Chatological Humor update

Oct 04, 2016

Gene's next monthly chat is Tuesday Oct. 25 at noon. You may submit questions here.

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. 

Yesterday I had Jewry Duty, which is a hilarious and sophisticated pun you never could have thought of yourself because you lack my wit.  (My jury duty happened to come on the high holy day of Rosh Hashanah.  Because I am unobservant, I didn't opt out.) 

Here are a few things that happened to me. 

On the way to the Metro, there was a Washington Post vendor; I stopped to buy a paper.  The on-street price is two bucks, but when I fished for my wallet I discovered I had only a single single.  I apologized and started to leave but the vendor took the buck and gave me a paper, anyway.  I felt guilty, but took it.  When I reached the Metro station, however, and again fished for my wallet, I discovered a crumpled Lincoln in my pocket, beneath the wallet.   So I went back upstairs, found the vendor, and gave him the five, and when he gave me four bucks back, I gave him one of them as a tip.   As I walked back to the station, a woman who had seen and heard this last transaction scolded me: "You should have given him the five dollar bill."   I laughed and said, "You're probably right, but I am Jewish.  My people believe in charity, not stupidity."     She did not laugh.  I realized she was right.  I had sinned, on Rosh Hashanah.  Fortunately, I am a Bad Jew, so I didn't feel that guilty. 

In line to get into the courthouse, a man was speaking loudly about how if you live in Washington, it is your duty to root for the Redskins, the Nats and the Capitals.   I said, "But what if you grew up in New York and love the Yankees and Giants and Rangers?"   He said: "Ain't no difference.  If you live here you gotta root for the home teams."  I said: "So if you moved to New York, you'd suddenly hate the Redskins and root for the Giants?"    He said, "Yes, IF I moved to New York," as though moving to New York was the equivalent of "eating from Dumpsters."   I decided I loved this guy.  This guy is New York City.  He just happens to live in Washington.

Then I went through a familiar procedure.   As I walked through the metal detector, it beeped, and a guard with a wand approached.  "They are metal," I said, rolling my eyes and pointing to my knees.   She nodded -- this is a common occurrence -- and asked me to spread my arms and legs, which I did, and she wanded me all over.  Only my knees beeped, so she let me through. She never physically touched me.   It was at this point that I had an uncomfortable realization: Had I been a terrorist, in this exact scenario, I probably could have gotten through with a small gun or knife strapped to the back of each knee.  The only problem with this plan is that to get the casual treatment stemming from the benefit of the doubt, the terrorist would have to look as old and unthreatening as me, which pretty much rules out all of them  except Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and he's already in custody. 

I entered the big room where all the prospective jurors sit -- maybe 200 of them.  Sitting in front of me and to the left was a man trying to look inconspicuous.  He sat alone, reading the New York Times.  He looked to be around my age, but very dignified, one of the few people in the room in a suit and tie.  It was a bow tie, a black one, like you might wear to a formal dinner.  It looked like the knot under his big, round, balloon of a head.   I was pretty sure I knew who he was.  I looked around.  No one else was paying him any attention at all.  I realized this was to his liking.   I have a problem with faces, so although I had once spent an hour in a room with the guy, I wasn't absolutely sure it was him. 

Eventually, he left to use the men's room.   I followed him out, and stopped him before he walked back into the room, so we could speak in relative private.

"Are you Mayor Williams?" I asked. 

Anthony Williams, the famously aloof and standoffish mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1999 to 2007, reluctantly admitted who he was.  His eyes darted side to side, as though planning an escape route.  This is the guy who rescued Washington D.C. from the eventful reign of Marion Barry, restored the city to solvency, and then quietly retired from public life.   He was juror # 35180445. 

He clearly was not happy to have been recognized.  He did not want to talk to me. 

But I had to talk to him, at least for a few seconds.  I introduced myself and thanked him for once having given me the best interview of my life, one that was so good and controversial it almost led to my resignation from The Washington Post. 

He had no memory of it, until I told him the profile was long, ran in Style, and was about the shocking fact that he has an incredibly great sense of humor.  "Oh, right," he said.   "I remember that.  I do like to crack jokes."  Then he want back into the jury room and hid behind his New York Times. 

Mayor Williams does not "like to crack jokes."  Mayor Williams is an incredibly, organically, wryly funny man who has turned self deprecation into an art form.  He also believes deeply in civic responsibility.  He didn't want to be Mayor Williams yesterday.  He wanted to be Juror Number 35180445.  

My name never got called.  His did.   Don't know if he was seated for a trial, but if he was, I'm pretty sure the other 11 jurors would follow Mayor Williams to whatever conclusion he drew.   He's that sort of guy.  

