Syndicated Weekly Answer Column by Cecil Adams
In February, 1973, Vicki Lawrence had a hit with the song The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and in the bizarre world of Hollywood, the Sting sat poised to beat out the Exorcist and American Graffiti for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In the pages of The Chicago Reader, the Windy City's favorite alternative weekly newspaper, The Straight Dope made its debut. The concept behind this weekly column was for readers to send in questions, the stranger the better, it seemed—and the writer would find out the answers. The Straight Dope was the brainchild of Cecil Adams, self-described as "the world's most intelligent human being." With the skill of a reference librarian and a brilliantly sarcastic writing style, "Unca Cece" answers these questions about every imaginable subject, from the sublime to the (extremely) ridiculous.
Over the years, Cecil has fielded queries about almost everything: from biology ("Do pigs really have corkscrew-shaped penises?") to theology ("Did Jesus really exist?"), urban legends ("Does throwing rice weddings kill birds?"), political philosophy ("What does the right to bear arms really mean?"), consumer culture ("Why does Heinz ketchup say '57 varieties?'"), history ("Is it true what they say about Catherine the Great and the horse?") and much more—hundreds upon hundreds of interesting answers served up with plenty of wit and sarcasm.
Mr. Adams' editor (since 1978, after previous ones had fled or gone mad perhaps) is the tireless Ed Zotti. There is a great deal of evidence to the effect that Cecil and "Little Ed" are one and the same, but no one is admitting anything*. Cecil Adams is unquestionably a man of mystery—no verifiable photos of him exist and there is only fragmentary information about who this sardonic and well-read man really is.
The Straight Dope is illustrated with warped cartoons by the twisted and talented Slug Signorino. His bizarre drawings bring to mind the weird world of underground comics of the 1970s. Slug, an experienced commercial artist, draws Cecil as a turkey in a mortarboard—that's the kind of artist he is.
Adams is at his absolute best when some boneheaded reader brazenly decides to take issue with his answers. In all seriousness, Cecil has gotten one wrong from time to time, and his responses can be a bit rude, but he is so darned funny when he takes some of these folks to task. The ones he prints, anyway, are usually letters from pretentious and/or sanctimonious types who can not believe that he could have the audacity to print something so obviously incorrect. In quick fashion, the illustrious Mr. Adams shows us, the readers, how he was correct (or he weasels out in comical fashion).
By way of example, I think my all-time favourite rebuttal was when a correspondent had asked the origin of the term "John" for a restroom. Cecil went through a long list of possibilities, discussing each one pretty thoroughly. Someone wrote to Adams (rudely, and with poor grammar, if my memory serves) that he had totally missed the boat. According to the letter writer, the term 'John' came from "Sir John Crapper," which they appended with a "this is not a joke." He wrote a characteristically laconic response. Cecil revealed that the flush toilet was invented by a guy named Thomas Crapper (as he had stated in a previous column), not "Sir John."
I have been reading this column for over twenty years, even after our local, too-hip paper dropped it. I think Cecil Adams' sarcastic know-it-all attitude appeals to me because it reminds me of someone I admire greatly.
A Cecil Adams Bibliography
The Straight Dope (Ballantine, New York, 1984).
Adams deals with some of the questions that have troubled society for years, such as: How many calories are there in the average male ejaculate?, Do glow-in-the-dark toys produce dangerous radiation? and Why is the Jolly Roger called that?. Plus, dear Uncle Cecil excoriates a few people who dare to take issue with the answers he publishes.
More of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, New York, 1988).
Contains some more of the collected wisdom of the ages, including: Why is north traditionally at the top of a map?, Does the word "Kangaroo" really mean "I don't understand you" in an aboriginal dialect? Did the Corinthians ever write back?. Also includes a lengthy and scholarly discussion on methods of controlling cockroaches
Return of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, New York, 1994).
Still more of the best of Adams' column, with such gems as: Do McDonald's milkshakes contain seaweed?, Are there three words that end in the letters -gry? and Why is Daisy a nickname for the name Margaret. Plus a wonderful dialogue about how to disable obnoxiously loud stereo systems in other cars.
The Straight Dope Tells All (Ballantine, New York, 1997).
Cecil covers such thought-provoking topics as: Did Isaac Newton die a virgin?, What purpose was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa designed for? and How can castor oil be used as an instrument of torture?. He also cracks the age old question of what Steve Miller meant in The Joker when he sang about "the pompatus of love."
Triumph of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, New York, 1999).
In his latest book, Cecil takes on questions like: Was there really a female jazz musician who lived her life as a man?, Is it true that we don't understand how a bumblebee can fly? and Was Lewis Carroll a pedophile?. Plus some discussion from his fans about whether income taxes are legal and the controversy over hemp cultivation. This one also includes excerpts from the Straight Dope website and newsgroup.
The Straight Dope Slips the Bonds of the Printed Page
Since 1996, the Straight Dope has been online with a well-designed website (http://straightdope.com/) which is a treasure trove of wonderful stuff. You can read Cecil's latest columns or browse the archives for his classics—most of them complete with the evil art of Slug Signorino. There is also a message board, mailing list and a store where you can pick up Cecil's books.
The Straight Dope Online includes Weird Earl's, which is a corner showcasing some of the wildest and wackiest stuff that can be found on the weird wide web. There is also a feature called Threadspotting which is a spotlight for really offbeat, silly or enlightening chatter found on the Straight Dope message board. Readers can submit their nominations for Threadspotting and Weird Earl's.
Cecil's fans, the so-called Teeming Millions have gotten into the picture plenty of times—this is an interactive project after all. In addition to the message board, there are also fan sites and even a newsletter entitled Teemings for and by the Teeming Millions.
Over the years, Cecil Adams has been a guest on numerous radio shows, where he answers questions for fans (and, if he can not answer them, he gets ideas for further research).
In 1996, the A&E network produced a Straight Dope television show, hosted by Mike Lukas. The fans were pleased, but, for reasons only understood by the programming people at A&E, the show did not last a full season.
The Straight Dope started as the vision of one man ... a man who decided to work hard to end ignorance and quash urban legends. It is now syndicated in newspapers across the U.S. and on internet sites which reach to the very ends of the earth. It has been a long, strange trip for Cecil, Slug, and Little Ed ... has it been worth it? Only time will tell.
* Actually, it seems that it has been admitted that Cecil is really Ed Zotti (and others), but the website, books and so forth still maintain the conceit that he is a real guy. I think it is kind of like Santa Claus, even if you know it is a guy in a suit, maintaining the illusion is still important!—Thanks to randombit for the info on this