Alexandra Petri, humor columnist for The Washington Post and the publication’s youngest op-ed writer, can be recognized immediately by her R2-D2 backpack. “I’ve seen The Last Jedi seven times now,” Petri explains, “and I keep meaning to see The Post but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
Within moments, Petri’s unique combination of nerdy humor, love of politics and a female perspective all come through simultaneously. “I want to do like a ‘Star Wars West Wing’ with politics on the planet Coruscant,” she gushes. “A whole movie about Princess Leia trying to get a maternity leave bill passed.”
In fact, Petri has cast votes in Congress herself. Her father is Tom Petri, a longtime Republican congressman from Wisconsin who served from 1979 through 2015. “Until you’re around 12, they let you go up and vote [on behalf of your parent] if you want to,” she tells. What did she cast a vote on? “I have no idea,” she admits, “but I hope I voted the correct way.”
What was it like growing up as the only child of a congressman? “We were all big political nerds, definitely. The Fourth of July would come around and we’d all pretend to be historical characters. One year, I rebelled,” Petri reveals. “My mom was being George Washington, my dad was being Benjamin Franklin and I went as Oscar Wilde. That’s going to show them!”
Do Petri’s anti-Trump columns cause problems with her Republican dad? “I don’t think so, but [having a former congressman as a father] is a good reminder that whenever you’re writing about somebody, there is a person under there. People in the public eye, you can forget because of how much the person is absorbed by their persona. They’ve been characterized in a certain way, or the narrative has swallowed them up in its great leathery wings,” Petri explains.
“But that is somebody who goes home and says stuff to their family,” Petri continues. “So that’s been useful to me. Always remembering there’s people in there, and trying not to say anything that you wouldn’t say to someone you know.” (Tom Petri announced in October 2016 that he would not be voting for Trump. He did not publicly say who he would vote for, if anybody.)
Her father isn’t the only Republican who has emailed out links to her writings. The White House sends a regular digital newsletter called 1600 Daily featuring pro-Trump news items and analyses featuring the administration’s positive spin. In March 2017, the newsletter included a link to Petri’s satirical column “Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.”
Presumably, the White House had only read the headline and took it at face value. The actual column featured such lines as “We must go back to the America that was great, when the air was full of coal and danger and the way you could tell if the air was breathable was by carrying a canary around with you at all times,” and “We will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.”
Comedy in the age of Trump has proven difficult in some ways for Petri. “You laugh, but then people’s lives are being destroyed,” she lamented in an interview with Kara Swisher for the podcast Recode Decode. “Can you imagine sitting through a Clinton administration? We would’ve been able to have comedic arguments about policy, which would have been nice, instead of jokes about ‘Oh. nuclear war. Ha ha ha.’”
Petri’s humor writing started at a young age. At only 8, an age when few if any children can make Renaissance literature references, she wrote a Shakespeare-and-feline-inspired comic book “Ro-MEOW and MEW-liet and the CAT-pulets.”
By high school, at the private National Cathedral School in northwest D.C., she was publishing her own Onion-style satirical newsletter called The Perturbed Squirrel, featuring headlines such as the post-Katrina article “Bush Declares Plans for War on the Weather.” Her multifaceted interests and ability to rise up the ranks quickly, traits that would serve her well later in life, were already apparent by senior year when she served as president of four clubs, including captain of the volleyball team—despite being a bench player.
At Harvard, she wrote a regular humor column for the Harvard Crimson titled Petri Dishes. Penning musicals and plays for the campus theatrical troupe’s Hasty Pudding, with titles such as Acropolis Now, she was never allowed to perform there herself due to the troupe’s all-male casting policy dating back to 1844. (Hasty Pudding reversed themselves in January of this year.) With a major in English and a minor in classics, her senior thesis translated Aristophanes’ 405 B.C. comedy The Frogs from the original Greek.