A couple of years ago, in a chat,  I discussed my profile of Anthony Williams, and the melodrama behind it.    I'm reprinting it below, along with the full text of the story.

--

It was February 1999.   I had recently moved from editing to writing, and was working for the Style section, which had just gotten a new top editor.   The previous editor had been David Von Drehle, my close friend.  The new editor was Eugene Robinson, also a good friend.    It was to be a  seamless transition from one good editor to another good editor.

 I was finishing up writing a story for Style, one I had proposed and Von Drehle had approved.   I had never articulated this, but secretly I intended it to be A Turning Point In American Journalism (Massive ego was involved.) 

Like so many things I've been credited for in my life, it was actually derivative of the work of others.   In this case, I was copying in spirit something Dave Barry had done, and I had edited, many years before: An ambush interview, totally off the wall, designed to determine whether the subject had a good sense of humor.

In my case, the subject was the newly elected mayor of D.C., Anthony Williams.   At my urging, Williams had sat for, and suffered through, the weirdest interview of his life.  He had shown a side of himself absolutely no one knew, a sense of humor so shrewd and adroit he was way ahead of me the whole time.   The resulting profile, I felt, was an example of the greatest reach of feature journalism: by breaking all the rules of propriety and even common sense, it presented a totally novel, deeply illuminating view of a public figure that would truly change the way everyone thought of him.   This was, I felt, the epitome of what Style could and should be.  I am not making this up.

How weird was this story?  It ended on a lengthy POEM I had written, my take on Anthony Williams, in Seussian rhyme and meter.  (Derivative again, as always.)

In what I believe was his very first act as editor of Style, Gene Robinson killed the story.   He gave a reason, though I wasn't really listening very clearly.  Something about the tone that he didn't like. 

He. Killed. The. Story.  The one that I felt would be a beacon for feature writing the world over.  It would change the nature of the written word!   It would end despotism in China, once Chinese journalists learned from my story how to frame an interview of the mighty. 

I wrote up a resignation.  It was polite.  It complimented Robinson, a man I liked and respected, but pompously pointed out that his view of this story and mine  -- therefore, his philosophical vision for the section vis a vis mine -- were so at odds that it would be exasperating for him, and frustrating for me, to try to work together.   I had contacts at the New York Times and I thought they'd hire me overnight.

I got talked off the ledge by Von Drehle.  I don't quite remember how, nor does he, but somehow diplomacy was involved to the point where the story got in the paper with one section deleted.   I don't remember what the lost section was.   Gene Robinson and I continued to work together just fine.  

It will probably not surprise you at all to learn that today Gene has only a vague memory of the whole affair.   He's pretty sure why he must have disliked the story, though: He felt that one of his missions as Style editor was to rein it in a little -- that it had become a bit too pleased with itself, and self-indulgent, that that this story must have appeared to be the epitome of self-indulgence.

Damn straight it was! 

Anyway, that is the story about the day I almost quit The Post.   The Anthony Williams story cannot be accessed online, for some reason, so I have cut and pasted it below, for you to read, skim or ignore.   I urge you to at least read the poem at the end: It's in two parts separated by a couple of paragraphs.

--

A FUNNY THING ABOUT THE MAYOR . . . HE'S FUNNY.

The whispers about Anthony Williams began midway through last fall's mayoral campaign, dark rumors about certain personal . . . inclinations . . . that, if known, could have doomed his candidacy.
Williams, the famously officious bow-tied sourpuss, was said to be bootlegging a terrific sense of humor.

A sense of humor is a potentially fatal attribute for a politician. Americans tend to distrust any sign of caprice in their leaders, because they think it suggests immaturity, which suggests recklessness. Americans not only want a leader to be mature, but to be the sort of person who pronounces it "matoor." Al Gore is the hands-down favorite for 2000.

So the people of Washington elected an accountant-in-chief. A bean counter.

Or did they?

Williams agreed to an interview on this subject. We promised only to be fair.

When we walked in, the mayor was at his desk, counting string beans.

Okay, not exactly. He was pacing his office, worried about a foofaraw over a contretemps involving the allocation of office space in a government building. We could not quite follow the details, but apparently something had been agreed to, and now someone was reneging and someone else was complaining about the first person, and there were to be serious implications for the future deployment of modular furniture.

The mayor was in shirt sleeves and, of course, his bow tie.

Williams wears these negligible bow ties that seem to fit his formidable head with all the assertiveness of the knot in the string under a helium balloon. It is not the sort of tie that declares, "I am a nonconformist." It is the sort of tie that declares, "I have very good penmanship." He reminds us of someone, but at the moment, we can't quite figure who.

