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

Tuesday, May 20, 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. Sorry, a long intro today.

Yesterday, I was at the University of Pennsylvania, for my daughter's graduation.
The speaker was Desmond Tutu. My daughter's name is Molly. So it was Desmond and Molly up there. I kept looking around for the barrel, and the marketplace.

Anyway, Desmond Tutu is an extraordinarily effective speaker, a gift that somehow survives through that dweeby South African accent. His background, of course, imbues his words with extraordinary moral suasion. The man says what he wants. Clearly, no one dares vet his speeches for political correctness, or even, um, weirdness. He's a howitzer, loose on deck.

He began by delivering to his largely Asian and Jewish audience a somewhat bizarre knock-knock joke about the Virgin Mary being awakened and, to her horror, essentially being informed of God's carnal desires, and Mary reacting with a screech of horror about how it would look.

He then proceeded to invoke what he said was an old native American saying that "If you see a chasm, jump. It's not as wide as it seems." He lost me there. I'm a risk taker, but I am not suicidal. I don't jump into chasms. I do know what he meant, though I think John Prine said it better: "That's the way that life goes round, You're up one day, the next you're down, It's a half an inch of water and you think you're gonna drown.‘

But pretty soon the good Archbishop got rolling, and he was electrifying. His message was that violence is never justified -- this was a direct slam at the war in Iraq -- and that great things can be accomplished through negotiation and reconciliation. The world, he said, will continue to be an inhospitable place until we all recognize that we all belong to the same family. That everyone on earth is part of our family, welcome and loved, our friends and our enemies alike. All people, he said, all, all - Jews, Muslims, blacks, whites, all, all, all, all. "All‘ became his mantra, the cadence of his speech, and within a minute or so, the crowd of thousands of graduates and their parents was rocking with that word, as Tutu added on more and more of those to be welcomed into our one big, happy family -- Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat -- "all, all, all' -- and then, as the applause and cheering reached a thundering crescendo, he said "bin Laden,' and then the speech was over.

Bin Laden! It was almost lost. Many people may not have known he said it, but he did, half drowned out by the cheers and claps.

My first reaction was horror. Then, I realized that this was precisely Tutu's point.
Everyone. All. It is how South Africa survived apartheid, as a model of forgiveness and conciliation.

All. I still don't know how I feel about this.

But I decided it was a great speech.

Today's comic pick of the week is, obviously, today's Pearls. Mr. Stephan Pastis is leaving the competition gasping. The Jumble took me two minutes. Try to beat that. I'll post the first correct answer.

Questions? Comments?

Tysons Corner, Va.: Gene, I like this girl. Am I pretty much doomed from the start? -Also named Gene

Gene Weingarten: Yes, you are.

washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Swine, (May 20)

Rat Cheer: Did you find out what you did that was scummy? WAS it scummy? Are you scum?

Gene Weingarten:

Yes. No. Possibly.

This is in reference to last week's chat, which included a link to the Funny Papers column in the Baltimore City Paper. The writer said he disliked me because of
"something scummy' I did a few years back.

I contacted said writer, who explained. In 1998 I wrote a story for Sunday Style about a severely brain injured girl in Massachusetts whose house has become a shrine that thousands of Roman Catholics visit, because religious statues appeared to be
weeping oil in her presence. The Funny Pages writer contended that I committed felonious scummery by opening my story with a detailed scene of what the girl looked
like in her bed. This is scummery, he said, because a prior story about the child (in the Boston Phoenix, by a
friend of his) had opened with a similar scene.

I had, in fact, seen that story first. But a quick reading of both stories reveals the two are not remotely alike, except for the general subject matter of the openings. And even that scene was presented differently, observing different things, making a different point, etc. I contacted the writer of that story, who said she did not feel ripped off.

Nonetheless, the City Paper guy refused to yield an inch. He is a complete obnoxious sanctimonious hammerhead, unworthy of further attention in this hallowed space except
for the fact that he is smart and funny. When our conversation turned to the journalistic crimes of Jayson Blair, he said he was appalled by the holier-than-thou attitude of the
media covering the Blair story: He said it was as though one day some bank robber starts indiscriminately blowing away tellers, and not even taking the money, and all the other bank robbers in town start shaking their heads, and saying, "what's the matter with THAT guy'?

Smart, and funny, and obnoxious. I like that in a journalist. We're having lunch this week.

Downderi, Va.: I will be getting married at the end of the summer and am trying to decide on how I should make reference to my fiancee at parties, social gatherings, the office, etc. after we are married. "My wife" sounds too bland. "The little woman" doesn't really apply, since she is above-average height. "My better half" appears too deferential, and is borderline clingy. "The old ball and chain" is overused. Using her given name just seems too obvious. Do you have any suggestions to solve my dilemma?

