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He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, but he may be better known for messy hair and his battle of the sexes. Syndicated columnist Gene Weingarten talks about keeping Washington readers amused for more than two decades.
- Gene Weingarten Below the Beltway columnist, The Washington Post; cartoonist, "Barney & Clyde"; and author of "The Fiddler in the Subway: The True Story of What Happened When A World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts . . . and Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer" (Simon & Schuster)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. When I say Gene Weingarten, what picture comes to mind? Ask Gene that question and he'll describe himself as a funny-looking smart aleck with politics so liberal he should be tried for treason. For decades now, Gene's penned his syndicated column entertaining the Washington region with insight on everything from high school reunions and bodily functions to the battle of the sexes and his frustration with call centers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo how do you explain his two Pulitzer Prizes in three years and the long life of some of his most notorious columns? We'll ask Gene Weingarten himself. He writes the "Below The Belt" column for The Washington Post Sunday magazine and the comic strip, "Bonnie and Clyde," with his son, Dan, a writer and editor at The Washington Post for 20 plus years. His latest book is "The Fiddler in the Subway: The True Story of What Happened When a World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts... and Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer." He joins us in studio. Gene Weingarten, welcome.
MR. GENE WEINGARTENVery good to be here.
NNAMDIWhat I find most fascinating about the acknowledgments at the beginning of your book was that you acknowledged -- you thanked the headline writers for The New York Daily News newspaper between the years 1958 and 1972, which, according to my calculation, started when you were six years old and went 'til you were 20 years old. Did you actually start reading The Daily News on a regular basis when you were six?
WEINGARTENYeah, and I should have mentioned The New York Post also. I was reading them both and, yes, I would say that I read the comics and the headlines, and the headlines were genius.
NNAMDII know I had the opportunity to view some of those headlines in the late '60s and early '70s when I was living in New York and I never actually bought the newspaper. I just picked it out of the trash when I was on my way to work 'cause people always discarded it. What is it about those headlines that you found so fascinating?
WEINGARTENEconomy. They, you know, they needed to say things that were riveting, that told you the story and they had to do it in, like, nine letters and they were just brilliant at that.
NNAMDIDo you think that changed after 1972 or you left town?
WEINGARTENI left town.
NNAMDIYour column has been syndicated for years and it's my understanding when new readers come to you, you think they should be aware of three things about you. First and foremost -- first, that you're a self-proclaimed smartass.
NNAMDISecond, that you're funny looking.
WEINGARTENWell, you're looking at me.
NNAMDII don't find you to be funny-looking. Third, you're so politically liberal that you may be tried for treason?
WEINGARTENYeah, and I actually -- I added to that to be honest. I should be tried for treason and executed. I'll go that far.
NNAMDIIf you think Gene Weingarten should be tried for treason, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you also think he should beat the rap, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you think he should be executed, we'll take your calls, too. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, to join the conversation with Gene Weingarten there. You say you were born a smart aleck. I find that hard to believe. Take us back to your childhood. Tell us about your parents.
WEINGARTENWell, my father was a mild-mannered CPA. He worked for the Internal Revenue Service. My mother was a teacher and I had a brother who was six years older. And that's where all the trouble began.
WEINGARTENHe was six years older and I very much wanted to be friends with his friends and so I had to develop this patina of sarcastic, what I became was kind of a cross between Eddy Haskell and Bart Simpson. You know, this sort of hair slicked down kid who found everything to be a source of deconstruction and sarcasm.
NNAMDIWas everyone in your family funny? Were others in your family funny or is it a role that you chose to play?
WEINGARTENI think that basically humor was rewarded at the dinner table. It was something, you know, it was something that gave you agency and it's the same in my family. My son became very funny because even though he was flunking out of school and very failing at a whole bunch of other things, he was the guy who could keep us all in stitches and that was valued.
NNAMDIMy brother -- you say your brother was six years older than you? My brother was five years older than I and I did attempt to emulate him in certain ways, but I was convinced he was a sadist 'cause he used to beat me a lot. How about yours? No beatings at all?
WEINGARTENMy beating up was metaphorical and came later. You know, I grew up in the '60s and so I was a kid who literally ate methadrine at 12 and I was smoking pot at 13. There was a kind of a beat up by my older brother. He wasn't trying to be bad, but, you know, it turned me into a deviant.
NNAMDIYou know, some readers might be surprised that you're a college dropout, even though you did well in school and even wanted to be a doctor, right?
WEINGARTENYeah, I'm glad that I never got to be a doctor because the taste for drugs would've mixed very badly with an ability to write prescriptions. I don't think I would've survived about past 29 years old. Yeah, I was going to be a doctor and it was derailed by a number of things. Among them, that I could not pass chemistry, couldn't get past that. But the reason I dropped out of college was I wanted to join a street gang.
WEINGARTENAnd I dropped out with three credits to go, nearly killing my Jewish mother. I don't know if you know what that would do to a Jewish mother.
NNAMDII remember Woody Allen saying he dropped out with, like, 11 credits left to go.
