Funny? You Should Ask
Hosted by Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 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. See for yourself. 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.
I love living and working in Washington. It's home to me, and I haven't been able to say that about a place since I left New York City for the second time in 1981. My only
real complaint about D.C. is the citizenry's docile adherence to The Rule of Law. For a
New Yorker, it is hard to get used to the boring, almost-Canadian-level politeness and civility. Several years ago, as an editor, I ordered up an excellent Sunday Style essay
on the joys of jaywalking, and was inundated with letters of indignation at this outrageous incitement to civil disobedience. It was as though we had published the
recipe for that date-rape drug, or a how-to manual on sneaking weapons through metal detectors.
So I have to wonder what moron thought it necessary, in this town of kneejerk obeisance to rules, to paste on the tiled Metro floor those enormous yellow Third-Reichian
signs commanding us not to run, or not to "sit on the escalator?' For one thing, these signs look preposterously out of place in the otherwise neatly designed Metro stations. It's as though you put a plumber's helper on a wedding cake. For the other thing, in this town of rules and manners, these signs are not only unnecessary but potentially cruel. At my station, at the foot of the escalator, you are ordered to STAND TO THE RIGHT! The
escalator is, of course, out of order. Cruel.
This week's comic pick of the week was a slam-dunk choice. Sunday's Doonesbury. Very, very cold and chilling and funny.
washingtonpost.com: Doonesbury, (April 20)
washingtonpost.com: link out
The Nation's Capitol: Was that an exact transcript of the interview with the Nobel prize winner? Important people actually talk to you like that?
washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Post Magazine, April 20)
Gene Weingarten: Thank you for putting it that way. Others generally ask if I "made the interview up.' There seems to be some misunderstanding here; Post journalists don't invent entire
conversations with real people, unless and until Don Graham has informed us that, for tax purposes, he NEEDS to lose a few million dollars in a libel trial.
So. The quick answer is yes, real people talk like that to a humor columnist, and yes, Robert Solow said what I said he said -- but no, the column was not a "transcript'.
If it were that easy, I would work three hours a week and spend the rest of the time playing nerf basketball with colleagues. Most interviews are the result of more than
one conversation with the subject. The questions and answers may appear in a different sequence, with extraneous, unfunny things removed, etc. In this case, for example, in a second conversation, Dr. Solow said that he wished he had said "sea gull that defecates' instead of 'sparrow that defecates,' since sea gulls defecate more
prodigiously. The man is a scientist. He is very precise. Facts matter. I gladly made the change.
Floppydi, SC: Excellent column on the stock market. It's nice to have my long-held beliefs¹ vindicated by a Nobel prize winner.
¹ (why isn't it believes?)
Gene Weingarten: For the same reason that a batter "flied out" in baseball, and didn't "flew out."
Washington, D.C.: Gene, did you notice that after years of being beaten down and punished by Saddam Hussein, the first thing that some Iraqis are doing is having religious ceremonies where they flagellate, i.e., beat themselves up? Is this funny, or ironic, or both, or neither?
I try not to comment on religion, because people get really offended if you so much as suggest that their beliefs or practices are in the least bit illogical, or ludicrous, or creepy, or hypocritical, or silly, or elitist, or divisive, or intolerant, or primitive, or intellectually insupportable, or rabid, or repressive, or
self-destructive, or dehumanizing, or counter-productive, or, y'know, pant-wettingly funny. So I try to stay away altogether from commenting on religion. I have no
Washington, D.C.: In your column you said "the media is"!! You said "the media is"!! You made a mistake, Mr. Perfect. Media is plural.
washingtonpost.com: "Me: You know how the media is always telling you not only what the stock market did, but why it did it?", Below the Beltway, (Post Magazine, April 20)
Gene Weingarten: One, I never claimed to be Mr. Perfect. Pat would be Mr. Perfect after surgery.
Two, I didn't make a mistake. I made a choice.
Purists will argue that "media,' being the plural of "medium,' must be a plural noun.
