This is a transcript of the March 2 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working we’ve been talking to people working in fields imperiled in one way or another by the Trump presidency’s agenda. These are the stories of folks doing difficult, important jobs, jobs that are likely to get a lot more difficult and a lot more important in the years ahead.
One of the things you hear a lot about the Trump presidency is that it’s somehow beyond satire. To test that premise, we talked this week to Alexandra Petri, a satirist who mostly writes jokey but really smart stuff about the news for the Washington Post, both as a print columnist and as a producer of a lot of material on the publication’s website. She tells us about the process of writing a joke, what it’s like to come up with something that’s going to make people laugh.
Just to provide some context, we recorded this conversation on Friday, Feb. 24, after Alexandra had spent a lot of her week covering and blogging about CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was happening in Washington, D.C.
For that and other great podcast exclusives, visit Slate.com/workingplus to start your two-week free trial today.
What is your name, and what do you do?
Alexandra Petri: My name is Alexandra Petri, and I write a humor blog and humor column for the Washington Post.
Brogan: Can you tell us a little bit about your blog and your column?
Petri: Increasingly, I think of it as people enjoy reading the news and hearing the news—enjoy might be too strong a word, but they feel compelled to continue reading and hearing the news—and sometimes you just want somebody to be yelling at it alongside with you as you’re reading it. I think of that as my function.
Brogan: You are the Simpsons old man yelling at a cloud.
Petri: Yeah, old man yells at cloud.
Brogan: For the news.
Petri: Yeah, exactly.
Brogan: Can you give us some examples of some recent posts or columns that you’ve done that have been you shaking your fist at the cloud that is our current news environment?
Petri: This whole week I’ve been at CPAC, which has been delightfully fun, and I—
Brogan: CPAC, for listeners who have not been following the right, is?
Petri: Is the Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s a delightful extravaganza, which I’ve been going to. I was looking back, because you had to apply for a media credential, to find when was the earliest time I’ve been here? I’m like, oh, I’ve been going to this for lo these many years, like, before Donald Trump was a thing. I was attending CPAC when it was in Cleveland Park. There was one year when they had a conservative dating workshop. It was superexciting. The entire audience was just journalists being like, “Tell us your tips for conservative dating.” This guy, he’s like, “ ‘Well, you should say a fun line like, ‘I’ve brought some ChapStick in case there’s going to be smooching later.’ ”
Brogan: Oh boy.
Petri: It was great. I learned a lot. That’s my game now.
Brogan: You’ve been at CPAC all week.
Petri: Anything you can see coming in advance gets overcovered, because everybody knows to show up for it. True to form, everyone’s been showing up for it. Like Donald Trump spoke, Ted Cruz spoke, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus brought their roadshow to CPAC. I got to go and observe all of that and share it with the internet.
Brogan: One thing that I hear in your voice as you talk about this news, this news that for a lot of people feels really grim, really heavy, there’s a certain kind of bemusement, maybe even joy, in finding a way to representing, finding a way to stage it. Is that an accurate characterization of the way that you approach your work as you cover this kind of political situation, as you satirize it, as you play with it and manipulate it?
Petri: I wouldn’t say I feel actual joy, but I would say that as a human being it’s something that makes me annoying to be around in times of real crisis. The way I tend to process stuff is just by making jokes about it. I had my appendix taken out, and I was the person sitting there, the second I came out of surgery, I was groggy from all the medications and I started screaming, “Give me subjects to make puns on!” Really, I’m a nightmare person, is what I’m trying to say. It’s like a pathology where I’m like, “Well, this horrible thing is happening, but at least I can get a pun out of it if I really work at it.”
Brogan: It’s probably the right thing for nightmarish times. Your writing is heavily political now, and that may be because we are in such unavoidably political times. Is your blog always political? Have you always intended it to be that way?
Petri: For a while I was trying to write about whatever was trending on Google, because we were living in an era when people got to the newspapers online through search engine optimization. You would put Justin Bieber in all of your headlines, and then everyone who was searching for Justin Bieber would discover that you’d written something that was like, “Justin Bieber is alive, and also, I have opinions about cats.” They’d be like, “Wow! This news is relevant to me, kind of.”
I did some pieces about celery back then, and every so—
Brogan: Back then is 2010?
Petri: Yeah, back in the day, in 2011 when Donald Trump was young and dreams were made and used and wasted and all that stuff. Gradually, just because I think my interests as a consumer of news, and everyone around me. … When you go to a place, before, you used to be like, “Hey, I read this funny article. Did you know there’s this study where men and women are different but also not so different?” Now you go to a party and everyone’s like, “Oh my god, how’s life on the front lines? What’s happening out there? What’s going on in this world?” It just turns into this stream of terror. I think if that’s what people are looking at, then that’s what it’s helpful to write about.
Brogan: It’s really just about what is at the front of people’s minds that you’re trying to find humor in, or fiddle around with [inaudible].
Petri: I used to joke that my beat is like what’s the internet upset about? I do think, these days, the internet is constantly upset about politics at all times, and we’re trying to be more woke and stuff.
Brogan: That’s fair. You write a lot. You put out a lot of words. You do a column every week, a print column every week, but you also do a lot of Web stuff throughout the week. Do you have a quota that you have to hit, or do you just really, really like writing about whatever Sean Spicer did that day?
Petri: I really like writing about it. I think if I weren’t paid to do it, I would still do it. I’m in that stage with the pathology. I think they do like it when there’s something on the internet for people to read, and if there isn’t anything there, they’re like, “Why isn’t there anything there?” If people read your blog and expect there to be something, they will be sad and annoyed. Not to say that your editor will be sad and annoyed of course, but people will be.
