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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten
(Illustration by Richard Thompson)
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The Style Invitational
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Funny? You Should Ask
Hosted by Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2002; Noon ET

Gene Weingarten's controversial humor column, Below the Beltway, appears every Sunday in the Washington Post Magazine, generating more mail than Santa gets at Christmas. Not all of it is wildly condemnatory. Some of it is only mildly annoyed. Weingarten came to the Post in 1990 after being chased out of Miami at midnight by farmers with pitchforks and burning torches. He is also reputed to be close to persons thought to be familiar with individuals claiming to be authoritative spokesmen for the mysterious and reclusive Czar of The Style Invitational.

He is online, at any rate, each Tuesday, to take your questions, and abuse.

He'll chat about anything.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.



Gene Weingarten: Hi. Since a highly public embarrassment about twenty years ago, The Washington Post has been rather nitpicky about assuring the literal truth of the words it publishes. It is a little known fact, however, that the only staffer at The Post who has carte blanche to lie in print whenever he wishes is the Czar of the Style Invitational; The Czar enjoys an unusual position of trust with the publisher of the Post, who knows he would only use this power for the highest and most honorable of all purposes: The Pursuit of Humor. And so it is that in this past Sunday's Style Invitational, the Czar personally inserted a Deliberate Untruth, one that could not have been obvious to the casual reader. First person to find it, and correctly explain why it was inserted, wins a t-shirt.

Are you Rrrready to Grrrrumble?




washingtonpost.com: Style Invitational, (Post, Sept. 8)


Gene Weingarten: Also, I hope everyone noticed the B.C. that appeared on Saturday, because it was an astonishing event. It was a last gasp -- the death rattle of a once-great cartoon.
Johnny Hart long ago abandoned the strictly prehistoric conceit -- he has included references to airplanes and such, and of course Jesus Christ -- but these could be seen as playful anachronisms, unstuck in time. On Saturday, Hart acknowledges a time in the future, with date and everything. It is a pathetic surrender to time itself. Metaphorically, it speaks volumes.

It is also idiocy. It is as though, at the end of a Tale of two Cities, Sidney Carton walks up to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and says "It is a far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a far better world I go to than I have ever known. It is a world in which some guy named Abe Lincoln is going to free the
slaves."


The letter below addresses an additional point beautifully.


Rockville, Md.: What did you think of the BC comic strip that ran in the Post on Sept. 7? In case you missed it, I'll recap: Two cave women are talking. This is their conversation:
"It's too bad e-mail wasn't around in the first century.
Why is that?
St. Paul could've converted the world in a nanosecond."

Personally, I'm offended by the strip. On four counts. First and foremost: It isn't funny. Second, it is blatantly religious. The Post has pulled B.C. strips in the past, for carrying too much religious content. I think someone was asleep at the switch this time. Third, it is utterly anachronistic. These are CAVEWOMEN! What could they possibly know of the "first century", let alone e-mail? Remember, the name of the strip is "BC", and the action therein takes place a good half-million years BEFORE the "first century." And finally, the strip's punchline assertion is dumb. E-mail is "around" today. And instead of just one, there are hundreds of thousands of people willing to use it to tell St. Paul's story. But has the whole world been converted? In a nanosecond, or a decade? What's your opinion?

Gene Weingarten: It is the last point in here that I love. Total idiocy in concept, design, and execution on the part of Mr. Hart.


washingtonpost.com: BC, (Sept. 7)


Washington, D.C.: What car(s) do you drive? Why?

Gene Weingarten: Due to the appalling circumstance of children in college, I own four cars. I am humiliated by this admission, which is tempered only by the fact that the median age of
these cars is eight years. Kids have a 1992 Civic and a 1993 Honda Del Sol. Wife drives a 1997 Toyota Rav 4, which has the double whammy of technically being an SUV, earning the contempt of environmentalists, without any of the size or power of a real SUV, making the act of pulling out into traffic near suicide. My car is a 1991 Mazda 323, which is the size of a St. Bernard. No other member of my family will ride in it. It is a great car. It has two vintage bumper stickers: "Democrats for Goldwater," and "Carter-Mondale."





Washington, D.C.: You may not know just how important you are. I was driving down to the beach last weekend, and picked up the only tabloid worth reading, the Weekly World News (who wants to read about celebrities? I want news about the space aliens in Congress). About halfway through the paper, there was a brief article about the Armpit Festival in Battle Mountain. The article noted that it had been named the armpit of the country by "a Washington Post writer." I was disappointed that you weren't mentioned by name, but you've really hit the big time!