But there is some latitude here. Media can be seen as a singular collective noun, like "politics' or "the press,' or, closest to the point here, "the herd.' I assure you
that Officer Obie and the rest of the crack copy editing pod of the Washington Post magazine would not have permitted me to err here. They care inordinately about such things. It is their calling. It is their passion. It is their life. Officer Obie
suggests that the collective term for members of his craft -- as in a pride of lions --
is a "grumble' of copyeditors.
Anchorage, Alaska: Gene, did you have any memorably bad dates when you were single? I had one recently. She was really beautiful (and probably still is, but I'll likely never see her again) and I was really nervous. All signs pointed to No Kiss, but I had to try. I pretty much knew I'd never get another shot. Right as I went to kiss her goodnight I dropped my keys. She REALLY wanted to deal with my keys and not the impending kiss. I moved in, she looked down at the keys. I didn't QUITE kiss the top of her head, but almost. When she looked back up, my face was about half an inch from hers. She recoiled. I fled.
Is there anything you can say to make me stop cringing at the memory?
Gene Weingarten: I can tell you my favorite bad date story, from a 1960s era Buddy Hackett routine.
Buddy was out to dinner with a beautiful woman, and because he was a homunculus, he decided he needed some "edge' to get her to like him. He decided women like sensitive men, and he figured the best way to demonstrate his sensitivity was to shed a tear. To
make that happen, he surreptitiously yanked out a nose hair. But that caused his nose to bleed. So he took the candle from the table to cauterize the wound. But he accidentally set his hair on fire. So he had to extinguish the fire by pouring the bottle of wine on his head. When his glasses cleared, his date was gone.
New York, N.Y.: I tried the Bananas Foster. It was good, but one has to like bananas. Not that I did this because of prompting by anyone employed by the post. I even forget where I heard the name of the flavor.
Gene Weingarten: Good. Keep it that way. I contend you don't have to like bananas as much as you have to like brown sugar and butter.
Cataton, IA: Gene,
schmuck, schmo, schmegeggy, schmendrick, schlemiel, noodnik -- Can you define these terms from the Yiddish humor lexicon, and compare and contrast, or give an example? (such as, (famous person) is an X but not a Y because of
) "Putz" and "Meshuganeh" I know from. For what it's worth, my mother, 100% Irish but Yiddish-fluent by virtue of growing up in Brooklyn, called me a schmo when I was in my teens, for having ice cream for breakfast.
Gene Weingarten: Schmuck means penis, so it is hostile. Nudnik means a pest -- it is a very specific definition. The rest all mean the same, basically dorks.
Inquiring Mind: Gene, do you have your own deck of fugitive Iraqi leader playing cards?
Gene Weingarten: Not yet. But I think one may show up as a Style Invitational prize. In fact, I urge someone to donate one. They are all over the Web.
Laurel, Md.: While you don't want to criticize religious beliefs, does that extend to things like the following from yesterday's Charlene Lichtenstien chat? (edited for space)
In November 2002 I told my 18-year-old daughter she had to leave my house. Since I had left and subsequently divorced her father 9 years before she has been oppositional and increasingly aggressive verbally. Her physical violence involved hitting her sister too hard, kicking a hole in a wall, throwing a knife behind her. When I would try to discipline her by grounding her or stopping her phone privileges, she would call the police. There is more, but you get the idea, I think. ... Do you think she will ever be able to face her problems and do something about them? Will she and I ever find one another again? She was born February 4, 1984 at 1:55 a.m. I was born July 5, 1955 at 11:37 a.m. Thank you.
Gene Weingarten: Wow. I hope Charlene made it completely clear that the girl's problems were entirely related to the time of day she was born.
You know, horoscope weenies never really explain why the position of the stars at the moment of one's birth should have any greater effect on this newborn than the position of the stars, say, five hours later.
Feelin, ILL: Gene,
Can you recall what the reasoning was (because, in all great bureaucracies there are reasons) behind shortening state abbreviations to just two letters? I grew up in a time when Alabama was "Ala." and my home city of Chicago was in "Ill." I just would like to know.
