Judging the Best Humor Columnists Is Serious Business

At first I thought it was one of those “Earn money while working at home” e-mail scams. The offer said I could make $0.67 for every newspaper column I read. Then I realized I was being asked to judge the 2003 National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) annual competition and a $100 stipend was involved.

Each year, the NSNC picks the best general and humor columns appearing in daily or weekly newspapers in the United States and Canada. Winning the NSNC competition is like winning a Pulitzer Prize but without the inconvenience of fame and fortune. (While the correct pronunciation of “Pulitzer” is “PULL-it-sir,” under no circumstances should you respond to a newspaper columnist who sticks out his or her finger and asks you to, “Pull it, sir.”)

I began to get nervous when I realized I had to judge the NSNC category for humor columns in papers with circulations greater than 100,000. What if Dave Barry entered the contest? What if I didn't pick him as the winner and a week later I read in his column, “Tim Bete is a ignorant stinking weasel &#0151 which would be a good name for a rock band?” Worse yet, what if upon reading this, Mr. Barry is outraged I insinuated he would call me an “ignorant stinking weasel” and he shows up at the next University of Dayton Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop (of which I am director) and gives a wonderful keynote speech followed by a book signing, all for a nominal stipend no larger than what he pays to have his lawn mowed? That would really teach me a lesson, yes-sir-ee. But I deserve it. (Note: Mr. Barry did not enter the NSNC contest, probably because he actually has won a Pull-it-sir in 1988.)

Before I tell you the verdict of my judging, let me say my love is equal for each of the columnists who entered. Like my children, I treated them exactly the same. The entrants are like the five fingers on my hand, except there are 50 of them. Unfortunately, last weekend I smashed one of my fingers with a hammer, which is kind of what I did to the losers of this year's competition. But let's not call them losers. Let's call them “esteemed and talented non-winners who should not toilet paper my front lawn just because I didn't pick them.” That's a much better name since I love and respect each of them so dearly.

I looked to Consumer Reports for guidance on how to rate humor columns but it quickly became apparent that none of the entries would pass the federal crash safety test standards. Some columns were word guzzlers. Others failed emissions tests. A few rolled over while taking sharp turns of logic.

Finally, I sat down to read through the entries and get a feel for the scope of my task. After two hours, I realized I had picked up our Betty Crocker Cookbook instead of the NSNC entries. That would account for all the entries having a “food” theme and using the same joke about a “1/4-teaspoon of salt.”

In the end, first place went to Bruce Cameron (Rocky Mountain News), second place to Doug Robarchek (The Charlotte Observer) and third place to Chris Neely (Fort Worth Star Telegram). Why? They made me laugh. But, it may not be a coincidence that each of the winners' columns included fewer than six ingredients typically found in your refrigerator and could be prepared in ten minutes or less.

Honorable mentions went to Margery Eliscu (Maine Sunday Telegram) and Rick Horowitz (syndicated) as well as the Ham & Broccoli Pie and Herb-Cheese Muffins.

Tim Bete (pronounced “beet”) is the director of the University of Dayton's Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop. When he is not judging other people's columns, he is busy writing his own . To subscribe to Tim’s column or read more of his work, visit his website at www.timbete.com.

For more information about the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, visit their website.

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