Gene Weingarten: I cannot recall if I ever disclosed this, but there is already an unholy alliance between me and the editor of The Weekly World News. We are friends. His name is Eddie Clontz. I once planted a cover story in the WWN. It was Dave Barry's idea, and I was the go-between. I called Eddie and told him that I had heard that Elvis died. There was a five-second pause. "Are you sure?" he said, excitedly. "I have it on very good authority." "Good enough!" he said. The following week, the front page headline was "Elvis Dead at 56!"


Alexandria, Va.: Three-fourths of the free world would have deleted St. Paul's e-mails as spam.

Gene Weingarten: Yes, this is true.


Alexandria, Va.: Is the deliberate untruth that there was only one pseudonymous Russell Beland entry? If not, either Rigoberto from Manila or Bird Waring actually exists.

Gene Weingarten: No. No one has figured it out yet. There have been six guesses. I am stunned. Remember: There was a humor purpose to the lie.


Elvis dead: Was this before or after he actually died?

Gene Weingarten: Duh. It said DEAD AT 56. We killed him again, me and Eddie.


Cheverly, Md.: How much more offensive is "B.C." compared to, say, "Boondocks?" That strip carries way too much anger, generally pointed at white folks. I find racism in any form contemptible, while "B.C." is just nonsensical. The Post, if it's going to censor its comics, might consider curbing overtly racist themes as well as religious ones. Thoughts?

Gene Weingarten: Sorry, but you are wrong about "Boondocks." Do you read it? It very seldom directs anger against white people. Its anger, which is formidable, is directed against sellout black people, or black people who behave badly. My problem with "Boondocks" is that, increasingly, it is marginalizing itself. It seems to be speaking to a smaller and smaller audience. But it's still funny.


Washington, D.C.: I suspect, if the real St. Paul were alive today, Mr. Hart would be shocked and appalled by him. He might, for example, point out that Mr. Hart's self-righteous nasty attacks on gay folk, feminists, Democrats, and anyone else he considers "sinful" are in themselves sins.

After all, wasn't it Jesus himself who condemned pride and hypocrisy and the "Look at those people over there, God, aren't they awful? And look at how good and righteous I am in comparison!" attitude?

Gene Weingarten: I wrote a whole story trying to make this point, but you might have said it better.


New York, N.Y.: Re: The lie from the Czar. Was it that someone came up with a better revised title, but it could not be printed?

Gene Weingarten: No, because that lie would not be funny.


Aw, FL: "Three-fourths of the free world would have deleted St. Paul's e-mails as spam."

Particularly during the High Holy Days, this raises the importaant question: May Jews send spam? Or can they only send Turkey Spam?

Gene Weingarten: This is a good question.


Annandale, Va.: One of our neighbors has seven cars for five household members (two parents and three daughters). The father is a confirmed Detroit native and has been on non-speaking terms with two of his daughters ever since they brought home a Toyota and an Acura. Unfortunately for him, his beloved pimp-mobile (a 1979 Thunderbird) is constantly "parked" while the imports never seem to break down. Why do some cars inspire such passion? Are some cars funnier than others? And why are Saturn owners so passionate about their GM products?

Gene Weingarten: Shhhhhhhhhh. Saturn owners don't KNOW it is GM.


Lorton, Va.: This is just a guess, but was the intentional lie attributing the scatological joke to an 8-year-old?

Gene Weingarten: This person gets the shirt. Very good. It was an inside joke at the expense of Tom Witte, a great SI regular who submitted it as printed. The Czar felt it was quite funny but unbelievably sophomoric, and figured out a way to make the point.


Chat Juxtaposition: Whose genius idea was it to put your chat, Kim's and Marty's on at the ame time? It is quite hysterical to switch among the three. Kim and Marty take on quite a (non-intentionally) funny edge when read next to yours. Yours is a tonic to their overwhelming sincerity. Who knew tomato sauce matters SO MUCH.

Gene Weingarten: I think sincerity is good. It can help you land a babe, for example.


Alexandria, Va.: Your Style Invitational link doesn't work, could be the reason no one has guessed the right answer!

washingtonpost.com: Try again: Style Invitational

Gene Weingarten: yikes. boy, a LOT of people were guessing. YOU ALL KEPT THE ACTUAL PAPER?


Washington, D.C.: You and other chatters often weigh in on what the funniest (and unfunniest) cartoons are in The Post. So, quality of humor aside, which cartoons do you think are the best DRAWN? My vote would go to "Mutts" -- the humor is often a little lame, but Patrick McDonnell strikes me as a masterful artist, with a slight "Katzenjammer Kids" look to his work. (Did you see his illustrations for the "Fall Arts Preview" sections in the New York Times on Sunday?)

Gene Weingarten: Yes, I think "Mutts" is well-drawn but I find it completely incomprehensible-bad, as opposed to Zippy, which is completely incomprehensible-good.