Brogan: There’s a sense that you just need to produce this kind of regular flow of response?
Petri: Yeah. I have clawed it down a little bit because it used to be, a couple of years ago, I was trying to do like three a day. On days when there’s three things to write about a day that’s totally reasonable, but on days when there isn’t, and you’re just being like, “Also, here’s a top 10 list of dangerous carrots.” Sometimes that’s a great list, and sometimes you’re like, “Oh, people who thought that I was funny no longer think so.”
Brogan: How much of your time do you spend reading or watching or processing the news, and how much of your time do you spend actually writing about what’s news?
Petri: It does vary, because sometimes I’ll be like midsentence and then something will happen, so I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I’m holding a phone in one hand and I’m trying to idly type with the other hand.” Once I have the idea, I’m just writing the idea. Until I have the idea, I spend a lot of time consuming the news. Sometimes if nothing has stuck yet, it’s because the right subject is just around the crest and I need to consume more and read more and learn more about it. I am, from morning till night, I’m just reading the news constantly.
Brogan: What are your sources? Are you just sitting there refreshing your employer’s home page, or do you have Fox News on or something in the background?
Petri: I like having Fox News on. When I’m at my grandma’s house, we’ll watch a lot of Fox News and I’m amazed to learn of all the things that are going on. Yeah, I’ll read the Post, I’ll read the Times. I like to read the print newspaper physically, but then you’re like half a day behind if you’re trying to get something up for that day, unless it’s a little bit more of “this general topic will continue to be present in people’s minds for many weeks” type subject. I do like to, if I can, sit down and read the print comics at some point in the day.
Brogan: Oh, from the paper?
Petri: Yeah, no, I’m keeping Judge Parker alive. Actually, that’s a lie. Judge Parker is gone. I could not save Judge Parker.
Brogan: You tried, though.
Petri: Yeah, no. I’m keeping Mark Trail—
Brogan: What are your favorite print comics?
Petri: Mark Trail.
Brogan: Mark Trail is still in the newspaper?
Petri: It is!
Brogan: That’s the one with the birds and stuff?
Petri: It’s the one with the birds, it’s got a little—
Brogan: It’s like a handsome guy who points out birds to you?
Petri: That’s exactly what it is, yeah!
Brogan: It’s barely a comic.
Petri: Well, during the week there’s a lot of adventure. I was reading online, because I also read the Comics Curmudgeon, which is this guy who every day, he reads the comics that would appear in the Baltimore Sun, and he blogs snarkily about them and it’s just great. His name is Josh Fruhlinger. Check him out on the internet. I swear, I’m not being paid by him to promote his blog, it’s just a really good blog.
Brogan: I don’t believe anyone would think you would be. It sounds like a great blog. I’m going to check it out.
This episode of Working is brought to you by Josh Fruhlinger’s Comics Curmudgeon.
Petri: Your only source for all comics-related needs.
Mark Trail has been trapped in a cave for the past, like, three months, although in comics time, as its creator says, it’s only been a day or two. It’s been very exciting. They’ve had a cave-in, there’s been lots of booms and flashes and things.
Brogan: Fuck, man. I’ve got to go read Mark Trail.
Petri: Yeah, no, you’ve got to read Mark Trail. If there’s one takeaway, it’s read Mark Trail.
Brogan: You have a real commitment to print newspapers, and you have a print column, which is something that very few people have these days. How does that feel?
Petri: I love it. Sometimes I’m like, “I wish it weren’t on Saturdays,” but my parents are like, “Oh no, we like getting it on the Saturday! Then we can see it.” I don’t know why they talk like old-timey sea captains. I like it because sometimes I think with the internet you can get a little more bubble-ized. I was on a panel years ago with somebody who was like, “One time I got very disappointed that this piece I had written had appeared in the New York Times instead of on this website where all my friends would read it.”
On the internet you can see people responding in real time to the stuff you write, and in the print page it goes out there and then maybe the next day you’ll bump into somebody and he’ll say, “Oh, I saw you in the paper the other day.” It’s just like a different level of engagement that’s sort of cool, and I’m not certain where this sentence is going …
Brogan: When you are thinking about that engagement online as opposed to the print stuff, though, is traffic something you have to think about? Like, are you looking at how many engagement minutes, or whatever the right term for your metrics are?
Petri: I definitely look at those, because I think if people are reading you that’s usually a good sign in some way. That, or it means that every headline you write is needlessly inflammatory and people clicked on it and were disappointed, but at some point they’ll learn, you’d think.
Brogan: When you look at that data that you have about your online posts especially, have you learned things over time? Have you realized this kind of post doesn’t work or doesn’t click with readers, this kind of post often does? Are there lessons that emerge?
Petri: I think there are some lessons. One of the lessons that emerged early on was that if something has Obama in the headline and more than 40 comments, just don’t read them because they will be people who have read the headline and had an opinion they wanted to express about President Obama, and will not have read the rest of the piece, that it won’t be useful.
Brogan: They are racists.
Petri: Often. Not entirely. They’re economically insecure, some of them. My favorite thing, actually, is not necessarily like this will get X traffic and this won’t, but the things that people Google to find my blog, which has been amazing.
Brogan: That kind of data is available to you as well?
Petri: It used to be. I don’t get it anymore on my reports, and I need to fix that because that was literally my favorite thing. Every morning I’d be, like, what did they Google to find me? Sometimes it would be very bizarre stuff. Like questions that you shouldn’t type into the internet, ever, would somehow have led them to my blog.
