The confessions of Gene Weingarten

Artist Eric Shansby’s conception of Gene Weingarten at Bethesday Jewish Congregation, Nov. 18, 2018. Photo by Joan Wolf

“I’m terrified, because I’m talking in a temple full of Jewish people.”

With that confession, Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten set off with an audience of 300 at Bethesda Jewish Congregation last month for a tour of his gently curmudgeonly alternate universe.

Since he was already confessing, Weingarten, 67, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, added, “I’m sorry,

I’m a secular Jew. I don’t believe in God. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Weingarten’s audience already knew about his calls to corporate customer service representatives for the sole purpose of asking them inane questions; his shlumpy duels from the man cave with a feminist scholar named Gina Barraca; his wizardry with puns and his penchant for humor about bodily functions. (His online discussion with readers is called Chatological Humor.)

So he doesn’t believe in God? Here in the temple full of Jewish people he offered proof: One day when taking his dog, Murphy, for a walk, he stepped on Murphy’s tail.

“The thing that happened to us proves that there is no God,” he said, meaning him and Murphy. “I thought it might be a good idea for a children’s book.”

The idea — and proof of the absence of God — became “Me & Dog,” published in 2014, but not before undergoing an overhaul mandated by the publisher, Weingarten said.

Gene became a boy named Sid. Murphy is still Murphy, but became a dachshund instead of bloodhound. And Murphy became a male dog.

In the book, Sid steps on Murphy’s tail. And the dog apologizes.Murphy thinks Sid is God.

Sid tells Murphy: “The world is large/ I’m a kid, I’m not in charge.”

Sid aka Gene says: “Murphy the dog does not agree/ He sits around and
worships me.”

And summing it up, Sid says: “I think there is no boss/ Things happen just because.”

As Weingarten spoke, illustrator Eric Shansby sat at an easel and drew Weingarten’s presentation — a multimedia presentation in Weingarten’s world.

Shansby illustrated “Dog & Me.” He was a college freshman when he began illustrating Weingarten’s Below the Beltway column 15 years ago. “He worships me,” Weingarten said. Another confession.

Here are other stops Weingarten took on his tour:

The obsession Americans have with their birthdays

“There have been cases of people quitting their jobs because they couldn’t get the day off on their birthday. I find this completely insane. Is there anything less an accomplishment than having a
birthday? It’s like complimenting someone for having a head.”

How he became a writer

“I never wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a doctor from the time I was 6.

“Then I went to college and three things happened: I could not pass chemistry. I discovered and had an extremely strong taste for psychedelic drugs. And I walked into a newspaper office and got my first byline. And it was a rush like you wouldn’t believe.”

Is there a real Gina?

“There is a real Gina Barreca. She’s a feminist scholar and humanist professor at the University of Connecticut.”

What makes their battle of the sexes work, he said, is that his name is Gene and her name is Gina.

How customer service reps react to his prank calls

Weingarten calls about Heinz Yellow Mustard:

“I just want you to know that I love your product and prefer it to all the more expensive fancy-pants mustards like Grey Poupon, and moutarde de Dijon, which you have to pronounce with a snotty nasal French accent while wearing a monocle.”

“I have never had any one of them get angry,” Weingarten said. “They have these boring jobs and I ask these ridiculous questions. It’s fun for a minute.

“Also, they’re not allowed to get angry.”

How can he write humor and also a serious article about parents who let their children bake in their car?

Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for his heartbreaking 2009 piece “Fatal Distraction,” which describes the aftermath of parents who forget to take their children from their car and leave them to die.
Weingarten knew his subject well.

“I almost killed my daughter that way when she was 2 ½,” he said.

Humor is “recognition that we live in a horrible world and you can cry or you can laugh.”

Weingarten said that science and humor are his religion. One final confession: for a working writer, there is something bigger in the universe than he is.

“The deadline. That is all powerful.”

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