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Style Conversational Week 1481: Gotta use the head

The Empress of The Style Invitational discusses this week’s bank headline contest and product-review results

"They thought they unearthed the world’s largest potato. It turned out not to be a potato at all." Here's how Bob Staake interpreted that headline.

Bob Staake has been getting into Full Loser Mode lately! Usually, over the course of our 18-plus years working together to come up with a Style Invitational cartoon virtually every week, I’ll send Bob some examples for the next contest, and he’ll usually choose one or two to sketch up, and then I’ll choose something or we’ll first haggle a bit. But over the past few weeks, Bob has repeatedly outplayed my own efforts, trying out the contest himself and sending me back up to a dozen ideas of his own (some, alas, unprintable or at least uncartoonable). For Week 1478 he composed his own poem using the required bank of the 1,000 most common words.

And this week, for our annual Mess With Our Heads contest, Week 1481, Bob dug into the pages of and promptly sent me five funny reinterpretations of headlines, including the one for the Burger King story from Russia that we ended up using. But even funnier might have been the one pictured above:

Real Washington Post headline: They thought they unearthed the world’s largest potato. It turned out not to be a potato at all.

Bob’s bank head: World’s largest roll of toilet paper buried alongside provided critical identification clue

I declined to run a cartoon of a gigantic steaming human turd in the Washington Post Arts & Style section, next to the dance and theater reviews, but I figured that readers who seek out The Style Conversational — you have to know it to find it — have a different set of standards. (The 17-pound non-potato was actually some other species of tuber.)

And if you’re interested in acquiring a unique work by a famed artist for your powder room, I’m guessing that Bob could part with this pencil sketch — or many, many others of the work he’s done for the Invitational over his 28 years with us — if you contact him at his website’s special page for Losers and Invite fans,

Head-Lyin’ News*: How to do the Week 1481 bank head contest

*Headline by Chris Doyle from Week 1115

Speaking of Mess With Our Heads, I advised would-be entrants to Week 1481 to come over here to the Convo for further details about the contest. And to provide those guidelines, I’m going to welcome this week’s guest columnist: the Empress of 2021. Whose guest columnist was the Empress of 2020. Etc. In other words, I’m reprinting what I said last March — except where I told everyone I was expecting to be back in The Post’s newsroom by that June: Turns out that The Post just opened this month to the daily staff; I just went in to mail prizes for the first time (except in a deserted building on Sundays) since March 2020. Anyway, here’s Recurring Empress. who also never gets older, followed by a sampling of last year’s winners; text in brackets are today’s emendations:

To those who are new to The Style Invitational, below is the FAQ that I ran in a Conversational column a year ago, [2020] which itself linked to earlier [2019] and earlier [2018] Messes.

What counts as a headline? In a nutshell, it’s anything above the text of an article or ad, as well as a one-line link to another article, as on the paper’s homepage. You may also use a bank head itself as your headline.

Do I have to use every word in the headline? No, but the section you do use can’t mean something hugely different on its own ( “City Passes Out Supplies to Residents” can’t become “City Passes Out”), and you can’t string together unconnected parts of the headline. This is why this year’s entry form asks you to show me the whole headline if you’re just using part; I’ll make the call.

Can I change the punctuation or capitalization in the headline?

You can’t change the punctuation.

You may change capitalization in the following case: If the headline, like The Post’s current heads, is “downstyle” (capitalized like a sentence rather than a title) and there’s a proper name in the head that you’d like to reinterpret as a plain ol’ common noun, or vice versa — say you want “lab” to refer to a Labrador retriever; or it’s about a Lab and you want to mean it’s a laboratory — then you can write the whole head as upstyle, as in a book title. If the head is upstyle to begin with, just leave it that way. [Note that I changed this week’s sample headlines from The Post to upstyle, just to reinforce this. Also, when I quote a headline, I usually use upstyle regardless of how it runs in the paper. But if the head is downstyle and your joke works fine without extra capitalization, leave it down. For one thing, it takes up considerably less space.]