There were many ways to begin because, as the mayor himself has said, the city is broken and needs repair. He is facing grave issues involving race, livability, delivery of services, erosion of infrastructure, and the very physical safety of the citizenry. But suddenly, only one thing seemed to matter.

Mayor, the public wants to know: Are you a weenie?

Williams blinks.

"I don't think I'm a weenie," he says, peevishly.

Pause.

"I readily admit that I am a nerd."

Pause.

"I think a nerd has a little more gravitas than a weenie."

He is still not smiling.

This had not been a particularly good week for the mayor. Actually, that is like saying that Oct. 29, 1929, had not been a particularly good day for Wall Street. In the previous week, Williams's administration was nationally ridiculed after he accepted the resignation of a trusted aide who had dared to use the world "niggardly" in a roomful of people who (1) had no idea what the word meant, and (2) never inquired and (3) were of course grievously offended. This raised many important questions about race.

Mayor, this is a divided city, a polarized city. We all agree that there is a problem here. We are not looking for empty platitudes. What specifically does your administration plan to do to alleviate the plight of Norwegians in this city?

Williams bounces up from his chair, and starts to walk in small circles.

"I am always struggling with a problem of political correctness versus legitimate sensitivity. But I think we want to be sensitive to the experiences and fears of our Norwegian citizens as a result of Danish aggression in years past."

A phone call comes. He takes it. Something about cable TV licensing in the District. In a minute, he is back.

He looks at us blankly; where were we? "Ah, Danish aggression," he reminds himself.

Williams says it is vital that a good mayor "represents the diversity of our city, including those of Scandinavian, particularly Norwegian, origin." He pledges to work tirelessly for his Norwegian constituents.

So far, not a trace of a smile.

Which expression do you find personally more exciting, "prudent fiscal management" or "huge, heaving bosoms"?

"Clearly, for me, prudent fiscal management. It has a precision to it, a symmetry to it. There is a sloppiness to huge heaving bosoms that I find troubling. I mean, you know, they're all over the place, there's a sense of claustrophobia."

He makes a face.

"I'm for openness and disclosure."

As you know, the purpose of this interview is to show that you are a good sport. To demonstrate that, would you, right now, take a big, hearty, manly chaw out of this fine Asian product?

The mayor is handed a vacuum-sealed package of lunch meat, produced in Hokkaido, Japan. Most of the writing on the package is in Japanese, but the major selling points have been translated into recognizable, if slightly inept, English:

"Smorked Beef Rectum," it says.

There is a plastic window through which the meat can be clearly seen. It looks, unmistakably, like what it claims to be.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" the mayor asks.

"Eat it. To show you are a good sport."

The mayor squints at it.

He will eat it, he decides, "for the right amount of money."

So he is looking to raise money for the city?

He blinks noncommittally. Apparently, he is looking to raise money for the mayor.

He holds the package out at arm's length. "I'm looking at, what, about 4 by 4 inches, that's 16 square inches." He hefts it. "One hundred dollars a square inch, maybe?"

Persons negotiating union contracts with the mayor have arrived at such a moment, and withered in its chill.

That's a lot of money, we protest.

"Yeah," he says, darkly. "Beef rectum, though, you're talking."

The mayor explains that as a financial officer, he looks at certain things differently.

"You see beef rectum, I see cost-benefit analysis."

Still, he says, he does not want to give the impression that he is anti-Asian. He will avoid anything that "would offend the, uh, beef rectum processors, distributors or wholesalers. We may well be setting up an office on that."

He is still not smiling.

Mayor, for the record, will you now disclose the single fact about yourself that, if published in The Washington Post, would reveal you to be a morally deficient person and might even doom your career?

"When I was little," he says gravely, "there was a duck attacking my sister, and I killed the duck in defending my little sister. I killed the duck with a 5-iron, my dad's 5-iron. Animal rights might get me in trouble there."

He courageously rescued his sister from . . . a killer duck?

Williams bristles. "Have you ever seen a duck mad? It really is something. Once you get a duck agitated, they're incredible!" He makes a sound that might be an agitated duck, or an effeminate rooster. "We had a nice duck dinner," he adds.

A public figure's character and personality are often forged in the crucible of young adulthood, when his worldviews coalesce and solidify. Often this period gives profound clues to the sort of person one will become -- one's aspirations, one's values, the limits of one's reach. In the early 1970s, as a young man, Williams lived near Berkeley, Calif., at the time the campus was still the epicenter of the American counterculture. This led to the inevitable question:

So how much weed did you blow? What's the largest spliff you ever personally consumed? Are you, deep down, a rampaging party monster? Do you have any brain cells left?

Is that a smile? It comes and goes too quickly to be certain.

"I would say I experimented," Williams says. He steeples his fingers professorially. "Now, an experiment could be a simple lab experiment, or it could be Lawrence Livermore Laboratories."
And . . . ?

