut liberal Democratic Congressman Moran's "It's all the fault of the Jews" comments?

I guess that really shows how well "informed" those liberals are!

washingtonpost.com: Moran Said Jews Are Pushing War, (Post, March 11)

Gene Weingarten: I am guessing Moran will not survive this one. You know a gaffe was bad when the defense is, basically, "I'm sorry."

Lexington Park, Md.: I've always been a fan of Dave Barry's idea that if someone leaves their turn signal the car would violently swing the car in the direction the signal is ticking.

Gene Weingarten: Yeah, Dave has always been obsessed with this, probably because he lives in Miami, which is the land of the clueless elderly driver. I get more steamed at the people who won't let you change lanes, just because.

Fairfax, Va.: What's Mary Ann Madden doing now? I guess this gets to finishing the line "Old Czars never die, they just lose their [blank]". With apologies to Gene Rayburn.

Gene Weingarten: I once saw Gene Rayburn star in a performance of "The Bird Cage" at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Penn. It was the worst single acting performance I have ever seen.

Washington, D.C.: "one person who knows for certain what is funny."

Surely you jest.

This comment is about as arrogant as the Oxford Dictionary of Humor.

Gene Weingarten: You cannot write humor if you are not arrogant about humor. It is impossible. When I say "knows for certain" that is exactly what I mean.

Burbs, Va.: How come you don't talk about your family in your column, like Dave Barry and Tony Kornheiser? Or is the problem that you don't even HAVE a family? At least not one that's as funny as Dave's baby or Tony's dad.

Gene Weingarten: Well, I sometimes do, but rarely. When I first conned Glenn Frankel into giving me a column, I promised it would distinguishing itself from Dave Barry's in that it would be about Washington. I am trying to stick to that.

Boston, Mass.: Any comment on Mr. Stuever's article about little dogs? I, for one, was speechless. And pretty weirded out at how Cindy Adams pre-chewed her dog's food.

washingtonpost.com: I Woof New York, (Post, March 11)

Gene Weingarten: Great piece. You just have to read this.

Annapolis, Md.: Gene, HELP! I'm pregnant and one of the "side effects" I'm experiencing is excessive hair growth. I worried I will look like the Taliban undershirt guy by the end. Any suggestions on how to handle this? Any suggestions on how my husband can handle this?

Gene Weingarten: Excessive hair growth in pregnancy? Dis I never hoid. And I know everything about everything weird in medicine.

The problem with modern tomatoes: I seem to recall learning in high school biology that, at long-ago sewage treatment plants, tomato plants would grow spontaneously in the muck (because the seeds survive the human digestive track). Perhaps that is the source of the heightened flavor your remember from your childhood. I'd bet that the workers at such plants supplemented their income by selling said tomatoes.

Obviously, your concerns about tomatoes have been gnawing at me for a while.

Gene Weingarten: The best tomato I ever had came from Mrs. Conesa's backyard. It was 1957, in Hopewell Junction N.Y. Mrs. Conesa used to throw all her dinner garbage -- chicken scraps, pasta, etc. -- out her back window onto the tomatoes. They grew in rotting filth.

Nanapolis, Md.: Assure her it all falls out quickly afterwards. It does. In clumps.

Gene Weingarten: Noted. And thank you to the poster who loves me because I am me.

Aptonym: From the March 7 New York Times: "Mr. Roche and General Jumper have vowed to investigate accusations that current and former cadets who reported sexual assaults and rapes faced indifference or even retaliation by academy officials."

The thought of women being forced to go to a man named "Jumper" to complain about sexual assaults is ... amusing.

Gene Weingarten: It is. It reminds me of Bill Hicks's wet-your-pants riff on the names of the Rodney King cops. Anyone ever hear that? I'd quote from it but Lizzie would kick my arse.

Laurel, Md.: Gene,

Why does your column bear both the names "Planet Washington" and "Below the Beltway" every single week?