Can I use the headings that appear in other online stuff besides newspapers? You can! — if it has a date on it and it falls within the required window [March 24-April 4, 2022]. Very helpful to me: Copy the URL (website address) [new: and put it immediately after the entry, without hitting Enter to put it on a separate line.] DO NOT EMBED IT into the headline itself; I’ll see a bunch of garble. (If that URL disappears, don’t worry: see below.)

One more thing: Sometimes online headlines are ephemeral, especially on a publication’s homepage; if it no longer exists, I’ll rely on your honor. But come on, don’t rewrite headlines to make them work for your joke; remember: honor. I can’t check every last headline.

NEW FORMATTING FOR 2022: In the past year, I’ve been making an effort to shuffle all the entries for the week — which already have the entrants’ names deleted — into one big impersonal list so that I won’t know who sent 25 entries or just one, or whether my opinion on an entry could be colored by the other ones from the same person. This is sort of Above & Beyond in my aim for objectivity, but if it’s doable, I’ll do it. But the only way it will work is if each individual entry has no line breaks; i.e., you can’t press Enter to divide the lines on the entry: When I click on “Sort,” the computer sees each place with an Enter as a separate unit. So this sorting thing won’t work for poems, song parodies, etc.; I can’t read them as one long line. But for headline/bank heads? I think it can.

So I’ve given these instructions on this week’s entry form:

For each headline, please write your main headline (the real one) and the bank head as a single line (i.e., don’t use the Enter key within the entry) and make it clear what’s the hed (that’s journalese for headline) and what’s the bank. Something like this:

Wizards Overpower Mavericks (Podunk Herald online, March 25) Calves Pass Out on Ground Under Spell of Wand [http://etc.]

“If just about everyone follows this direction, the Empress will be able to shuffle all the headlines and can’t possibly be biased toward or against even an unnamed person.”

Note “If just about everyone follows”: Before I hit Sort, I scroll through the file containing all the entries. There are always a few people who don’t follow the directions, but if it’s just a few, I’ll fix those entries up and then send them flying all around with the rest. But if there are scads of broken-up entries this week, I’ll just forgo the sort. I still won’t know who wrote the entries, anyway.

Oh, one more thing: At least two Losers evidently misunderstood me but tried to do the right thing anyway, and the sent in ALL their Week 1477 entries as one long line! Thanks for cooperating but NOOOOOO do not do this please! EACH entry is one long line! Different line for each entry! Both of these people had a whole list of 'em, too. I broke them up and then did the sort — and both Losers got ink this week.

A sampling of inking entries from last year, Week 1426; full results here — they’re all gems. Note how the humor works best if the reader understands the real meaning of the headline, e.g., that “Auburn Basketball” refers to Auburn University. This is why it’s usually better not to use confusing headlines, or heds with names that aren’t well known; on Monday I saw the headline “Story Goes to Boston, Will Move to Second” and thought: That will not work for Mess With Our Heads because we’d have to explain that there’s a baseball player named Trevor Story.

Runners-up: Parade magazine: Give Your Immune System the Support It Needs. Bank hed: ‘C’mon, Immune System! Only a Couple More Months, You Can Make It!’ (Danielle Nowlin)

Find a spot for COVID shots: Experts suggest an arm; butts said to slow down line (John Klayman)

Texans, let your little light shine: Governor recommends candles for next power outage (Chris Doyle)

And the winner of the Clowning Achievement: US 45 resurfacing project starts Monday: Former president getting skin peel, de-oranging (Jesse Frankovich)

Jermaine Fowler seeks a name for himself: How about ‘Jermaine Fowler,’ experts suggest (Gary Crockett)

Administration backs nation’s biggest wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard: No injuries reported as turbines crash into water (Hannah Seidel)

Auburn basketball could be much improved next season: Washing off months of sweat expected to restore bright orange hue (Beverley Sharp)

Biden grasped what the media did not: Diane Sawyer’s shoulders long considered off-limits (Todd DeLap)

The future remains the focus for the O’s: ‘We’ll get better at this,’ newlyweds vow (Gary Crockett)

GOP governors bet on bucking virus rules: Actually, they didn’t say ‘bucking’ (Duncan Stevens)

Six lessons to help us move forward: 1. Lift left leg. 2. Bend left knee … (Jesse Rifkin)

How will the offensive line competition shake out? Nasties vie for coveted Snarkiest Tweet award (Beverley Sharp)

How to strengthen the defensive line: Politicians reveal their secrets to the fine art of excuse-making (Jesse Frankovich)

Have at it. Often, totally straight old-fashioned news headlines work best for this contest, and you might have better luck finding them in a local paper (if you have such a thing) than the now-chattier heds in The Post. But there’s plenty of fodder here, too. And you can use ads!