I used to tweet pretty regularly, like what are these weird Googles that would get people to my blogs. I should look it up on Twitter and see if I find a good one. Like I got somebody who got to my blog by Googling manxsplain, with an x, like a tailless cat who’s lecturing you condescendingly. Oh, and then somebody got to my blog by Googling, “What does bae mean? How pronounce?” Then somebody else—
Brogan: Had you provided them with that information?
Petri: I think I had written something like, “I hate the word bae.” The one thing I’ve definitely changed is I no longer am upset professionally when things get added to the dictionary. I was completely wrong about that. I welcome the additions to the English language now, but I used to be like, “How dare they put bae in the dictionary! This is the dictionary of Picasso and Shakespeare!”
Also, somebody got to the blog by Googling, “I guess womens are crazy, they say they are equal.” Oh, then two people got to the blog by Googling, “Is Hillary OK ?” Four people got there by Googling, “Is Hillary a witch?” That was in November.
Brogan: What was your answer to that?
Petri: I think no and no.
Brogan: Both of those seem to have panned out.
Petri: Oh, then somebody Googled, “O Lucifer, thou son of morning.” I didn’t know how I was near the top of those results, but I’m honored that they found me.
Brogan: Doing great. You are making arguments about politics in one form or another. You are also a woman online. Do you spend a lot of time dealing with harassment?
Petri: I do get it, but I keep waiting for it to be worse. It hasn’t been as bad for me as it has been, I think in part because what I write, while it’s definitely my voice, isn’t super-personal. I think if I wrote a lot more about like, “Here’s a true tale from my life today,” I would get a lot more like, “You’re a terrible girlfriend,” or mother, human being, or whatever it is that people say. Usually I’m just like, “Here are some jokes,” and people will be like, “Your jokes are bad.” I’ll be like, “That’s fair. That’s well within your rights.”
It was interesting, though, because the morning after the inauguration, I just woke up to my inbox, and I had written something which was something like a gothic-y horror redoing of the Trump inauguration because that just was my vibe at the time, without sounding super-Myspace here. Then again, given the Post’s new logo, which is like “democracy dies in darkness,” maybe we’re supposed to be full Myspace now, like that’s our vibe. I just got to my inbox the next day after writing this piece, which was not that far afield for what I usually write, and it was just wall to wall, like, “You C-word. Melania could teach you a thing or two,” blah, blah, blah.
I have this problem where I like to respond to the really mean ones, because I sometimes think if you write back to somebody who’s supermean because they thought it was just going into a void in the internet where no human being would ever see it, they get kind of ashamed and they’re like, “Oh, wait, a person read that thing that I typed!” Then they feel kind of bad, but sometimes they don’t feel bad. Sometimes they just write back and they’re like, “My set of facts is different than your set of facts.” You’re like, “All right, we can’t really continue this until we agree on something.”
I do try to email back the really mean ones, and be, like, “Hey, thank you for reading. Sorry you didn’t like my piece. Is there something I can do, short of altering who I am as a person, to make you enjoy my writing more?” Like desperately cadge for approval, which is sad, because people send nice notes and I don’t write back to those. I should really alter my incentive system.
Brogan: There’s something to be said for trying to take feedback, even if it’s reactionary.
Petri: It’s like, if I’m doing something badly, you think I could do better and you want me to know that, and your way of trying to tell me that was to type the C-word a bunch of times, maybe we can convert this into a conversation.
Brogan: Probably not.
Petri: Probably not, yeah.
Brogan: Was responding to these people effective? Did it shut them down? Did it change the tenor of the kind of emails you were getting?
Petri: I think for me it was a little bit cathartic because I would be sitting there going, “Thank you for reading! Have a nice day.” Some people would say, “I’m going to get rid of my subscription.” I’m like, “Thank you for subscribing!” They’re like, “I’m going to burn this.” I’m like, “Clearly you have subscribed to the print edition of the newspaper and I appreciate this!” It was also like the day of the Women’s March, so I was going to cover that. I’m sitting there on my phone angrily typing back, then I was like, oh, there’s more important things going on. Let me stop.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to Alexandra Petri. After this brief break, she talks to us about what it’s like to work at the Washington Post and how a piece comes together.
* * *
Brogan: Can we talk about a typical day, say a day that’s not like the day immediately after the inauguration? What’s your work and pattern?
Petri: My work and pattern: every morning we have to email the desk and be, like, “Here’s what I’m thinking of writing today, here’s approximately when it’s coming in.”
Brogan: What’s the desk in this case? Who are you writing to?
Petri: The copy desk and the internet opinion editors.
Brogan: It’s a whole host of people that you’re writing to.
Petri: Yeah. Part of it’s like, are you writing about something super-interesting that they’ll want to give good play on the site, then they’d like to know about it sooner rather than later. If you’re writing something terrible that they want to bury as deep as possible, they also want to—
Brogan: Do they at that point have the ability to say yes, write that but do it this way, or no, don’t write that, or just go ahead, do whatever you want? Are you in a position where you’re able to simply say this is my thing today?
Petri: Usually I’m like, this is my thing today. Sometimes I’ll get people being like, “Hey, here’s an idea I had. I feel like you should think about doing something along these lines.” Usually they’re really good ideas, and I’m like, “Oh, thank you. I will definitely do that.”
Brogan: You’ll get those ideas from readers, or from your editors?