At graduation, she was selected to speak at commencement. “The hard part is over. Now you can go out and change the world. This would be the worst possible time to trip into an open elevator shaft and waste all that investment,” she imparted to the assembled graduates. “And that’s why I will devote the rest of my talk to elevator safety.”
The summer immediately after graduating, Petri landed a post-grad internship with The Washington Post opinion section. She was also accepted to Oxford University in England to study Renaissance poetry, of all things. But the Post then offered to hire her as a full-time opinion columnist. What to do?
Although she considered staying temporarily and deferring her Oxford admission for a year or two, the university only defers admission for personal or family illness. So Petri wrote Oxford a letter arguing, “I consider print media a member of my family.”
No dice. She’s been at the Post ever since.
At only age 22, she became the youngest person to attain her own regular Post opinion column. For comparison, when Ross Douthat was hired as the at-the-time youngest opinion columnist for The New York Times, he was 29. Petri’s humor column, ComPost, has since become one of the publication’s must-read features.
Her satire from mere days into the new administration titled “The true, correct story of what happened at Donald Trump’s inauguration” was the only of the Post’s top 10 most popular posts of 2017 that wasn’t a news article or investigation. A sample sentence from the piece: “Millions of women were there to support Donald Trump, and they were all AT LEAST sevens.”
Such jokes about women’s and gender issues are frequently tackled topics for Petri, perhaps more than any other subject:
• “Women presidents take so long to get ready. Literally 227 years.”
• “Ugh, if Me Too has its way, soon we won’t be able to tell our subordinates a simple ‘Hello’ or ‘You’re my SOULMATE.’”
• Shortly before 2016’s first presidential debate: “Finally, the whole country will watch as a woman stands politely listening to a loud man’s bad ideas about the field she spent her life in.”
• When Roger Ailes died: “Skirts at Fox News today will be lowered to half-mast.”
• Competing on NPR comedy quiz show Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, she eked out a win over fellow contestants Roy Blount, Jr. and Tom Bodett on her very first appearance. She then quipped, “I feel like my points are worth .77 of their points, though.”
These jokes have produced some interesting reactions. “Somebody just the other day sent me a written letter being like, ‘If you really hate the objectification of women, then I bet you’re going to hate this.’ He just printed out like 18 pages of sexy pictures of women. He even bound them into a binder, snail mailed it and everything,” Petri recalls. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever received in my life. I’m not even mad.”
Yet Petri contends that most detractors who seemingly vilify her or her publication may likely be exaggerating. “We have a paywall now. I’ll literally see comments like, ‘The Washington Post is fake news. Also, I hit my 10 article free limit this month and I’m very upset.’”
If you want to read more from Petri, buy her book A Field Guide to Awkward Silences. The collection of humor essays represented a new type of writing for her during the two years it took to compose. “There’s no instant feedback, which is just frustrating,” she explains. “I’m usually basically that gerbil who sits there expecting the pellet every single moment. To get no pellets was deeply disconcerting.”
Fortunately, the pellets came back positively, as readers reacted well to Petri amusingly regaling the reader with offbeat stories, from her time trying to make it on television as one of the intentionally bad contestants on America’s Got Talent auditions to her adventure as a Civil War re-enactor. One of the most memorable chapters is her description of winning first place in the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship in Austin, Texas.
Yet the book alone can’t do the moment justice; the video needs to be seen to be believed. Wearing a pink dress and jean jacket, Petri performed an entire original memorized monologue about how we should elect a woman president—not Hillary Clinton specifically, whose name is never mentioned, but a female in general. The key, though, is Petri incorporated puns on the names of every single U.S. president … in chronological order.
We shouldn’t elect a male “if Andrew jacks an automobile, or if Mart pees in a van … and yes, Mart: in van be urine.” “We should Fillmore of those slots with their female Pierce.” “Don’t go Lincoln a Johnson to the highest office in the land.” “A woman named Rosa tried to get a man named McKin to vote for her. Instead she saw McKin leave. How do you think Rosa felt?” A woman president would be “Nixon dumb ideas, like turning a Ford car into a ray-gun.” The routine received an unprecedented standing ovation from the audience.