WEINGARTENYeah, well, I beat him. I had three and I spent about three months infiltrating a Puerto Rican street gang in the south Bronx and then...
NNAMDIWhen you say infiltrating, where you pretending to be Puerto Rican yourself?
WEINGARTENAt the time, I was a lot thinner and my Spanish was much better than it is now. I was protected by the chief of the gang who knew who I was and the idea was to write a story for a magazine and I wanted...
NNAMDIDid you write the story for New York Magazine?
WEINGARTENI did. I wrote a cover story for New York Magazine and never really looked back, never went back to school.
NNAMDIAt the same time as you were doing that, you were a casual weekend drug user?
WEINGARTENI was. I was a casual weekend major drug user. I was basically -- I was shooting heroin at the time.
NNAMDIOn weekends? I was led to believe that if you're shooting heroin, it's so addictive you have to shoot every day and then, like, every hour eventually. Not necessarily?
WEINGARTENOddly enough, I had a taste for the drug, but I also had a will to succeed and so I understood that it could get way out of hand. Now, I'm not recommending this to your listeners. It was a very bad way to live and it almost killed me. I wound up getting Hepatitis C, which I didn't discover until 25 years later or something.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Gene Weingarten. He writes the "Below The Belt" column for The Washington Post Sunday magazine and the comic strip, "Bonnie and Clyde," with his son. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Roland in Adamstown, Md. Roland, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROLANDThank you very much. Thank you, Kojo. Gene, I sent you a couple of e-mails. We need someone like you for president. You could enlighten all the (word?) by the time they go around and talk to everybody in the world. I think a lot of our problems would probably be straightened out by Gene.
NNAMDIHave you thought of going into politics at all, Gene?
WEINGARTENI could never get past the first or second question about my background. There are things, you know -- we've already discussed this.
WEINGARTENYes, I mean, we have already eliminated me as a presidential candidate.
ROLANDWell, just 'cause you're honest they failed the first test. That's okay. Very good. It was nice talking to you.
NNAMDIHonest like the guy who said, of course I inhaled, that was the point.
ROLANDI'm going to enjoy your articles Gene. they're right to the point. They really expose human nature so they're super. Thank you very much. I really enjoy it.
WEINGARTENThank you. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIThank you for your call Roland. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Has the lack of a college degree had any interesting effects on your life?
WEINGARTENNot really, except ironically when I -- I'm technically a graduate of Harvard because I had a fellowship there in 1987 and '88. And I don't know if you know about a Nieman fellowship. It's given journalists and basically you wind up becoming a Harvard alumnus if you pass the rigorous requirement of staying alive for the entire year that you're there.
NNAMDIAnd so you are technically a Harvard graduate?
WEINGARTENI am a Harvard graduate who has no undergraduate degree. Hard to explain.
NNAMDIBut your children, of course, know the truth?
WEINGARTENMy children know the truth.
NNAMDIOther readers would be shocked to know about what you just disclosed about doing heroin or other drugs in college. When did you stop and why?
WEINGARTENI stopped in college. I mean, we're talking about a year, year and a half. And essentially I stopped because I had no time for it. I became the editor of the college newspaper and that's basically a 23 and a half hour a day job.
NNAMDIAs the editor of the college newspaper?
NNAMDIOnto -- we'll get back to that in a second. Onto Bob in Potomac, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHey, Kojo. I love your show, man, listen to it all the time.
BOBGene, just love reading your column. I mean, Sunday mornings is a ritual for me to get in that magazine and read along with some of the other things in there. But I just wanted to comment about brotherhoods. My brother was a year and a half older than me. I'm a native Washingtonian. I'm 60 years old and grew up in the D.C. area and my brother was a year and a half older. So basically, he beat me and kept me away from all his friends growing up until I came home from the Marines back in 1969.
NNAMDIBy then, you'd filled out a little bit, huh?
BOBOur relationship changed dramatically when I told him I knew how to kill him if he ever did it again. (laugh)
NNAMDIHad a comparable experience.
BOBBut anyway, just love reading your stuff and keep at it. And as a kid of the '60s I understand the things you went through and I'm glad you're still here.
WEINGARTENThank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bob. You went on to being the editor of your campus newspaper, working 23 and a half hour days. And it seems to me that much of your early career in newspapers was spent more as an editor than as a writer, how come?
WEINGARTENYeah, I started as a writer and gradually decided that I would never be a great writer and maybe I could be a great editor. And then, something happened that reinforced that, which is the woman I wanted to marry was living in New York and the only job I could get in New York was an editor. So that made it very easy. There are worse reasons to make major life decisions.
NNAMDIBut so you decided to become an editor and spent many years as an editor. A lot of people may not know this, but you hired the humor writer, Dave Barry, to work for The Miami Herald when you were an editor there, correct?
WEINGARTENYeah, and Dave was working at one of the worst jobs imaginable. He was traveling around the country trying to teach businessmen how to write. This is an exercise in futility. And Dave was also writing an occasional humor column that would appear in one paper or another and I got a copy of one of them and essentially called him and offered him a job.