Petri: Both. It’s neat to have other people being like, “I have this idea. I can’t do anything with it, but, hey, maybe you can give it a try since you have a more lax general flow.” That’s a phrase.
Brogan: A broad beat, I think we say in the news business.
Petri: Yes, a broad beat. A lax flow.
Brogan: When you send that email, are you still at home or have you headed in to the Post itself?
Petri: It varies. There’re some days that I’ll be at the Post typing at my desk, and there will be other days when I’ll work from home. Usually I’ll be at home when I’m sending the email. I have this giant file on my phone of all the things that I’m thinking of writing, plus like in the Post website where we file our stuff for WordPress, I have all these unfinished documents that are my notes to myself of what the piece is going to be once I figure out how to write it. They all have headlines that are very casual, so my editors will go through there when they’re trying to find an actual piece that I’ve finished and it’ll just be six things, saying, “Oh, darn it, not this again!” It’s a filing system that makes sense to me, but I’m not certain how well it translates until I’ve actually converted it into cogent words and flowing sentences.
Brogan: It sounds like ideas are coming to you in fragments at first, that you’re dealing with pieces and parts of information of ideas.
Petri: Sometimes there will be a thing, like recently when Sean Spicer had that thing where he was saying, “You never know, it doesn’t matter the age of the immigrant, they could be a dangerous terrorist.” He had the thing about the 5-year-old. That one, I saw the quote, I saw the clip, and I instantly knew how I wanted to tackle it. I went for a walk and got some coffee and wrote it in, like, half an hour, and that was—
Brogan: It was just a gestalt.
Petri: Yeah. Sometimes if you have the idea and you know the format it’s going to take, all you have to do is really sit down and crank it out. Sometimes you’re, like, “Oh, I think I have it,” and then it takes five hours, and you’re like, “I have these notes that don’t make any sense and nothing is capitalized,” and your editor is like, “I thought you were filing this last week! What’s happening?” Usually out of that tumult of open tabs emerges something by the end of the morning.
Brogan: When you do work from the newsroom, whether you’ve got a fully finished idea or one that’s still in progress, do you have a specific desk you work at?
Petri: Oh, yeah.
Brogan: What’s that environment like? Tell us about that.
Petri: It’s fun. No, I’m on the eighth floor, check it out. Unless you’re like a dangerous person who reads my column and is angry with me, don’t check it out. Please don’t hurt me. I’m on an unspecified floor full of safety.
When I started working at the Post back in the old building, which was this gross shoe box full of history and the floors were uneven, there was like a half floor somewhere. You’d be on four and you’d go to four and a half. It was just very dark and strange.
Brogan: Sounds like a nightmare.
Petri: It was, but I shared an office with Erik Wemple, who is the Post’s media critic. It was great, because he was watching Fox and then he was watching MSNBC and he was watching CNN, and he had like a six-month period for each of them so he was going to have his comparative analysis. I got really hooked on The Five. I’m like, “Erik, we’ve got to watch The Five! It’s great!” It was captivating television. We also didn’t have a window, so that was our one viewpoint into the world.
Now we’ve got this very “Anne Hathaway is in a glamorous magazine job” type office, where you walk past these quotes from luminaries past in Post history. You’ve got like Katharine Weymouth saying, “We have a diverse product that appeals to many people,” or something. It’s a quote about what we do. Then Jeff Bezos is like, “What is dangerous is not to evolve.” Then you’ve got like, “The truth is never more dangerous than a lie in the long run,” and all these inspirational quotes. By the time you get to your actual desk, you’re like, “I’m a journalist! I’m going to destroy something with my words today!” Then you sit down and there’s like CNN on mute over you, and in my case you’re in the millennial nook, which is like six people all sort of facing each other, except a couple of them have standing desks. Is it a couple? It might just be the one who’s facing me directly, so I’m very intimidated.
Brogan: You do not have a standing desk?
Petri: I have a sitting desk, because I don’t want to live forever if the price I have to pay is—
Brogan: That’s fair.
Brogan: Not having a standing desk.
Petri: I’m very happy to pay that price.
Brogan: No treadmill desk for you either?
Petri: No, and no weird balloon-ball thing.
Brogan: Can’t stand that stuff.
Brogan: Are there usually a lot of people there? Is the room itself busy, that environment?
Petri: It sort of depends on what time you’re in there, but usually there’s sort of a low hum of activity. When I first got there, I kept expecting it to be much more cinematic, and people would be running by going, “Sweetheart, get me a rewrite!” and things. Every so often there will be like a little bit of a hubbub, but for the most part it’s sort of a low rumble.
Brogan: Can you lead us through the process of writing one of your recent pieces?
Petri: Recently, for a while, I’ve been tinkering away with this Steve Bannon/Reince Priebus love story piece because a couple of weeks ago—I guess just a week ago. Time has dilated to the point that I no longer know where things stand relative to one another. I’m like, I think there was a mammoth like three years ago, but it could have been yesterday. I don’t know. Ah, that joke flipped. We’ll fix it in post.
Brogan: Maybe not. I liked it.
Petri: Aww. I wanted to do something with how normal their interactions were. Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, for a while all the leaks coming out of the White House from these anonymous sources that Donald Trump so hates have been saying things like, “Reince has a mean nickname; that nickname is Rancid. Everyone says he’s a swamp creature and he and Steve Bannon are slowly fighting to the death through their proxies.”
Brogan: This literally happened in Breitbart.
Petri: Yeah. No, I’m not exaggerating or making any of this up in any way. This is just a true story that happened. I think the funny thing about the Breitbart piece was then Steve Bannon leaked to the media that he had called and left them an angry, angry message and said, “How dare you? How dare you print this thing in this publication I know nothing about, about my close, good friend Reince Priebus?”
