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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
Post Magazine
Talk: Style message boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Funny? You Should Ask
Hosted by Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 29, 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.

Submit your questions, comments and rants before or during the show.

He'll chat about anything.

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.

Sunday's column got lots of mail. It came from all over. It was from men and women. Lots of it was written like this. People don't like how writing is getting dumbed

One of the more interesting letters came from a man who went on, at great length, about the degradation of language, and people's shockingly immature reading habits, and whatnot. The letter was well reasoned, passionate, intelligent, yet filled with egregious misspellings. And just when I was about to hit "reply' and lecture the guy
on his language, I came to the final paragraph, where he apologized for any errors, and disclosed he is dyslexic. (Interestingly, he spelled 'dyslexic' correctly.) A computer expert, he said he will also not use a spellchecker. I inferred that he feels about spellcheckers as I do.

I mistrust and dislike spellcheckers because they are, gradually, eliminating the need to know language; indeed, as they get better, we can get dumber. An excellent
Style Invitational entry some months ago predicted that in the year 2025, the only people who know the rules of spelling and grammar will be a few software programmers in

So here we have an interesting epistemological dilemma: Which is worse -- not knowing how to spell but spelling everything correctly through artificial means, or knowing how to spell but making the occasional mistake? It is Cartesian in its complexity. My brain hurts from
contemplating this.

Much to discuss on the comics front. Liz, please link to Friday's "One Big Happy' and Saturday's "Fox Trot.' Can someone please tell me how the heck this happened?
Remember, these were written in little cartoonist's garrets, independently, and mailed out to newspapers weeks ago.

The Cartoon Pick of the Week is today's Non Sequitur, which is pretty elegant. Today's Zippy suggests a fascinating new self-aware storyline approaching. But the best comic news I can deliver is that next Sunday's Doonesbury is one of the all-time greats. It is jaw-dropping -- funny, deep, fearless, and pioneering in its delivery and message. Next week, we will discuss it at some length.

Hint: It is NOT part of the dumbing down of communication.

Questions? Comments?

Boston, Mass.: Gene-
Now I know that you are not Carolyn, but I think that this is a situation where you will have more expertise. I am attracted to guys with poufy black hair and enormous eyebrows, much like yourself. I am lucky enough to have a class with a guy who looks exactly like the drawing of you, minus the glasses. My only problem is that every time I try to talk to him, he makes a strange face and says "yeah." Help me, Gene! Does he not like me, or do you think he is just shy? If it helps, I will try and describe the face: It is the expression that you would expect someone to make after they had eaten something and could not quite figure out what it was. Thanks!

Gene Weingarten: I can't help you if you are this imprecise and elliptical. You have not indicated what you look like, what sort of class it is, and most important, what is it you are trying to say to him that evokes the response "yeah.' I am presuming you are nice
looking (I presume all women in this chat are nice looking, with excellent thighs) but that only gets me so far. With some questions, for example, "yeah' is a very
encouraging response from a man. (Ex: "Are you so smitten with me that you will devote the remainder of your life to bringing me material pleasure and spiritual happiness, in
return for which I guarantee you nothing more than an occasional compliment or chaste kiss?')

washingtonpost.com: Foxtrot, (April 26)

One Big Happy, (April 25)

Non Sequitur, (April 29)

Zippy, (April 29)

washingtonpost.com: Below the Beltway, (Post Magazine, April 27)

Gene Weingarten: Oh, by the way, I am going to ask that all readers within the reach of this phosphorus boycott "Jeff MacNelly's Shoe' for the next three weeks. The writers need to be
punished for their Sunday strip, in which they dragged out the tired old joke about "Anything you say will be held against you -- Okay, "Halle Berry'" shtick. Enough is enough.

Tsk, TX: Dude, if I may call you that, could you ask the Czar if he's still having trouble receiving Style Invitational entries via e-mail due to the new spam filter? I was surprised not to have received any ink this week -- including for one entry that someone also submitted, identical to the letter, and got credit for. One of my entries included the word "S%E%X" -- could this have been a problem?

Gene Weingarten: No, it isn't the spam filter's fault. The Czar had the spam filter disabled many weeks ago. There isn't a filter around tough enough to withstand Style Invitational entries.

The duplicate-entry situation you speak of is rare, but most likely to occur in weeks such as the horse contest -- when there are huge amounts of entries. On such weeks, The Auxiliary Czar does half the initial judging. If each stack contains a duplicate entry, and if
one of the judges likes it and the other doesn't, it will make one cut but not the other. Ergo, you get scrood.

