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The Funnies

Senior executive editor Paul Burka and senior editor Anne Dingus discuss this year’s Bum Steer Awards.

By January 2004Comments

Paul Burka: We’re all aware that staleness is a danger. Staleness usually means predictable headlines. Anne Dingus and I start out editing each other. If a headline gets an approving sound from the other (laugh or groan), we tend to keep it. If there’s a silence, you know it’s back to the drawing boards. Then we go through the same process with our editor, Evan Smith. We have to have our standards as high—or low, depending on the kind of humor—for Bum Steers as for any other story. Another way to avoid staleness is through new layouts. Art director Scott Dadich is always thinking up new things to try. Last year it was an Anna Nicole Smith board game. This year it was larger art and type for certain items, and unexpected displays, such as a movie poster for the troubled Alamo film or an unemployment application for acquitted murder defendant Robert Durst.

Anne Dingus: I think the phrase “year after year” contains a clue to the answer. If we had to do this feature more than once a year, it would probably lose its charm and its popularity, and heaven knows we would lose our enthusiasm. But because Bum Steers is an annual attraction, we have a full twelve months’ worth of foibles and absurdities to draw on for assembling a feature that not only extends over several pages but also manages to sustain a high humor level from beginning to end. “We” is the editorial department of the magazine, by the way, but senior executive editor Paul Burka is the driving force behind the feature (and has been for thirty years now!). He is the Bum Steers foreman, and one of the funniest people east or west of the Rio Grande. I’m the chief Bum Steer wrangler, in that I work most closely with the art, copy, and fact departments and with our deputy editor, Jane Dure, to track all the little steers and keep them herded, branded, and corralled.

The raw material for “BS,” as we often abbreviate it, comes from news sources all over the state, chiefly papers and TV stations and their Web sites. Over the course of the year, everyone in the editorial department of Texas Monthly brings in Bum Steers nominations, usually in the forms of clippings or printouts, as do staffers in other areas of the magazine. So do many of our freelance contributors, from veteran music writer John Morthland to hockey scribe Jason Cohen. And God bless our readers—scores of them send in nominees, and some even go to the trouble to compile pictures, photocopies, phone numbers, and additional information. Ultimately we end up with several hundred possible Bum Steers, from torn-out pieces of paper roughly a couple of inches square to entire front-page sections with a single story circled in marker halfway through. We read them all—variously laughing, frowning, or wrinkling our collective brow—and eventually we sift and sort through them and end up with about one hundred items for the actual feature.

texasmonthly.com: Was this year’s Bum Steer Awards more challenging than any of the others? If so, why?

AD: The Bum Steer Awards we’re currently working on ALWAYS seem more challenging! Or maybe it’s just that last year’s version seems so easy in retrospect, because the memories of the hard work and the inevitable problems are long gone. (Like childbirth: The event seems only rosy once the pain has faded.) But Bum Steers do have a different character from year to year. For example, partly because of the war in Iraq and partly because George W. Bush is now a much more seasoned speechifier, there are far fewer Bum Steers on him this year than there were in 2002 and 2003. Instead, the 2004 Bum Steers included “ebush,” a gift guide devoted to select (and silly) Dubya-themed merchandise. We did note an increase in the number of Bum Steers inspired by Web sites—an inevitable result of the ever-burgeoning cyber universe—and those given to high schools. The latter seem to earn their awards because the interpretation of zero tolerance can often quickly veer from rigid to ridiculous.

texasmonthly.com: What is the most difficult aspect of working on Bum Steers?

AD: The single most annoying thing about working on Bum Steers is discovering (secondhand, through the hard work of Texas Monthly’s fact-checkers) that the details in a newspaper or Web site article are wrong and that the item must be deleted—or slaughtered as it were. Sometimes this means an illustration or a photograph that has already been paid for also goes to waste. Of course, we are indebted to these stories for ideas in the first place, so I shouldn’t complain; also, newspaper and TV reporters are working on a daily deadline, which certainly limits their researching and reporting time. Still, it’s annoying. Fortunately, we don’t lose that many items because of fact problems, and I’ve learned to keep some backups around, just in case.