Planet Washington is the name of the Department of the magazine in which it appears, like Dave Barry's is called At Wits End. But while Barry's column has a sub-title related to that particular week's contents, yours is always Below the Beltway.

Can't you choose one permanent title for the department and then sub-title the column something content-specific each week?

Gene Weingarten: Actually, the magazine has a new art director, and we will be taking this up with him. I don't understand precisely what Planet Washington is.

Potomac-on-Potomac, Md.: Did you catch the name of Giant's parent company? It's Royal Ahold. What do you think?

Gene Weingarten: I think at least it is not Royal Pain in the Ahold.

Dash light level: In the city with lots of street lights, you want bright dashboard lighting. At night on a country road, you can see outside the car better with dimmer lighting.

It really does help, I've used the dial.

Gene Weingarten: I'll take your word for it.

Arlington, Va.: I've also got the pregnancy hair growth thing going on. My sideburns are so thick you could braid them. This was not in the pamphlet I got when I signed up for this gig. My doctor assures me it goes away a few weeks after delivery. But he may just be saying that because he's afraid to tell me otherwise, what with me looking like a swollen yeti these days.

Gene Weingarten: Maybe pregnancy advice can become a staple of this column. But it has to be really icky, okay?

Arlington, Va.: This sentence actually appears in the Levey Chat:

John D. Williams, Jr.: Of course it would depend of what's on the board.
Basically the best word I can find in this group is JO, although the word JIZ is good in England.

washingtonpost.com: Sigh.

Gene Weingarten: Wow!

Hairy pregnancy help: Now you can use that duct tape you've got piled in your "security room."

Gene Weingarten: There ya go.

Washington, D.C.: I submitted a question on a chat last Monday that Mike Wilbon answered. It was concerning how newspapers determine the popularity of columnists. In short, how can they tell without the benefit of ratings if people are actually reading them. Apparently this is a peeve of Mr. Wilbon's, according to his answer below:

Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon: Newspapers don't do that kind of research. That was a subject of one of my rants at a convention of sports editors last summer. I know it's costly, but newspapers don't do that kind of research and TV does. So, I don't know how they know. Yours is great question. --Mike

Your discussion with Levey intrigues me. Do you envision a day when newspapers require their columnists to "square off" via online chats and the most (and least) popular ones get rewarded accordingly? They would then use the popularity as a form of ratings. What kind of skullduggery would erupt from that? Do you have sabotage plans in place?

Gene Weingarten: I totally disagree with Wilbon. This is part and parcel of the marketing-driven society that really blows chunks.

You hear me, Wilbon? I'm callin' you out on this. Wuss.

Wuttzofun, NY?: Gene, someone named Damon Hack works for the New York Times. It's not a good name for a newspaper writer. To make matters worse, he's a sportswriter.

Gene Weingarten: It's actually doubly bad. He's got the Hack thing going, but he also has the Damon Runyon echo in there. Doublehack.

Don't tempt Wilbon...: Wilbon could, and probably would, kick your arse...

Gene Weingarten: Wilbon is a big sissy.

Riverdale, Md.: Gene,

In judging the entries for this week's contest, will the Czar be acting as if the entry was sent in at the time, or will he allow references to events subsequent to the original publication date of the contest?

Like, can you enter a 1996 contest by making a reference to both Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Dole being senators?

Gene Weingarten: These can be updated. No problem.

Bowie, Md. Gene, I have a really terrific entry to an SI from years ago, but the contest wasn't among those listed on Sunday. Is it eligible to enter?

Gene Weingarten: Nope.

Where the white women at?: Are we actually going to go a whole chat w/o the mention of either Pat or Gina?

washingtonpost.com: Must be on the same cycle...

Gene Weingarten: Yikes. Scary, isn't it?

That's it for today. See you next week. Who knows, maybe Wilbon might drop by.

Nah, he hasn't got the nerve to go mano a mano.

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