As far as your other entries, they just sucked.

Washington, D.C.: This probably isn't funny, just weird. But when I walk over those yellow sticker discs in the metro, I get the feeling that a smiley face is looking up my skirt.

Gene Weingarten: At least it's smiling....

Somewhere, USA: I see Russ Beland is back in your little contest. He is a God. What's he like in bed?

Gene Weingarten: Very needy.

Lonelyville, Va.: Carolyn,
My boyfriend routinely stands me up on dates. I'd dump him completely if he weren't so good elsewhere, if you know what I mean. But his constant failure to appear at our dates is really putting a lot of stress on the relationship. And get this -- his excuse is that -I- have a problem remembering what day it is! Shifting the blame to the victim is a classic tactic of manipulators, isn't it? Should I dump this guy for someone with a clue, or stick it out and hope he learns some manners?

Gene Weingarten: Gina's husband once dropped her off to go shopping in New York and then failed to show up at the appointed time to pick her up. She waited a half hour, then took a cab back to her hotel. His excuse was that he forget where he dropped her off. The doorman considered him a God. It was the best excuse he'd ever heard.

Parano, IA: Gene,
Why don't you try and get Poet Laureate Billy Collins to serve as a guest judge for this week's contest? After all, entrants are supposed to be shooting for Pulitzer-caliber poetry, and he seemed like a good humored sort of bloke when you interviewed him.

Gene Weingarten: It's a good idea, but I doubt Billy would do it. He would, in effect, be presiding over the public humiliation of a fellow poet. And yeah, the entries so far are humiliating.

Bite, ME: Dear Gene:

At what grade level did Hemingway write?

Gene Weingarten: There is actually a computer program to analyze this. It is based largely on the number of sentences, and the number of syllables, in a given number of words. My column on Sunday tested out to third-t-fourth-grade level. Hemingway, I think, tests about 7th grade. But he is an anomaly. (Gina calls him "the premature ejaculator" of literature.) Faulkner was writing 12th grade. Melville, too.

Washington, D.C.: I get that same "looking up my skirt" ickiness when I walk on the Metro smiley faces, and I'm a guy. Is this funny?

Gene Weingarten: Not particularly.

Felashe, Ohio: Gene, which picture is funnier, the third down or the fourth?

NPPA, The Best of Photo Journalism 2003

Gene Weingarten: They are both excellent. I think I prefer the cat one for its simplicity, but there is no gainsaying the value of the toilet one, either.

Washington, D.C.: What was that Sunday Source thing? Was that as bad as I think it was?

washingtonpost.com: The Sunday Source

Gene Weingarten: I've gotten a couple of questions about this. And they are apropos of today's discussion.

First, we've only seen one of these sections, so it is unfair to judge it. I will now be unfair: I didn't like it much. It's too upbeat and frothy and boosterish for my tastes, big on graphics and small on substance. In my view, it seems to be underestimate the breadth of interests of the young reader.

I am, however, notoriously stupid at judging the quality of new things. When I was an editor in Style, I saw the prototype for Carolyn Hax's column and said it wouldn't work. I was shown the work of two finalists for the movie critic job, and chose the one who wasn't Stephen Hunter. I was pathetically wrong in both cases.

So, Sunday Source is probably going to be a huge success, winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Alexandria, Va.: Gene -- Both you and Tom Sietsema have caricatures on your chats instead of photos. What's up with that? Why no photograph?

Gene Weingarten: I think in Tom's case it is because he doesn't want to be recognized by restaurants at which he is dining incognito. So his caricature looks nothing like him. (I think I have disclosed this before, but Tom is a very fat black man.)

In my case, it is that I don't really WANT to be recognized wherever I go -- but this simply is a matter of preference, and, unfortunately, Richard Thompson is so good I am STILL recognized.

Actually, now that I think of it, I'm not sure I'd be allowed to use my photo even if I wanted. The post doesn't use staff photos at all.

Fairfax, Va.: Bob Staake's the guest for the Comics chat on Friday. Can you feed us some questions to embarass him?

washingtonpost.com: Bob Staake, Live Online, Friday, May 2.

Gene Weingarten: You don't need my help. Staake will embarrass himself just fine. He is an idiot savant of humor. Nine-tenths of his ideas are godawful, and the tenth is genius. So he'll be keeping you in stitches for nine-tenths of the chat.

Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: "In my view, it seems to be underestimate the breadth of interests of the young reader."