NNAMDIAnd it's a job that's, as far as I know, he's still doing today?
WEINGARTENWell, he's no longer writing...
NNAMDIA regular column.
WEINGARTEN...a regular column.
WEINGARTENHe's just got a great new book out, but he's been writing books for the last many years.
NNAMDIHe's one of the people you acknowledge in your book. What did you learn about writing from Dave Barry that you didn't teach Dave Barry?
WEINGARTENWell, I didn't teach Dave Barry much. He taught me. And he taught me simply through what he was writing. One day I asked him, because we don't -- we tend not to have rules or templates for things. And one day I asked David, does he have any rule that he uses in writing humor? And he thought about it a long time, 'cause he hadn't thought about it before, and he said, well, I tend to try to put the funniest word at the end of the sentence.
WEINGARTENAnd, you know, if I go back and look in my writing now, I do the same thing. So basically I adopted that principle, but I made it my own. I changed and people ask me, are there any rules for writing humor? I say, always try to put the funniest word at the end of the sentence, underpants.
NNAMDISo from time to time, your writing is mistaken for Dave Barry's, does that bother you at all?
WEINGARTENIt doesn't bother me in the sense that it's not a comparison that shames me in any way. It bothers me in the sense that I probably, over the years, have developed many of his meters and rhythms, et cetera. So essentially, I'm a Dave Barry plagiarist, but not by design.
NNAMDIYou have won two Pulitzers and he has won one Pulitzer and it's my understanding that when you brag to him about that, he had a response for you.
WEINGARTENYeah, it was devastating. He said, yes, it's true, but neither of yours was for humor.
NNAMDIYes, that is devastating (word?) .
NNAMDIWe're talking with Gene Weingarten. He writes the "Below the Beltway" column for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He also co-writes the comic strip, "Barney and Clyde," with his son, Dan. You can call him and speak with him at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. You can also send a tweet at kojoshow. How hard is it to get people to take you seriously? How much pressure is it when everyone always seems to be waiting for a punch line?
WEINGARTENWell, it's not real pressure because after people get to know me personally for any length of time, they discover that I'm basically a boring guy. And they no longer really expect anything funny to come out of me.
NNAMDIOh, that's good because I read where you talked about a real writer is someone who -- and I used it earlier and I'm blanking on the quote right now, but it's somebody who finds writing to be very difficult.
WEINGARTENYeah, just a terrible ordeal.
NNAMDIA terrible ordeal.
WEINGARTENYeah, and if you have that, no matter what writing skills you may lack, but if you care so deeply that you will worry about every word, you can make it, you can become a good writer. You need that sense of caring.
NNAMDIYou know, with me starting out really writing in broadcasting when I was a broadcast reporter, you had to churn out 40 second stories. And you had to churn out nine or 10 of them a day. What you simply did was sit at the typewriter in those days and then try to figure out what to do next. What's your process? Are you a sit down and write every morning at 6:00 a.m. guy or does it come in fits and starts?
WEINGARTENI'm more disorganized than that. And, you know, when people ask me, how do I get my ideas? What's your muse? I give them the honest answer. It doesn't seem to satisfy, but it's absolutely true. My muse is a deadline. There is nothing that makes you creative faster than having to produce something by a given moment. I've got one of those every week.
NNAMDIAnd that doesn't matter whether it's a column or a book?
WEINGARTENThe principle is identical actually. A book is more complicated, but you still -- you're working on deadlines that you create. You must have something done by a certain time or you'll never get this done.
NNAMDIAnd if you have that deadline and you have to get it done, do you just sit at the typewriter and start typing?
WEINGARTENYes. Actually, sometimes the process is that if I can't think of something to write, I just begin writing almost gibberish. And it will eventually form itself into words and sometimes sentences and eventually they'll be okay.
NNAMDIThank you very much for validating my process. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments for Gene Weingarten, you can also send us a tweet at kojoshow. Gene Weingarten once lamented the uselessness of twitter, now he tweets himself and it's my understanding you have more than a thousand followers.
WEINGARTENYeah, I think I've got about 2,700 followers now. I still don't take it seriously, but I do it all the time.
NNAMDIHe self identifies as a Washington Post Columnist, philosopher, epistemologist, enthusiast of Excreter Related Humor. You know what that means. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Gene Weingarten. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIGene Weingarten writes the "Below the Beltway" column for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and the comic strip, "Barney and Clyde," with his son, Dan. He joins us in studio. His latest book is called, "The Fiddler in the Subway: The True Story of What Happened When a World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts and Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer." He was a writer and editor at The Washington Post for 20 plus years and as we said, still does his column for The Sunday Washington Post Magazine.
NNAMDIWe mentioned that you now tweet yourself, what we did not mention was your avatar for your twitter imagine. And I refuse to say what it is myself.
WEINGARTENOkay, I'll say it.
WEINGARTENIt's a pile of poop.
NNAMDII'd rather say a p-o-o-p.
WEINGARTENOkay, fair enough.
