Something the Grackles Made

The life and works of Mr. Pants

A rare shot of Mr. Smarty Pants without his pipe, which makes him even smarter
A rare shot of Mr. Smarty Pants without his pipe, which makes him even smarter (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

When I first met Mr. Smarty Pants, his name was Richard Steinberg. He didn't smoke a pipe, at least not that kind, and he didn't particularly seem to have a lot of facts at his disposal. He was, however, a bon vivant, a sociable fellow, an amiable seeker well-suited to survival in the cloistered, miscreant-infested asylum of The Daily Texan entertainment department (which also proved a nurturing environment for hothouse flowers Nick Barbaro and Louis Black), where we toiled as editors of the daily section (me) and weekly magazine (him).

While I can't account for the circuitous path that led "Richard" to become "R.U." and, eventually, "Mr. Smarty Pants" (mostly because I'm not familiar with it), I am willing, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of "Mr. Smarty Pants" – the Chronicle column – to let him do so. Via e-mail interview (with a little phone follow-up), I give you Mr. Pants:

Austin Chronicle: When did you first realize you were Mr. Smarty Pants? How did that knowledge make you feel?

Mr. Smarty Pants: It was the spring of 1988. I was in love with a beautiful woman. We were young and eclectic. We had gone to see the Kodo Drummers at the UT Performing Arts Center with her roommate. The weather was so nice and the parking was so horrible that we decided to park in the middle of campus and walk to the concert. We could walk two or three miles to a parking place. And those guys sure knew how to drum. What a concert! On the way back to the car, walking along Speedway, my girlfriend and her roommate were dive-bombed by grackles. There was bird crap everywhere. I escaped unscathed. I think I tried to make a gallant gesture – if I had a jacket, I loaned it to her to wipe herself off. Or maybe there was a roll of paper towels in my car. I'm a hopeless romantic, always trying to come to the rescue. I recall her asking me, "Why, why are these grackles here? And what do they want?" Still feeling gallant, I interviewed experts, did hours of research at the library. And I wrote a story for the Chronicle: "Grackles: What Do They Want?" I showed her the article. She said, "Well you're quite a Mr. Smarty Pants, aren't you?!" She drew me a little caricature of me. And Mr. Smarty Pants was born!

AC: Describe two of the most interesting responses you have received from "Pants" columns.

MSP: One came from a fellow who wondered why Mr. Smarty Pants and the American media never ran anything positive about Adolf Hitler. True, I'm Jewish, and as we all know, the Jews control the American media. But this is a mere coincidence. I ran a fact about a Hitler original painting that is hanging in a museum near Waco and, according to one art critic, isn't very good. The reader said that if Churchill or Roosevelt had been painters, the American media would have praised them as geniuses. I didn't have the heart to tell this gentleman (nor did I want to risk having a cross burned on my lawn) that Churchill was considered a really good amateur artist and that the media had praised him.

Another came from this woman in Great Britain who read one of my columns, recognized the name of a person I mentioned who was connected to the royal family, and wrote to thank me. She later revealed she was married to a famous American country & western star. After checking several sources, I learned this star was in effect a bachelor, that the woman was apparently crazy, and that she had made death threats to the members of star's fan club.

AC: Describe "Pants" swag and how it came about.

MSP: The column was born in the basement of the Texas Capitol, where I worked as a proofreader. Co-workers were more than happy to contribute factoids, but I wasn't getting paid much in those days. The best I could do was reward my contributors with Honorary Smarty Pants badges made out of Sculpey. I couldn't afford mass-produced buttons, and people liked the personal touch of hand-crafted badges. Besides, we loved the smell of burning Sculpey in the Capitol microwave. From there, I branched out to T-shirts, bumper stickers, mass-produced buttons, and embroidered goods. I'm thinking about a really big swag project, something bigger, thanks to a great idea from Mark Gates at the Chronicle. It's too big an idea to leak just yet. What I really need is the love of a good woman, a creative partner in crime, to help me pull it off.

AC: How seriously have you been served (as in "you got served") when you've printed an erroneous statement? What was the duration and severity of the service?

MSP: It was recently. I ran a factoid about people being able to harness the radiation produced by their cell phones to pop popcorn. My source didn't know it was a publicity stunt/prank, and neither did I. But, oy, I was sentenced to a week's barrage of e-mails telling me how wrong I had been. Cha-ching, Mr. Smarty Pants is an idiot. Okay, so what else is new? [Editor's note: "Mr. Smarty Pants" does run with the following disclaimer: "The above is information that Mr. Smarty Pants read in a book, a magazine, or the newspaper; heard on the radio; saw on television; or overheard at a party."]

