25 Years of Mr. Smarty Pants for R. U. Steinberg
Austin's favorite factoid-man celebrates a quarter-century.
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:30AM, Mon. Sep. 23, 2013
Did you know? Trobriand Islanders have a euphemism for having sex that translates to "scraping the tapioca."
Mr. Smarty Pants knew that – because he read it somewhere, or it was mentioned on television, or during a radio broadcast, or maybe he overheard it at a party – and then shared it, and four or five other odd factoids, with readers in an issue of the Austin Chronicle.
Did you know? Something that Phoenix, Liverpool, and Pyongyang have in common is that they're all named after fabulous birds that never really existed.
Mr. Smarty Pants knew that, too, and he knew – and knows – thousands upon thousands of other things that his weekly column has been bringing to light since 1988. But just who is this enigmatic know-it-all behind the cartoon face with the pipe? His name, first of all, is R. U. Steinberg; his friends call him Richard. And his column, which runs in Austin's popular altweekly and at the weekly in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began because of the whole Daily Texan situation of the early Eighties.
R. U. Steinberg: My start at the Chronicle started with the Daily Texan, the student newspaper at UT. I was new to Austin – this was 1980 – and I didn't know anybody. And I'd joined the band, and I made one or two friends there, but my Dad said, "Why don't you join the school paper?" Because I'd done that back in high school in New York. So I went to the managing editor of the Texan, and she took me to the entertainment office. And I said, basically, "OK, I'm ready to do whatever's needed." And the entertainment editor at the time was Sarah Whistler – who became a founding member of the Chronicle later on – and she said, 'We need somebody to do the entertainment listings.' You know – the theatre events, art galleries, et cetera. So that's what I did, and after a while I started to write stories while I continued doing the listings. And then the Chronicle formed, and they had somebody doing listings there initially, but that person resigned. And when that happened, they turned to me and said, "Would you mind doing listings for us, too?" And so I was the Listings Editor for both papers at the same time for a while.
W. A. Brenner: You were doing my day job!
Steinberg: Yeah, I was – and then I branched out. Because, you know, you start off doing grunt work for a while, and then you say "Hey, can I write a story on this?" and "Can I write a story on that?" and eventually they're like, "Well, Richard's a good guy, we'll let him do some stories." So that was how I started, and then the Chronicle went from bi-weekly to weekly and they wanted someone in-house, someone there all the time. But by that time I was already working for the State of Texas and wasn't willing to give up my cushy salary. So I resigned from doing the listings. And within a year of that, "Mr. Smarty Pants" started.
Brenner: And where'd the idea for that come from?
Steinberg: Well, my cushy state job was at the Capital – I was a proofreader for the legislature. And it was a very eclectic mix of people working there. All, obviously, very good spellers – because they're proofreaders. And they had very interesting things to say, so you're sitting there at a table, waiting for legislation to come in, and you're having these conversations. And one day I started writing down some of the things they were talking about. Like "George Washington was a great dancer" or whatever crazy facts they were telling each other – like people do in conversation. And before I knew it, I had, like, six weeks worths of columns. And I went to Louis [Black, Chronicle editor] and Nick [Barbaro, Chronicle publisher], and I said, "I have this idea for a column." And I showed them the sample columns, and I showed them the logo –
Brenner: You already had a logo?
Steinberg: It was because my girlfriend and I were walking through the UT campus one day, going to the performing arts center, and she got hit by grackle poop. And she said, "This is terrible! Why are there so many grackles here?" And so I researched it, talked to some professors at UT, did some research at the Perry-Casteñeda Library, and actually wrote an article about why there are so many grackles in Austin. And I showed it to my girlfriend, and her reaction was, "Oh, you're such a smarty pants!" And she drew this picture of me – I smoked a pipe at the time. And so when I went in to pitch the column, I brought the drawing with me.
Brenner: And Louis and Nick liked the idea?
Steinberg: Louis said, "This is the stupidest stuff I have ever read – but I love it." And that's how it started, as simple as that.
Brenner: Are there specific topics that you keep returning to over the years?
Steinberg: One editorial direction they gave me, they said "It's good to have a balance, like have an animal factoid, a famous person factoid, maybe a historical and a science factoid." So I tried to revolve around having a variety of things. Maybe not all of those things in every column, maybe like half of those. I try to keep it that way, but I don't always succeed. But if I have, like, too many celebrity factoids, I'll just save one for the next week. For a while there, given my background of being Jewish, I went looking for funny Nazi facts. But I got scared away from that, because somebody emailed me and said "Why don't you ever write anything positive about Adolf Hitler?" And I was afraid to run too many Nazi facts after that.
Brenner: Have you ever gotten called out on something that turned out to be wrong, that wasn't actually a fact?
Steinberg: Oh, have I ever! The New Yorker magazine called me out. What happened was, a friend of mine had sent me a link to a video on YouTube about how you could get popcorn popping if you got four or five cellphones and put them around the kernels and everyone called at the same time. And Snopes had this tribute that I didn't realize at the time, and after the column ran, someone sent me an email with a link to the Snopes article calling the video a hoax. And I ran a retraction in the Chronicle, "I'm sorry for any inconvenience, but that 'fact' was actually not true." And The New Yorker ran a copy of the retraction.
Brenner: Does your Mr. Smarty Pants column run in places other than Austin and Tulsa?
Steinberg: I run monthly in San Francisco, in a dog-owners' magazine there, called Bay Woof. I provide them with dog facts.
Brenner: And after 25 factoid-filled years – with people coming and going all the time, with the ability to telecommute from anywhere in the country – why do you still live in Austin?
Steinberg: It's where I came of age. I went to UT Austin and, like many people, stayed here after that. And my parents lived here until they passed away five years ago. I guess I just got locked in: The state job … got married … had a kid … got divorced … the kid's still in school. I can't think of a place I'd rather live. I've been all over the country, but it's so unaffordable elsewhere. And I have a lot of friends in Austin, too. I don't know if I'll always be here, but I'm happy with it now.