Let me just add, though, that it’s easier to be an editor for Bum Steers than a fact-checker. My first job for Texas Monthly was in the fact-checking department, and believe me, it’s not a lot of fun calling up people and asking them questions about Bum Steers, which nearly always involve embarrassing incidents. A typical conversation might go like this: “Hello. May I speak to Mrs. Lotta Persimmons? Mrs. Persimmons? Hello, I’m with Texas Monthly magazine … no, I’m not trying to sell you a subscription. I just need to verify one bit of information for a story we’re running in our January issue. Can you confirm that you were caught in flagrante delicto with the Reverend Horace Stringbean at the Yours Forever tent during the Marriage Revival rally last June? … Hello? Hello?”

texasmonthly.com: What do you like best about working on Bum Steers?

PB: Above all, I like the chance to write with a sense of humor. Most of the time I’m writing about politics, which isn’t exactly rib-tickling these days. It’s a chance to have fun and still do some social commentary, only with a light touch.

AD: Writing headlines! Or rather, listening to what other people have written. It’s so much fun—the kind of activity where you find yourself thinking, “I get paid for this?!” Again, many Texas Monthly editorial staffers—and employees in other departments—suggest possible headlines, as do our writers-at-large. Sometimes the Great Minds Think Alike rule is in effect: For the item about Texas actor Benjamin Curtis, who played “Steven” in the Dell computer commercials, getting arrested for possession of marijuana, at least half a dozen people independently came up with “Dude, You’re Gettin’ a Cell.” It may have appeared elsewhere, sure, but it remains the most instantly and constantly funny headline for the item—nothing else we came up with could beat it out.

Sometimes there are a dozen different ways to approach a Bum Steer. For example, I tend to think puns: My first response will be wordplay. (Okay, I admit it—I was one of the “Dude, You’re Gettin’ a Cell” people.) Paul Burka tends to think on a more elevated plane, I think, as does our editor, Evan Smith. I usually don’t see their jokes coming, and of course the unexpected factor is (as Rob Petrie would tell you) a very important one in humor. The exception is Paul’s pun headline. This tradition in Bum Steers, which began in 1974 with the first edition of the feature, is giving one item an extremely long, pun-packed head that tells a story on a theme connected to the incident. The topic this year is dogs. (It’s a howler.)

Variety is also important in Bum Steers. As an example, consider this slightly edited item: “As a gift for National Nurses’ Week, the doctors at Shall Remain Nameless Hospital in the Metroplex paid for fourteen staff members, including nurses, to receive free Botox injections to get rid of crow’s feet and wrinkles.” That action, though well meant, certainly implied that the male doctors wanted to work with comely nurses, which suggested the sexy-nurse stereotype of the fifties and sixties, and it was interesting to see the variety of headlines editors proposed:

*This Bum Steer Is RX-Rated

*Physician, Heel Thyself

*What’s Up, Doc?

*Ratcheting Up the Nursing Standard

*Gee, Nurse—Do You Have To Use the Oral Thermometer?

The headline we eventually chose was “And Inhibitions?” (which, like many Bum Steer headlines, played off the last line of the actual write-up). Ironically, though, this item was cut at the last minute because of lack of space.

texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite Bum Steer this year?

PB: I like political items, as you might expect. Phil Gramm playing a Confederate officer in Gods and Generals. Well, you know what he really wished he could play. So the headline is, “First he asked to audition for God.” Then there was Rick Perry playing the role of the Texas governor in the Tommy Lee Jones movie, Cheer Up! How could the headline be anything else but “It’s about time”? Sometimes predictability isn’t so bad.

AD: Probably my very favorite—and I think the editorial department’s favorite overall—was the one about the Paris High School band. At a halftime show in September, the band performed a World War II-themed program that included the playing of a Nazi song and the waving of a swastika-emblazoned flag—on the eve of the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. This is a classic Bum Steer, in that it was a spectacularly stupid thing to do. What a beaut of a boo-boo.

