The Style Invitational

style invitational by Bob Staake

The Style Invitational, or Invite, is a long-running humor contest that ran first in the Style section of the Sunday ‘Washington Post’ before moving to Saturday’s Style and later returning to the Sunday paper. Started in 1993, it has run weekly, except for a hiatus in late 1999. In that time, it has had two anonymous head judges who select winning entries: ‘The Czar’ abdicated in late 2003, leaving the contest in the hands of his former associate, ‘The Empress.’

The humor ranges from an intellectual vein to a less mature style, and frequently touches on sophisticated political or historical allusions. While the contest theme changes every week, some popular contests are periodically repeated. The S.I. has a loyal following of self-proclaimed ‘Losers,’ who refer to having a contest entry published as ‘getting ink.’

The first contest asked readers to come up with a less offensive name for the Washington Redskins. The winner, published two weeks later, was Douglas R. Miller, with the entry ‘The Baltimore Redskins. No, don’t move the team, just let Baltimore deal with it.’ He won a Timex watch like the one President Bill Clinton wore at the time, and apparently never entered again, as he wanted to retire undefeated. The second week’s contest was to replace the state of Maryland’s slogan ‘Manly deeds, Womanly words’ and yielded up such responses as ‘Maryland – Home to its residents’ and winner ‘Maryland – Wait! We can explain!’ by Oslo. He won an as yet unpurchased large kitschy crab sculpture/decoration, but traded it for a Timex. Another early contest asked entrants to help choose a better nickname for Washington, D.C., to replace ‘A Capital City.’ Exemplifying the S.I.’s irreverence, the winning entry was ‘A Work-Free Drug Place.’

Devotees of the S.I. meets periodically in the Washington, D.C. area, and hosts an annual ‘Flushies’ awards dinner that has attracted gameplayers from as far away as Ireland and California. The contest also gets entries from England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. Further indicative of interest in the S.I. was a (now-defunct) Rotisserie League, in which players championed and won points for the successes of their favorite entrants. There has also been a contest newsletter, ‘Depravda,’ begun by Elden Carnahan of Laurel, Md and subsequently foisted off on another unsuspecting Loser. Once a proud monthly periodical, ‘Depravda’ now appears only when editorial inertia can be overcome.

The most notable name in S.I. annals is Chuck Smith, of Woodbridge, Va., who first won in the contest’s sixth week. His frequent successes inspired a contest solely to decide what to do about him. He won that contest, too. Brendan Beary, of Great Mills, Md., was the 2005 chart topper, with over 100 ‘inks.’ In 2006, he won a limerick contest between himself and fellow Loser Chris Doyle. Russell Beland, formerly of Springfield, Va. now of Fairfax, VA holds the record for most entries printed, reaching 1,500 entries in 2011. He passed 1,000 in 2006, and earned the opportunity to judge a week of the contest. He has temporarily retired from the Invitational on several occasions, one of which prompted a contest to suggest an Invitational prize sufficient to lure him back. (The winning entry: ‘A night on the town with Mrs. Beland.’)

Chris Doyle, currently entering either from Ponder, Tex., or various Internet cafes during an around-the-world trip, is known for his prodigious wordplay, poetry and anagrams, and was a perennial winner in a similar past contest in ‘New York Magazine,’ from which the S.I. may have drawn its inspiration. He was the second Invitational entrant to pass 1,000 appearances, and is also presently the second-most prolific contributor to the ‘Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form’ (OEDILF). Many Style Invitational Losers have become OEDILF contributors (and vice versa).

‘The Czar of the Style Invitational’ was the pseudonymous man behind the contest. He chose all the winners – calling the contest the ‘last pure meritocracy on Earth’ – and controlled all aspects of the contest. Very little was known about the Czar for some time, except that he worked for the ‘Washington Post’ coming up with the contest ideas and choosing the winners for every week’s contest. Post writer and humorist Gene Weingarten was believed to be the Czar despite public denials. However, in 1999, and again in 2001, he admitted in his column that he edited the feature. The Czar retired in late 2003, giving all the power to ‘The Empress of the Style Invitational,’ who has suggested she has a lower tolerance for immature or bathroom humor than the Czar. In early 2011, with the Invitational’s move to Sunday’s Style section, the Empress was outed by the Post as former copy editor Pat Myers, whose real name appears in the byline. On washingtonpost.com and in the contest’s discussion group, the Style Conversational, she still goes by ‘The Empress.’

Each week’s contest begins with a few examples of answers to the contest, which is confusing since they appear before the contest theme for the week is presented. There is often a picture or pictorial example. Sometimes the contest relates to a picture, such as one where entrants suggest what a given cartoon picture or group of pictures might represent. Beneath this is a paragraph beginning with the phrase ‘This week’s contest,’ followed by a description of the contest. There is then fine print describing the prizes, how to enter, and how to determine if you are eligible for the prizes.

Results begin with commentary by The Empress on entries that were too common to publish, funny but un-printable entries, and anything else of note. There follows the first- to fourth-place entries in that order, after which is listed a (usually) generous number of Honorable Mentions, and the week’s report ends with a reminder of which contest results will appear the next week. On occasion, the Post website includes ‘overflow’ Honorable Mentions absent from the print editions; this is typically limited to contest results in which each entry is necessarily lengthy (e.g., song parody lyrics) and the print column capable of running only a small number of entries.

Aside from the typical Winner, Runners-Up, and Honorable Mentions, there have been many other means to get one’s name in print over the years. Ongoing methods include donating the weird prizes, suggesting the contest for the week, supplying a revised title for Honorable Mention entries for a given week’s results, and writing the revised contest title that runs when the contest results are printed. There is an occasional ‘Anti-Invitational’ entry printed (being an entry that is directly opposite what was asked for in the contest). Defunct past themes included writing the ‘Ear No One Reads,’ being ‘Uncle’s Pick’ (a reference to a humorless figure nominated to replace the Czar years ago), being the ‘Rookie of the Week,’ and penning the Contest’s short-lived ‘Dead Presidents’ comic strip.

Individuals are often singled out for abuse by Czar or Empress. Verbal abuse is frequently heaped upon writers of remarkably obscene or distasteful entries, and individuals who whine about the judging or overtly lobby for their own entries. The Empress is constantly on the look out for flagrant plagiarism (defined as ‘being in touch with one’s inner Google’), the penalty for which is severe admonition and retribution. Prizes have changed under the current administration, a canvas grocery bag was introduced as a new runner-up prize, and the Empress switched to a new first-place statue, the ‘Inkin’ Memorial’ (an Abraham Lincoln bobblehead) from the original ‘Inker’ (a bookend of ‘The Thinker’ with a paper bag over its head) after the bookends went out of manufacture.

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One Comment to “The Style Invitational”

  1. The Style Invitational just celebrated its 20th anniversary (and 1011th contest). It’s still going full blast at washingtonpost.com/styleinvitational, where a new humor/ wordplay contest is posted each week. Write the Empress, Pat Myers, at myersp@washpost.com if you’d like to be added to the once-a-week mailing list every time (usually late Thursday) when a new contest and the new set of results are posted.

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