I'll miss Jesse Ventura: Did you see where Jesse Ventura is demanding an apology from the Bush administration for urging his delegation not to engage in "sexual tourism" during their upcoming trip to Cuba? What a great country. Here's a link.

Gene Weingarten: I know. The country is losing a lot of colorful people this year. Sad.


New York, N.Y.: Re: Lie by the Czar: Was it that Tom Witte thought of the same joke as an 8 year old?

Gene Weingarten: YES YES! Stop guessing. I already declared a winner about five responses ago.


Williamsburg, Va.: How is attributing an entry to an 8-year-old more of a "lie" than attributing an entry to a celebrity?

Gene Weingarten: Attributing it to a celebrity is obviously a lie, and part of the joke. This was stealth.


washingtonpost.com: Lorton winner -- please send in your e-mail address so we can arrange getting you your T-shirt.


Alexandria, Va.: What's your take on Marylin vos Savant? I feel slighted by her for not printing my letter asking why, if as she has stated IQ doesn't really matter, she has a weekly column.

Gene Weingarten: Marilyn Vos Savant has gone entirely out of her mind. Bizarre ego trip. She was mildly interesting when she was answering questions on number theory and such, which she is at least vaguely qualified to address. Who cares what she thinks about Serious Matters of Public Policy?


On Weingarten fame: Our son David came home from college with two friends this past weekend. One of the friends was stunned to learn that David's dad was an occasional Style Invitational inkster. She said that the Invitational was mandatory reading in her home, which is parented by two teachers.

Do you feel badly about contributing to the dumbing-down of American youth?

Gene Weingarten: I was always glad when my kids read comic books, because at least they were reading SOMETHING. So I find it heartening that people are reading the Style Invitational, even if it is ONLY the Style Invitational.

Hey, it could be Today's Chuckle. Remember Today's Chuckle? Really bad newspapers would run this squeaky-safe thing, often on the bottom of page one? I always wanted to sneak into the pressroom and replace whatever pablum was in there with something grotesquely offensive.


Arlington, Va.: We have a Saturn wagon, and believe me, we know it's a GM. We got the thing because the VW dealer we went to last year didn't have any wagons, and we are NOT getting a minivan. Anyway, did you know that if you start a Saturn and turn it off abruptly (say you forgot your wallet), it WON'T START AGAIN?! This happened to us this past winter and the "Customer Care" rep was very matter-of-fact about, going so far as to tell me that MOST NEW CARS DO THIS! What a load of crap. Both his statement and Saturns!

Gene Weingarten: I think this is something called vapor lock. I am a licensed auto mechanic, though I know nothing about cars, except "vapor lock." I took a test to be an auto mechanic 25 years ago, in Michigan, to prove the test was too easy. I am licensed to repair engines.


If you think B.C. is unfunny: Have you ever read Mallard Fillmore? All the comic personality of a lead balloon. Maybe I don't find it funny becuase I'm a middle-roader politically.

Gene Weingarten: B.C. is not entirely unfunny. It is simply way past its expiration date. It's a has-been. Mallard Fillmore is a never-was.


Silver Spring, Md.: What are you doing tomorrow?

Gene Weingarten: I plan not to let the terrorists win. That's as far as I have gotten in my thinking.


Laurel, Md.: Hypothetical humor question:

Suppose one had never heard them as children. How funny would "That was no lady, that was my wife" or "A fireman wears red suspenders to hold his pants up" be if we heard them for the first time as adults?

Gene Weingarten: "That was no lady, that was my wife," never was funny. I can categorically state this. It cannot be deconstructed as humor. "Why do firemen wear red suspenders..." is extremely funny, when heard for the first time. It is existential humor. It is a classic collision of frames of reference -- the same as "My dog has no nose." "How does he smell?" "Terrible." Also funny. The first time.


Bridezilla, Nutmeg State: I'm hoping you could help me without here. I'm getting married this Saturday and my husband-to-be is going to be a puddle during the ceremony (and, well, me too). Anything I could do to lighten the mood up there, short of involving anything flammable? I'm completely unprepared for the generic Thanks-for-Coming toast, too. Sigh. If you take away the fancy clothes there's not much humor in these affairs. Actually, maybe we should take away the fancy clothes.

Gene Weingarten: You know the garter moment? The famous garter moment? Well, you have to have something other than a garter on your thigh. The more outrageous the better. A hot water bottle? A frog? A whip? Work on it.


Sincerity, part II: But I AM a babe. And I find too much sincerity cloying. I find your humor more attractive than kittens and puppies and tomato sauce.

Gene Weingarten: What about kittens IN tomato sauce?


Re: "Boondocks": Agreed, Gene - this once-excellent strip has gotten somewhat lame.

But it still has moments of perverse brilliance. Like vintage "Doonesbury".

