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Woody Goes Limp

Post columnist Woody Paige's big shtick shrinks in chilly Utah.

"Based on what I've been told," says Denver Post columnist Woody Paige, "the two evil forces of the Salt Lake City Olympics are the French figure-skating judge and me."

Maybe so -- and the comparisons between France's Marie-Reine Le Gougne and Paige don't end there. Le Gougne was suspended by the International Olympic Committee after reportedly giving higher marks to Russian figure skaters Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze than Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier because of pressure from her national federation -- an allegation she refutes. Paige, for his part, landed in trouble because of his February 12 column titled "Colorado Real Winner of Games," which affronted Utah natives in general and Salt Lake City dwellers specifically. Two days later, he printed a column apologizing -- and, like Le Gougne, denied that he was acting under pressure. Rather, he says, he did it because of the heat "everyone else at the paper was taking -- not from a subscription or circulation or advertising standpoint, but just in general. People I work with and people I don't even know were getting so much grief that an apology was necessary."

But just how repentant does Paige really feel about the matter? Having spent many hours on buses traveling to and from different events, he's had a lot of time to reflect on his sins, and he swears his remorse is genuine. At the same time, though, he seems to see himself more as victim than victimizer. "The other night I had dinner with a couple of columnists, and I realized that what happened was probably beneficial for them," he says. "Dozens of columnists would have written similar-type pieces -- but as soon as everything occurred, they knew not to do anything negative, facetious, sarcastic or humorous. Since then, everyone's been sweet and kind." The Salt Lake City Olympics organizers "will never thank me for it," he goes on, "but they probably should."

According to Paige, who has written about sports and other subjects in Denver for over a quarter-century, he's gotten more gratitude from readers. He claims to have been stopped for an autograph earlier this week, and to have received 12,000 e-mails, approximately half of which came down on his side. Included among this number, he says, are postings from "columnists from all over the country -- Boston, Las Vegas, the Washington Post, the New York Post -- saying, 'What's the world coming to?' and telling me I never should have apologized." When it comes to his style, he doesn't: "I'm never going to stop being irreverent for you or anybody else."

If only he were as adamant about using fresh material.

In a sense, Paige is the anti-Will Rogers. Whereas Rogers famously announced that he'd never met a man he didn't like, Woody has apparently never visited a city that he could stand. Long ago, he figured out that he could endear himself to locals and piss off outsiders by ridiculing people and places located beyond Denver's city limits. It's a routine that was tired when the first George Bush was in the White House, and for those of us who are subjected to it on a regular basis, it's about as shocking as an episode of Blue's Clues. But such stunts stir the pot elsewhere, as was proven by the dust-up over Paige's allegedly witty February 12 salvo.

Paige argued in the column that Salt Lake City "has royally screwed up the Olympics," using as examples traffic problems and price-gouging hotels -- problems that have never cropped up anywhere before, right? More controversially, he charged the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with turning the Games into "a massive Mormon marketing scheme" in which young women "who act like they're straight out of The Stepford Wives" line up to thrust literature at unsuspecting passersby. He also proposed that Colorado try to attract tourists turned off by Utah with the following pitch: "Visit beautiful Colorado. We won't force you to take a religious brochure at every street corner, make you eat lime Jell-O at every meal, coerce you into joining a private club to enjoy a drink or buying a bottle from a state-owned liquor store, ask you to worship a salamander and a sea-gull, marry three of your mother's cousins, consider you inferior if you're not white, a man or heterosexual...and wear weird underwear under your parkas and ski pants."

These jibes were far from original, but they stood out from other Denver-based coverage, since no one else writing for the Post or the Rocky Mountain News has been allowed to make even mild jokes about Utah customs past or present. ("Take my wives -- please!") Incensed SLC residents flooded the Post's Web site with scathing e-mails; when that lost its fun, they branched out to the Denver Chamber of Commerce -- and a Salt Lake City radio station even delivered a U-Haul filled with lime Jell-O to the Post's headquarters. More seriously, Mormon Church spokesman Mike Otterson called the column "a really nasty piece, an offensive piece to Utahans" in a February 13 Associated Press report.

Post editor Glenn Guzzo, who fully supported Paige last July when a column quoting an Invesco executive's nickname for Denver's new football stadium ("The Diaphragm") sparked lawsuit warnings, was no friendlier. In the same AP article, he branded the scribblings "inappropriate" and pledged that the Woodman's February 14 column would contain an apology.

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