I’m not gonna lie: It’s hard not to be on edge right now. Anxiety, helplessness and anger are natural, all-organic smile-defeaters.

But it’s healthy for us to be able to laugh, to help others to laugh, even to laugh ruefully. Our duty to society! Our self-made medicine!

Presenting and judging Style Invitational contests during this global pandemic reminded me, of course, of the comparably earth-shattering events of Sept. 11, 2001. I wouldn’t become the Empress for another two years and some, but earlier that year I had filled in as “Auxiliary Czar,” judging a dozen contests while the Czar was off writing a screenplay, and also did several of them — without attribution, it seems — in late fall of the same year.

But it was the Czar on duty the week of 9/11, and those following. I looked back on those days in my Style Conversational column of Sept. 11, 2014, from which I’ll quote a bit here:

Uh, “Happy September 11” isn’t quite right …

In the Sept. 18, 2001, Washington Post, on the front page of the Style section, Gene Weingarten came out as the editor of The Style Invitational (though not as the anonymous Czar) in an essay headlined “Not Funny: The Rules of Humor Changed on Sept. 11.”

Gene noted that it had taken more than five days for him to see any online jokes about the attacks — an interval that even back then was uncharacteristically restrained.

“Last week,” Gene said, “The Post decided to publish as scheduled its Sunday humor contest, the Style Invitational, which I edit. This feature is not famous for its political sensitivity, but this weekend I found myself culling from the results any entries that suggested any cognitive weaknesses in the president of the United States."

The Sept. 16 Invitational had already been produced; the contest's production deadlines were earlier then. It asked for Rodney Dangerfield-style “no respect” jokes. But the next contest, Sept. 23, contained this complete set of directions:

“Make us laugh."

Gene offered to reflect on that Sept. 18, 2001, essay, and his sudden (if temporary) ban on George W. Bush jokes that had been submitted for contests in process:

“A few things about this column, and the decision. I remember cutting at least two Bush-is-stupid jokes, for these related reasons: The first was simply a matter of way-too-soon. The second was that people were genuinely fearful about what would come next. Third, people were truly invested in hoping that this new president of ours was smarter and more competent than they suspected he was. I didn’t want to publish anything, for a week at least, that might extinguish that small flicker of hope. And finally, even if I had judged that a Bush joke was okay to use, I didn’t think it was fair to do that to the entrants who had composed it before 9/11 and who might well want to disavow it in light of events.”.

Gene turned out to be wrong, I think, in declaring that “it won’t be the same,” that the rules of humor had changed permanently; the Bush-critical jokes were back in the Invite well before the end of the president’s first term. But I see that a full nine months after 9/11, the results of a contest for “a haiku summarizing the career of an American politician” contained none about President Bush.

And now by 2020, those “changed rules” — certainly those mandating a gentler, more forgiving tone toward our nation’s leaders — have long been flushed down the toilet. When your “leader” is an unashamedly childish, petty, spiteful, nasty, autocratic liar, it’s incumbent upon us not to let him have the last word. And there’s nothing wrong with talking back with wit and humor.

And when your adversary is a nasty, autocratic virus, we might as well shake our Purelled fists — and shoot it a latexed finger — the same way.

Make the best of it: This week’s contest, Week 1377

Casting about for ideas for this week’s contest, Week 1377, I asked for suggestions from members of the Style Invitational Devotees Facebook group. Among the 61 comments in the thread was from 113-time Loser Ward Kay: “Some sort of found art project for reusing items in your house.” Ward got a little blot of Invite ink all the way back in 1994, but didn’t show up again till 2009, and so he wouldn’t have remembered Style Invitational Week 550. Headlined “Spring Cleaning” and inspired by the newly crowned Empress’s inability to throw anything away, the March 2004 contest (PDF here) listed a bunch of items that tended to pile up around her house — plastic milk jugs; those little rectangular bread bag closures; Washington Post plastic delivery bags; AOL sign-up CDs that come in the mail (remember?); coffee cans; packing peanuts; worn-out disposable razors — and asked for creative uses for these or other “household thingies.”

Surely I remember this contest so well because of one particular entry I received: It was from the contest suggester, Kevin Mellema, who left it off at the Post building. Kevin had never met me or seen my picture, but captured me uncannily with a milk bottle face, razor nose, bread clip earrings, coffee can crown, green and pink packing peanuts inside for skin tone, and of course those perfectly cut and set AOL CDs for the haunting eyes. I gave it an honorable mention because I thought I’d seem too vain and susceptible to flattery if I’d given it a top prize (Kevin, I owe you one). But I did get Post photographer Julia Ewan to take it into the newsroom studio, put it on a pedestal, and give it a proper showcase. I kept the sculpture on my desk through various office moves until it eventually fell apart many years later.

