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. ...

E-mail Gene at Find chats and updates at

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.