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

Tuesday, April 1, 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.

Yes, I know it is April Fool's Day. No, I am not going to engage in prankery. The reason is this: The public doesn't get it. It is a wonderful and admirable fact about newspapers -- I owe my paycheck to this fact -- that people tend to believe them, suspending their natural skepticism. On those occasions when I am accused by a reader of having written something inaccurate, I usually indignantly respond that it cannot possibly be inaccurate: Since it has been published, I say, it is "an established fact.'

This terrific sense of trust, however, is a problem when one is trying to write satire. People take what you write literally. Two years ago, when April Fool's Day happened to fall on a Sunday, I wrote a column that was a preposterous self-evident lie.
Beyond the complete implausibility of the entire topic, I salted inescapable clues throughout. To my knowledge, no one got it. I got A LOT of phone calls and e-mails responding to it as though it were fact.

Liz, please link to this. First person to identify all the OBVIOUS SPECIFIC clues, and explain them, gets a t-shirt. There are at least five.

Cartoon pick of the week, hands down, is yesterday's Fox Trot. (Which I have been a little disappointed with since it arrived. Perhaps it is turning a corner.)

Comments? Questions?

washingtonpost.com: Foxtrot, (March 31)

Below the Beltway, (Post Magazine, April 1, 2001)

Wash Ington: In the examples for Sunday's horse contest, why does mating J ALFRED PRUFROCK with REGION OF MERIT produce a foal named EAT A PEACH? I've spent about 45 hours on this and cant get it. What is wrong with me?

washingtonpost.com: The Style Invitational, (Post, March 30)

Gene Weingarten: So, this one licked you, eh?

I'll explain it a little farther down, if no reader does it first, in a way I can post.

Washington, D.C.: Hey Gene. Where is La Cicciolina (aka Ilona Staller) when you need her? Remember her, she was the Italian porn star who became a member of their Parliament and offered herself to Saddam if he would end the '91 gulf war and leave Kuwait.

Gene Weingarten: I'm not sure the offer would have the same weight today, if you get my drift.

Nowhere of Significance: Firing Peter Arnett. Good or bad?

Gene Weingarten: Well, that's easy. Bad, because Arnett is a pretty good correspondent, and I will miss him. The more appropriate question is "right or wrong?' and I think the answer is
... right. This is not really an issue of free speech, even though that is how the NBC execs knee-jerkily defined it, before their flipflop. This is an issue of judgment.
A news organization has to trust the judgment of the people it employs, and it was incredibly bad judgment of Arnett to permit himself to be used as a propaganda machine
for Saddam Hussein. That's what he did, and he should be gone.

Anthrax: How do you plan to compete today with a chat regarding anthrax?

washingtonpost.com: Gene's competition:

  • The Post's Marilyn W. Thompson on her new book "The Killer Strain."
  • What's Cooking
  • Wilco documentary filmmaker Sam Jones
  • Strength & Fitness
  • Bob Levey and a Children's Hospital psychiatrist

    Gene Weingarten: Oh, great, Liz. Thanks. Let's not only invite everyone in this chat to defect and desert like shellshocked fedayeen, LET'S GIVE THEM THE LINKS TO DO IT. Why not also
    report that Marilyn Thompson is giving away bobblehead dolls?

    Fairfax, Va.: Any preliminary word from the Czar on how the entries for the "weird but true facts" Style Invitational went/are going? Seems there would be a lot of duplication, and with The Czar's past complaints about Steal Invitationalists. Well, there might be a problem here, no?

    Gene Weingarten: It's a very unusual contest. A lot of people spent all of twelve seconds consulting Web sites with odd facts, cutting and pasting, and shipping them in as their own. Unless the Czar errs badly, none of these will see print. (We're getting the same ones, over and over, many of dubious authority.)

    Other people are being very clever, drawing from things they've known for years, etc. Quirky, original things.

    The response is huge -- thousands of entries -- and the results should be good.

    A question for PtheP: Why is the correct term for more than one top legal officer Attornies General and not Attorney Generals?


    Gene Weingarten: Actually, I have no idea. It does seem counterintuitive. Pat?

    Washington, D.C.: Hi, Gene!