And nothing. He deftly awaits the next question.

A few days earlier, at a posh nighttime reception at the Finnish Embassy, we'd had the occasion to watch the mayor interact with the public in a ballroom setting. We were somewhat surprised to note that, for a bean counter, Williams is pretty poised. When a woman playfully took his hand, he graciously allowed himself to be pulled onto the dance floor; to say he is "a good dancer" might be hyperbole, but it is fair to say he is "not a complete spaz." He definitely did not look like a Republican. His physical grace became more manifest when the band suddenly, startlingly, struck up "Booty Call." We have never seen a person vacate a premises quite so nimbly, while seeming not to be moving at all. Williams threaded his way through dancing bodies with aplomb, using the politician's glad hand as a lever and fulcrum, literally catapulting himself away.

But perhaps we misread what we saw. We ask the mayor about it.

"I evacuated the area," he says. "You would have thought there was an explosion in there."

"Booty Call" seemed like a good approach to a difficult question. The mayor's credentials as a black man have been, in some parts, called into question. This was particularly evident during the brouhaha over "niggardly," for which Williams was criticized for being both too weak and too strong. The thought was that the mayor was so concerned about being perceived as insensitive to blacks that he overreacted, became insensitive to whites, then reversed himself, angering blacks, etc. A pointy fence to straddle. We asked him about this; in particular, we wondered what steps he was taking to deal with this problem of race and perception.

"My administration," he says instantly, "completely screwed this up."

The upside, he says, is that no one really noticed or complained, there was no furor, and no real damage was done because "fortunately, we're only running the nation's capital."

The mayor admits there is a problem.

He says he has ordered his staff to write "a three-volume set of regulations on what we expect employees to say or not to say." The regs, he said, will contain a new dictionary for the District of Columbia, enumerating problem words and concepts, words that might be misinterpreted or mispronounced in a potentially volatile way, or words that might be misused or give offense in various foreign languages and dialects, or that might sound like objectionable words, or, y'know, rhyme with words that might resemble bad words, and such.

Williams is steamrolling now. He is beyond simple sound bite, approaching inaugural address. He might as well be reading from a TelePrompTer:

". . . And what we want people to do is, before they make remarks either in conversation or greeting, to refer to the text of this document. It will have a series of penalties for the perceived impact of the word on the recipient. We are going to have a 13-member panel to review cases where there is a dispute and make a final judgment on whether there will be execution of the employee, or imprisonment, or whatever."

The dialogue on race was sparked, like a Zippo sparks a haystack, by a recent essay in The Washington Post suggesting that Williams might not be "black enough" for the city.

Mayor, I'm no expert, but you look pretty black to me. Just how black are you, and how much blacker do you intend to get?

"This is the toughest interview I've ever had," he says.

He does not answer right away.

He takes a call. Changes the subject. Minutes pass.

Finally, he is ready.

Marion Barry, he says, was famous for this quote: "This is a great city, getting greater."

Williams sniffs.

"Well, I say, I am a black mayor, getting blacker."

And that is when we realize whom Mayor Williams reminds us of. Small body, big head, no chin, odd, teensy tie. Aggressively bemused attitude. There is something about him that suggests a man who stands in ironic contemplation of life, a person of hapless dignity, grumpy but kind, who might sometimes shake his fist at the world, but who retains an enthusiastic appreciation of the absurd. He is a character from literature, a little man's hero, someone who might have been invented by Dr. Seuss.

Hizzoner, the Mayor of Washing-kadoodle
With numbers and factoids a-dance in his noodle
And a tie like the one worn by Billy McTitch
(Who's a pill and a drip and a frump and a snitch.)
He sits in his office, in his businesslike pose.
The big-city mayor who nobody knows.

We have one final question, but we can't bring ourself to ask it. It seems too serious for such an interview.

We think it, though: What must it be like to have a world-class sense of humor, and yet spend most of your waking hours keeping it closeted, walking on eggshells, cautious about what might be misinterpreted, having to preside over the mundanities and sillinesses of government, all the time showing the world only a concerned frown and a poker face?

Man, what must that be like?

We find ourselves feeling sorry for the mayor. Until we realize something.

Here is what it must be like:

It must be a total hoot.

Business awaits, there are things to be done.
This is no time for humor, no time to have fun.
There are management plans to approve and enact
And codicils for the new motormen's pact
And a hundred flapdingies must be purchased and mailed
And Bad Boy McNasty must be captured and jailed.
So Hizzoner says 'bye,' and turns back to his work
And he knows there are people who think him a jerk
Still, you can't help but notice, from somewhere within
Is the trace of a smidge of a hint of a grin.

In This Chat
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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