Alas, Petri did not fare as well during her 2006 appearance on Jeopardy! Although she was leading at the end of round one, the final Jeopardy! category was “In the News” so she felt confident enough to bet all her earnings amassed up through that point. The answer was thriller novelist Dan Brown. Instead she guessed “That dude.”
Although she’ll always remember that one correct answer she missed for the rest of her life, I quiz her on another clue she answered incorrectly from earlier that episode when the stakes weren’t as high. The clue: “Scene by the Brook” is the title of one movement of this Beethoven symphony in F major. The correct answer: the 6th. In person, Petri guesses the 7th. On the actual show, she had guessed the 5th. “On average,” Petri rationalizes, “I’ve gotten it right.”
Petri’s several produced plays have titles like Miss Emma’s Matchmaking Agency for Literary Characters, and features the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Captain Ahab looking for love. There’s also Rare Medium Well Done, about two suburban parents attempting to exorcise a demon out of their daughter before her college interview. And Disaster Averted, in which Ophelia from Hamlet, Desdemona from Othello, Cordelia from King Lear, and Juliet all attend summer camp together.
She’s a Twitter rising star with her account @PetriDishes with 124,000 followers who crave her one-liners. “Why isn’t the paleo diet called caveats?” “Let’s get physicals! Physicals!”
But far more than her official account is her parody account Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n), with 882,000 followers. The entire premise is posting as if the main villain of the new Star Wars trilogy had a Twitter account. Example: “I made you a mixtape. I hope you like songs about Darth Vader and the sound of Darth Vader breathing and someone reciting lyrics over the imperial march until they are rudely interrupted by a door opening and the voice says ‘MOM’ loudly and is abruptly cut off.”
What’s next for Petri in 2018?
She recently married Steve Stromberg, an editorial writer at the Post, who proposed by reciting a sonnet at the Lincoln Memorial. Fortunately, a relationship joke she made on Wait Wait doesn’t apply to her own life. Host Peter Sagal quizzed her by asking, “New survey results released this week reveal that nearly half of all partners in committed relationships do what?” Petri replied, “Rue the day.”
The plan for her bachelorette party was to give all attendees an assigned presidential jacket. “I’ve already got my Benjamin Harrison jacket,” Petri exclaims, far more excitedly than anybody else has ever spoken that man’s name. “I’m trying to establish myself as an expert on Benjamin Harrison. But you can’t give someone a Lincoln jacket because obviously, that would mean they’re the favorite bridesmaid, so the presidents all have to be like Polk territory. No higher.”
This is not an isolated incident. “I have a month until my Coolidge birthday strikes,” Petri proclaims in an obvious tone of voice. Seeing my quizzical facial expression, she explains that this refers to the fact that Coolidge was the 30th president and she turned 30 in March. “I’m trying to make that phrase become big. My friends were like, ‘If you throw a Coolidge-themed birthday party, we will come. But we don’t want anyone else ever doing this.’ So that’s where I’m at right now.”
Her brain is always reeling with such creative ideas. For example, she has a potential column idea where she attends every event she’s invited to on Facebook and sees how her life changes. Her editor approves the vast majority of her column pitches, but not all. “One time I pitched a column about Liberace,” Petri remembers. “I was asked what the timely news hook was. I said ‘Nothing, Liberace is just amazing and I want everyone to know.’” The piece was rejected.
She’s also adapting one of P.G. Wodehouse’s books into a musical. Because of course she would.
Among the countless ways in which Petri defies any stereotype of a staid newspaper employee, instead of signing off her emails with “Sincerely” or “Thanks,” she ends them with “Hooray!” or “Yay!” And at the end of the day, that’s truly what sets Petri apart. They say comedy comes from pain, but Petri radiates a natural exuberance.
America still has several more decades of Alexandra Petri columns, books, plays, tweets, puns, satires, stories, show appearances, contest entries and jokes remaining. Hooray and yay, indeed.