Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

Aug 21, 2012

Every Tuesday, Gene publishes weekly updates to his chats.

- Gene's latest chat
- Gene's next chat

On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

Greetings, Update readers. 

I am an old man, older than most of you, and for all of my adult life, I have been a journalist who has interacted with readers.   I have never been as dumbfounded by readers as I was when I read the mail in reaction to my column on Sunday.

You don't have to read the column again.  It was about the role of aggression and hostility in humor (a point also made by the great Phyllis Diller, who died yesterday).  I pointed out how I almost always get hate mail after mentioning my atheism.  Accordingly, I expected letters from believers, and got them.  Some were proselytizing.  But most were friendly, affectionately hectoring, conciliatory -- seeking common ground, etc.   Many were funny.   

But the vast majority of emails I got -- approaching 50 of them as of this morning -- were in response to a small math riddle included in the column.   This was it:

"A bat and a ball cost $1.10 total.  If the bat costs one dollar more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?"

In the column, I mentioned that people of faith tended to leap to the wrong, if seemingly obvious answer, that the ball cost ten cents.   Atheists tended to reason it through and come up with the right answer.

Now, here's the thing:  I did not publish the right answer, on the theory that it was so obvious, no one would need the explanation.  Indeed, I thought printing the right answer might be patronizing.  It would be like saying, "Q: I am holding a ball in one hand behind my back.  It is not in my right hand.   Which hand is it in?  A: My left hand!"

I was wrong.  Almost 50 readers have written in so far begging for the correct answer.    To avoid perpetuating an unfair and incorrect stereotype, I should point out that many of these readers were men, and also that all emails seemed perfectly literate and otherwise intelligent.   No misspellings; frequent use of compound sentences and multi-syllable words, etc. 

Some people asked me if there was any correct answer at all:  Can the answer, in fact, be mathematically determined?   One reader (male) assured me that the correct answer was that there is no answer.

Some people asked for a "hint."

Here's an email, verbatim, I just got this minute:

"Okay, this card-carrying atheist found the "correct" solution, using the algebra I learned in India in 1955 (honest), in addition to the "obvious" one that you claim is wrong.  But they both work.

Bat = $1.05 and Ball = $.05, or alternatively,

Bat = $1.00 and Ball = $.10.

Why is the second solution wrong?  I refuse to be labeled a religious person or intuitive or accused of brain atrophy."

In several cases, I responded to the email with the real answer, and the person wrote back daring me to explain WHY that was the answer. 

Can we be this intimidated by math  -- even lumpen, simple math -- as a nation?    I would very much welcome a discussion of this in our full chat next Tuesday.   Please submit your thoughts on that page.

Meanwhile, Dale Ugel, a teacher who got the problem immediately, countered with one of his own: You have two jugs, one holding 3 gallons and one holding five, and an unlimited supply of water.  There are no other vessels around of any sort. How can you measure out exactly four gallons of water?

Didn't take his/her 11-year-olds very long at all. Or me.    

I'm afraid to deal with the mail on this one. 

"Hey, is there anyone out there who would like to stand up for Romney, personally? Not politically, but is there anyone out there who thinks they'd like him in person? I promise we won't make fun of you. Please explain. " Well, if the choice is between the somewhat haughty and smug guy that Romney is versus the demonstrably sanctimonious, haughty, insufferably smug guy in the White House, give me the former any day. Yeah, definitely a "lesser of two evils" scenario (hel-LO, Libertarian Party....).

We are seeing an interesting phenomenon here, I think.  I shall have to write one of my monographs about it.   Our biases and political leanings tend to make us more (or less) willing to extend benefit of the doubt to a specific person.  I, for example, do not see haughtiness and sanctimony in the president, whereas I see both, in spades, in Romney.  The aloofness I see in Obama I attribute to self-confidence, poise and a natural reserve.   And I think I'm right.  With Mitt, I see colossal arrogance. 

I think I'm right, but that's what you'd say, too.  We are willing to ascribe baser motives and baser underlying characteristics to the person we don't trust or like as much and -- perhaps more to the point -- to give the benefit of the doubt to the other guy. 