NNAMDIThank you very much, back to the telephones. Here is Nick in Winchester, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKHi, Kojo. First, very quickly, there is one source for the statement of, a writer is someone to whom writing comes more difficult than anyone else, as a short story by Thomas Mann from somewhere around 1903 or so called, "Tristan." But the real purpose of this call was to ask Mr. Weingarten if there was some way of going through the archives of his columns, let's say, by subject or keyword or something like that. The reason is, he had a self portrait in one column which he talked about how he goes to bed on top of the top sheet, which makes relations with his wife rather difficult.
NICKAnd the other thing was that he drives his wife crazy by going to sleep with a radio on. And I do that, too. But there were several other things in that story that reminded me of me.
WEINGARTENYeah, it's -- first of all, you can get the archive by getting to The Washington Post online and searching for "Below the Beltway." But, yeah, it wasn't that I got bed with the radio on, I got to be with the lights on. If there's no one else in the room with me, I will always go to sleep with the lights on and will happily sleep the night that way.
NNAMDIThat came from something, like they do on Facebook, 25 meaningless things you need to know about Gene Weingarten.
WEINGARTENExactly. I gave my 25 meaningless things.
NNAMDINick, thank you very much for your call. And if you look hard enough in the archives, you will find a column from 2006 called, "A Dramatic Turn for the Worse," about Gene's attempted being in a performance at Arena Stage. This one paragraph attracted my attention. "To recapitulate, I am one ugly and two, have a bad voice so I was unnerved when I received this script and discovered that I would be performing in scenes with one George Stephanopoulos, the international heart throb.
NNAMDIAnd two, Kojo Nnamdi, the voice of God. If you are not a habituary of National Public Radio, Kojo Nnamdi makes James Earl Jones sound like tweety bird. James Earl Jones didn't like that at all, I have to tell you. He called me up to tell me. You enjoy that performance?
WEINGARTENWell, it was a terrible performance.
NNAMDIYou know it wasn't all bad.
WEINGARTENYes, as you well know is a terrible performance, but there were a few things there that happened. The first is, as my daughter reminded me the other day, I have a face for radio and a voice for the print medium. And so being in front of a live audience performing is not using my assets to their best. The other thing that happened I'm not a liar even for good reason. I usually will not lie to people. But just before the show, I met George Stephanopoulos for the first time.
WEINGARTENAnd I told him I was a big fan of his show, which was a lie in the sense that I had never once seen his show. But I was trying to be nice and a few minutes later, we were back stage and they played some music out on stage. And I mentioned to George that it was interesting, I hadn't heard it before. And he said, well, that's from my show.
NNAMDISo you got caught lying within like...
WEINGARTENSeconds. It was just seconds. I'll never do it again.
NNAMDIGood for you. Here now is Brian in McLean, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHey, thanks a lot guys. Gene, I wanted to ask you if your, like, analysis, your criticism of comic strips, if yours changed much as you started to write one? And another question, even if there's time.
NNAMDIOh, my favorite. You should know, those of you who are unaware of it, that the latest venture of Gene Weingarten is "Barney and Clyde." It's a comic strip about a friendship between a billionaire and a homeless man and it appears in the pages of The Washington Post. My assumption is that it's syndicated to other newspapers also?
WEINGARTENIt is syndicated to other newspapers.
WEINGARTENYes. And essentially what I learned, the lesson that I have taken away, is that only morons become critics of comic strips. They don't know what they're talking about and they cannot appreciate genius if it slapped them in their face. That's what I take away from that.
NNAMDIWe linked to the "Barney and Clyde" Facebook page from our website, kojoshow.org. But tell us a little bit about how this came up. Where did it start? The idea for doing the comic strip.
WEINGARTENIt started in my basement.
NNAMDIBy the way, it's growing on you.
NNAMDIYeah, it is.
WEINGARTEN...that's the idea. It started in my basement. Five years ago, my son was 20 years old at the time, a slacker. He was living at home, living in my basement, flunked out of college.
NNAMDIWhere have I heard that before?
WEINGARTENAnd the one thing that always bound us together was that we loved comic strips. We'd had a lot of tensions between us, but we loved comic strips...
NNAMDII should move in, yeah.
WEINGARTEN...and we love looking at them analytically. And I got a strip in the mail from a brilliant cartoonist, sort of a giant in the field. And he has sent me a new strip that he was working on and asked what I thought of it 'cause he knew I had critiqued comic strips. I didn't like it much and I showed it to Dan and Dan hated it. And he went on and on about how bad it was and the concept wasn't any good and the characterizations weren't any good. The story lines weren't any good.
WEINGARTENAnd as he was talking, I was getting more and more angry. Because even though I'd basically agreed with him about this, I didn't want to hear this from a twerp who had not done anything in his life.
NNAMDIWith his life.
WEINGARTENAnd, yeah, and so I let him know that he was being an outrageous twerp and sort of -- and I said, you know, it's not easy to come up with an idea for a comic strip. It's a very complicated, difficult thing. And he walked out of the room and I went back to work. And a few minutes later, he came back in and said, you know what would be a great idea for a strip, if friendship between a billionaire and a homeless man. And he walked out of the room. And I was left there sort of staring at the wall.
