One of America's great Web sites/Brian O'Neill

October 8, 2006

The only sane response to our era is to be perpetually fascinated and appalled.
Ingesting the news is not enough. Twisting the news is a must, a tonic for our battered souls. Pittsburgh needs headlines such as:
Littlefield is Out; Pirates Name Zombie Filmmaker George Romero New General Manager; Team Cites Romero's Proven Track Record For Raising the Dead
UPMC Acquires Mercy Hospital; Healthcare Behemoth Vows No Cuts in Charity Care for Downtrodden "Provided Downtrodden Can Pay''
This is the work of the Carbolic Smoke Ball, a Web site that went quietly about its satiric business for more than a year before The New York Times mentioned it last month. Since then, the site's perpetrators have been on radio -- the WDVE morning show and John McIntire's KDKA show -- and have even been profiled in the Brand X newspaper, where a sociology professor was brought in to comment on the role of satire in modern society, no less.
That's the way it is in Pittsburgh. Thousands of folks here do great work with no recognition, but get someone in New York to imply you're the bee's knees, and people will flock to your Web site, maybe even build you a museum on the North Side.
As I was the guy who told the Times reporter he ought to talk to the boys from Carbolic before he did his story on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, I feel somewhat responsible for their quasi-fame, their notoriety in semi-anonymity.
"Now we're stuck with this thing, this monster,'' Bob Haas told me the other day.
We were high in the Gulf Building, in the offices of Tim Murray, the mild-mannered attorney who launched the Web site with the banker Haas in the summer of 2005.
Not long after, they added the talents of Sean Cannon, who prefers to keep details of his employment secret "so as not to compromise my effectiveness as a crime fighter.''
Straight answers are not their forte. But since that Times piece ran, Murray says, they've been getting about 500 to 600 visitors a day on their Web site,
Murray's office is posh, his client list impressive, and Haas is a banker with a BlackBerry. I'm guessing their resumes are stronger than most novice bloggers. Generally, an office view like Murray's is the unachievable goal, not the starting point, for a humorist.
But Murray, 47, and Haas, 50, had no idea what they were getting into when they launched the site. They'd been collaborating on an unpublished play since 1979 (with time out for donuts, of course). One day they decided to dump the overflow jokes on the Internet and see what happened.
Not much did until Peter Leo praised their work on this page a year ago, and then traffic picked up. But even as more print and electronic media take notice, Murray and Haas still concentrate on the medium that is older than Sophocles.
They meet every Thursday night and Saturday morning to work on their play. They've seen too many comedies with maybe 10 laughs the entire night. Their goal is to write a play with a laugh in every line, no matter how many donuts from Dave's Terrace Bakery in Baldwin borough that might take.
Their ultimate goal?
"We have to set a goal,'' Haas said. "That's our goal.''
For a couple of graduates of now defunct St. Elizabeth High in Pleasant Hills, these guys have no shortage of irreverence -- or funny hats. Haas went from country to country at Walt Disney World just to get solemn photos of himself in sombreros and fezzes.
This loose consortium spits out 10 or 15 pieces a week, concentrating on Pittsburgh topics because they generate the most traffic.
Joey Porter's Dogs Hire Attorney Jim Ecker to Represent Them
Luke Ravenstahl's Mother Scolds Him for Going Along With Older Boys on Casino License
Police Raid Raucous Frat Party Only To Find It Was Mayor's Inaugural Ball
The inside information is this: "Carbolic Smoke Ball' refers to a company in a contract law case that is a standard in law schools. The site spokesman, Judge Rufus Peckham, is a genuine historical figure, widely regarded as perhaps the worst justice in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. The photo used for the late Judge Peckham is actually Frank Rizzo, the late Philadelphia Mayor. The nose-picking Pirate remains anonymous.
Murray dreams of that perfect story, which he expects to find, as "we're not constrained by the facts.''
Haas allows himself bigger dreams. With enough fame, he believes, some Saturday morning soon he might be moved to the front of the line at Dave's Terrace Bakery.
Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.
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