Gene Weingarten: I don't know, and I don't like it either. AK for Alaska is ridiculous.
Herndon, Va.: Did you read Hank Steuver's piece on Kim of the TV show "24" yesterday?
It is perhaps the single best television critique I've ever read -- and I've never watched the show. The paragraph below is particularly great.
"Kim, the danger-prone teenage daughter of Counter Terrorism Unit special agent Jack Bauer, fits a certain niche in these frantic times. Without meaning to, she has come to represent the vapidity and naive innocence of a Britney Nation caught up in something deadly serious, with only her wits and the occasional visibility of her nipples to save her.
washingtonpost.com: Run, Kim, Run, (Post, April 21)
Gene Weingarten: It was terrific, like most of Stuever's stories.
So you are saying that: Schmuck = Putz
Gene Weingarten: Yes.
New York, N.Y.: In the Post's article about Malvo today, the author collectively refers to the lawyers who are defending Malvo as "Defenses Attorneys." Pat, Gene, is The Post correct here? Is the implication that the lawyers are putting up more than one defense?
washingtonpost.com: Tis true. Top of 4th graf:
Prosecutor Says Malvo Spoke Freely to Police, (Post, April 22)
Gene Weingarten: I have no idea what is going on here. It's not a typo? Pat?
arlington, va: gene, do you like brown sugar? i always hated the sax solo in the middle. and how do you feel about the exclusion of punctuation and capitalization in e-mails?
Gene Weingarten: i write all my personal e-mails like this. but i am not allowed to do it in the chats. i have discovered that people actually take offense for some reason, as though you are somehow not taking the correspondence seriously.
New York, N.Y.: What are the joys of jaywalking, besides getting to where you're going sooner?
Gene Weingarten: They are many, and varied. Mostly the thrill of sedition, and the thrill of speed and expeditiousness. Liz, think you can find this story? I am shamefully blanking on the name of the author -- Larry, um, um, a post copy editor and excellent writer -- but it was a very long story that ran in Sunday Style about five or six years ago.
Washington, D.C.: Who is Pat?
washingtonpost.com: Well, she guest-hosted this show on Jan. 21.
Gene Weingarten: WHO IS PAT???????????
Gladtobebackin, Md.: Spring break in Indianapolis -- newspaper purgatory. No computer, no post.com. This was the highlight of the week's news in the Indy newspaper: Horse-drawn Buggy Crashes in Street Race; Woman Hurt, (Indianapolis Star, April 15)
As pointed out by my spouse, the guy nailed for DWI wasn't even racing.
Gene Weingarten: Excellent.
Bounding, ME: Hey - are we ever going to have a Style Invitational based on coming up with group names?
Grumble of copyeditors
Murder of crows
Exultations of larks
Gene Weingarten: We did that years ago. Terrific results. One of my favorites was by Chuck Smith of Woodbridge, a very weird one: A Propos of Nothing.
You totally need to tell the other Post chat hosts not to intro someone's comments in their reply. Here's what I mean... Someone will write:
Someone: I feel like this about that.
and the host will write...
Host: Yet another view on that subject...
Are you pickin' up what I'm puttin' down, Gene? The host appears to have written their comment as if it were going to be read first.
AND IT PISSES ME OFF!!
Gene Weingarten: I have no idea what you are talking about AND your grammar is atrocious.
A crisis of etiquette in Charlottesville, Va.: The CNN "obit" for Dick Cheney -- featuring the trademark smirky expression -- is my computer wallpaper, thanks to thesmokinggun.com. Am I being terribly insensitive? And along those same lines, why in the world would CNN choose such an unattractive picture to memorialize Mr. Cheney (unless that's the best one that exists)?
washingtonpost.com: The Smoking Gun: CNN Obits
Gene Weingarten: I haven't seen this, and am afraid to look lest I lost my chat link. I will trust Liz here.