    There was a question recently on the NPR language game show "Says You" that seemed right up your alley. I'll pose it to you. Can you explain the difference between being sarcastic and being sardonic? Can you give an example?

    Gene Weingarten: I like this question. The dic suggests they are synonyms, but I think there is a connotative difference. I think sarcasm is less sophisticated. For example, if I were
    answering your question sarcastically, I might say, "Now THAT'S a smart question.' But if I were answering sardonically, I might say, "An excellent question. Perhaps you would like to address it to your colleagues in The American Society of Word Weenies?'

    Cubeville: I saw on CNN that Iraq claimed to have "downed 196 cruise missiles." I think they're using buildings to stop them. Those presidential palaces will stop a Tomahawk every time.

    Gene Weingarten: Very nice.

    Chapel Hill, N.C.: A few weeks ago, you reviewed a novel by Robert Burrows, "The Great American Parade," in your column. You called it "the worst novel ever published in the English language," and suggested that the American publishing industry should hang its head.

    Well, the publishing industry was not actually responsible for the book. Technology was. Technology has now placed in the hands of people like Burrows the ability to publish a book cheaply (and, in some cases, for free). This shouldn't be the object of mockery or hand-wringing. It's a blow for democracy! Like the Internet itself, it means that regular people now hold the tools once wielded only by the powerful.

    In fact, since your column, Burrows' book has been published on a Web site and has become quite popular. The market decides what sells, as it turns out, and snide reviews aside, "the worst novel in the world" turns out to have an audience.

    Gene Weingarten: Oh, I had no doubt that I would increase its audience. That was sort of the idea. Have you read it? What do you think?

    Gene's Hoax: The April Fool's Day prank was a faked interview with a Government Department head who kept track of ridiculous historical D.C. pranks -- for example why there is no J Street.

    Gene Weingarten: Ummmmmmmmmm.

    Pat Imitator: Because "general" in this case is an adjective, not a noun. Really, it should be "general attorneys" but for some reason they reversed it.

    But that's not funny. How about a joke? What's brown and sticky? A stick.

    Gene Weingarten: Good. Wow. A Pat imitator. Pat is now like Elvis.

    Alexandria, Va.: Gene -- who in your opinion is/was the politician (or political person) with the worst hair and why? Marilyn Quayle perhaps? If memory serves, we have not had a Prez since Eisenhower with a REALLY bad comb-over. Many recent ones have been quite "endowed": Clinton, Reagan, 41 & 43.

    Gene Weingarten: Ford had really bad hair. But I think probably Chester Alan Arthur looked the silliest.

    BTB, Mar. 30: Accurate transcripts or fabrications? Either way, delightful reading.

    washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Post Magazine, March 30)

    Gene Weingarten: Thank you. But I respectfully disagree with you. I don't think it would have been funny "either way.' Unless I am OBVIOUSLY making something up (see the April Fools
    column) you can trust that what you are reading is real. I don't really see the humor in inventing a dialogue (sorry, Art B.) when there are so many real people out there
    willing to be either intentionally or unintentionally hilarious for a few inches of ink in The Washington Post. I also think the fact that it is real ("can you believe this guy actually said this?') is an essential part of why it is funny. Or at least I HOPE it is funny.

    Washington, D.C.: Found this in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot:

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

    (but I still don't get the 'Region of Merit reference)

    Gene Weingarten: Correct. But not good enough. Obviously.

    Only Olney, Md.: A 25 entry limit for foals? Any protests from regulars? Does it stifle the creative mind? Don't you get a bonus for every entry submitted?

    Gene Weingarten: This was done on BEHALF of the entrants. When the Czar is reading -- literally -- tens of thousands of entries, his attention flags. Worthy entries get missed.

    Plus, this will encourage people to edit themselves instead of sending in (again, literally) fifteen single-spaced pages of off-the-top-of-the-head entries, 95 percent of which are mediocre and five percent of which may be brilliant, but would otherwise be tragically ignored in the goo.

    As is, with the limit, it will take the Czar, even with assistance from the Auxiliary Czar, 12 hours to judge it.