I will say that the high school handled the incident well, apologizing straightforwardly and not attempting to gloss over the incident or pretend it didn’t happen. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who screw up, then say they’re sorry, then act offended when we Bum Steer them. They call or write and declare indignantly, “We apologized!”—as if that wiped the entire incident out. Or city officials announce plans to proceed with something financially or logistically unfeasible but later abandon the idea, then take offense when we point out that the idea was unworkable all along.

texasmonthly.com: Who decides who (or what) will be the Bum Steer of the Year?

PB: Usually it is determined by events. What was the biggest farce of the year—be it dumb, weird, or just a very public flop? This year redistricting paralyzed Texas politics for five months, and the Democrats made fools of themselves and so did the Republicans. We thought about making Tom DeLay the Bum Steer of the Year, but Tom DeLay by himself isn’t funny. But the foursome of DeLay, Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick is funny, because they fought with each other as much as with the Democrats. If redistricting hadn’t occurred, I expect the Bum Steer of the Year would have been Aggie football and Coach Fran.

AD: Evan Smith and Paul Burka generally share this honor (obligation?). This year there was much back-and-forth about which politico deserved the prize; finally, they decided on a four-fer. Last year, when Anna Nicole Smith won because of her stunningly bad reality show, the choice was a no-brainer (as was the winner, come to think of it).

texasmonthly.com: What headline this year was your favorite?

PB: There were two. One was about prison inmates who got sick from eating a bad pea salad. I thought Anne’s headline was very imaginative: “Is there such a thing as good pea salad?” It’s so unexpected. The item itself is funny because you don’t think of prison as a place that would serve pea salad; on the other hand, food poisoning is not funny. What makes the headline great is that it transcends prison and food poisoning to capture the essential absurdity of pea salad. My other favorite headline is one I wrote. I struggled and struggled with an item about the Austin Public Library’s dismissing of two older women volunteers who had tried to take home some damaged books and materials that were going to be thrown away. Anne had tried something like “One woman’s trash is another’s treasure trove”—clever, but it doesn’t slam the library hard enough. I couldn’t get anywhere—nothing on book titles, nothing on the Dewey Decimated System. I kept thinking about the outrage of what the library had done, and I thought of a line from a congressional investigation of Joe McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency?” And suddenly the light dawned and there it was: “Have they no sense of docency?”

AD: “Chili Carne Con.” That is the headline for the Bum Steer about the man who won the original Terlingua chili cookoff by scooping up samples from other competitors and mixing them all together in his own pot. Brilliant head, from the inimitable Paul Burka. This item is actually a two-part one: The cookoff judges discovered the fraud and stripped him of first prize. The headline for the second half of the Bum Steer is “Suspicions Confirmed.” This, like Paul’s pun head, is a BS tradition. For some reason I can’t explain (humor is like that), this oft-used Bum Steer headline just cracks me up. In the past it has worked really well for many preposterous political actions, and here it was perfect for the chili champ/chump. Perhaps the lesson here is that chili, unlike law and sausage, should be watched while it’s being made. (Funny note: Yet another Bum Steery part of the story here is that the faux chili chef managed to sneak into the cooking competition by posing as his brother, who was unable to attend because he had spurned the famous original Terlingua cookoff for one in Nevada!)

For various reasons, some of the most hilarious Bum Steer heads end up in File 13. Generally, they are too dirty; often, they are politically incorrect; sometimes, they are too anti-liberal or anti-conservative for comfort. But inevitably, there are a couple of dozen that just can’t run in the magazine—a decision that is usually made by consensus, as often a headline, however objectionable, will have its staunch defenders. Still, we chortle over them privately, just to be sure to get our funny’s worth. I keep thinking I’ll start a list of “Self-Censored Texas Monthly Bum Steer Heads” and keep it under lock and key with a note that says “Top-Secret Material. Highly Sensitive. To Be Opened No Earlier Than 2053. Signed, Paul Burka.”

texasmonthly.com: Do you think the Bum Steer Awards will eventually run its course? Why or why not?

PB: I think Bum Steers will always have a place as long as the species is fallible and humor exists.

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