Yeah, but every time you try to overestimate people, you learn something depressing.

For example, I first knew Al Gore would lose during the primary season, when a poll revealed about 15 percent of Bush voters thought they were voting for the current president's father.

Gene Weingarten: I remember seeing this. It took my breath away.

Washington, D.C.: Wanted to let you know this before it got lost in the shuffle:

A member of the Board of Trustees for Social Security is named Thomas Savings.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you.

Alexandria, Va.: Gene, never have I seen a marketing refer, of course, to "Mr. Personality with Monica Lewinsky" brought to you by... Hummer.

Gene Weingarten: And I suspect you never will. It's nice to contemplate, though.

Checking, IN: I know you have a sweet spot in your ticker for editorial cartoonists. Thought you'd appreciate the comments of Kirk Anderson, recently fired from the St. Paul Pioneer Press [complete post on www.poynter.org.]

"Getting canned sucks. But I understand that difficult business decisions must be made in difficult times, and I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make those difficult decisions. But if I was... I'd probably cut the private service that comes in to water and dust and turn the plants in the publisher's office, before I'd cut a local cartoonist. In other words, I'd cut something only the privileged few who enter the publisher's office see, before I'd cut something 190,000 readers see. Is the position of local cartoonist really valued less than office plants? I could've watered 'em, and I don't even have a Ph.D in horticulture.

"I hope seeing my rolling bloody head bobble down the stairs doesn't frighten anyone, I hope it just makes you cheesed off about the mess it leaves behind. I hope job cuts don't make anyone feel resigned to their fate and lucky merely to have a job; they should make us all fight harder for what we've got, and fight harder to build on it. Strong journalism doesn't come from frightened workers. Strong journalism comes from empowered employees who believe in themselves, in their mission, and who know that their company supports and cares about them and their mission too...

"I believe our company can do better. I believe our company can better reflect our public principles. I believe our company doesn't need to lower employee value to increase shareholder value. PEOPLE NOT PLANTS! PEOPLE NOT PLANTS!"

I second that!

Gene Weingarten: Yep, this is terrific.

Liz,: The link to the "One Big Happy" is the wrong day.

washingtonpost.com: Right you are. Here's the correct "One Big Happy."

Gene Weingarten: Noted. People must have wondered....

washingtonpost.com: Actually Gene, most of our regular Posties have an actual photo. We could arrange a Glamour Shots-like session for you and get your mug out there.

Gene Weingarten: Oh, right. I was thinking of the newspaper. No thanks, I just had my photo shot for my book jacket, and it reminded me why I do not want my photo on the chat.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I live in your neighborhood and recognize you. But I pretend not to because I think it's the polite thing to do.

Gene Weingarten: See, this is the scary part of being even very mildly famous. What if you see me picking my nose?

Washington, D.C.: Aptonym: The research director for the Financial Accounting Standards Board is Mr. Bean.

Gene Weingarten: Now, that is an excellent aptonym. Very simple and elegant.

Northwest Washington, D.C.: Maybe I need to hear a male opinion on this but -- I'm watching the movie "The Wild Bunch" and trying, very hard, to figure out why it's considered a classic. All I'm seeing is a bunch of dirty, sweaty guys blowing each other to bits. It's taken me two evenings to try to get through this movie and it's not over yet. The edits chopped it to pieces. Makes me dizzy with all the quick jerky scenes jumping around. Why was Sam Peckinpah considered such a genius? He came across as being cranky, irascible and self-serving and he was usually sucking on a whiskey bottle. Go figure. It must be a guy thing. I just can't see it.

Gene Weingarten: I don't think the Three Stooges are very good, either. The Wild Bunch never did it for me. But I have just turned around to ask Desson Howe to explain why film snots like him think it is so damn great. "Symphony of slow motion," he said dismissively, with his Dessonish disdain for persons such as myself.

Washington, D.C.: I refuse to believe that Tom Sietsema is a fat black man. He is from Minnesota, where the only black people we have are Kirby Puckett, Kevin Garnett, and Prince.

Gene Weingarten: Kirby Puckett is svelte???

State of Anxiety: From the drawing of you, I've imagined you look like a young David Crosby.

Gene Weingarten: Alas, I look more like David Crosby today. Right down to the suspect liver.

Judiciary Square: I e-mailed your Sunday column to friends and family across the country and they loved it, of course!

Can't wait for that Doonesbury....

Gene Weingarten: Thanks. The Doonesbury is amazing. It may singlehandedly rescue his craft.