I'm currently bothered by something, and since I tend to admire how you often rationally approach morality (or recognize when a gut reaction is irrational) I'd like to hear your opinion. Recently, a friend was discussing with me how he and other friends had been joking about a woman in New York who's been running around topless to make the point that it's legal there. Another friend was upset, because the jokes were, naturally, sexual and bordering on creeper. While I generally adhere to the "humor shouldn't be limited" I didn't find them incredibly funny, either. But the way he defended the jokes touched on a personal pet peeve of mine: "But it's natural for a man to be attracted to breasts!" Agreed. "And everything natural is good, so it's OK for us to make these jokes!" Am I being to vehement if I think that "But it's natural!" is one of the stupidest moral defenses in existence? There are plenty of natural things we suppress in order to function in society, and plenty of natural things that hurt others. But I feel as though all my respect more my friend has been destroyed, because he's genuinely stupid enough to think that, just because it's natural to want to make creepy jokes about a woman's tits, he shouldn't be judged for doing so. Is there something to his defense, or am I justified?

You won't like my answer, and I fear it's not very helpful: The question is nonsensical without details about the jokes and what makes them (at least in your mind) "creepy."   You are posing a classically illogical question, using circular reasoning:  Are creepy jokes creepy?  Yep!  

So without knowing what your friends said, we can't answer the question here.   It seems to me there is natural joke fodder in the situation of a woman running around topless because it is legal (It is?) and that it would be possible to make fun of this situation without making fun of all women.   Did they do that?  No way of knowing without more details. 

It's perhaps hard to believe, but corn on the cob is excellent when cooked in the microwave! Just leave it in the husk and cook it for 2 1/2 minutes per ear (this works best for just a couple of ears at a time). All the flavor is preserved -- never again will I let corn leach into hot water; the corn remains very hot for a long time; and you even get a little handle for the corn -- the stem of the cob. Perhaps grill-roasting has a more complex flavor, but this takes five minutes and it's in your kitchen. You can even have a great lunch at work.

I have tried this and pthep is right.   It may be almost as good as grill-roast, at less than a quarter the time.  

By far, and it's not even arguable for reasons I'm about to explain, synchronized swimming should be removed olympic competition. Any "sport" that requires ... wait for it ... smiling ... is N.O.T. A. S.P.O.R.T.

So you would also eliminate gymnastics?

Those little girls get points for poise, and part of poise is the grace of the final posture and smile. 

Joining late here, but I would like to state for the record that my father went to high school in Gadsden, Ala. in the 1930s with a girl named Ophelia Butts. Just sayin'. tracy thompson

Thank you.  Hi, Tracy. 

If Obama had said, "You didn't build those," do you think the GOP would be getting the same mileage out of the line? Or would they have to concede the real meaning of the line? (I'm the Facebook commenter from above--those same cousins had so much outrage over this line!)

There would be no controversy at all, because it would have been plain what he meant:  The roads.   He used the wrong pronoun, ergo, the deluge. 

He DID make a syntactical mistake.   He didn't make a political mistake, but it wound up being the same thing. 

Your account the discussion with Lyn has convinced me to never, ever speak or work with journalists. You write with humor and grace, always entertaining, often enlightening, but you also will do anything to get what you have decided is the story. I would not want to have to deal with you as a friend or co-worker, people, to you, seem to be things to achieve an end.


Well, you would probably agree with Janet Malcolm, then, who basically concluded that all journalists are con men and women, because we try to manipulate people. 

I have no pangs of conscience over how I treated Lyn: I not only hid nothing from her, I told her exactly what I wanted to do, and why, and assured her that I would not do it without her permission, as per our agreement.   I had no obligation to show her every word of the story, and get her approval of those words. 

You know, we have certain obligations to our sources, but we have other obligations to the reader: Tell the truth, and -- to the best of our ability -- the whole truth. 

Being of Polish descent, I will make the agreement with Romney. He may make fun of my heritage of I may make fun of his belief that someday good Mormons get to rule their own planet. I am still concerned that in his mind being President is only a trail run for when he gets his planet.

Are you, like many Poles, a Roman Catholic?  May I make fun of you for believing that if you pray to certain specific saints they can interceed with God and cure your hemorrhoids?

No offense, but making fun of religion -- any religion - is a slipperly slope one steps on at one's own risk.   

As a former ballet dancer, the floor exercises always make me wince. There's just something so off about it. I think it's the attempt at dance moves without the flow.