WEINGARTENI'm not sure for how long. And then, I did something really overly dramatic, I got up and walked over to the wall and circled that date on the calendar. And that was the day that "Barney and Clyde" was born.
NNAMDIThere's another date that you circled on the calendar, many, many years ago. And pressed your wife not to have Dan until that day. That's one of the stories in, "The Fiddler in the Subway." Tell us about that.
WEINGARTENYeah, well, it wasn't so much that I circled it on the calendar, but it was a day that I was very aware of as my wife was approaching the day she was going to give birth. And we wound up being in the hospital around 10:30 at night on a certain day and, you know, she was writhing in agony, as ladies often do when they're about to give birth. And I…
NNAMDIAnd you, being as thoughtful and sensitive as always.
WEINGARTEN...very sensitive Dad, asked her if she could possibly hold off a little longer. And I don't know if you know the kind of look that a woman will give you. I can't describe that look on the air right now, what she was trying to say to me. But, yes, she managed, not through any offices of mind, but she managed to hold off just a couple of hours longer so Dan was born on July 4th instead of July 3rd.
NNAMDIMaking you and your father-in-law very, very happy.
WEINGARTENVery, very happy.
NNAMDIBut I know the look. I call it the woman with a stroller when you pull up to a pedestrian crossing look.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Thank you very much for your call, Brian. Here is Mike in Alexandria, Va. who also wants to talk about the comic strip. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi, thanks Kojo and guest. Mr. Weingarten's column, I find a great interest. I like that, but it comes to the critic of comic strips (word?) that I am.
WEINGARTENI need to remind you, in advance, that all critics of comic strips are wrong, but go ahead, please.
MIKEWell, the title "Barney and Clyde" could be substituted with a less ominous title. It just springs to image bullet rated (word?) bodies and that doesn't fit in with the humor.
NNAMDIWhy did you call? Go ahead. Go ahead, why did you call the strip "Barney and Clyde"? Because it brings bad memories to Mike of Bonnie and Clyde?
WEINGARTENWell, I have to say I wasn't thinking about Mike at that moment. And I apologize to you, Mike...
WEINGARTEN...if that troubles you. No. We meant in a playful fashion. You know, you might think of Bonnie and Clyde, you might not. But, you know, Bonnie and Clyde are more than just a couple of people who were killed during -- you know, they were more than just desperados, they were a little love story and a story about excitement, et cetera. We didn't think it was a problem. Sorry if you do.
NNAMDIWhen the idea first came up and you circled the date about a relationship, a friendship between a billionaire and a homeless person, now that you've actually been working on it, given that set-up, what do you see as the possibilities? Are there points at which you say, there might not be much more we can do with this, or points at which you say, you know what, the possibilities are endless?
WEINGARTENWell, we kind of made them endless by creating a strip that's a lot more complicated than just a friendship of two people. They each have lives of their own. Barney, the billionaire, he lives with a trophy wife and his daughter from a first marriage who isn't quite sure she likes this trophy wife. Clyde lives on the streets, all sorts of things happen on the streets.
NNAMDIHe's a philosopher, an intellectual, all kinds of things.
WEINGARTENHe's a philosopher, an intellectual and his best friend is basically a con artist.
WEINGARTENSo many things happen in this, that aren't simply two guys in the street. The two guys in the street, of course, represent more than just themselves. We're in an economically polarized society. You know, more than ever before, perhaps has and has nots and they're summarizing that pretty well.
NNAMDILooking at today's edition of "Barney and Clyde" and looking at the first panel where a guy's walking around with sign saying, "The End is Anti-climatic," and another guy's is walking around pushing a cart that says, "Junk Bond Broker," and he's got in it a filing cabinet and lots of junk. And both Barney and Clyde, the two main characters, are looking at these individuals and then explain the last panel.
WEINGARTENWell, what's becoming obvious is that everybody walking around is pretty imbalanced. And in the last panel, Clyde, the homeless man, says to Barney, well, I think it's crazy that you make as much as 459 first grade teachers combined.
NNAMDIThank you. If you're going to be looking at these people as if they're crazy.
WEINGARTENExactly. And it's...
NNAMDII'll weigh in on craziness.
WEINGARTEN...and this is really the beginning of a week that examines why homeless people are homeless people. Does, you know, being crazy make them homeless? Does being homeless make them crazy? We're going to be investigating that.
NNAMDIAs I said, it's growing on me. And now, I don’t immediately run to "Pearls Before Swine" to look at what Rat's up to when I start reading the comics now.
WEINGARTENThat's a terrific strip by the way.
NNAMDIOh, isn't it, though?
WEINGARTENYeah, it is. And I told him -- he's a friend of mine, Stephan Pastis.
WEINGARTENAnd I told him when "The Crocs" first came out, that...
NNAMDII love the crocs.
WEINGARTEN...well, I told him they were a lousy character and he should get rid of them. And, of course, they've become the center piece of the strip. So once again, people who critic comic strips do not know what they're talking about.