The two of them have been going on the record trying to show that they interact like human friends, but it hasn’t exactly been working. It comes across either like they’re going to go to the eighth-grade dance together, or like when your parents are divorcing. I don’t know, mine haven’t divorced so I’m just assuming this based on context clues and other people, when they really try hard to be like, “The magic is still alive and we are here, and look at us making pasta together! Our hands are touching!”
I read this piece in New York magazine where they’d spoken to Olivia Nuzzi being like, “We are friends and we talk to each other from 6 in the morning until 11 at night, until we fall asleep. I give him a back rub every day.”
Brogan: Wait, did he actually say that?
Petri: They actually said that. Then they said, “Off the record!” Then they laughed. It was a very beautiful interaction. I’m like, I have to write about this. This is amazing.
Brogan: Clearly they’re full of it.
Petri: Yeah. I mean, no one who actually likes another human being says that, I feel.
Brogan: As I recall, you described it as a kind of fan fiction that they were enacting.
Petri: I just joked, because nobody else has to write weird fan fiction about Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, which people have done for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Like that’s out there. That’s on the internet. The teens have taken care of that. Every single time Reince Priebus appears with Steve Bannon, they engage in the act of creating this beautiful fiction about their own story where they’re like, “Oh, yes, every night we talk to each other until 11 p.m. He fell asleep first last time.”
Brogan: Did they really say this?
Petri: I’m not making this up. This is an actual quote from them. I really have no job now. All that I do is transcribe actual remarks made by people.
Brogan: You get the sense that they’re performing, you’re like that’s an opportunity for me.
Petri: Yeah, I want to push that a little bit, just reproduce as much of that as possible and also push it a little bit. Then I kept wondering what’s my time peg for that. At first I thought, when Steve Bannon went on the record about how he yelled at this person who dared to insinuate mean things about his friend, I thought maybe that’s my in. Maybe I should do the phone call and just sort of imagine what that sounded like. Then I thought, “Wait, they’re going to be at CPAC. They’re going to be appearing together. Maybe if I had that fresh dialogue on top of everything else they’ve said, I can whip that into a piece.” It was sort of figuring out when’s the best time to hit this iron in terms of, a) making it fresh, b) making it newsy, and c) using all the jokes.
Brogan: They gave that talk together early afternoon on Thursday, I think?
Brogan: You had published by early evening, if not by the time they were done speaking.
Petri: By the time they kicked the reporters out of the ballroom, I had filed.
Brogan: You were writing it as they were talking?
Brogan: Is that typical for you that news is happening and this idea that you’ve been germinating for a while is coming to fruition, you’re just like, “I’m writing it, I’m writing it, I’m writing it”?
Petri: If they had said things like, “We actually don’t like each other,” or, “This contradicts all of our previous published accounts,” or had had a different set of facts to present as opposed to just a thing that piled beautifully on top of what they’d previously done, then I would have had to rethink it and do all these things. Since it was just a beautiful extension of their previous interactions, I was able to take notes on Twitter as it was happening and tweet out quotes that had particularly struck me, and then, referring to those, compose it in the remaining time.
Brogan: Just to think through your working process here, you’re listening, you’re tweeting out quotes, and you’re writing, all simultaneously?
Petri: Yes. That sounds right, now that we’re saying it. It feels more efficient when I’m doing it.
Brogan: It sounds like you were extremely efficient. Do you know how many words you type a minute?
Petri: Oh, boy.
Brogan: Is that a metric you’ve gathered for yourself? You produce very quickly.
Petri: Sometimes the keyboard gets hot and starts shooting off steam. No, I don’t know. What’s a good number to type? I think I say 78 on my résumé, but I don’t know if that’s a good number or a bad number.
Brogan: I have no idea. It sounds probably more than I do.
Petri: It seems like that’s like one a second, and that seems low. Maybe it’s not low. I don’t know. We should get a keyboard in here. Let’s do this, let’s type some words.
Brogan: When you’re churning out a piece like this Priebus/Bannon one and you’re grabbing quotes from the thing as it’s happening, and you’re adding your own commentary, of all that information you’re pulling in, how do you figure out what is the funniest stuff? Is it just the stuff that makes you laugh in your own head, or is it what fits with the larger joke that you’re telling, or what?
Petri: I know that I have biases as a joke content creator, where I love oddly specific things. I love analogies that are super-specific. P. G. Wodehouse is like my favorite comic writer, and he’s always doing these similes that are really weirdly perfect but not at all exact, which I love as a tool. If I come up with something like that, I’m always biased to include it. A lot of it is tone, so if I’m trying to do an epic poem and if I come up with this thing that doesn’t at all sound like an epic poem—I don’t know when I would be doing an epic poem—but if I were, then trying to figure out does this fit that. A lot of times I’ll write like six versions of a joke and then I’ll go back, and when I’m editing it for myself I’ll be like, “OK, which of these do I actually like?” and see if I can pick one to sink or swim.
Like there’re some animals, like a giraffe every two years will produce one offspring and they’ll be like, “That’s it. I have to very slowly gestate this. It’ll take me 24 months, and here’s a beautiful, perfect baby giraffe.” Then there’s like fish, and they’ll just lay like 600 eggs and they’ll be like, “I hope three of you live.” As a joke producer, I’m just like, “Here’s 600 terrible eggs. I hope three of them live.” I really don’t have any ego about like, “Oh, was that bad? Then I’ll make another one. Is this still bad? All right then, 597 to go. Let’s do this!” A lot of it’s just cranking it out and then seeing which ones floats to the top.