"Pearls before Swine" is the best Post comic, in my opinion

Gene Weingarten: Well, no, the best Post comic right now is Dilbert. Alas, no one can find it anymore BECAUSE SOME IDIOT MOVED IT TO THE FINANCIAL PAGES.



On Mechanic Certification: My husband, who actually was a mechanic for many years, also took one or two of the ASE Cert exams and found them the biggest waste of time imaginable. They require virtually no real knowledge of auto mechanics. So I guess "ASE Certified" means about as much as "Factory Trained".

Gene Weingarten: Yes, I remember one question in particular: It asked me to define the "taper" of a cylinder, and gave four choices. I figured that if a cylinder behaved sort of like a pair of pants, the taper would be the difference between the diameter at the top and the bottom. This was the correct answer.


Mazda 323 fan: You have a newer vintage of the 323 than I do, and I'm wondering if you've ever had my experience: I drive a 1989 323. Last year, a security guard at my husband's office asked if it was for sale -- he'd heard it was one of the most reliable cars around. It is wonderfully reliable and most definitely NOT for sale.

Gene Weingarten: It is the best car I have ever owned. Or maybe the second best. I had a '78 Dodge Colt (an early Mitsubishi) that was similarly wonderful. Nothing ever went wrong with either car.


Kittens IN tomato sauce: Catatouille?

Gene Weingarten: Yes, but only if you add diced veggies.


Worst Post comic: That one on the editorial pages. HE'S Herblock's replacement? Yeesh. He can't draw, and he's not funny. The editorials are often funnier than he is. George Will is funnier (unintentionally, but still.)

Gene Weingarten: Boy, do I disagree with you. I think he is terrific, and getting better, and I like his drawing style. It sure don't look like anyone else's.


Seriously Unfunny...: Here's the cartoonist for the major paper in Azerbaijan.

If you can explain any of these to me, I'll give you a dollar.

Gene Weingarten: I keep trying to access this and lose my link to the chat, but I have to say I looked at two, and they were hilariously unfunny. I will give a look and perhaps address this in another chat.


Gaithersburg, First Suburb of American Humor, Md.: Gene,

Let's deconstruct old Marilyn's name. Vos looks like the second-person plural pronoun in various languages: "you." Savant is some gerundive form of a verb meaning "to know." So her name, translated into English, is Marilyn Youknow. She's Marilyn, y'know?

Gene Weingarten: Noted.


To quote Charlie Brown: Oh Good Grief.

This is an actual question from Kim O'Donnel's food chat:

What kind of culinary preparation or dish would you recommend to those millions like myself who see Sept. 11 as a special day and believe that food selected and prepared properly can be an enormous healing weapon at this time of conscious commemoration of the human spirit?

Puh-leeeeeeeeeeeze!

Gene Weingarten: Wow.


Confused: What's so incomprehensible about Zippy? A man in your line of work and you don't "get" Zippy?

Gene Weingarten: No, I don't get Zippy, really, but I like it. Actually, this suggests a great line of inquiry for another chat. Maybe next week. The opposite of guilty pleasures. Things you are supposed to like, but don't.


Character coding in this discussion: For Gene's smart producer:
Why do I have to re-set my character coding in Netscape every time I re-load a Live Online discussion page? The pages invariably come up in a Central European character set: all the right characters are there, but they're too tiny to read. When I re-set to Western (ISO 8859-1)--boom, no more glasses needed. Can you either solve this mystery or make Gene be funny about it, please?
Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: I have no idea why your browser is defective, so I leave it to Gene to be funny about it.

Gene Weingarten: I think it is very funny that Liz is deferring to me on this particular matter. This is like deferring to one's dog.


Arlington, Va.: Since you were just discussing Henny Youngman humor and tomorrow is the big anniversary date, I offer the following:

A terrorist goes to the doctor and (wiggling his arm) says, "Doctor, it hurts when I do this." The doctor says, "Good!"

Maybe Henman's humor can't be deconstructed, but it CAN be updated.

Gene Weingarten: If you insist. Probably a better permutation of the original would be "Well, keep doing that."


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, what was the joke in the Monty Python sketch that was so funny everyone who heard it died laughing?

Gene Weingarten: It was the one about the guy whose motorcycle could not be exposed to rain. I'm pretty sure. I mena, what else could it be?


Alexandria, Va.: So why hasn't the czar received props from Courtland Milloy (the Post's best columnist) for encouraging literacy?

Gene Weingarten: Courtland will get around to it. Hey, for a column I recently walked around the city with a petition that said "Support Litteracy." I got nine signatures.



Bird Waring: Unless Bird Waring is Russ Beland's personal pseudonym, she exists. She submits a ton of stuff to a Murphy's Law Web site.

Gene Weingarten: Bird Waring is a guy. And yes, he exists. And yes, my time is up. See you all next week.


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