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Style Conversational Week 1492: It’s parity time

The Empress of The Style Invitational on this week’s contest for conservative-leaning humor

The BubbleYou Bubble Tower, made with various items from RepurposedMaterials. Much too useful for our purposes, of course.

Bill Coleman of Denver read about our Week 1488 contest through the RepuposedMaterials newsletter and sent us this photo of his BubbleYou party attraction. Made with such “upcycled” materials as table linens, coffee sacks and billboard vinyl, the solar-powered tower and other models (one is a “cow” with an udder hanging from the top bar) spout off bushel-size bubbles to the delight of all. But much too useful, of course, for The Style Invitational. I discuss the Week 1488 results farther down the page.

The Style Conservatitional? This week’s contest

2009, expressions reflecting contemporary society: “Giving him the Nobel”: Heaping praise on someone you hope will be worthy of it one day. (Drew Bennett; Mark Richardson in his first ink; he’s up to around 150 by now)

This one got ink three weeks ago, for the contest to switch the places of two letters: PELOSI to LEPOSI: A disease caused by staying in one position for too long. (Craig Dykstra)

Back when my son was in fifth and sixth grade — a time covering the Balkan War and the 2000 election — I used to visit his class every week to lead a discussion on current events. I tried, evidently with some success, not to reveal my own political views when explaining what “liberal” and “conservative” meant, and would put forth both sides of some issues of the day to the best of my ability in an accessible manner. I remember a kid coming up to me and saying, “You’re a Republican, aren’t you?” That was gratifying.

I demurred on the answer, but no, I’m not a Republican; the last Republican I voted for was Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias in 1980, my first election. I believe that people should look out for one another by contributing to a government that helps those who need help, at home and around the world, and by enacting policies that help not just ourselves but those who will be affected in future generations. But I also am a super-thrifty person who hates to see that money wasted or misspent, and am also seriously uncomfortable when citizens are afraid to express their opinions for fear of being attacked by a self-appointed virtue brigade and swiftly ostracized. So when I get the online surveys, I check “liberal” but not “very liberal.”

But I’ve always tried, as Empress of The Style Invitational — as undemocratic a job as can be, I concede — to welcome humor that digs at people and institutions I might not have thought to go after myself. And that’s what I’m welcoming with our contest this week, Week 1492 (a tenuous link to Columbus, but I really wanted to use the “conservative leaning” guy’s entries in the intro).

I did this contest just once before, after 3½ years of George W. Bush as president, and just a few months after taking over as Empress. Here’s how it went down back in Week 558, I think the inking entries from 18 years ago should provide a good idea of what I have in mind for Week 1492 as well. I’ve added a number of comments in brackets, some of which might be helpful this week.

My intro published May 16, 2004, in the heat of an election year:

Week 558: Set Us Right

“What is the difference between JFK (1960) and JFK (2004)?

“John F. Kennedy had no problem with charisma, and a bad spine. John F. Kerry has a bad problem with charisma, and no spine.

“Over the years, The Invitational has been accused of awarding prizes (such as they are) to political humor that tends to veer maybe a wee bit to the left. So, to compensate for any perceived liberal bias, The Empress decided this week to print only right-leaning anagrams [from Week 554] in the results below. Nah, not really; that would have been wrong. In fact, it would have been impossible — because there weren’t any right-leaning ones to choose from: The spectrum of the political anagrams submitted ranged from Gentle Tweaking of the Administration to Raving Leftist Screed.

“This week’s contest, suggested by Mark Cackler of Falls Church [I’m guessing that he also supplied the example, but don’t have a record of it]: See if you can give us some Fair and Balance — send us conservative-leaning humor in any of the following genres: (1) Knock-knock jokes; (2) limericks; (3) “how can you tell” riddles; (4) “what’s the difference” riddles; (5) four-line rhyming poems. Jokes about Bill Clinton’s sex life do not qualify; they transcend ideological barriers. And needless to say, joke plagiarists will be abused and humiliated.

