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The birth of “the world’s smartest human” was a relatively unceremonious affair.
It happened in Chicago in 1973—long before Google, Wikipedia and MythBusters—during an otherwise ordinary editorial meeting at the Chicago Reader. A staffer at the then-fledging alt weekly, which turns 40 this year, threw out the seed for a new column: What if the author knows everything? What if he’s never wrong?
And so infallible answer man Cecil Adams began fighting ignorance weekly in “The Straight Dope,” laying waste to the world’s most puzzling questions with deep research set down in 800 words with enough acerbic wit, humor and clarity to make even the most snoozy science jargon a good read.
In the first “Straight Dope,” dated February 2, 1973, Adams tackled a few Chicago-centric queries. The scope quickly expanded as readers submitted questions on virtually every cocktail-party curiosity: Why do men have nipples? What’s the difference between white eggs and brown eggs? When a toilet atop the Sears Tower is flushed, do the contents fall 110 floors? Oh, and how in the hell do they get the little Ms on M&M’s? Over the years, Adams has taken on more than 3,000 such head-scratchers in the nationally syndicated column.
But the perennial “Straight Dope” question that has never been definitively answered is, “Who is Cecil Adams?” It’s an unknown that for decades has plagued “The Teeming Millions” (Adams’s affectionate term for the column’s readers). “Is Cecil Adams a real person, or a title for a group of people?” asks a speculative forum guest in the title of a popular thread on the “Straight Dope” message board. To which another user jokes, “I saw him in Las Vegas once. He was playing the quarter slots.”
In another thread, a reader gets closer to the truth, asking, “So…is Cecil Adams really Ed Zotti?” referring to the current “Straight Dope” editor.
In 1978, Zotti, who got his start as a Reader freelancer, took over the post, succeeding Mike Lenehan, who later became a Reader executive editor, and film critic Dave Kehr, now the DVD reviewer for The New York Times. As such, Zotti is the closest sentient manifestation of the fabled intellect. At a café near Zotti’s Lakeview home in September, I ask the quick-talking 60-year-old, who grew up in the Austin neighborhood before his family moved to Oak Park, about his relationship to Adams. At first, his response is straight out of The Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
“People have a lot of theories,” Zotti says with a smirk, painting himself as an errand boy for a genius. “I do much of Cecil’s typing, but Cecil presides. I’m Cecil’s editor, confidante and personal assistant. A couple of other assistants do some research and I do some research, and then Cecil gives it his magic touch and it somehow gets into the paper.”
“Straight Dope” copy editor Jim Shapiro gives me a similar runaround. “I’ve never met [Adams], but there’s lots of people I’ve never met,” he says. “I’ve never met Thomas Pynchon, but I’m pretty sure he’s more person than concept.” One of the column’s research assistants, mechanical engineer Una Persson (a pseudonym), tells me she once received a Christmas card from Adams.
Between sips of coffee, Zotti, balding and bespectacled, speaks of Adams as a real-life, demanding boss who’s disappointed when “Little Ed” (as Zotti’s often called in the column) lets typos creep into the copy. But he also reflects fondly on the wisdom of “the Master.” “One of Cecil’s famous lines is, ‘If hard data were the filtering criterion, you could fit the entire contents of the Internet onto a floppy disk,’ ” Zotti tells me. “The trick with ‘The Straight Dope’ is to go through the entire galaxy of mung to figure out what the facts are.”
Pushed a little further on the fact or fiction of Adams’s existence, Zotti lets his guard down a bit. “There are layers within layers. That’s not to say there isn’t some underlying reality to the myth,” he says. “Editors will come and go. I’ll get hit by a bus some day, but Cecil will be eternal. That’s all people need to know.” It’s perhaps most accurate, then, to say Cecil Adams is both a real person (Zotti) and a group of people (the research assistants, the copy editor, the mail guy who separates the Viagra spam from the usable question submissions)—a simulacrum for a team of truth seekers.
For the first time in “Straight Dope” history, however, Zotti is willing to step out from the shadow of Adams—to take full credit for safeguarding the column’s future survival. With alt weeklies dropping like flies or nixing syndicated features due to budget cuts, the number of papers that carry “The Straight Dope” has gone in the last few years from a healthy 30-plus to just 11, including the Reader. Wearing his business manager hat for StraightDope.com over the last three years, Zotti has parlayed the website’s 3.2 million unique visitors and 11 million page views per month into its own bankable enterprise via online advertising deals. The site hovers around the top 1,000 most-trafficked websites in the nation.
“We’re not making millions, but we’re always in the black,” Zotti cheerily reports. “So I look like a genius in a dying industry.” Zotti’s hope is that his genius will in turn ensure the longevity of that other genius, the all-knowing Cecil Adams.