Gene Weingarten: I have never been able to come up with a better reference than the one Jimmy Breslin has always used to introduce his wife: "May I present the former Rosemary Brancato"?

(I may have the good lady's surname wrong.)

You could try introducing her as "my former fiance."

(Me, I'd never use the word fiance, but you don't seem to have a pretentiousness problem with that. I do.)

Vienna, Va.: Gene, I like the same girl Tyson likes. Has to be the same girl, cuz she said that a guy in Tysons also likes her. And yes, he's doomed from the start. Cuz I've got some sweet, sweet moves. Sweet, Gene.

Gene Weingarten: Noted.

Wisdom: I like that John Prine quote. Where's it from?

Gene Weingarten: I think the song is called "That's the Way the World Goes Round. He does a whole riff about how some people hear the line as "a happy enchilada and you think you're gonna drown."

Washington, D.C.: John Prine: That's the way that THE WORLD goes 'round.

Pearls: No "laughing" matter

Gene Weingarten: Sorry, did I miswrite it the first time?

And yes, that is the answer to the jumble.

Vienna, Va.: Holy fishstick! The University of Pennsylvania! Your daughter must be very smart... or very rich. Is she cute? Does she have plans this weekend?

Gene Weingarten: Cute and smart and poor. But she graduated with her boyfriend Jeremy, who is also cute and smart and poor. You got a LOT of money?

Fairfax, Va.: Keep up the calls to the 800 numbers, they're hilarious!

Have you ever thought about calling the "How's my driving" numbers on your cellphone as you drive behind them? "Yeah, I'm calling about Truck #A-180. He's doing a fine job, going the speed limit and staying between the dotted lines. Will he get a raise now?"

Gene Weingarten: I have tried this, but each time I got a recording.

Washington, D.C.: I was wondering what other humor you like, other than Bill Hicks and Dave Barry. For example, I enjoy the Onion and (most) New Yorker cartoons.

Gene Weingarten: I agree with both of those. Stunningly, the New Yorker cartoons have (for the most part) gotten funny in the last few years, breaking a 60-year-old trend.

New York, N.Y.: Gene,

I wish to apologize. Regarding the discrepancy between SI winners in print and online, last week I asked about why it was easier to correct the print edition. You had replied that you did not say such a thing. What you had actually said (during the previous week's chat) was that the winners were changed in the print edition and "that somehow this change was not communicated to the Web site in a timely fashion." I had interpreted you to mean that when the print edition was changed that there wasn't time to change the web site, when in fact you meant that people forgot about the web site. Mea Culpa. This whole NY Times fact-checking disaster has me spooked and I wanted to clear the record. Thank you.

Gene Weingarten: A LOT of journalists are getting very careful these days. I was extremely upset by that City Paper guy's charges, until I went back and read the stories.

Epicenter of the Universe: I don't know if this question is for you or PatThePerfect, but if you do a search of the word "epicenter" in The Washington Post, you will find four instances in which it was recently used -- each and every time incorrectly, to be synonymous with "center."

My question is, has The Post given up on this? Or are instances merely the few times where this incorrect usage slipped past the copy edit staff?

(FYI, "epicenter" means the place on the surface nearest the actual center, as in "Oddly enough, the epicenter of his chest pain was his left nipple")

Gene Weingarten: Actually, you have just taught me something. I didn't know this, and have probably misused this word. Pat, if you are here, please reveal whether you knew this fact. Pat never lies.

Laurel, Md.: Why is the University of Pennsylvania a private school?

Gene Weingarten: I would much, much, much have preferred it to be a state school.

It is a private school because it was founded privately, by Ben Franklin. This was the 247th graduating class.

I went to New York University, which is ALSO a private school. The name doesn't imply anything.

Virginia: Are you as dissappointed as I was when Prine didn't re-release "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Any More" in time for the Iraqi invasion?

Also, whatever happened to that comatose girl with the weeping statues, anyway?

Gene Weingarten: Right. The song is dead-on.

Speaking of which, coma girl is still in a coma. She is basically brain dead. The church investigated it as a miracle, and, as I recall, came to no conclusion but, um, sorta urged Catholics not to keep coming by.

Lisdex, IC: Gene,

I introduce mine as, "my first wife."

Gene Weingarten: Yes, that's excellent.

Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Dear Gene: Now that Bob Levey has laid bare his soul through his discussion of 10 movies he recently watched -- lesbians and dancing boys, si, Greek weddings and Bruce Willis, non -- perhaps you can do us a similar favor. Favorite movies from the last five years? Worst movies from the last five years?

Gene Weingarten: Five may take me too long. Gotta think a bit about that. I loved Being John Malkovich, but haven't yet seen Adaptation, which I am reliably told, is better. I loved Sixth Sense, for different reasons. Probably my favorite movie of the last ten years was Life Is Beautiful. The worst movie I have seen in ten years or so was that thing with Robin Williams in which he goes to hell to try to find and bring back his dead wife.