“First-prize winner receives the Inker, the official Style Invitational Trophy. First runner-up wins an autographed copy of ‘The Hype About Hydrogen’ by Joseph Romm, a longtime Loser who donated his new book as a prize in a desperate attempt to see it mentioned in The Washington Post. (Joe is perhaps more famous for having also donated as a prize, in 1995, his underpants.)”


As you’ll see from the results of Week 558 below, the poems and limericks generated almost no ink, so I dropped those options this time. (We’ll be doing poems soon enough anyway.) This week’s “Q&A” format encompasses both Options 3 and 4 above, and I’m leaving the knock-knocks, too. How sincere is the humor and how much of liberals trying their best to be open-minded (or at least trying their best to score some ink)? Hard to know. Which is good enough.

Report from Week 558, in which we asked for right-leaning political humor in any of several standard joke forms. The Empress wasn’t overly surprised to receive some entries that were, let’s say, a bit disingenuous, such as this one from Brendan Beary of Great Mills: “Beware, let me tell you / Of that damned ACLU / And their whole Bill of Rights, / I mean, goods, that they’d sell you.”

Fourth Runner-Up: How can you tell if a pickup truck is owned by a liberal? That’s a trick question — Volvo doesn’t make pickup trucks! (Bruce W. Alter)

Third Runner-Up: What’s the difference between the National Education Association and the National Rifle Association? The NRA wants to teach kids to set their sights on something. (Bob Dalton)

Second Runner-Up: What’s the difference between John Kerry and John Paul II? Only one of them is supposed to pontificate endlessly. (Joseph Romm, Washington) [It’s highly ironic that Joe Romm — Clinton administration energy official turned famed climate change activist — got ink in a contest seeking conservative-leaning humor. But his entry illustrates what we can call The Liberal Out: You can be liberal and find plenty of material for making fun of Democrats; but for this contest, you can’t do it from a left-wing perspective — for instance, digging at them for caving to the demands of Sen. Joe Manchin.]

First Runner-Up, winner of the autographed copy of Joseph Romm’s book “The Hype About Hydrogen”: What’s the difference between conservative and liberal faith-based initiatives? Well, we could find only one example of the latter — Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” (Chris Doyle, Forsyth, Mo.) [That was a photograph of a crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine, one of the artworks that set off a right-wing campaign to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, which had given a grant for a 1989 tour in which the photograph was included.]

And the winner of the Inker:

How can you tell that The Washington Post is liberal?

Conservative Invitational entries can be published only by affirmative action. (Danny Bravman, Potomac) [That’s not really true! Only somewhat true.]

Honorable Mentions:

What’s the difference between . .

… “The Catcher in the Rye” and the Pledge of Allegiance? We might have to stop teaching the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools because its content might offend somebody. (Russell Beland, Springfield)

… Michael Moore and Osama bin Laden? One directed “9/11” to demoralize America, and the other is a terrorist. (Bob Dalton)

… a stopped-up toilet and a liberal? Eventually, you can get the toilet to work. (Milo Sauer, Fairfax)

… Karl Marx and Harpo Marx? Harpo had the good sense to keep quiet. (Russell Beland)

… a rich liberal and a rich conservative? A rich conservative thinks he deserves his money, while a rich liberal thinks the conservative should give it to charity. (Seth Brown, North Adams, Mass.)

… a conservative and a liberal? To improve the economy, the first would buy a Hummer, while the second would hire a bum. (Chris Doyle)

… unborn children and mass murderers: Some people are confused about which group the Constitution should protect. (Russell Beland) [In 2022, in a country in which gun rights are considered so important that their obsessive defenders end up siding with the AR-15-toting shooters of children, or condemn their victims, this entry no longer works.]

… a conservative commentator and a liberal commentator? One is called a conservative commentator; the other is called a commentator. (Jeffrey Contompasis, Ashburn) [Jeff’s first Style Invitational ink, after he batted zero in several previous Invites. The Fir Stink prize hadn’t been created yet, though.]

… a conservative and a liberal? Conservatives love John Birch; liberals love birch johns. (Elden Carnahan, Laurel) [Not political humor, just the very gentlest tease of liberal tree-hugging, but I’ll take that. Cute wordplay.]

