Know-it-all's column proves a rare find Y: Beth Hannan

April 29, 1994|By Contributing Writer

Who ya gonna call when you want to know what the Queen carries in her purse? Dear Abby? Nah.

When you want the straight dope, go to Cecil Adams, the sarcastic, all-knowing author of the new book "Return of the Straight Dope" and the nationally syndicated column "The Straight Dope," which appears locally in the City Paper.

Cecil will answer questions on virtually anything. "We don't do much celebrity stuff in general. Apart from that and apart from questions that are just dull, there ain't much we won't take on," explains Cecil's longtime editor and spokesman, Ed Zotti.

It's difficult to show the breadth of questions in a family newspaper, but suffice it to say the more interesting -- if not bizarre -- topics include circumcision, spontaneous human combustion, gerbil stuffing and how Catherine the Great really died.

"The Straight Dope" can tackle unusual topics candidly because it appears in the Chicago Reader and about two dozen alternative papers across the country. Mr. Zotti admits that this "has somewhat limited the audience, but on the other hand it gives you a strange and terrible freedom because you can write about just about anything without too much grief."

But that doesn't mean that Cecil is the answer man for the world's wackos. "People have the idea that all we do is completely off-the-wall questions, which is not really the case. I have to say that probably 80 percent of the questions, if not necessarily serious, are not nutty, but the ones people remember are the completely bizarre ones," says Mr. Zotti.

"The funniest question we've gotten in a while is actually on the cover of the book -- 'How can there be interstate highways in Hawaii?'

"Not quite as good a question but along the same lines was, 'When they're going to execute a guy by lethal injection, do they swab his arm with alcohol first?' It's not a joking topic, obviously, but one of the things about 'The Straight Dope' is that we actually try to get the answers to these things," he says. The Texas Department of Corrections, which has the most experience in this, cleared things up. "Yes, they do swab off the arm," Mr. Zotti explains. "It brings blood vessels to the surface and helps you get a better shot with your IV [and] the guy might be taken off. You wouldn't want the guy to die of infection."

Obviously, "The Straight Dope" is not a trivia column.

"Trivia tends to suggest things like 'What were the names of the original actors on the pilot of the Brady Bunch?' " says Mr. Zotti. "I think it's the sort of thing any person with any intellectual curiosity would be delighted to know. We do take the research seriously."

Is there anything they can't answer? "Not that we would admit to, but some questions take longer than others," says Mr. Zotti. "A lot of questions you can get done in a day or two. A big plus lately has been the information highway."

Nepotism helps, too.

"My wife is a banker, and she has all these Ph.D. brothers. We have a biologist and physicist and they're married to Ph.D. wives," says Mr. Zotti.

One problem they calculated was the "aggregate thud" that would take place if all 1 billion Chinese jumped off chairs at the same time. "I think we came up with 430 tons of TNT equivalent," says Mr. Zotti.

Besides tackling almost anything, Cecil is well known for being testy, if not outright surly. His comebacks are almost as good as his answers.

"One I have always liked from way back was some guy asked a dumb question and Cecil's reply was, 'If ignorance were corn flakes, jack, you'd be General Mills,' " says Mr. Zotti.

"I think [Cecil] has mellowed a bit. Some people think he's gone completely soft, which I don't think is the case. Maybe in the sense of trying not to be completely gratuitous."

So what does Queen Elizabeth carry in her handbag? A !c compact, a comb, lipstick, a handkerchief and, on Sundays, "a small bill of unknown denomination." While that's hardly a state secret, Buckingham Palace did not cooperate.

"This legendary British sense of humor you hear about is a complete fraud from what I can tell. They did not see the humor in it at all. The way we got the answer was someone sent us a clipping from Majesty magazine, a magazine for royal groupies," explains Mr. Zotti.

So last but not least, what is the straight dope on Cecil Adams? There have been rumors for years that the legendary recluse does not exist.

"Ahh, I am contractually obligated not to speak about this," says Mr. Zotti.

What about the 1990 Wall Street Journal article that insisted Cecil Adams was a nom de plume?

"They [the Journal] arrived at certain deductions without my assistance, but it has been bruited about that Cecil and I are one and the same," says Mr. Zotti.

"I have never admitted to that and never will and, of course, Cecil's idea is that there is a campaign of disinformation which has been put across by myself and the two previous editors of the column who would like to take credit themselves. Cecil himself takes umbrage and can't imagine how anybody can think that these dim bulbs like Zotti could possibly have written this incredibly funny column.

"The reason I can prove I'm not Cecil is that Cecil knows everything and is never wrong, whereas Ed Zotti knows a lot of stuff but not everything and is occasionally wrong."

That looks like the best answer until Cecil comes out of seclusion to give us the straight dope himself.

THE STRAIGHT DOPE

What: Ed Zotti, editor of "The Return of The Straight Dope," will answer questions and sign books.

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Borders Books and Music, Towson Commons, 415 York Road

% Information: 296-0791

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