NNAMDIAnd you also take the approach that humor is objective, not subjective. And there is only one infallible judge of humor in America, who would be?
WEINGARTENThat would be me, yes.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here is Sally in Washington, D.C. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYHi, am I on?
NNAMDIYes, you are on, Sally.
SALLYOkay, hi. I just wanted to mention that actually my daughter was -- I had the good luck that my daughter was in Mr. Weingarten's son's Dan's graduating high school class, which meant that Gene gave the graduation speech at their graduation, which was, without a doubt, the best graduation speech I have ever heard. Though it is true, he listed some of it from Dan's college application letter, which was one of the most fabulous college application letters I can think of.
SALLYAnd I just wanted to say that when she graduated from college in the...
NNAMDIWait a minute. Are you saying that he plagiarized his commencement speech?
SALLYWell, no, no. He said (unintelligible) ...
WEINGARTENI credited Dan, yes.
SALLYHe said he was reading from Dan's application.
NNAMDIHe's just credited it, okay.
SALLYYeah, he did say that. But anyway, when she graduated from college, the speaker was George Patacky (sp?) and he was just so dreadful by comparison. It was like a major, major league let down.
WEINGARTENAre you by any chance Eleanor's Mom?
WEINGARTENIn one of the -- I remember -- I don't remember this speech that well, but I remember at one point in it I said that I was giving a number of rules and one of them was, there is no I in team. And then I said, but, of course, there is a U in drop out and there is a U in drug addict. And then so I just took that whole piece of paper and threw it over my shoulder and said, let's forget about that one.
NNAMDIWell, Sally, you have not forgotten that commencement ever, have you?
SALLYNo, no. It was great. Also, I have admit that I think Emily was or Dan was jamming Emily in the ribs or something on stage while Gene was speaking.
WEINGARTENI have no doubt. Dan did many things during his illustrious academic career, including pulling a fire extinguisher -- fire alarm and a lot of things like that.
NNAMDINot like his exemplarily father, of course.
NNAMDIHere -- thank you for your call Sally. Here is Robert in Washington, D.C. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTThank you. I wanted to bring up "Old Dogs Are The Best Dogs." We love that book and have sent many copies to people. Because I think it represents the best kind of writing where you chuckle until you realize how serious the book is. The combination of humor and sneaky profundity, I think, is a mark of real writing.
WEINGARTENWell, thank you. Yes. This was a book that I did with Michael Williamson, the photographer. And essentially it was profiles of 63 dogs who were 10 years old and older. And ultimately, I felt this was really a story about life and death, and the beauty of age. Thank you for seeing that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Robert. And it brings me to this e-mail from Meg who says, "How is it that Gene Weingarten can write humor that cracks me up, and also write a story about babies accidentally left in cars that brings me to tears. He definitely deserved the Pulitzer." Yes. Because one of your Pulitzers was for that story.
WEINGARTENYeah. You know, one thing that people ask me sometimes is how I can write both things at the same time. And the best answer to that is that writing humor keeps me sane. You know, if I wrote only stories about people who accidentally leave their babies to die in cars, I'd probably wind up being a brooding melancholic, a (word?) writing a Hamlet. So they work together, I think, well.
NNAMDIRobert, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line, we will get to your calls. We still have a few lines open if you'd like to talk with or at Gene Weingarten. You can call 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow, or you can join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIMy guest is Gene Weingarten. He writes the "Below The Beltway" column for The Washington Post Sunday magazine, and the comic strip "Barney & Clyde" with his son, Dan, writer and editor of The Washington Post for 20 plus years. His latest book is called "The Fiddler In The Subway: The True Story of What Happened When A World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts . . . and Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer."
NNAMDIThat's the story that won you the other Pulitzer Prize, "The Fiddler In The Subway."
WEINGARTENRight. That was in 2007. That was essentially...
NNAMDIHow do you think that up?
WEINGARTENIt was a stunt and it happened because of something that I saw one morning when I was walking to work. I came out of the subway and there was this middle-aged man in kind of tattered clothing playing -- he was playing Beethoven on a keyboard. And he was doing it very well. And he had a case -- violin case or a musical case next to him that had maybe two bucks, two and-a-half bucks in it.
WEINGARTENThe thing that was astonishing was that people were barely noticing him. They were passing him by as though he were something to be avoided, a nuisance. And when I threw in a buck, he gave me this look of gratitude that was just heartbreaking. And on my walk to the office, I was kind of getting angry, and I thought, you know, if Yo-Yo Ma himself had been out there, you know, in rags playing, nobody would have noticed.
WEINGARTENBy the time I got to the office, this had seemed like such an interesting idea to me that I actually called Mr. Ma's agent and proposed, essentially, a stunt. You know, let's disguise him a little bit and put him outside a subway station. And they were interested, but over the course of the next year to two, we really couldn't get together on it. And I never forgot the idea.
WEINGARTENAnd then, one of my colleagues mentioned Joshua Bell, who was this young, brilliant violinist who also had a sense of humor and was kind of mischievous. And so that's what took it to -- what happened in Washington in 2007.
