putz (pŭts) n.
Slang: A fool; an idiot.
Vulgar Slang: A penis.
intr.v.: putzed, putz·ing, putz·es Slang To behave in an idle manner; putter.
[Yiddish pots, penis, fool.]
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

I can’t take full credit for this. My wife coined this phrase more than twelve years ago, as Marv Albert was arrested and put on trial for forcible sodomy of his then mistress of ten years. It was a trial known more for DNA evidence that Albert had bit his girlfriend more than fifteen times in their last encounter, the one that led to his arrest. Albert didn’t serve any jail time, and was fired from NBC for a short time before resuming his duties as the play-by-play voice for NBA games for them and TNT in ’99. As to why Albert was only temporarily hurt by his biting trial, my wife Angelia said, “It’s the putz factor.”

As soon as she said that, I knew she was right, not only about Marv Albert, but about other putzes out there. I recognize that this is a Yiddish word, but it has universal human applications. After all, some of us are better able to get away with public missteps and criminal behavior than others. In our pop culture, so many famous folks screw up, ethically, legally, and otherwise. When accounting for age, gender, race, orientation and money, it often comes down to the putz factor as the difference between a short-term disgrace or permanent ostracism.

This blog space is likely not enough to fully explore “the putz factor” in pop culture. But we can start with a few basic axioms.

1. Hair, or lack thereof, can make or break “the putz factor.”

Not to make too much fun of a serious situation, but most people know that Marv Albert has been wearing a full toupee for at least three decades. His various attempts at wearing ones that didn’t fit his age prior to his sodomy trial in Virginia in ’97 were perfect examples of his putziness. That alone would and did make many of us, unconsciously of course, feel sorry for him as his trial progressed, at least until he pleaded out with an assault charge for the bites on his girlfriend’s back.

Contrast this with the recently ousted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. His hair is as toupee-ish as Albert’s, but it’s all his hair. And the former governor has seemed vain about it, at least throughout his three months in the national spotlight. He may have many of the characteristics of a putz — including the habit of inserting foot in mouth — but his outwardly narcissistic behavior, combined with all of that hair, puts him several locks past putz. “Schmuck” is more appropriate here.

2. Dress does make the putz.

This is somewhat easy one. For many, the most obvious putz in the pop culture glow over the past thirty years would be film icon Woody Allen. Besides some of his films, the most controversial issue he’s faced was his relationship with and marriage to his former girlfriend’s (Mia Farrow) adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, in the ’90s. While he was never legally Previn’s stepfather, their relationship certainly raised many moral and ethical eyebrows. To be sure, Allen has been the recipient of significant venom as a result of this entangled relationship. But, he’s a putz, and he acts and dresses the part of one every day. Allen hasn’t suffered any long-term damage to his glorious reputation as a film maker, and still makes regular appearances to Knicks games at MSG, often with his wife. All without a single boo or hiss.

At the other end of the spectrum is former Senator John Edwards. That he looks a decade younger than his age, wears well-tailored suits, and is on record for spending $400 for a haircut all make him the anti-putz. All of which made it almost impossible for the press and public to feel sorry for Edwards when it came to light that he had a one-time relationship with a media consultant at the start of the ’08 presidential campaign cycle in the fall of ’06. That this came out after his wife had battled cancer was bad enough. That this was revealed just as now President Barack Obama was making his pick for VP — and that Edwards’ wife had known about the affair for well over a year — ruled out any possibility that “the putz factor” would save him. Edwards isn’t a putz, but he’s a lot of other things, none of them good.

3. One’s occupation can often negate “the putz factor.”

There are certain positions in the work force that lend themselves to the term “putz.” A car salesman, an accountant, a professor (including myself, sort of). There are some occupations, though, where someone’s hair, dress, or affect, putzy or not, doesn’t matter one iota. What fourteen-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps is going through right now is a good example of this. It really shouldn’t be a big deal, him toking up and all. If one’s reputation is built on a sense of good values, hard work, and athletic excellence, then drawing in weed smoke through a bong is a putzy move. But, Phelps has more gold medals than Mark Spitz and Jesse Owens combined. Though Phelps may have all of the characteristics of a putz, his out-of-this-world achievements in swimming make it much harder for him to be treated as one in the public eye.

4. Mean-spiritedness, no matter the person, cancels out the putz factor.

This is a simple but seldom followed point by folks in the public limelight. One’s mean-spirited personality, once unleashed in public, can’t be overlooked or excused. It completely contradicts the entire notion of being a putz, a fool that is unknowingly so. As Michael Douglas’ character says in The American President about a rival, “Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it!” Like the character played by Richard Dreyfuss, many in the public eye and in pop culture are simply too calloused to be putzes.

Take former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. This is a man who built his entire political career as a prosecutor throwing white-collar criminals in jail and attempting to throw away the key. A man who verbally bludgeoned his rivals on his way to Albany in ’06. Only to get caught up in his own hypocrisy as part of a federal investigation of a DC madam and a interstate prostitution ring. Or take former Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, who was forced to resign from his seat in ’07 because of his arrest for “homosexual lewd conduct” in the men’s bathroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. While not as eloquently mean-spirited as Spitzer, his actions should give us more than enough pause to ever declare him a putz. Craig, obviously in the closet based on reports since he left the US Senate, had supported a Federal Marriage Amendment that would ban gay marriage in ’06, and voted against extending the federal definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation in ’02. If Spitzer and Craig are putzes, then so is Michael Vick.

5. Can a male of color or women regardless of race be a putz?

Speaking of Vick, up until now all of the examples I’ve used have been of White males. Can “the putz factor” be an inclusive tag? That depends. It doesn’t really work for Vick, who, while seemingly not as mean-spirited as Spitzer or Craig, certainly helped finance and participate in maiming and killing dogs on his properties. Plus, Michael Vick’s previous occupation was NFL starting quarterback, rarely a putz job even when occupied by Eli or Peyton Manning. Even once forgiven in pop culture, Vick will never likely have his earlier money, reputation or integrity, not through professional sports, anyway.

There are males of color who could qualify as a putz. Certainly actor Clarence Gilyard, Jr.’s character Theo from the movie Die Hard could be a possible candidate. Between the nerdy glasses and dress, not to mention his occupation as a computer geek, the character’s putziness might have helped in if he had gone on trial for attempted robbery, terrorism, and murder. Somehow, though, I seriously doubt it.

The closest thing we’ve seen in recent years to “the putz factor” for males of color is NBA star Kobe Bryant’s arrest and aborted trial for allegedly raping a White woman in ’03. Though Bryant was vilified in the media and his endorsements came to a screeching halt in ’03 and ’04, by ’06, Bryant’s career and pop culture status had all but recovered. It was Bryant’s reputation as a nerd, polyglot and his immature affect as someone too foolish to “get it” that made him a borderline putz, and therefore, less vulnerable to a long-term downfall in the public eye.

As for women, no, there aren’t any good examples of women as putzes. Not that women can’t be unknowingly foolish, dress weirdly or wear bad wigs in public. Examples of that include Cher, Joan Rivers, Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim and Aretha Franklin. But the term putz, based on the the definition above, is a gender-specific term, and as such, women can’t be putzes. And, women can do one thing in our double-standard pop culture that men can’t when they get into trouble. They can always cry.