Laurel, Md.: Gene,
Is the Post Magazine having trouble recruiting advertisers?
This week, in addition to the usual high-end ads (Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, private schools and a $295 sofa pillow) is an ad for wine as little as $6.99/bottle and a hardware store!
I didn't think home-maintenance types read the Sunday Mag. It was for yuppies in expensive condos.
Gene Weingarten: My guess is that The Sunday Magazine would accept ads from Ripple if they paid the price. This is a business, you know?
Pine Algla, N.D.: Did the Czar's strategy for reducing the number of entries to the April Foal's contest actually work?
washingtonpost.com: Very sneaky. H.P. Lovecraft fan, are we?
Gene Weingarten: Yes, people seemed to have edited themselves intelligently. The results are as good as always.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Gene, are you a fan of David Sedaris? I saw him speak at Lisner last week, and he said that he very, very rarely laughs while he's at the typewriter. Do you laugh when you're writing?
Gene Weingarten: Yes, I think Sedaris is excellent. And no, I almost never laugh when I am writing. I laugh when someone I am interviewing says something funny, but the process of creating something funny is actually painful. It is like pooping a rocking chair. See, I didn't just laugh.
Pat the Perfect, ME: "defenses attorneys" is surely a typo. However, you will see in the pages of The Post, written intentionally, "antiques shop," presumably so as not to confuse it with a really old shop.
Gene Weingarten: Really? Copyeditors will change antique shop to antiques shop? Egad.
Charlottesville answers to Charlottesville: Regarding the photograph of Cheney accidentally posted by the now-unemployed CNN web lackey: Images of the vice-president can only be made under very special lighting conditions. Also, he has no reflection in a mirror, if you get my drift.
Gene Weingarten: Noted.
Washington, D.C.: Gene,
You know that little drum solo people like to "say" after they tell a corny joke? How do you spell that? Is it ba-dum-cccchhh? I'm composing a very important letter here.
Gene Weingarten: I would say you are almost right. Ba-dumm Tcchhhhh. You need the fricative in there.
Bowie, Md.: Gene,
Today you're not up against Bob Levey (whose show's been moved to 1:00) but are facing Howard Kurtz. Do you expect this to effect the quality of today's submissions?
washingtonpost.com: Nowhere to go but up...
Gene Weingarten: No, I expect it to affect the quality.
Pat the Perfect, ME: Liz: fyi, the jaywalking story writer is Lawrence Proulx.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks Pat!
To Get to the Other Side, (Post, Sept. 21, 1997)
Gene Weingarten: Yayyy.
Bounding, ME: so is it:
A fitting of aptonyms?
A vocation of aptonyms?
A coincidence of aptonyms?
A destiny of aptonyms?
Gene Weingarten: Excellent question. Coincidence is pretty good, but a t-shirt goes to whoever beats it best. Er, bestly.
A Propos of Nothing: Chuck Smith is kind of brilliant, in a strange sort of way.
Gene Weingarten: Agreed.
Pretty please?: Didn't you write the column about renaming National Airport? The one where, by the time you were through with it, it took about a minute to say the entire name of the airport out loud -- because it was named for many, many people? (George, Martha, Ronald, Nancy, etc.) Even if you didn't write it, could your Glorious Producer please link to it anyway? I have searched and searched to no avail.
washingtonpost.com: I looked w/ no luck. Are you talking about Gene's dialogue with Grover Norquist?
Gene Weingarten: I think you are thinking of something else, though in a question to Grover, I did ask if the COUNTRY should be named the Reagan United Ronald States of Reagan America and Nancy Too.
By the way, my interview with Grover Norquist was one of the very few that WAS essentially a transcript. He was terrific. Bing, bang, boom, we were done.
Ewhla, La: Did you enjoy Dave Barry's last book? Funny? I'm asking.
Gene Weingarten: His novel, Tricky Business? Yes, I thought it was terrific.