Brogan: Once you’ve filed the piece, in this case by the time the other reporters are filing out of the room it sounds like [inaudible] filing—
Petri: They were all filing faster. I feel like everybody else’s metabolism is way faster than mine.
Brogan: You think so?
Petri: Whenever I’m watching the news, it’s like, “Oh, hey, Bob has written six things in the time that it took me to conceive of one idea and then hastily scrawl some notes and tweet one bad pun about it.” They’ve been like six beautifully edited and researched things published on multiple outlets.
Brogan: What is the mark of a successful piece for you?
Petri: I think the mark of a successful piece ... That’s a tough question. There’s a lot of “my mouth liked it but my stomach is still deciding” type thing, especially given the rate at which stuff is going up, where sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll not be all that satisfied with it, and then later someone will say how I read this and I really liked it, or someone will say, “Hey, there was a joke in there that was good,” or someone will say, “Oh, what is this garbage?” I’ll think, “Oh no! I was proud of it, but I see that you were right.” I don’t want to say it’s entirely dependent on how it’s received, because I do have an internal metric for is it a good thing or not.
W. H. Auden always said that he only felt like a poet just after he had finished a poem and was revising it. Then in between there, when he was starting a new poem, he’s like, “I can never do this ever again. It’s an impossible process.” When he just published a book, he’s like, “This is garbage.” I tend to feel, the second something’s published, I’m like, I can instantly see all the pores and everything that’s wrong with it. All my Oxford commas have been removed, because it’s against Post style to use Oxford commas, so suddenly my sentences look naked.
Petri: Yeah, it’s terrible! Then sometimes it’ll take somebody else saying, “Oh, I like this,” or “This paragraph was useful to me in some way,” for me to be reassured that, OK, I didn’t entirely add to the garbage fire that is the internet today. I guess we’re just exposing all my insecurities here. I’m, like, none of my work has any value or purpose.
Brogan: I think that’s true for a lot of writers, that we rely on, and need to some extent, a certain degree of validation and recognition in order to keep going on. It can be part of our working process in many ways.
Petri: Yeah, which is why the internet is both seductive and so terrible, because when I wrote a book I was just like, “Oh, no one’s clicking like or dislike or anything on this! It’s just a piece of writing that is on paper. What are they even going to do with this?”
Brogan: You’ve been listening to Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri. After this brief break, she talks to us about trying to be funny in the age of Donald Trump, an era that seems to be beyond satire.
* * *
Brogan: A lot of what you’re doing is responsive to the current moment, and therefore is part of the conversation even if it’s kind of playfully trying to make something funny out of it. You also sometimes have what I assume are evergreen topics that you’re ready to return to. Recently you wrote about the William F. Buckley–Gore Vidal debate. Are there topics that you’re just waiting for a slow news day? Not that we have those anymore, but to come back around to?
Petri: Oh, no, we will never have one of those ever again.
Brogan: We’ll never have a slow news day again.
Petri: No, there are some things like that where in my mind I’ve expressed it, and then I looked back at what I’ve actually written and I’m like, “Oh, no, I have a coherent thesis on this that I’ve never actually sat down and expressed on paper.”
Like I love the Vidal-Buckley moment. This was right before the ’68 elections. William F. Buckley, who had written God and Man at Yale and founded the National Review, he’d attended Yale but had found it deeply insufficient and had written this fairly inflammatory book about exactly why, and he didn’t think they were teaching the right things. Then there’s Gore Vidal, who was a … dropout, St. Albans dropout, who had become sort of a liberal intellectual who had written other books like Myra Breckinridge, about this gender-bending bizarro history person. The two of them were, I guess, the first two talking heads really to go head-to-head. It was during the coverage of the conventions for the Republican week and the Democratic week. Each night they would meet and have sort of a summit where they argued with each other, and they had this really sparkling negative chemistry. Vidal was like, “You’re a crypto-Nazi,” and then Buckley is like, “Now listen here, you queer,” or something. I can’t do a good Buckley impression.
Brogan: It sounded good to me.
Petri: I listened to this a lot. Afterwards I went and watched the whole debates back and forth, just on loop. It’s such a weird institution that we have now, of people going on TV who have seen exactly the same thing you’ve seen, and being like, “Here’s what I think about it.” It’s like, “Why, though?”
Brogan: You’re writing about this in part to talk about how things were, about a certain kind of nostalgia for a moment when civil discourse was possible on television—
Petri: At least polysyllabic, yeah.
Brogan: Polysyllabic discourse, sure. On the other hand, to recognize maybe the origins of where things started to go wrong in that moment. Is that something you’d been thinking about for a while?
Petri: One of the things that I try to do, and I always regret when I’m not doing it, is I try to read as much as possible as I’m consuming news, and read things that aren’t news-tied.
Brogan: When you say read, you mean not just the news.
Petri: Yeah, like history, fiction, or literature. I guess that’s redundant. Fiction is literature, and vice versa. Just to have something that isn’t just the same inputs. It can be very easy to get tunnel vision looking narrowly at, oh, here’s this thing that’s happening right now, here’s this other thing that’s happening right now, and not step back and say, “What is causing this? Is it bad or good or neutral? Should we stop it? How should we stop it? When did it begin?” and ask a broader question. I think sometimes if you’re reading something else, like I was reading The Lives of the Caesars on the campaign trail, which was kind of hilarious. Even while Caligula was up and doing his thing, the senate was still meeting and everyone was sort of going about their business. Like there was a horse in the senate, and everyone was like, “That’s kind of weird. Why is there a horse here?” The forms of democracy persisted even though you knew that you could be thrown down the steps, whatever the steps were called, at any moment.