… Jesse James and Jesse Jackson? Jesse James was wanted in a lot of places. (George Vary, Bethesda)

… Kerry and Carrie? At least Carrie generates some heat. (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

… John Kerry and John Edwards? Kerry will be a senator in January. (Chuck Smith) [Sen Edwards, Kerry’s terminally handsome running mate (and primary-season rival) in 2004, blew his ultra-promising political career with a paternity scandal and coverup. He’s now a personal-injury lawyer back in North Carolina.]

… predictions of global warming and the college football rankings? One is the complex numerical analysis and evaluation of a topic with factors having major importance to concerned citizens across the country. The other is just a bogus weather report. (Greg Arnold, Herndon) [I don’t know whether Greg in 2004 thought that global warming wouldn’t happen; to mock the idea in 2022, however, is not a valid argument.]

… a conservative and a liberal? The conservative keeps his hand close to his vest; the liberal keeps his hand close to your pocket. (Tom Witte, Montgomery Village)

… an illegal Mexican immigrant and a Texas Democrat? The Mexican seeks democracy by sneaking into Texas. (Bob Dalton) [This referred to a mass exit by Democratic state legislators in 2003 to New Mexico to prevent a quorum and thus a vote on redistricting that would ensure a large Republican majority — just like a maneuver last year to prevent restrictive voting laws. Like the later one, it ultimately didn’t work. (Thanks to Duncan Stevens for reminding me what this entry was about.)]

… John Kerry and a roulette wheel? When a roulette wheel stops spinning, there’s at least a small chance it won’t cost you money. (Allan Moore, Washington)

… John Kerry and a knock-knock joke? In a knock-knock joke, you learn who is really there. (Carl Northrop, Fairfax)

Knock, knock . . . . . . Who’s there? Kerry. Kerry who? Kerry your water for you, Mr. Chirac? (John McMillan, Manassas) [Kerry tended to appeal to Europeans, especially the French; he speaks fluent French and attended school in Geneva. The GOP successfully turned that into a liability at home, implying that the presidential candidate was an out-of-touch elitist. It didn’t help when he ordered a Philly cheesesteak “with Swiss,” prompting the Philadelphia Inquirer food critic to declare his choice evidence of “an alternative lifestyle.” So what if George W. Bush grew up in a family that had a chauffeur? He didn’t speak French, for sure!]

Knock-knock. Who’s there? Your car engine, running on EPA-formula gas. (Peter Metrinko, Plymouth, Minn.) [I know that in the early days of newly required unleaded gas, some car engines would knock because of bad combustion; I’d doubt that was still a problem in 2004, but whatever.]

… Who’s there? John Kerry. John Kerry who? Who do you want me to be? (Bob Dalton; Robert L. Hershey, Washington) [Jokes about pandering candidates are pretty much 100 percent transferrable.]

… Who’s there? Big government. Big government who? Just kidding — big government doesn’t knock, it bashes in the door and takes your gun away. (Art Grinath, Takoma Park) [This seems totally disingenuous to me, but it’s fine.]

… Who’s there? Global warming. Global warming who? Actually there’s nobody here, but global warming could be here soon. (Seth Brown) [Again, pooh-poohing those who warned of devastating climate change.]

Kerry won the nomination,

Promptly took a short vacation;

Said he needed to unwind.

Put on flip-flops, changed his mind. (Bob Dalton) [You could probably zip in most elected officials’ names in this one.]

How can you tell if a liberal has just won a presidential election? He finally reveals his definition of “middle class.” Bulletin: It doesn’t include you. (Tom Witte)

And Last: How can you tell if a humor contest has a liberal bias? The prize is an environmental screed by some low-level Clinton appointee. (Joseph Romm) [Joe was being humble. He headed the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, as acting assistant secretary of energy.]

So since then?