    Disappointing Joke Calendar: I bought one of those little square "Joke of the Day" calendars. It has been rather disappointing. For instance, yesterday's joke was:

    Joe: Boy, was I in hot water last night!
    Jim: What did you do?
    Joe: I took a bath.

    That's pretty lame.

    Gene Weingarten: Actually, in a totally dumb-ass way, I like that joke.

    The Auxiliary Czar of The Style Invitational: Re the horse name "Region of Merit":

    If it makes you feel better, the less corrupted minds on the Style copy desk didn't get it either.

    Gene Weingarten: I know, I know!

    April Fool's AKA Poisson d'avril: Shouldn't we be boycotting April Fool's day? It is French in origin.

    Gene Weingarten: Oooooh, I wish I had known that.

    Re: Politicians' Hair: I assume most know this, but there is an unbroken bald -- not bald pattern in Russian leaders since Lenin. They always alternate. Lenin (bald), Stalin (not bald), Khruschev (bald), Brezhnev (not bald), and so on. Right up to Gorbachev (bald) and Putin (not bald).

    In fact, there was some discussion in Russia during the last election that General Alexander Lebed, a dark horse candidate, might shave his head for the election.

    Gene Weingarten: I didn't know this either. You guys are doing very well.

    Wounded, NE: I see that the Comics section has been testing new strips lately. Is it too much to hope that the finalist will replace "Cathy"? (a.k.a. Aaaaaugh! I'm Fat!)

    Gene Weingarten: I like your town.

    And yes, it is probably too much to hope for that. We probably will replace something worthy but a little difficult, like Non Sequitur. That is a guess only.

    Princeton, N.J.: Were you not aware of the cottage industry of Pat The Perfect imitators? They are particularly popular among journalism departments at major U.S. colleges. In their public appearances they wear staid, professional clothing and hurl thesauri at undergrads while singing "I Am Unable To Obtain Any Satisfaction."

    Gene Weingarten: Excellent.

    The ****** Monologues: fill in the blank, and you'll find your "region of merit".

    Gene Weingarten: There we go. Yes, young Mr. Prufrock was not contemplating being daring by eating a peach in the literal sense. There is no great daring to the consumption of a peach, especially in 1910's proper society, when it was done with knife and fork. Mr. Prufrock was contemplating another action altogether, all bound up in his fear of intimacy.

    Noooooo!: Please don't replace "Non Sequitur!" It's intelligent and funny and sardonic!

    Please replace the idiotic waste of space "One Big Happy." I will sleep with whomever it takes to get this done, I swear.

    Gene Weingarten: Agreed. Alas, I can't be that person. Obviously, I have no influence on comics selection. Darn it all.

    Dethan, TX: Hey Gene, do you really think that Gerald Ford had worse hair than Traficant?? Not only was it two feet high, it looked like it had been piled there by sparrows.

    Gene Weingarten: Was Traficant president of the United States? Did I miss something?

    Arlington, Va.: Why is Six afraid of Seven?

    washingtonpost.com: Because seven eight nine.

    Gene Weingarten: What comes between fear and sex?


    washingtonpost.com: Personal to PtheP: He's got it.

    Herndon, Va.: Hey Gene,

    Several weeks ago, when you were looking for suggestions for a title for your new book, I wrote in and suggested "Mars v. Uranus" (which you then made correct by changing it to "Venus v Uranus"). The next week you asked for contact info. I sent in name, e-mail addresses and phone number, but haven't heard anything from anyone yet.

    What's up?


    Gene Weingarten: I am going to thank you in my book for delivering an idea. Not the title, but an idea.

    Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hey Gene--
    A couple of weeks ago, you said Desson Howe sits next to you and unloads a lot of movie promo crap that he gets to you.
    Just curious about the layout at The Post. I assumed all the magazine people sat in one place, the movie people sat somewhere else, the music people together somewhere else... not true?

    And what are the chances of us getting a regular Hank Stuever chat? swoon

    washingtonpost.com: That's up to Hank. We'd love to have him.

    Gene Weingarten: Great Liz. Not only have you personally directed people away from this chat, but you are now offering employment to someone who is funnier than I am.

    What's next? Burning dog poo on my doorstep?