Hittor, MS: The author of the letter excerpted above says, "Strong journalism comes from empowered employees ...." Does this suggest that employees should stick their fingers into wall sockets? Can I watch?

Gene Weingarten: "Empowered" is a bad word. He shouldn't have used it. The only flaw in his delivery.

washingtonpost.com: But, as Lisa wisely points out, have you ever fathered Melissa Etheridge's children?

Gene Weingarten: I always wondered about that. The whole world was horrified when Dr. Cecil Jacobson used his own sperm to impregnate all his clients; yes, there were all sorts of legitimate issues of betrayal and whatnot, but mostly, the reaction came down to: Ugh, look at him.

Melissa Etheridge essentially CHOSE Dr. Cecil Jacobson.

New England: Gene, I arrived at work this morning looking great, but the thermostat here is still set as though it's January! Is there anything attractive about a woman in a miniskirt with pit stains?!?

washingtonpost.com: Amen sister.

Gene Weingarten: See, here is an essential difference between men and women. Note Liz's answer. Okay? Here's mine:


Olney, Md.: I thought you might like this. I still have half a box of matzoh leftover from Passover, and I'm trying to use it up as quickly as possible. My husband warned me not to eat too much each day, because it can be a weapon of mass obstruction.

Gene Weingarten: Very nice. It reminds me that there is a medical term called "obstipation." I learned about it when researching my book. It means "constipation caused by an obstruction." Just thought you all would like to know that.

Tell, ME: How did you see the Doonesbury for NEXT week?

Gene Weingarten: The Sunday comix are here a couple of weeks in advance. I rifled Suzanne Tobin's desk.

Herndon, Va.: Bill Maher said choosing David Crosby to father their child was the worst lesbian decision since Waco.

Gene Weingarten: Good grief! Fortunately the Post would never print anything like that!

Dereli, CT: Greetings,

The Sunday Style and the SI were in section D! Do you know why? D2 2U2?

Gene Weingarten: Yes, this is a shocking thing. After 10 years of being on F2, the page has moved. This is because Sunday Style is now a live section. The humor potential in D2 is nowhere near as great. I am upset.

Somewhere, USA: Is it worse to see a famous person picking their nose than just any old goober on the street? I think not.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, it is worse for the famous person. It is because you are unlikely to go home and say to your significant other, "Guess who I saw picking his nose on the street? Some goober!"

Brooklyn, N.Y.: Gene: I just came across the phrase "of a certain age" again. I hate that phrase, It implies that growing older itself is an unmentionable. Help me with this.

Gene Weingarten: Like all euphemism, it is atrocious and unacceptable.

The Fifties: I know you fix old clocks, but I just bought a really old Royal manual typewriter ($20!) that works, sort of, but could use work. Any advise?

Gene Weingarten: Ask any antique dealer. There are people around who can repair anything, and all antique dealers know who they are.

Washington, D.C.: What do you think the greatest job in the world would be? (Besides writing a controversial humor column for the Washington Post).

Gene Weingarten: Playing second base for the Yankees. It is next on my list.

New York, N.Y.: Gene,

What is consciousness?

Gene Weingarten: Consciousness is awareness of one's own insufficiency. Or the ability to detect one's own flatulence.

Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: How does that work with the sections? The topmost sections have the latest deadlines, or what? Why can't Sunday Style retain its letter and be a live section?

Gene Weingarten: I was trying to sound smart. You caught me. I have no idea why this is. Thanks a lot.

Outta, Time: If someone sends a question at, like, 12:55 do you have time to answer it?

Gene Weingarten: No.

Kennebunkport, Maine: Gene, are you nice to the fans that recognize and approach you? My big brother lives in D.C. and I'm going to visit him next week. If I see you, can I come say hi?

Gene Weingarten: Yes. Please do. I will pretend to know you, and ask about your family, and such. Then I will get a grave look on my face and ask if you've managed to solve "that problem,' and offer my condolences.

Ugh: I hate the Sunday Source. And I'm 25. It's too chaotic.

What the heck was wrong with the old Style section?

I had to look all over the paper for SI, Dear Abby, and Miss Manners!

Gene Weingarten: Nothing was wrong. But its deadline was three days earlier. The Post is trying to make it play more off the news, and be less of a magazine. Not a bad impulse.

Troublemaker!: The fact that YOUR column is considered controversial says a lot about Washington.

Gene Weingarten: Agreed!

Okay, done for today. Remember Suzanne Tobin and Staake, 1 p.m. on Friday. Be merciless. The man deserves it.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company