Charlottesville, Va.: Last week, while visiting my parents, I read the sports section of my former hometown paper (Charleston, S.C. News & Courier) and was pleased to discover that the local scribe sent to cover the Masters had solemnly reported the Augusta police there took away a protester who gave his name to them as, "Heywood Jablome." Evidently, he spelled it out for the officers and the reporter dutifully noted the spelling. Oops. Proof read out loud, I guess.
Well, I doubt that this sort of thing would get by the crack inspection -- wait, let me rephrase that -- close, professional inspection of Pat the Perfect, but does The Washington Post nonetheless have a kind of spell-check for ridiculous names, one assembled by 10-year-olds?
The humbled reporter has a followup.
Oh, by the way, I'm dusting off my "Shah is a U.S. Puppet" protest signs, just waiting to replace "Shah" with the name of whatever or whoever emerges in Iraq.
Gene Weingarten: This link is worth looking at, if for no reason other than the writer's astounding humorlessness at the end.
Fairfax Station, Va.: Who's the government official you think was (intentionally) the funniest? Bob Dole? Moe Udall? JFK?
Gene Weingarten: You know, politicians are seldom publicly funny anymore because the risks are too great. It is sad. I think JFK was publicly funny; he was a natural risk-taker, obviously, and supremely self-confident. So was Clinton, of course, but I don't think he ever showed much of a sense of humor. He seemed like he SHOULD have had one, but you can search his public appearance, and find nothing.
Stevenson was funny, but, alas.
Chucky: You guys did a profile on Chuck Smith, Woodbridge, while I was in J-school. Each week we had to submit an article from a newspaper that we felt was significant in some way. Of course I submitted that article (if I hadn't, this post would be even more pointless than it already is). My prof thought it the strangest article she could remember seeing, but gave the reporter props for admitting he had no story and then writing for three pages anyway.
I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe you can do a profile on me.
Gene Weingarten: This was a truly great profile. It was by Frank Ahrens, about 1995. Liz?
Somewhere, USA: If Scott Peterson somehow gets off, mightn't he and O.J. team up to look for the real killers (or killer-- if there was in fact just one killer)? I smell a great buddy movie here. And why doesn't the media explore the "coincidence" of both Gary Condit and Scott Peterson being from Modesto? Another conspiracy, I fear.
Gene Weingarten: Superior! This is a terrific idea. It should be Condit, Peterson and O.J. A Dirty Dozen type movie. The Terrible Trio.
Aptonym? What's That?: Just guessing, but how about:
A felicity of aptonyms?
Gene Weingarten: This is good....
This is only a test: Gene:
Do you actually read the questions that are submitted? When someone asked about Kurtz's chat affecting the quality of the questions, you replied "no, but I expect it to affect the quality"
Gene Weingarten: Re-read the question and answer.
Arlington, Va.: An embarrassment of aptonyms.
Gene Weingarten: ... But this is the winner.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene, we crossed paths last night walking our dogs near Eastern Market. I went to Doolittle's pet shop, and I thought that you would be interested to hear about a product I found there: political pet toys. They had Bill and Hillary squeaky toys for dogs. I asked the shopkeeper why he had no President Bush toys -- frankly I was in full smarty-pants mode and didn't really care what politicians were featured. He replied that the President Bush squeaky toys sold out in two days, even faster than the Osama bin Laden toys. He added that he tried getting more of Bush toys from the distributor, but the distributor is sold out of them everywhere.
This seems like too much of a slow underhand pitch for a column, but I thought that you would be interested regardless.
Gene Weingarten: Are you the cute one with the funny-looking dog, or the funny-looking one with the cute dog?
Condit, Peterson and O.J. : Don't forget Bobby Blake. I envision a four-way "Strangers on a Train" kind of plot.
Gene Weingarten: Right, right.
