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Cartoonist draws, fires a blank with Pittsburgh joke

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

You've got to feel for Darby Conley, creator of the syndicated comic strip "Get Fuzzy." The guy pens a panel (which doesn't run in any local publications) joking that Pittsburgh smells bad and thousands of outraged citizens deluge him with hate mail and even some death threats.

Apparently taken aback by this outpouring of anger, Conley follows up with a tongue-in-cheek "apology" cartoon, the gist of which is that Pittsburghers need to lighten up.

The reason I feel for the guy is not that he's getting so much hate mail. It's that he's getting it in response to such a stale joke. Hardly anybody believes that Pittsburgh is a stinky city anymore.

Clearly, the guy's an amateur. His biggest mistake was entering an arena inhabited by pros.

Most famously, Boston writer James Parton (not Charles Dickens, who often gets the credit/blame) described the town as "hell with the lid off" in 1868. That's the kind of insult that sticks -- 135 years later we're still smarting.

No less a literary luminary than Anthony Trollope, the 19th-century English traveler, delivered himself of this poetic, backhanded compliment: "Pittsburgh, without exception, is the blackest place I ever saw. ... I was never more in love with smoke and dirt than when I stood there and watched the darkness of night close in upon the floating soot which hovered over the house tops of the city."

Muckraker Lincoln Steffens included Pittsburgh in his 1903 expose "Shame of the Cities," citing its government scandals and corruption.

The best insults, though, are more contemporary. They were written by Peter Conrad for the March 13, 1994 edition of The Observer Review of London, after Conrad came here to check out the not-yet-opened Andy Warhol Museum. The man had such a rollicking good time trashing the artist and the city, the piece fairly reeked of malicious glee. He wrote:

"[Warhol's] infatuation with beauty makes sense in this blackened and pockmarked city, where the only color is the incongruous turquoise facade of a steel mill or the gilded mosaic Byzantine saints above the door of the Catholic church ... "

And: "The museum shares its block with some rancid flophouses and an Italian eatery whose customers all appear to be relatives of Roseanne Arnold and John Goodman. A taxi driver cheerily told me that I had just missed a drive-by killing."

And: "What has happened to Warhol sums up what is happening to Pittsburgh itself. Hunched in its ravine, it is a hard-bitten, proletarian town, populated by immigrants ... from beyond the Carpathian mountains. Bingo parlors abound, as do establishments dealing in prosthetics."

Prosthetics!! Ya gotta love it, or love to hate it.

Yes, we've been flayed and pummeled by the best of them, and this explains the citizenry's hair-trigger defensiveness. We may or may not still be considered a national joke -- only outsiders can judge that -- but we're holding on fast to our inferiority complex and the righteous indignation that goes with it.

So when Conley's follow-up strip implies that Pittsburghers should lighten up and get a life, it just shows how little he knows about us. This IS our life, buddy, and we like it that way, so why don't you c'mon over here and say that?

No, you don't have to insult Pittsburgh in any kind of meaningful way to get a rise out of the populace. All you have to do is look at us cross-wise. That's kind of a shame, because the nasty mail that his cartoon evoked could easily obscure the larger point: Conley took aim at the broad side of a barn and missed.

There are so many things about Pittsburgh that merit derision. And in fact, nobody is better at ticking them off than Pittsburghers, who can be merciless in their criticisms of the town they inhabit. But you'd have to come here to know that.

We're broke, for one thing. We have a mayor who led us there, and a committee that wants him to take over the school system, which is not broke but might well be if he were in charge. We have Democrats who are as conservative as Rick Santorum, and Republicans who are as liberal as Ted Kennedy. We have a PROTHONOTARY, for heaven's sake!

I could go on, but you get my drift. Conley might, too, if he did a little checking. I wouldn't advise a visit, though. Those prosthetics can inflict a lot of damage.

Sally Kalson can be reached at or 412-263-1610.

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