Wales: Gene,

I don't get your humor.

Gene Weingarten: That's odd. I get yours.

Oo bla dee: Molly and Desmond -- excellent! FYI, it's BARROW in the marketplace -- ie, a wheelbarrow or moveable sales stall. Best wishes to Molly.

Gene Weingarten: Hm. I haven't seen the lyrics printed. Paul SINGS it as barrel, and I would think a barrel would be equally plausible. A pickle barrel kinda thing. But I'll accept your word.

New York, N.Y.: Is Dr. Strangelove on your list of funniest movies of all time?

Gene Weingarten: Definitely. It really holds up. Also The Manchurian Candidate, which really holds up, too.

Fairfax, Va.: For PtP: Is there a one-line rule of thumb for who vs. whom? Thanks. I always used the porn definition: I'll know it when I see it. However, that doesn't work when trying to describe it to others.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, but I think Pat would agree this rule of thumb is boring.

Interestingly, however, the president of UPenn, Dr. Judith Rodin, in the middle of an otherwise dreary and plebeian speech yesterday, delivered this excellent line (I am paraphrasing):

"And I hope, if nothing else, your University of Pennsylvania education has taught you that in life, what is most important is not who you know. It is whom you know."

15th and L, Washington, D.C.: But if your daughter went to a state school, she would have gone to Penn State. The problem is that then she would have ended like myself, and believe me, no one would want that to happen.

Gene Weingarten: I see your point.

About the Archbishop...: Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the keynote speaker at my graduation from GW in 1999. He mostly spoke about the torture he and others in the anti-apartheid movement endured. The highlight of his speech was his discussion of the milky-white substance that emerged from the nipple of a torture victim after being electrically shocked on that body part. I wish I was making that up.

Gene Weingarten: Good God.

Archbishop Tutu has a certain latitude. I envy it. And he earned it.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Gene -- My boyfriend talks in the sleep. The other night, he said something quite disturbing: "Old habits die hard. I can't NOT eat spaghetti!" My question is, should the double negative be grounds for break-up, given that he spoke it while unconscious?

Gene Weingarten: No, hold on to that guy. For one thing, I don't believe "I can't NOT eat spaghetti" is a double negative. Well, it is a double negative, but I think it is very expressive, and the sentiment cannot really be adequately expressed any other way.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Hi, Gene --

When I graduated from Penn back in the day, we had a guest speaker for the separate Arts & Sciences ceremony--typically it's an established alum or the parent of a grad. Bob Schieffer was the speaker the year I graduated, as his daughter was among those in my class. My question for you: why in hell didn't they pick you to speak at your daughter's ceremony? You'd have rocked the house! Really, Bob had us howling.

Gene Weingarten: I spoke at my son's high school graduation. All I can say is, word must have gotten out.

Tutu's speech: He delivered basically the same speech/sermon at the National Cathedral on the anniversary of 9/11 -- sans the Virgin Mary joke, of course.

The collective gasp was audible. I didn't see anyone walk out in a huff, however. I was sitting toward the back -- I would have seen an exodus.

Gene Weingarten: Really? Wow. Well, he had the advantage here of a boisterous audience, shouting a cheering. He made it work. He FORCED people to cheer Bin Laden. It was kind of stunning.

Epicenter: A usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary:

Usage Note: Epicenter is properly a geological term identifying the point of the earth's surface directly above the focus of an earthquake. No doubt this is why the Usage Panel approves of figurative extensions of its use in dangerous, destructive, or negative contexts. Eighty-two percent of the Panel accepts the sentence "If Rushdie were not at the terrifying epicenter of this furor, it is the sort of event he might write about." The Panel is less fond but still accepting of epicenter when it is used to refer to the focal point of neutral or positive events. Sixty-two percent approve of the sentence "The indisputable epicenter of Cortina's social life is the Hotel de la Poste, located squarely in the village center."

(The Usage Panel is a distinguished group that includes Margaret Atwood, Harold Bloom, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Tony Randall.) See http://www.bartleby.com/64/12.html for the full membership list.

Gene Weingarten: Splendid. Thank you.

Sleep talker: I forgot to mention that he is an acquaintance of Grover Norquist. Another night he called out, "Mr. Oxley, Mr. Oxley" (referring, presumably, to the Republican representative from Ohio). I am losing sleep for more reasons than one.

Gene Weingarten: Now THERE'S cause to leave him.

Pat the Perfect, ME: I don't think you personally have misused "epicenter" in print, Gene. I would have saved you. Because I care.

Gene Weingarten: Whew. So you ... KNEW?

New York, N.Y.: What were the respective majors of your daughter and her boyfriend?