After the Invite’s first eight years, which coincided with President Clinton’s two terms and featured TONS of humor at his expense, especially of course with the Lewinsky scandal, the Invitational’s political humor certainly has continued to attack Republicans and their causes much more than Democrats and theirs. A lot of it was aimed at the George W. Bush administration, except for a letup in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Then eight of those years spanned the terms of the almost scandal-free Obama White House. Obama was just a hard person to mock — you know that when the mockers had to resort to a tan suit he once wore — and the digs shifted over to the virulent anti-Obama forces. And then, of course, Donald Trump. Never had the Invite been so political. Of course, never had “SNL” been so political. And never had the late-night shows been so political. What else could you do?

But in the years since, the polarization is worse than ever, and that person continues to wield a disturbing amount of influence over our heavily damaged political system. Tonight, I can’t bring myself to watch those Jan. 6 hearings because I’m convinced that they’re futile. I can tell you, it’s hard as hell to have a sense of humor sometimes. There have been days when I had to put the entries away and go take a long walk, because nothing seemed funny to me at that moment. But we need to be able to laugh, even if sometimes grimly, at our world. We’re here for that.

I think that in the face of a person and a movement that was not simply a political system that many of us disagreed with, but one that repeatedly has sought to undermine the principles of democracy and the respect for truth, it’s understandable that some citizens are loath to criticize the current president and administration for anything, let alone make jokes about them. But really, that’s not healthy either. Let’s see what we can do this week.

Scrap medals*: The results of Week 1488

*Non-inking headline by Tom Witte

Not so much political humor in this week’s results — a contest in which, for the second time, I asked readers to look at and come up with creative ideas (though not usable ones) for reusing the various surplus items individually or combined. Most of the 1,000 or so entries submitted referred to items I’d included in a list in the introduction to Week 1488; relatively few people seem to have rooted around the website.

However, a number of them did find the page advertising the Snozzle Boom, which turns out to be a brand name for a boom, or crane arm. This particular item, decommissioned from a firetruck, will telescope to 54 feet high and can be yours for $3,000. The majority of the entries, however, said it was most useful for letting you say “Snozzle Boom” a lot.

It’s the second Clowning Achievement for Jonathan Jensen, but his fifth Invite win overall (not counting many other trips to the Losers’ Circle with runners-up). Jonathan suggested that Appalachian Trail hikers keep their feet clean and comfy by rolling out the 80 feet of artificial turf, trotting down to the end, then repeating it “in just 145,200 easy stages.” Leif Picoult was the only Loser to suggest a use for a mall kiosk display — set it up in your house to re-create the mall experience by walking right by it. Kevin Dopart — who spends each summer in Greece and plans to move there permanently when a new house is built — was one of several to covet the steel pipe nipples (rejected by the client because they were pink) but the only one to suggest they be used to decorate Confederate statues. And Jeff Contompasis saw the cups of the 134 hamburger roll baking tins as the perfect way to grow his mosquito farm.

What Doug Dug: Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood agreed with me on the top four entries, and also singled out from the honorable mentions: Lee Graham’s idea to sell the 500 pieces of rope at MAGA rallies as “Jan. 6 souvenirs”; Frank Osen’s plan to sell the 750 feet of bubble wrap as “Mini-Bubble-Stress-Anxiety-Fidget-Relief-Push-Popper-Sensory-Squeezers” and also Kevin Dopart’s plan to use the wrap next Halloween to dress as “the Michelin Man with monkeypox.”

I’m sorry to announce that this is Doug’s final Invite as a Washington Post Ace Copy Editor; now that he qualifies for retirement benefits, he’s going to retire … straight into a similar job (minus the Invite, duh) at the Los Angeles Times D.C. bureau. Back in 1992, when we were both almost tots — he was even tottier than I was — I hired Doug, who was then at the Orlando Sentinel, as a copy editor in the Style section to catch all the mistakes and write lots of puns in the headlines. It was clearly one of my best moves ever. After I’d burned out from 12 years as copy desk chief, Doug and I switched jobs and he became my boss for another decade. I officially retired from The Post in a 2008 buyout; Doug stayed to experience a huge transformation in the operations and purpose of the copy desk, adapting seamlessly and staying many more years as a brilliant, respected and beloved colleague. I will miss his support terribly each week, but I’m thrilled that he’s getting such a great deal. The L.A. Times is too.