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(Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

(Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

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Published by Pat Myers

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Published by: Pat Myers on Dec 02, 2011
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05/03/2012

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(Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)
Some stories are so powerful, they simply must be told.This is not one of them.
© The Washington PostSunday, February 12, 1995By Frank Ahrens, Washington Post Staff Writer
There is a cockroach on the wallpaper just behind the right shoulder of Chuck Smith,Woodbridge. It sits so still, I think maybe it's dead.But then it wiggles a feeler and I realize it is alive. If I had a feeler, it would be paralyzed.For the past hour, I have been eating lunch with Chuck Smith. For the past hour, I have beenterrifically bored and horribly disillusioned. This is Chuck Smith, Woodbridge? This is theundisputed all-time champion of the idiosyncratic humor contest called The Style Invitational, aman so irrepressibly clever that they once had a special contest to come up with a way to makehim stop winning so much . . . and he won? That guy?From this man, I have come looking for the Meaning of Humor.Who better, I thought. After all, this is the man who, in response to the contest that solicitedinappropriate celebrity spokesmen for commercial products, won first prize for this: "JohnWayne Bobbitt for Microsoft."Instead, I find myself fading in and out of semiconsciousness as Smith burbles on and on abouthis Humor Method in a putty-colored tone you'd expect from the civil servant that he is. Smith isa personnel manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, specifically Acting Branch Chief for the Headquarters Operations and Client Services Division. His conversational voice isprecisely what you would expect of a person when he says, "Your application has beenforwarded to Compliance."Who are you, mister? And what have you done with Chuck Smith, Woodbridge?I look at him and see his mouth moving yet I hear no words, only a faraway drone, like a weedwhacker three doors down on a Satur day morning. I fight to pull myself back in -- I feel myhead lurching around on my neck like one of those spring-necked, head-bobbing baseball dolls inyour son's room. I may be drooling.
 
With a gigantic heave, I yank myself back into the conversation just in time to see him sketchingon a napkin, illustrating a gag he wrote for a wastewater treatment magazine. It was the first jokehe sold, he says. He was 40."I looked at a picture of this treatment pool and said, 'This looks like a swimming pool,' " hesays, drawing a rectangle."Well, I did this down one side," he says, drawing a dotted line parallel with the long edge of therectangle. "And I wrote 'Lap Lane.' "This catches me so by surprise I laugh out loud. Sewage humor! Maybe this is Chuck Smith! Ipay close attention to what comes next. But then it happens again. The neighbor restarts the weedwhacker. The light dims. I fade out, focusing on the cockroach.Suddenly, I am sad.I think about cockroaches and about how you hear they're indestructible, about how they'd be theonly living beings left after a nuclear war. About how persistent they are. As persistent even asChuck Smith, Woodbridge, who sometimes sends 100 entries a week to the Style Invitational.Would he survive a nuclear war? Would his entries just keep issuing from some bunker buriedunder the West Virginia mountains, beeping the post-apocalyptic fax in the charred, emptyWashington Post newsroom? Will he ever go away? I look at Smith, who now seems to bemoving forward and backward against the wall behind him; I see what Jimmy Stewart saw in"Vertigo."What do I do? I have come to see the Wizard and instead find the little weasel behind the curtain,pressing the buttons.Humor is dead.Art is illusion.Chuck Smith keeps talking.The roach wiggles a feeler again.Focused, I realize I have but one choice:I must crush him.
No Excuse
What you have to understand, first of all, is that this story is ethically indefensible. Let's lay itdown: It's about a guy -- some nobody named Chuck Smith from Woodbridge, Va. -- who isunworthy of public scrutiny except that he is the most successful entrant in a two-year-old readerparticipation contest sponsored by the section of the newspaper that is at this moment rubbing off 
 
on your fingers. So this story is, basically, a celebration of the wonderfulness of the section inwhich it appears.Wait. It gets worse.The creator and sole dictatorial judge of the contest is also the editor of this section. In aninfantile conceit, this editor has chosen never to reveal his identity, but refers to himself in printonly as The Czar. This same man is editing this very story. He is in total control of it. If, forexample, I were to choose to disclose his name, which happens to be xxxxxxxxxxxx, well, youcan see for yourself what good that would do.So this story serves primarily to validate a lone monomaniacal editor's ceaseless affirmation of what he thinks is funny. And the things he thinks are funny are, not coincidentally, preciselythose things Chuck Smith thinks are funny, namely penises, poop (in all its manifestations) andDr. Jack Kevorkian. That's it. This is The Style Invitational's brand of self-defecating humor.There's more. It isn't pretty.This story, in order to justify itself, in order to justify the enormous and inappropriateexpenditure of space devoted to it, must masquerade as an Important Story. And therefore, itmust pretend to explore vast cosmic themes, such as The Meaning of Humor. And last, it must betold floridly, with grotesque stylistic excess, employing words like Sprachgefuhl so as to createthe illusion that it is literature and not self-serving fluff.Let us recapitulate.This article is a fraud. It violates every formal or common-sense rule governing the avoidance of conflict of interest. You should not be reading it.Washington Goes to Mr. SmithI have left Interstate 95 South at the Lake Ridge exit in Prince William County and am driving toChuck Smith's house, which is in Woodbridge. The roads are in deconstruction, and orangecones lead the way to Smith like landing lights to an airport.In my tape deck is my beloved Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral"). I am alone in my manyreveries. Much time has passed between this snowy night and that first lunch with Smith. Igrapple with the Demons of Art. I recall my dizzying abhorrence after that lunch -- who are you,Chuck Smith? Could such a spirit possibly live in a suburb such as this? Impossible.I pass Mobil station after Mobil station. I think of my old friend, Beckett. "Will he come today?"Will the Chuck Smith I hope for appear today?I want him to be artistically eccentric, a mesmerizing presence, maybe even a little dangerous.Capt. Renault said this of Rick in "Casablanca": "He is the sort of man that, well, if I were awoman, I should be in love with him." That is whom I want. And yet, there was that lunch. I

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