Brogan: It’s helpful, on the one hand, to take a step back, to read something classical, literary, whatever, something that lets us have a longer view. Another part of your working day, if I get my experience of following you on Twitter right, is that you’re on Twitter all the time, which is, of all of our contemporary media, the one that is the most about the flux of the moment, about just letting news wash over you and trying to roll with it.
Petri: It’s like these are words written in hot water, basically.
Brogan: How much of your time does that take up? How important is that to your work?
Petri: I think it’s important, especially if you’re making jokes. I think you’re responsible to not make certain that somebody else has already made that joke and done a better job of it. Sometimes it still happens where you’re like, “Oh, 100 percent of Twitter already thought of this and I’m just repeating it.” If it’s possible to think of another angle, I think you at least should check and see, “Oh, hey, what are people saying? I should not say that.”
Also, I try to follow people from a variety of different parts in the spectrum ideologically so it’s like, “Oh, did I not hear about this piece of news because I was in my bubble? What’s going on in your bubble?” type deal. The thing about Twitter is it’s a huge time-waster and you get immediate validation, so it’s probably bad that I spend so much time on there, but it is a great pun dumpster and I like that.
Brogan: You test out a lot of your other jokes there as well.
Petri: No, I do. If I’m live tweeting something and somebody’s like, “Oh, this is falling completely flat,” I will be like, “Ah, I will reserve that for not-use later.”
Brogan: If a lot of people are responding to it, maybe you make a post or a column out of it?
Petri: Yeah, if it’s a fruitful concept because the six people who like everything don’t like it. I’ll be like, “Oh no, that’s not a fruitful concept.”
Brogan: You’ve been at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week. How often are you heading out to a particular location, to a particular event, in the course of your work?
Petri: I love doing it and I wish I did more of it. With the campaign trail I got to go to a lot of the primary states, which was super-fun. I was in Iowa and then in Florida and in New Hampshire, which was a blast, and I got to go to the conventions. I like getting in there and being able to talk to people and see things on the ground, and see, like, what are the weird signs being held up.
Brogan: Those in-the-field experiences, they help you come up with funny ideas?
Petri: I went and saw the inauguration and I was glad I got to go in person, because even though what I wound up writing was this “here’s my gothic nightmare of the inauguration,” it was all based on things that I had seen directly. Like I was standing right in front of Tim Allen. I was like, what’s Tim Allen doing here?
Brogan: The Toolman?
Petri: Yeah! He was there, he had a little alpine hat, and he was—
Brogan: What was he doing there?
Petri: That’s what I wanted to know!
Brogan: Did you ask him?
Petri: I didn’t ask him. I’m a bad journalist, in terms of I didn’t turn to Tim Allen and say, “What are you doing here?”
Brogan: If anyone hears this and wants to find out why Tim Allen was at the inauguration for us, let us know on Twitter.
Petri: Yeah, please. Hey, Tim Allen! I like having as much detail as possible, even if the thing that I’m making is like, “And the thing had tentacles and there were six of them.” If there’s a real detail that goes into that—
Brogan: When you’re in the moment at one of these events, how do you identify yourself? If you’re trying to get a story out of an attendee at CPAC, learn a little bit more from a source, how do you present yourself? Do you say, “I’m a journalist with the Washington Post,” or do you say—
Petri: I have my notebook, which is always—it’s both like an invitation and a warning, in some ways. People who have stories will come up to you and they’ll say, “Oh, it’s a person with a notebook. They must be a journalist.” I’ll say, “I’m a writer for the Washington Post. May I ask you some questions?”
Brogan: Do people ever know who you are?
Petri: Actually, at the inauguration, in the bathroom line, this one woman was like, “You interviewed me in New Hampshire about opioids!” I was like, “Did I?” Apparently I had.
Brogan: Tim Allen did not recognize you.
Petri: Tim Allen did not recognize. … Those beautiful hours we spent together I guess were entirely one-sided.
Brogan: It’s true. Separated by a screen, I imagine.
Brogan: You’ve also written a book, A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, if I have the title right, and a lot of plays.
Petri: So many plays.
Brogan: How do you have time for all of that other writing when you’re doing daily multiple posts on the website, plus this column, plus reading all those comics, plus tweeting? Where is the time for this creative output coming from?
Petri: I used to say evenings, and now I say weekends. Basically, the thing that I do for fun when I’m not writing is I write other things, and I drink coffee, but I also do that for work.
Brogan: You drink coffee for work?
Petri: Oh, yeah, professionally. Like America, I run on Dunkin’, or whatever the Dunkin’ equivalent is.
Brogan: Let the record show that Alexandra Petri is drinking coffee at 6 p.m.
Petri: Yeah. It doesn’t touch me anymore. It just goes in, comes out. It may or may not have an effect. It’s psychosomatic at this point, really. No, I love writing, basically. My hobby and my day job happen to be the same thing, but in slightly different forms. Also, I’m in a playwrights’ collective, The Welders, which means that if I don’t keep on board with my playwriting, there is a group of people who will very nicely urge me and send me some deadlines, and that’s always good to have.
Brogan: Has your working life, your writing life, changed at all in the last year-plus with the rise of Donald Trump?
