Some people mistakenly label me a "lowbrow" columnist. Not being humor professionals, they don't understand the central principle of the comedic arts: Stupid names, excretory functions and underpants are a hoot.
This criticism would not bother me, except that even my own editors occasionally urge me to, as they put it, show some class. That is why I recently accompanied two of my Washington Post colleagues -- serious, big-shot political experts -- on a field trip to St. Louis, where they were conducting a "focus group" of ordinary citizens discussing important issues of the day.
So here I am at the airport in St. Louis, prepared to unearth for you, the reader, all the trenchant topical humor of the political focus group. Because sophisticated humor involves irony, I will point out that my rental car is a Ford "Focus."
The car has this bleating "fasten seat belt" beeper that is so annoying you refuse to obey it. Eventually, it stops bleating and you are riding along for about another 30 seconds when it starts bleating again. Now, at this point the average person might take a hint. But you -- writing as you are in the second person so as to demonstrate how classy and highbrow and literary you are -- decide to just wait the damn thing out. Unfortunately, it appears programmed to bleat every 30 seconds indefinitely, so that finally, after about five minutes, seeing no reasonable alternative, you give in and PUT THE RADIO ON REALLY LOUD.
Then you stop to get a cup of coffee at a famous local grocery chain store named "Schnucks," which is pronounced -- just in case you hadn't already gotten the message that St. Louis is not exactly Monte Carlo -- "Schnooks." Then you get back in your car, start the engine, and instantly remember why it is wise to turn the radio off before exiting a car. The wall of sound slams into you like a collapsing dam, causing you to drop your coffee cup into your lap, making you out-bleat the seat-belt bleater, especially when you remember that you packed only one extra pair of underpants.
But because you have a job to do, you remain "focused," employing a pun just like all sophisticated-twit humorists do. Your hotel window looks right out at the famous Gateway Arch, which is so beautiful that it stuns me right back into the first person. The arch was designed by the noted architect Eero Saarinen, victim at birth of a tragic stuck-typewriter-key accident at the Bureau of Vital Records.
I was staring solemnly up at the majesty of the arch for at least 15 seconds when I burst out laughing, because I realized that it looks exactly like the McDonald's logo. It's just one of those weird facts you encounter from time to time, like the fact that if you have two male clownfish in a tank, one of them will turn into a female. (In either case -- the arch or the clownfish -- you can never look at it the same way again.)
The famous motto "Missouri: the Show-Me State" suggests a certain hearty cynicism in the people. And this was confirmed by a nice couple I met, Ellen Schapiro and Gerald Axelbaum. When I asked them what was the dumbest thing about their state, they thought for a while, made some tentative suggestions and then decided: "John Ashcroft."
(Actually, the dumbest thing is probably a "to-go cup," which is offered by many bars in St. Louis, proud home of Anheuser-Busch. As you are leaving, you are encouraged to take a last drink with you. You know, for the drive home. "Missouri: the Show Me the Way to Go Home State." )
Then it was time for the focus group, in which -- employing sarcasm, a tool of highbrow writers everywhere -- I learned how incredibly hilarious it is when average Americans discuss important topics of the day under the direction of important political reporters.
As I was returning my rental car before my trip home, I asked the folks at Avis if anyone was foolish enough to ever back a car over those tire-piercing spokes that warn, in enormous red letters, that backing up will cause SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE. It turns out this happens several times a week.
According to Avis employee Mark George, damage is almost always limited to the front tires. This seemed counterintuitive, but George explained why: As they come in to return their cars, people get halfway over the hump, then slap themselves in the forehead, jarring into action their one working brain cell, and say, "Darn, we forgot to buy gas," and BANG.
Pleased that I had managed to finish researching a column so sophisticated that it would contain no rectal humor whatsoever, I went through the metal detector at the airport, and I beeped. The wand lady asked me to empty my pockets and try again. As I did so, I asked what would happen if I beeped again. And, so help me, she smiled and said, "We bring out the elbow-length gloves."
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.