    Gunning for a t-shirt: "What comes between fear and sex?"

    The Boston Strangler.

    Gene Weingarten: Very grisly. No, I gave the answer. Funf. It is a highly sophisticated German joke.

    New York, N.Y.: When is the book going to be available for pre-sale on Amazon?

    Gene Weingarten: Next January. We just finished it, but the publishing industry moves like molasses.

    Gene Weingarten: Just FYI: Many people have identified ELEMENTS of the phony clues from my April Fool's column, but no one has gotten more than three of the five.

    Clewiston, Fla.: Gene, Isn't it true that all facts are now on the internet? ...as well as porn, of course. As one who carefully wrote down my entries, and THEN found evidence for some of them on the internet, I am now feeling like a moron for giving the proof to you. Your crack staff would never have found them, I'm thinking. And the whole point of something being a fact is that it has to be verifiable, isn't it?

    washingtonpost.com: Crack staff?

    Gene Weingarten: No, there is nothing wrong with finding a fact on the Internet. That's how we will check them, too. There is something wrong with going to one of these "odd fact" sights, which does all your work for you.

    Funf: Einz, zwei, drei, fear, funf, sex.


    Gene Weingarten: Correct.

    Outor, IN:
    A male acquaintance I'm attracted to and who I thought was attracted to me revealed that he is a huge figure skating fan. Am I barking up the wrong tree?

    Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm a girl.

    Gene Weingarten: You are probably okay. He probably likes watching the women skate backwards.

    Man, I like watching the women skate backwards.

    Pat the Perfect, ME: "General" in "Attorneys General" is an adjective, not a noun. It means highest in rank. So think: Senior Attorneys. Also along with line would be "editors in chief."

    Attorney Generals would make it sound like a certain rank of general.

    The language is going to change on this, though, I predict. Already the dictionary lists "court-martials" as a second spelling. I can't think of an equivalent that we use regularly, having had only half a cup of coffee, today. Can anyone think of one?

    Gene Weingarten: Ah. A slightly different, and now definitive, answer.

    Agon, NY: I am a 20-year-old college girl who faithfully looks forward to reading these transcripts every Tuesday over Cheerios. Today I have broken out in a horrible inexplicable rash and am running a high fever. Can you say anything funny for me?

    Gene Weingarten: I'm afraid not, but I can offer you some help: Soggy cheerios, applied as a poultice, works on most rashes. That is straight from my dermatologist, Dr. Flora Pilos.

    4077th: I got to thinking about this pesky war, which got me to thinking about M-A-S-H, and I sorta started thinking that M-A-S-H was so brilliant that no one in their right mind would ever try to make a war-based sitcom again, as the inevitable comparison to M-A-S-H would destroy it.

    What characteristics of a war do we need to make a funny show about it? Will Gulf II ever measure up?

    Gene Weingarten: I think a sitcom about the American Revolution might work. The tights alone would be good for a laugh.

    Geekdom: Re: the light bulb issue:
    The short life of light bulbs is a marketing conspiracy of the manufacturers. Inside the bulb is a vacuum -- fairly simple to create in a closed container. The bulb burns out because the filament oxides -- the filament oxides in a vacuum because the light bulb manufacturers let a little bit of air into the vacuum precisely so the bulb will burn out -- so you have to buy more.

    Gene Weingarten: I have now received dozens of responses to the light bulb column, most completely without humor, and each purporting to explain the situation scientifically. All explanations are different. But what I found most interesting is that two writers each told me they had the same experience as I did, with a painted bulb.

    It is VERY weird. And yes, the bulb is still burning, three weeks after I wrote the column.

    Chico, Calif.: Gene: Our local paper has gone to a new policy of requiring payment for obits -- and the family writes the pieces. I have read some wacky things in these obits, but one in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday was above and beyond anything I'd seen previously. This paragraph was the real stunner for me:

    "An extremely modest person, J. was a woman of acute intelligence and great intellectual curiosity who was also gifted with a fine sense of humor. She loved reading, dance and art. Those who loved her may take some small comfort in the knowledge that when her heart, so generous and compassionate, stopped beating she was beautifully attired, a member of the audience attending the San Francisco Ballet Company's production of DON QUIXOTE. She was at peace in the San Francisco Opera House, one of her favorite places on earth, deep in enjoyment of the beauty of motion and music."

