The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten: The dummy’s curse


As any humor writer will tell you, comedy is a blood sport. You get laughs by making fun of individuals or of cherished institutions, and sometimes, someone gets hurt. I long ago made peace with all that, and haven’t really given it a second thought. Until I started killing people.

It began about four years ago, in May 2008, when I wrote a column about oddball phone calls received by The Washington Post newsroom, usually from unhinged persons. The last call I cited was from a woman who’d reported that “Teddy Kennedy stole my panties.” All things considered, I wrote, that one might be true. Ha-ha. Just a little dig there at frisky ol’ Teddy, a man I actually deeply admired. The day after the column ran, the senator was found to have a brain tumor that would eventually take his life.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Not long afterward, in an online forum, I published a video clip in which TV newsman Tim Russert appeared to have audibly passed gas on the air. No biggie, just a day at the office for me. An enthusiastic online debate ensued, with people searching his face and parsing his words for clues (the consensus was “yes”). I had entertained thousands of people at the expense of good ol’ Tim, a man I deeply admired, who died, without warning, just three weeks later.

This is when I started to feel a little uncomfortable with the craft of humor, at least as practiced by me.

But not THAT uncomfortable. It’s my bread and butter, after all, and I am too old and inept to consider a new career, say, large-appliance repair. So I continued to write with joyful hostility, such as the day in 2011 when I turned my column into a tongue-in-cheek application letter to CBS for Andy Rooney’s “60 Minutes” gig, from which the venerable commentator had just retired. My application was not entirely nice to ol’ Andy; I argued that I was uniquely qualified to fill his scuffed cordovans, as I am also a cantankerous, hidebound, clueless old fud. Andy was kind enough to wait two whole weeks before keeling over.

(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

That’s when I started to believe in a Weingarten Jinx. Now I was really rattled. Perhaps it affected my choice of subject matter a bit. For whatever reason, month after month went by without any alarming necrology to report, until last month when I interviewed Jay Lynch, 67, one of the original writers of the Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics, a genre of humor less sophisticated than the knock-knock joke. Jay and I had a lot of fun at Bazooka Joe’s expense. And lo and behold: Jay Lynch still lives! As of this writing! I didn’t kill him!

I killed Bazooka Joe. Just days after the column ran, the Topps company decided modern youth is too hip for the eye-patched guru of groaners. They’ll be replacing his gags with games and puzzles. Neither Jay Lynch nor I had had any idea this was coming.

It is at times like this that a man reaches deep into his soul, rummages around and sees what he comes out with. In my case, it’s an analogy. Let’s say my soul was a refrigerator (bear with me here) and, hungry for nourishment, I opened it up only to discover it is entirely filled with lemons. I would face two choices. The first would be to get some water and sugar and make lemonade. The second would be to squirt lemon juice in the eyes and/or open cuts of my enemies. It wouldn’t do much to sate my hunger, but I can stand to lose a few pounds, anyway.

So, here goes.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, walks into a bar. And who is sitting there but Bashar Assad, the tyrant of Syria, Mohammad Omar, the evil one-eyed 9/11 fugitive, having a few beers with O.J. Simpson and Bernie Madoff. ...

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