AC: What percentage of your column is composed of items overheard at a party?

MSP: Is that a trick question to see how many parties I attend? Because I need to get back more into the party circuit. I'd say about 10-20% comes from parties. Holding any parties soon? Put me down for an invite.

AC: How has being Mr. Smarty Pants helped or hindered your romantic life? Do you think there is another Mrs. Pants out there?

MSP: In my youth, I think it served me somewhat. I could count my conquests on a finger or two. I did meet a woman who, despite the fact that I said I was Mr. Smarty Pants, decided to marry me anyway. We were together for 10 years, produced a Smarty Pants Jr., but now I am alone again and she is remarried. After five years of being divorced, I can safely say that being Mr. Smarty Pants has done bubkes as far as my romantic life. I might as well be telling women I'm Richard Simmons. I'm sure there is a woman out there for me, but I'll probably have a better chance if she has never read my column.

AC: Can you really do that thing with your eyebrow like in the illustration that accompanies your column? (I'm pretty sure you can, but readers need to know.)

MSP: I don't have the unibrow, but yes. I practiced copying eyebrow expressions while watching Leonard Nimoy portray Mr. Spock.

AC: What was the transition from journalist to smarty pants like?

MSP: It was a piece of cake. My piece about grackles (see question 1 above) was Journalism 101. I think all journalists dream of being smarty pantses. Some of them pull it off when their editors are not paying attention. Before I was "the" Mr. Smarty Pants, I tried it in multiple ways. For example, I had a humor column about fishing, wrote about the big one that got away. Then I wrote a piece about a sexually transmitted disease, which resulted in a lawsuit. Gosh, some people are so sensitive. Was that journalism or being a smarty pants? Look at Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Maher. Smarty-pants journalists one and all.

AC: How has the Internet changed "Mr. Smarty Pants?"

MSP: I have reached a much wider audience than ever imagined without being paid an extra dime. But seriously, I do enjoy getting e-mails from people from all over. I was the subject of a morning show in Australia once. The Internet has also toned me down. Once my site started being read by elementary school students, I realized that being a potty mouth was not the way to be.

AC: Do you think you will ever lose your edge?

MSP: I cannot afford to lose my edge, or else I could be tossed away like yesterday's fad. My readers will keep me honest. I find new ways to stay edgy. For example, I just went to Mexico to gather secrets on making outstanding margaritas. I like to practice drinking and am getting pretty good at it. But I can always use more practice.

AC: If you have a protégé(e) (real or imaginary), what is s/he like?

MSP: She has a wonderment about life (real or imaginary). She questions authority (real or imaginary). In addition to being my protégée, she is also my muse. And that sometimes makes her my mentor. I see lots of day trips where we bounce ideas off each other, discussing factoids about subjects like how to make the best barbecue.

AC: Do you know what a protégé is? Because your answer makes me think you are confusing it with a "girlfriend."

MSP: Yeah, I know what a protégé is! I just don't see myself as having a protégé. I'm more often the one in the protégé role. I don't see how I could pass the baton of smarty-pantsness off to someone else, because I think there's a little smarty pants in everyone.

AC: What effect has "Mr. Smarty Pants" had on the Chronicle? On Austin? On the world?

Something the Grackles Made

MSP: Well, I'd like to think I've helped class up the adult ads section in the back. I've always enjoyed telling people who never saw the column to look in the back near the Adult Stuff.

Person 1: "Honey, are you reading all that smut in the back of the paper?"

Person 2: "Why no, dear, I'm reading 'Mr. Smarty Pants.' Did you know George Washington had shaky hands and was a great dancer?"

Person 1: "I didn't know that. You turn me on when you read factoids strategically placed near ads for topless bars. Let's make love."

Person 2: "I thought you'd never ask. But did you know that according to a recent survey ..."

Person 1: "Shut up you impetuous fool! Take off those smarty pants, why don't you?"

AC: Please tell us a brief story that you think you will otherwise never get to share with the reading public.

MSP: A long time ago, Matt Groening came through town. This was before The Simpsons. Not to name-drop, but we talked about how he became successful with "Life in Hell" thanks to a good woman in his life. He shared secrets; I took notes. I have always wanted to implement these secrets but am awaiting a good woman in my life. I think it would be wonderful to implement these secrets along with the idea about the unimplemented swag (see above). Have I been too obvious about finding a good woman?

Additional reporting by Wayne Alan Brenner, Mark Fagan, and James Renovitch

Ask Mr. Smarty Pants questions, view factoids past and present, and much more at austinchronicle.com/smartypants. Look and listen for him on various media outlets this week, and wish him a happy 20th if you see him.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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