Doremifaso, La.: Since controversy and the comics pages seem to go hand in hand these days, I was wondering about your opinion on the "BC" strips from the end of last week (a.k.a. the annual Jesus Easter message). In the past, I know The Post has censored/substituted/stopped printing on Sunday, to avoid explicitly Christian messages from that particular strip. On the one hand, I can see why the strips raise hairs: They are over-the-top, unabashedly Christian and typically NOT FUNNY. On the other hand, unfunny Kwanzaa strips have run in "Curtis", with unabashedly black messages, or unabashedly liberal messages in many of the comics. And unfortunately if humor was the deciding factor, most comics would have to be censored as just plain stupid. So should Mr. Hart be free to occasionally put in a personal, if unfunny and Christian, message?
washingtonpost.com: B.C., (April 20),
B.C., (April 19)
Gene Weingarten: Sigh. Well, sigh. You know. I think ol' Johnny should be free to do this. And newspapers should be free to just get rid of Johnny, if they find it too much.
Many cartoonist proselytize in their own way, as you point out. I am just as tired of Baldo telling us about how wonderful an artist Frida Kahlo was because she was Hispanic.
Also, I think the Sunday BC that is linked to here is pretty interesting. The last panel is thought provoking. Not FUNNY, but it has some intellect behind it, as so many cartoons do not.
Somewhere, USA: Are you all truly falling for Chuck Smith's attempt at self-publicity? It seems to be working - yeah, post that link to the genius's profile. All these "posters" seem to want to know all about him.
Gene Weingarten: Um, I think someone needs a hug. And some medication.
Washington, D.C.: While residents of this area may adhere to rules by standing to the right when riding metro escalators, out-of-town tourists certainly don't! And during rush hour? Geez! More signs please!
Gene Weingarten: I am guessing you are a native.
washingtonpost.com: Gene... the "embarrassment of aptonyms" entry was from me. Pony up that T-shirt. -- Liz
Gene Weingarten: WOW! Liz gets the shirt. Clapclapclapclap.
Guys never get my sense of humor. I'm not saying I think it's superior, but I've never met anyone with whom I "click" as far as what is and isn't funny. I like to make fun of anyone/anything; I laugh at racist jokes, gay jokes, religion jokes...none of this means I'm a bigot in any way! I just like to laugh AT people as much as anything else! What's so wrong with that? The last guy told me he feared I truly was a bad person.
Gene Weingarten: GUYS never get your sense of humor?
Somewhere, USA: Apparently the only way we can pay the huge (and I mean HUGE) bill of "rebuilding" Iraq (to what it was before?), is by greatly reducing the tax income the government takes in. I've got some big bills of my own coming in. How much do I need to reduce my income in order to pay for them? What calculations do Bush and his advisers use? I want to follow their lead.
Gene Weingarten: This is an excellent question.
Capitol Hill: How's this for a "meta-comic?"
Gene Weingarten: Major meta comic, and pretty funny. If illogical.
Arlington, Va.: Is Liz wearing pants today? Now at least she has a shirt. Next time, Gene, offer pants as the prize.
Gene Weingarten: Several years ago, The Czar wanted to change the prize from t-shirts to underpants. He was overruled by the editor of the Style Section.
Pat the Perfect, ME: Re the Easter "B.C." strips: I think The Post didn't object to comics with a Christian message -- unless the Christian message happened to be that other religions were grievously mistaken and their adherents were destined for Hell. This was basically the case previously.
Gene Weingarten: Yes, very true. However, the Post does not run BC in the Sunday comics anymore, precisely for this reason. They decided the complaints weren't worth it. Good Friday is still a yearly decision, though. Also Maundy Thursday, whatever that is.
Tell Grumble: I will leave my wife for her this afternoon.
Gene Weingarten: You tell her.
Frederick, Md.: "Heywood Jablome." I went to Catholic schools - I don't get it. I've pronounced it every which way. HELP ME!! I usually get your stuff.
Gene Weingarten: Sorry, I don't believe this post.
Here, Now: >>Gene Weingarten: WOW! Liz gets the shirt. Clapclapclapclap.
This is certainly better than the other way around.
Gene Weingarten: I think we'll end on this note. Or we will note on this end.
See you all next week, and thanks -- as always -- for the enthusiasm.
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