The top ink from Week 550 (complete results here):

Third runner-up: Washington Post delivery bag: A great stocking mask for the bank robber who longs to win a Darwin Award. (Steve Fahey, Kensington; Josh Borken, Bloomington, Minn.)

Second runner-up: Loser Scott Campisi, clearly with way too much time on his hands in Wake Village, Tex., sent in this photo of a little car he fashioned from a milk jug and a few other things, which he sent scooting across the room by stomping on inflated Texarkana Gazette delivery bags, as his sweat socks demonstrate:

First runner-up, the winner of the duck-motif wine bottle and shoe brush: Old AOL sign-up disks that come in the mail: If your pet snake just got fixed and you want to make sure the area will heal properly, feed his head through the middle of the CD. (Jean Sorensen, Herndon)

And the winner of the Inker: Stand an empty coffee can on the ground. Prop two chopsticks against the can and a third one across the mouth. Glue a CD covered with duck sauce to the top chopstick. The mouse crawls up a chopstick and onto the CD for the duck sauce. The CD flips over, sending the mouse into the can, trapped by the CD on top. The world beats a path to your door. (Bird Waring, New York)

I assume you don’t have any AOL CDs left, but how many of you still have VHS tapes?

Snark plugs*: The product ‘reviews’ of Week 1373

*Headline for the Week 1244 results, by Chris Doyle and Jesse Frankovich; I don’t want to use up good entries here that could be used next time

I swear that when I came up with seven random items to “review” in Week 1373 of The Style Invitational — including this particularly strappy men’s thong — I was not yet reading about a shortage of coronavirus face masks. But a couple of weeks later, everyone clearly had N95 on the brain; the many entries suggesting putting the thong to antiviral use ended up canceling one another out in this week’s results, our first week in which covid-19 has made a significant mark.

In the introduction to the results, I listed some of the recurring ideas submitted too often to credit. In other cases, though, I chose my favorite from different tellings of the same gag: Gary Crockett’s take on “nonstick spatula,” for example — “I’ve been frustrated all my life trying to turn my eggs with a stick. This nonstick works much better. Five stars and two thumbs nondown” — beat out several other jokes about sticks. And Dave Prevar’s winner about using the spatula for both swatting flies and grilling hamburgers was just a little zingier than one suggesting cleaning a litter box and then making breakfast.

It’s the fifth Invite win for Dave, who’s best known to the Loser Community as a main organizer of the annual Flushies awards, but his first Lose Cannon; his last win was back in 2015 when we were awarding the Inkin’ Memorial. Dave hasn’t been entering so much anymore, so maybe this ink will encourage him to up that 362-blot total. It’s also a return for Martin Bancroft, whose 82 inks include 11 “above the fold.” The rest of the Losers’ Circle is occupied by a pair of relative newbies who’ve both gone Full Invite: Jon Ketzner (last year’s Rookie of the Year) and Sam Mertens (the upcoming one) have 104 blots of ink between them.

One theme I didn’t go to at all: the trope about hitting someone’s husband with a frying pan. Not only is it timeworn past the days of Punch and Judy, but — here’s a handy Loser tip — I just don’t think jokes about beating someone up are very funny. (One person lauded the skillet thus: “I used it to whack the rat three times over the head, managed to completely crush its skull which was very satisfying.” He added a note that it was a true story. If you all out there find this funny, there you have it.)

What Doug Dug: Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood singled out as faves Gary Crockett’s stick/nonstick joke; Danielle Nowlin’s and Bird Waring’s reviews of the unicorn headband; and the thong reviews by John O’Byrne, David Smith and First Offender H. Dudley Davidson.

Next Loser sighting … ideas?

Obviously the Loser Community won’t be breaking corporeal bread together anytime soon. The scheduled April 26 Loser Brunch potluck is fated for postponement, and we’d have to have a national turn of fortune to be able to have the annual awards “banquet”/parodyfest, the Flushies, on the scheduled June 13.

Fortunately we live in the age of Skype and Hangouts and Zoom, and maybe there’s a way to stage a virtual gathering while we wait to see one another in the (for many of us increased) flesh. My little synagogue is trying a Zoom service tomorrow night, and if that works, we’re going to try for a Zoomseder as well on the second night of Passover. My big question mark is whether a bunch of people can sing together, or if a time lag would make us sound even more out of whack than usual. Anyone who’s savvy about online gatherings and would like to help make a group sing work, let me know.