Yes!   I was watching this with Molly, who grimaced and said, "It's like 'Okay now I do THIS!  Smile!   Now I do THIS!  Smile....  "

It's the Western Wall not the Wailing Wall. People are praying and while it might look like they are crying (or wailing), they are not. By calling it the Wailing Wall, you are poking fun a the way the Orthodox Jews pray.

Uh, you are aware that for a long time it was called the Wailing Wall, including by Israelis?   "Wailing" was a 20th century construct, because Jews prayed at the wall in mourning for the state they didn't have, and the sadness of the Jewish diaspora. After the 1967 rout of the Arabs, it became "Western," because Israelis felt there was nothing more to wail about.   

No, I didn't know all this.  Had to look it up. 


Gene, I agree with you about most things, but you are UTTERLY AND COMPLETELY WRONG about corn. As someone born in the midwest who ate corn almost continuously from the 4th of July through Labor Day I feel as authoritative about this as you do about...well most things. Husk the corn, dissolve a cup of sugar into a large pot of boiling water, throw the corn into the water. Let it come back to a boil, but only for about a minute. Remove corn. Some people put in whole milk instead of the sugar. The lactose gives it a slightly different taste, but you sometimes have to deal with little bits of the curdled milk. Anyway, pistols at dawn and all that.

I am so sorry you are such a simpleton.  All the corn taste leeches into the water.  

I've used this method for many moons to great success. I soak 'em for at least an hour, though. But it's the best damn corn in the world. Makes me cry each time I go to the grocery store and see people peeling back the husks.

These people need to be slapped.   Just a little slap, so they will remember: It is not nice to ruin other people's corn. 

Does this bug you as much at bugs me? I hear it all the time in meetings -- " I reached out to him but he hasn't replied back to my email". But then again I work in an "industry" where the use of five words is looked upon as more profound than one.

I address that in this column.   I am compiling my 100 best columns for an anthology, and this is in the top ten. 

Gene:"We just happen to believe strongly that it is obnoxious and sanctimonious to tell women what they may do with their bodies" This argument really irritates me. You do understand, surely, that pro-life types have no beef with what a woman wants to do to her own body. It's the tiny little body being killed, another person's body, that concerns us. This choice of wording seems intentionally misleading.

I contend that so long as what is inside her body cannot possibly survive outside her body, then what's inside her body is still part of her body.  

Are you a man?  I think you are a man. If you are not a man, I'd be surprised.   Men power the anti-abortion movement   I think if all men left the anti-abortion movement overnight, the movement would rather quickly wither and die.   Men are more certain about what's right for women than women are.  


Regarding your chat with David Simon about money and speech, I can't help but notice that one of you has his own newspaper column and the other has his own television show. Of course you and he don't think money is speech, because someone else is paying the bills for your podiums. To me, it looks like you and he are happy to enjoy the advantages (and political pulpits) provided by Donald Graham's millions and the deep pockets of HBO's shareholders, while using the law to prevent other voices (like those of Citizens United's contributors) from competing with you.

A good point, worth discussing. 

David Simon and I have spent our lives trying to figure out a way to get heard and competing against tens of thousands of others in an open marketplace of ideas, eventually to get our small (in his case larger) bit of the attention of people who are voting to hear us with their choice of entertainment / media.   There is something oddly demoacric about it, even though we ultimately work for large corporations.   We thrive as look as we contintue to provide what people want. 

A Super Pac is an organization funded by one person who has manufactured toothpaste his whole life and amassed $500 million in profits, half of which he chooses to donate to a candidate who he thinks will be good for toothpaste and make him richer; who he knows will be beholden to him personally.   He weilds this power not through the strength of his ideas but through the sheer brute force of his money and the needs of his greed. 

Do these really seem parallel to you?

Saw a billboard for this law firm the other day while driving through PA.  The name of the firm cracked us up!

This reminds me of a joke.   Did you hear about the gay Irish couple?  Patrick Fitzgerald and Gerald Fitzpatrick.   You are welcome. 

To me, Romney always sounds like he just saw someone more important than whoever he's talking to across the room and is trying to politely get out of his current conversation so that he can go talk to them.


Wow.   We'll end here.   The best description of Romney to date.   I hope it's original to you. 

Next Tuesday is a full chat.  Hope to see you all there.   You can submit questions on this page. 

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
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