Snark plugs*: The Walmart product reviews of Week 1477

*Headline from Week 1244, credited to both Chris Doyle and Jesse Frankovich

Switching portals from Amazon [zubzub Jeff Bezos zubzub] to Walmart this time around made not the slightest difference in our recurring contest to review any of several everyday products (plus a wild card, this time a “lion’s mane” costume for a cat).

Lots of Amelia Bedelia stuff this week, with just-too-silly literalisms, but in most cases one or two entries made them work with an extra twist. I was about to toss all the entries about not being able to play a tune on a shoehorn, but then I saw Jon Ketzner’s lament that he’d also met with no success playing the limoncello. On the other hand, about people who said they’d bought the Slinky because they wanted something slinky to wear? [Sigh.]

I was a bit surprised that no one had suggested using the shoehorn as a front-of-jeans protector/enhancer. Not complaining, though; Kevin Dopart’s suggestion that you put a singly googly eye on the Slinky and duct-tape it to a statue of a “man or beast” to make “a one-googly-eyed Slinky snake” was plenty, thanks.

Fresh faces in the Losers’ Circle! It’s the first Clowning Achievement — and just the fourth blot of ink ever — for Bill Cromwell of the Charlottesville, Va., area, who’d gotten honorable mentions in Weeks 1385, 1390 and 1453. Bill offered a glowing review of the alarm clock’s Snooze button that makes you do just that. (I use my phone as an alarm clock, but always end up accidentally turning off the Snooze altogether.) And we have a First Offender in runner-up Karen Lambert, who recounts having a barrel of fun scandalizing Whole Foods shoppers by carrying around a bag of the Great Value White Sandwich Bread in her cart (and even throwing in some Twinkies). While Karen could opt for the Loser Mug, I hope she picks the Whole Fools Grossery Bag — and takes that shopping. Our other two runners-up this week are the unfresh-faced Jesse Frankovich and Duncan Stevens, with more than 1,200 blots of ink between them.

How about that thing with the bread wrapper! I was alerted by the entries of three different Losers — Sam Mertens, Steve Leifer and Pam Shermeyer — who’d sleuthed through the menu of photos of the white-bread package, noting that while the top of the bag touted “No High Fructose Corn Syrup,” an accompanying photo of the ingredient list had it right there. So I did what journalists do before printing some embarrassing revelation: I asked for comment. (I did not explain what I had to do, exactly, with this product; but I honestly said that I was with The Washington Post — they get right back to you! — and that “a reader wrote to us to point out a discrepancy between the front and back labels,” and “could you let me know which side of the bread label is correct, and we’ll clarify that to our readers.”) As I’d suspected, Walmart wasn’t lying about the bread; it had posted the wrong ingredient-list photo; “we will have that updated on the site very shortly.” (It’s still there, but it hasn’t been even 24 hours.)

What Pleased Ponch: The faves of Ace Copy Editor Panfilo “Ponch” Garcia this week were from the honorables: Terri Berg Smith’s explaining that it would be too hard to use her phone as an alarm clock because she’d have to go down to the charger in the kitchen to turn it off; Lawrence McGuire’s shoehorn testimonial from a woman who had so many children she didn’t know what to do to fit them into the tiny house; a triply credited complaint that the white bread was too spicy, signed Mike Pence (someone else used Mitt Romney but same idea here); another jab by Mark Raffman about his governor, Glenn “Tip Line” Youngkin, complaining about the “woke” comments about white bread; and Frank Mann’s lament from Grizabella the Glamour Cat of about the mortifying lion’s-mane costume — to the tune of “Memory.”

Happy springtime to all — now get to reading all the headlines all wrong.