NNAMDIAnd he did it and he played in the subway, and all of what, nine or ten people?
WEINGARTENHe played for 42 or 43 minutes outside the L'Enfant Plaza station one January morning in 2007. And, you know, we had a secret video camera there so...
NNAMDIYou can find the video. It's linked at our website, kojoshow.org. The article also.
WEINGARTENAnd so we could quantify absolutely the amount of apathy that we were looking at over the course of 43 minutes. Basically a 1,007 people -- 1,009 people walked by, and exactly seven of them stopped for at least a minute to listen. And Joshua Bell made all of -- I forget the number, $37 or $43 dollars in that time, which he thought was pretty good. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou thought he would make a lot more.
WEINGARTENNo. I thought it would happen this way. I was along among all the planners of this. I expected what happened, and I'm very seldom right in my expectations. But most of the editors at the magazine expected there would be a crowd control problem, that, you know, this is such a sophisticated city, people know music, somebody would have recognized him. You know, whispers in the crowd and then, you know, we'd wind up having to disburse people with tear gas and rubber bullets.
WEINGARTENAs it happened, the most people gathered at one time to listen during those 47 minutes was two.
NNAMDIAnd only one of them recognized him, correct?
WEINGARTENOnly one. She came at the very end.
NNAMDIGene Weingarten. He won't go broke underestimating the sophistication of Washington Metro riders. Here is Rick in Fredericksburg, Va. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKYeah. Hi, Gene. You're the only reason that I still get home delivery of The Washington Post on Sunday, and that's only for your column in the magazine. But I wanted to ask you about the genesis of the Style Invitational.
WEINGARTENWell, okay. Now, if you...
NNAMDIFor people who don't know the Style Invitational, you should describe it, because you originated it.
WEINGARTENWell, I'm not ready to admit to that officially on the air. The Style Invitational is a weekly humor contest in the Washington Post. It's in the Style section on Saturday. It's a brilliant contest because our readers are brilliant. Many are comic geniuses and they work for t-shirts basically. You know, they're working for crappy prizes that we give them.
WEINGARTENIt started in 1993 by somebody called The Czar who never revealed his identity, and who many people think might possibly have been me. And when I'm asked about that, the answer I give, and I'm going to give it to you as well, I am very close to the Czar. I have, in fact, slept with his wife.
NNAMDIIn that case, I apologize for having mistaken you for the Czar.
WEINGARTENExactly. (laugh) I can tell you because I was so close to the Czar, how it began, and it's run now by the Empress. The Czar no longer runs it, the Empress does. She is also completely unknown to anybody. But I do believe that Pat Meyers of The Washington Post has slept with the Empress's husband. I think I can say that.
WEINGARTENAnyway, it began as a shocking rip-off of the New York Magazine competition which the Czar, in his childhood in New York, knew very well. And it soon developed a personality of its own. It's a lot ruder than the New York Magazine competition. There's -- it's a lot more immature, and it's a lot funnier.
NNAMDIWell, anything else you want to know, Rick?
RICKNo. That about covers it. Thanks so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And Bob in Bowie, Md. wants to know something that I think we all want to know also. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBThank you, Kojo. Gene -- by the way, I've always suspected you were the Czar also.
WEINGARTENA lot of people make that mistake.
BOB(laugh) But my question is about your friend, Gina Barreca, who you frequently duel with, and unlike this Sunday, you usually lose. Could you tell us a little bit about Gina?
WEINGARTENYeah. Gina -- first of all, many people, for some reason, assume that I have made her up. And I...
NNAMDINot that you ever make anything up.
WEINGARTENWell, I tend not to make things up because, you know, it's not as funny if it's completely whole cloth. But because her is Gina and mine is Gene, and people thought it was sort of an alter ego, et cetera. And all I can say to those people is believe me, if I made her up, she wouldn't beat me all the time in these columns. Gina is a professor at the University of Connecticut. A very funny woman and I discovered her when -- many years ago when there was a press release for a book she wrote.
WEINGARTENShe was described as an expert in feminism and humor and this struck me as something very funny. It's like being expert in pianos and fish. (laugh) And so I called her up and challenged her basically to a humor duel in my column. And she beat the pants off me and I thought, okay, this could develop into something. And, you know, it did over the years. We've been visiting with each other every few weeks.
NNAMDIDo you share a paycheck with Gina?
WEINGARTENI do not. I basically take advantage of her horribly. Although, we did do a book together, which we shared a paycheck over.
NNAMDISo you're also an exploiter?
WEINGARTENI am an exploiter.
NNAMDIHere's Barbara in Silver Spring, Md. Barbara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAHi. I'm probably going to inject some less than levity, but I wanted to thank you for two things that you wrote. One of which was the column about your dad as he got older that dealt with his remembering that your daughter was going to be veterinarian.
BARBARAI wept through that whole column. My husband fell apart. I forwarded to any number of people. It was a magnificent column. Thank you very much.