Petri: I think definitely yes, because the news cycle has always felt like something that you’re like a cat running on a treadmill, falling off of it at all times. That’s only intensified. Everyone I’ve talked to who does humor writing and journalism both felt intense, “Oh, no, does what I do matter?” and then intense, “If what I do matters at all, I’ve got to do it right now. Now is the time.” I think both of those things have kicked in.
Brogan: To the extent that we’re always asking ourselves, regardless of what’s going on, whether what we do matters, do you think that satire of the kind that you produce is an effective tool when people are dealing with worrying over trying to understand, trying to respond to a figure like Donald Trump?
Petri: I think in some ways he’s the most perceptive media critic of anyone consuming Trump media right now, and he went on for half an hour during his speech this morning. It felt like half an hour. It might just be time dilation.
Brogan: This was his speech at CPAC?
Petri: At CPAC, about the narrative and the media and how people will say this, and they’ll say, “Oh, poor Donald,” and a certain story will emerge. He’s as cognizant as anyone about the way stories can pile up and shape a narrative and create a story. With satire, you have tools that are different than traditional journalism, where you can say, “Hey, here’s a heightened version of the thing that is happening.” Like with SNL, with Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer, they just took him up a couple of notches and gave him a water gun, or gave him a leaf blower. You can do things where suddenly that becomes the story that’s told about the thing. Trump is certainly aware of it.
It also can be a negative thing. If you think back to 2000 where suddenly the narrative was “Al Gore is too boring ever to possibly to be our king, we cannot have him” president. Our king—I don’t know, it’s both positive and negative.
Brogan: With this current moment, though, this isn’t just about Trump. You did this when you were doing recaps of the debates as well. You’re often able to quote the actual things that people literally said, and if you do it in the right way and in the right context, that can be quite funny, especially if you have the right kind of framing for it. The flip side of that, though, is that our moment is already sort of self-parodic in some ways. Are we living in a time that is beyond satire? Is it at all crippling for you as a satirist to realize that the situation we’re dealing with is crazier than anything you could make up?
Petri: It is bizarre, but satire helps remind people that it is bizarre. There’s a certain point, if you’re just reporting it as straight news, where everyone’s like, “Oh, today he threw the Constitution out a high window and then he appointed a lizard to be on the Supreme Court.” You’re like, “That seems like news.” If somebody is putting it as satire or framing it in some other way where it’s like in all caps, being like, “This is ridiculous! We notice this is ridiculous, right?” It’s that moment of connection and that moment of seeing that somebody else sees it with you and agrees that the emperor is wearing a very strange outfit today, and I think it’s useful in that regard.
One of the things that obviously journalism always struggles with is how much voice do you have in your writing, and how much is it possible to be unbiased? Saying “This is what I’m seeing, are you also picking up on this?” I think is a good function of satire. It’s like, “This should not be the way that it is.” You get to have a standard in a way that you don’t when you’re just describing what happened.
Brogan: Do you feel obliged right now to write about Trump and his team?
Petri: Right now, because they’re taking up so much oxygen and because that’s the thing that everyone’s screaming into the internet about, yes, I do, but there’s so much else going on that ordinarily I would be writing about. Like if you look at this abortion law that just got passed, we have to get a man’s permission: in 2015 I would have been writing like six things about that and setting small parts of the internet on fire. I’m trying to figure out how to carve out time to make certain we also get to that, because that’s just as bad as it would have been two years ago, it’s just that there’s all this bizarro news happening.
Brogan: Do you get tired of writing about Trump?
Petri: I keep thinking I will, but he’s so multifarious, man. He contains everything and nothing. This is a bizarre thing to say. You can keep staring at it, and he’s just like this point of data and every possible line you can draw around it kind of makes sense, but I don’t know. I think everyone’s always talking about him, and he has a gift to be talked about.
There was a time in, like, 2012 when Sarah Palin was taking up so much of the media oxygen, and everyone came up with these pledges saying, “I’m no longer going to write about Sarah Palin, and it’s going to be this thing that I’m doing on principle.” Nobody’s done that with Trump, because even though he clearly wants to be the center of attention at all times, he’s the president of the United States! That’s worth staring at.
Brogan: Part of what you do, based on what you’ve been saying, is write about what we’re talking about, respond to what we’re responding to. He’s what we’re talking about, he’s what we’re responding to.
Petri: Yeah. I think worst-case scenario, nothing I do has any value or purpose, but if I can make somebody laugh, I’m at least as useful as a slice of quiche would be. Like quiche doesn’t change anything, but if somebody’s happier for having eaten it, maybe they’ll go off and wave a sign or call their congressman and get through, or pass a law. Whoever they are in the food chain, they’ll do something that makes the world actually better in a tangible way.
Brogan: It’s about making life livable.
Petri: Hopefully, or just filling it with bad puns. Either way.
Brogan: Either way sounds fine. This episode of Working is brought to you by quiche. Thank you so much for joining us today and talking with us about your work.
Petri: Thanks for having me.
Brogan: It was absolutely a delight.
Petri: This was really fun.
Brogan: Thank you.
Petri: Sorry about all the inaudible hand gestures.
Brogan: No, no, it’s all great.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Twitter @Jacob_Brogan. You can listen to past episodes at Slate.com/working, and of course you can find them on iTunes, where we would totally love it if you would rate and review the show, especially if you have stuck with us through this series. Working has had a lot of hosts over the years, a number of producers, but Mickey and I are so delighted to be able to have been able to bring it to you for a while now. If you like what we’re doing as much as we like being able to produce this for you, it would mean a huge amount to us if you would let us know in those venues.
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