    Gene, she seemed to be a lovely woman who led a worthy life, but "beautifully attired?" "...the beauty of motion?" What about the peace of those nearby -- or those who sit in the same seat later?

    I found this to be hilarious but it also made me feel slightly hysterical/edgy. Is there something wrong with me or the world? Are obits a new source of unintended humor?

    Gene Weingarten: You know, I don't mean to be a poop, but I like this obit. When my friend Henry Mitchell died many years ago (Henry wrote the lyrical and literary Earthman gardening column in Style)his obit as I recall pointed out, correctly, that he died in his garden "with dirt on his hands."

    Anyway, I like this one. Sorry.

    Callme, AL: Would the 20-year-old college girl eating Cheerios perhaps be a student at Mount Holy-Oat?

    Just asking.

    Gene Weingarten: We can ask.

    Upper Potomac, MD: Here is a good collection of facts for your crack staff to bookmark.

    Crack Staff: Noted.

    Gene Weingarten: Noted, too. Hey, wouldn't it be great if a plumbing company advertised about its "crack staff"?

    Pat Imitator: So, would it be "Pats the Perfect"? Or "Pat the Perfects"?

    Just asking.

    Gene Weingarten: Good question!

    Ex-New York(state)er: I have an aptonym for you. My family found it pretty hilarious, given the circumstances.

    My grandmother's wake was held at the Amigone Funeral Home.

    The Amigone family actually owns a number of funeral homes in Buffalo, so you're just innocently driving around the suburbs when suddenly you're met with this almost existential question.

    washingtonpost.com: Amigone Funeral Home

    Gene Weingarten: Yep, this is terrific. Almost existential.

    Funny? Pictures you should ask?: Gene: Do you approve the cartoons that go along with the "Below the Beltway" columns? Do you even see them prior to publication? They are brilliant.

    Gene Weingarten: I almost always see them. Tom the Butcher, who is the editor of The Magazine, is the person who approves them. Occasionally he will listen to my input, but input is rarely necessary because Richard Thompson is a master.

    Very occasionally am I able to offer an idea better than the one Richard has come up with on his own. The lightbulb one was actually my (bright) idea. You probably won't see another for several more months.

    Pat the Perfect, ME: Whoa!!! What happened with my commas? Don't jump on me -- that whole last sentence, owwwwww....

    Gene Weingarten: Pat the Perfect Agonistes.

    Bethesda, Md.: Gene, HELP! My boyfriend just bought the DVD "Jackass" with five extra hours of bonus footage. We are 36. Do I HAVE to sit through it with him. I might add that I want to become engaged, but he hasn't asked yet. Would this help?

    Gene Weingarten: Urgent: Do not watch this movie with your man, if you are contemplating a life together. My wife watched it with me after 25 years together, and we were pretty much on the rocks for a few hours afterwards.

    Burlington, Mass.: BTB Clues:

    "Flora Pilos" is an anagram for "April Fool".

    "Alan Smithee" is traditionally used as a false name for movie directors.

    "Phlogiston" was a (now-discredited) theory which explained how matter changed upon being burned (all the phlogiston ran out); funny name for an energy company.

    The reference to hoaxes in Sunday light features sections seems somewhat self-referential, given that the column appears in the Style section.

    "George Spelvin" is traditionally used as a false name for actors.

    These other two seem odd, but I'm not sure whether they point to April Foolitude specifically:

    Use of "lorry" (the british word for "truck") in the description of the Corcoran prank.

    The "quite a coo" pun.

    Gene Weingarten: Okay, this is closest and wins the t-shirt. You missed only Sam Mitnik, which is a very old and obscure name given in American business for the unnamed and dreaded "boss" one gets called to see before one is fired.

    "Why is Joe looking so down?"
    "He expects an appointment with Sam Mitnik."
    "Poor bastard."

    And that's it for today, peeps. Next week, same time.

    washingtonpost.com: Burlington, please send in your address info so the "crack staff" can get you your T-shirt.

    © Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company