BARBARAThe other one was "The Fiddler In the Subway" because I was a music major in the '60s and my part-time job was dressing in mime makeup and fiddling in the subway. And it brought back all those memories of people ignoring me, and the few people who came by, wanted to know my life story. And I had one gentleman who came by -- I did it on Saturdays so my mother wouldn't know. And he stopped every Saturday and dropped a $20 bill, which in 1964 was a lot of money.
BARBARABut I wanted to thank you, seriously. I do laugh my way through all of your columns, but the Pulitzers are well-deserved, and thank you very much.
WEINGARTENWell, thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Barbara. I felt the same way about the column about your father and your daughter becoming a veterinarian.
WEINGARTENAnd that is in the book, "The Fiddler In The Subway." It's one of the few short stories that are in there as well.
NNAMDIBarbara, thank you very much for your call. Here is Mike in Falls Church, Va. Mike, your turn.
MIKEYeah. Two things. One, how many poop jokes does it take to win a Pulitzer, and two, why did you use The Post (word?) to force us to look at your hackneyed comic strip just to get one clue?
WEINGARTENOkay. As far as the number of poop jokes, essentially there's a limit. The limit's about 100. And once you have perpetrated 100, any more doesn't matter. You've hit the 100 limit and it hurts for the Pulitzer. It's why I didn't win for 20 years. I would have had nine or ten Pulitzers by now if I hadn't been such an aficionado of the poop joke.
WEINGARTENAnd as far as the comic strip, obviously you're not understanding that the comic strip is trying to be unfunny. This is the nature of irony, you know. All other comic strips try to be funny. This one is an ironic statement about humor.
NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call. You even tried VPLs as we used to call them, visible panty lines, to try to get a Pulitzer Prize, didn't you?
WEINGARTENYeah. That was one of the -- one of the arguments that Gina Barreca and I had. One of the very first questions I asked her was why on earth women tried so hard to hide visible panty lines, because men love visible panty lines.
NNAMDIMy friends and I had great dissertations on VPLs.
WEINGARTENAbsolutely. We just love them, and we just wish women would stop worrying about them.
NNAMDII think are some women who would wish we would stop talking about them right now, but they're not on the air, we are. Here is Dianne in Washington, D.C. Dianne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANNEHello. Thank you for receiving my call on your great show. I'm in the family of Lee Falk, the creator of the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, and I wanted to know any of your experiences or opinion of his adventure stories that we heard always as children as well.
NNAMDIHere's Gene Weingarten.
WEINGARTENWell, my son would be a better person to answer this. He's much more of a historian of comic strips. But what I remember is that Mandrake was brilliantly drawn. I love the art of Mandrake.
DIANNEAnd they're continuing. They are current actually in the papers.
WEINGARTENBut the Mandrake that you see now does not look like the Mandrake of the 1950s; is that right?
DIANNEThat's right. There were different illustrators for every decade, and they are considerably different in style for both the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. It's an interesting study. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIDianne, thank you very much for your call. On to Adrian in West Friendship, Md. Adrian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADRIANKojo, thank you so much. I love your show, and this is my first time calling.
ADRIANBut I truly appreciate your humility and your community mindedness.
ADRIANAnd it's a great joy to be on the air with Dave Berry. He's terrific. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah. This is his third or fourth time on.
ADRIANGene, I've been a fan of yours for so long, and I just -- Washington Post magazine is terrific, but the first thing I do is turn to the back cover. And I just wanted to share with you, you know, I was having dinner with my best friend on Saturday, and he's the director of development for the oldest homeless center in New York City.
ADRIANI've done homeless shelter management in the past with Catholic Charities. I've also done street ministry, you know, going to third-world countries and living on the street and taking care of people on the street. And the first day that I opened up the page and saw your strip, I was just flabbergasted. It was terrific. And I just -- I wanted to let you know that when I told my friend the premise of your strip -- and he's a PG County boy, too, moved onto New York, his eyes lit up.
ADRIANAnd your strip is a -- I mean, it stands in the gap and has the potential of doing so much through humor, but also being a public venue for acknowledging, you know, the disparities in society in a way that kind of opens up the middle class mind. And I just wanted to encourage...
NNAMDIAdrian, thank you for your call. We don't have much time left. Gene Weingarten, is that one aspect of the strip that you and your son gave thought to?
WEINGARTENYeah. Absolutely. And actually I would love people to watch what happens this week in the strip, because it's the first time we're actually exploring a difficult subject, and one that might make people a little uncomfortable.
NNAMDIWell, enough said. Adrian, thank you very much for your call. Gene Weingarten, we've just about run out of time. Thank you very much for joining us.
WEINGARTENIt's been great being here. Thanks.
NNAMDIGene Weingarten writes the "Below The Beltway" column for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, and the comic strip "Barney & Clyde" with his son, Dan. You want to keep looking out for what's coming up this week in that strip. A writer and editor of the Washington Post for more than 20 years, his latest book is called "The Fiddler In The Subway: The True Story of What Happened When A World-Class Violinist Played for Handouts and Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature Writer." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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