Gene Weingarten: They are both premed. Molly had a double major, in religion.

New York, N.Y.: Are you worried about fact-checking Below the Beltway now? Is the Czar concerned about checking his facts?

Gene Weingarten: I don't worry about fact-checking BTB. Officer Obie worries about fact-checking BTB. He is a monster.

Pat the Perfect, ME: Yes, there is a hard and fast, 100 percent accurate test for who vs. whom (as long as you assume that "whom" is not too stilted for the context you're using). "Who" has to refer to the subject of the sentence, and will correspond with "he"; "whom" is the object and will correspond with "him."

So take the phone question "Who/whom can I say is calling?" If you turn the sentence around, you get: "I can say HE is calling." Therefore it should be "Who can I say is calling."

Now say "He didn't know who/whom she was talking to." If you turn it around, it'd be "She was talking to HIM." So it'd be "WHOM she was talking to."

Gene Weingarten: I SAID it was boring.

Washington, D.C.: Noted with sadness today the cancer death of a Canadian anti-smoking campaigner at the age of 42. She'd been smoking for 30 years before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Her name was Barb Tarbox.

Gene Weingarten: You know, I have to say, this ranks among the best five aptonyms I've ever heard. Er, with all due respect etc. etc.

Vatican City: Wow. Pre-med and religion. If the operation doesn't go well, she can deliver Last Rites.

Gene Weingarten: Precisely! I believe hers was the only such double major in the school.

New York, N.Y.: Tony Randall is part of the committee? Does he get in on sheer prissiness?

Gene Weingarten: Sorry, I know this is in reference to something. I just don't know what.

Arlington, Va.: Is Bob Levey's review of "Best in Show" in his column today proof that the man has absolutely no sense of humor (or at very least, a very poor sense of humor)?

washingtonpost.com: The Movies That Went Limp -- and Worse, (Post, May 20)

Gene Weingarten: Wow. I hadn't read this until just now.

Whew. He trashes Life Is Beautiful, Best in Show, Amalie and Sixth Sense. All enormously excellent movies.

I should avoid this. I should not do this. I like Bob. I think he is a very smart guy. I love talking to him. I think The Post is lucky to have him. But, man. With movies, Bob does not know his rump from his dorkle.

Bob, I invite you to retaliate.

Toilet Geography: Just for the record, toilet water doesn't spin the other way in Australia. Their toilets just go GLORSH and suck it all down like a starving subterranean elephant trunk. No swirling of any kind.

Gene Weingarten: Thank you. But this is a plumbing-related observation.

The Coriolis Effect does, indeed, swirl water in the opposite direction in the lower hemispher.

Boston, Mass.: Do you think it's funny that there's a new lunch place near my office called "Chicken Heaven?" I do.

Gene Weingarten: HAHAHAHAHAHA. That's great. Bruce Friedrich will love that.

Washington, D.C.: "Premed" is an actual major? That is so lame. It says on her diploma "Bachelor of Arts in Premed?" Way lame.

Gene Weingarten: No, the actual name is "Biological Basis of Behavior." It is one of several premed majors.

Arlington, Va.: Besides the Tutu revelations, this is quite possibly the most boring chat you have ever hosted.


Gene Weingarten: Wow. Someone else wrote in that my column yesterday was one of the most boring columns I ever wrote. Did it ever occur to you this might be deliberate? Journalists don't get any respect unless they are boring. I am tired of being your Mister Funnypants.

New York, N.Y.: What was your major, Gene?

Gene Weingarten: Psychology, but only because it was the easiest major. I spent all my time as editor of the daily newspaper, and then dropped out with three credits to go. I have no undergraduate degree.

Philadelphia, Pa.: As a resident of the UPenn surrounding area, I hope you enjoyed your visit to Philadelphia, in many ways a city more filled with natural comic fodder than Washington, D.C. -- not an easy accomplishment. A place where to be a manager at our convention center, you spend much of your day breaking up fist fights; same goes for city council president. Eat any good meals? Koch's hoagie?

Gene Weingarten: Yes, Philly is pretty funny. I think it reached its high point about 20 years ago when, to stop a peaceful if troublesome protest in a downtown neighborhood, the mayor dropped a firebomb on it, and then was stunned -- STUNNED -- when it incinerated many city blocks.

It's not nearly as funny as DC, though.

Not where you are: Burgers or pizza? Paper or plastic? Video or DVD? North or South? East or West? Cotton or synthetics?

Gene Weingarten: Pizza, plastic, DVD, North, East, cotton, underpants.

New York, N.Y.: The Post is aware you have no undergraduate degree, right? That's one of the things they got Blair with, you know.

Gene Weingarten: Shhhhhhh.

Okay, time to go. We'll talk next week, when I will try to scale new depths of boredom and intellectual lassitude.

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