The first week of January each year, The Washington Post’s weekly humor contest, the Style Invitational, hosts “The Year in Preview,” asking for satirical predictions about the 365 days ahead. “Rumors are finally confirmed,” Mike Phillips of Chevy Chase, Maryland, wrote in his 2021 forecast, “when it is revealed that Duncan Stevens…submits [his] weekly entries to the Style Invitational on $20 bills.”
Bribery is not actually at play with Stevens, the 46-year-old Vienna resident who inked more successful jokes and comedy lines in the contest during the 2020–2021 season than anybody else in the world. And yes, we do mean world—recent weeks’ winners have hailed from as far away as Ireland, Thailand, and Malta.
Though there’s no set number of published entries, they typically fluctuate somewhere between 25 and 50. But that hardly means the contest is easy to win. To give an idea of the cutthroat competition at play here: The Post’s most-entered contest in the past year, which involved cleverly combining the names of horses running in May’s Kentucky Derby, attracted 2,126 entries, of which 64 were published. That’s an acceptance rate of just 3 percent. Four entries are always awarded first, second, third, and fourth place, while the rest are bestowed equal rank as honorable mentions.
From March 2020 to March 2021, the Style Invitational “season,” Stevens achieved a stunning 138 published jokes. That’s an amazing average of about three per contest, when notching even one is quite difficult. Not only that, but Stevens became the first DC-area season winner of the DC-based contest in eight years.
Asked to select his favorite among his 600-plus published jokes to date, Stevens chooses his entry in a contest asking for a fictional line of dialogue for a real movie. The movie he picked: The Cider House Rules. His new line: “Man, this is one awesome cider house!”
The nation’s top professional comedians receive late-night television hosting gigs, multi-million-dollar movie deals, or sold-out theaters on their stand-up tours. What is Stevens’s reward? Fame? Glory? Riches?
“Well,” Stevens answers, referencing the prize awarded to any honorable-mention joke, “pretty much my entire fridge is covered with magnets.”
“I never watched much SNL or The Simpsons,” Stevens says, referencing what are indisputably the two most influential comedy television shows for people in his age group. “But I did read a lot of Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, and Richard Armour.” Growing up in a suburb northeast of Philadelphia, Stevens was the opposite of the class clown. “I was pretty straitlaced and serious in high school,” he recalls of his years at a New Jersey boarding school. “There wasn’t a lot of hair-letting-down.”
Stevens says the first time he ever wrote something intentionally funny wasn’t until law school at Northwestern University, when he penned a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s aria “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” about the life of a JD student for the school’s newsletter. Sample lyrics, referencing that first-year law students are called 1L’s: “I am the very model of a 1L individual / I’ve mastered many concepts, mostly meaningless and trivial …”
He moved to the DC area in 2000 to take a job with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Today, he works as counsel in the FDIC’s appellate-litigation unit, handling judicial cases in the federal appeals courts in which the FDIC is a party.
Like any good new Washingtonian, he started reading the Post and discovered the Style Invitational, so named because it appears in the Style section. But he rarely submitted anything. In fact, he wasn’t published for the first time until a dozen years later, in May 2012, with a contest to pair a line from a famous poem with a funny rhyming line of your own.
You almost never hit a home run in your first career at-bat, and even Stevens now admits that his debut published joke wasn’t his best work. Adding to a line from “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stevens wrote: “And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair / But I was brave, and then and there, I chopped it off! Now his head’s bare.”
Don’t get it? We don’t blame you. This joke references an almost completely forgotten news story during the 2012 presidential campaign about how, as a high school student in the 1960s, then–Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney held down another boy’s head and cut off his hair. (Back in the quaint bygone days of 2012, this is what passed for a presidential campaign scandal.)
Stevens only earned two published entries in his first “season” of 2012–2013. His other published joke that year was for a contest to pen an original limerick describing a book, play, movie, or TV show. His limerick spoofed Titanic: “We’ve got lovers whom death cannot sever! / And a villain who’s scheming and clever! / And a ship whose demise / Will bring tears to your eyes! / Oh, a script? Okay, yeah, sure, whatever.”
Then his faucet’s slow drip turned into an exploding fire hydrant.
“Some church friends would say, ‘I saw you got ink a few weeks ago, but not this week!’” Stevens recalls, referencing Church of the Epiphany, the Episcopalian church in DC where he long served as treasurer and still sings tenor in the choir. Now he had to start entering more frequently.
His resulting rise was stratospheric. Look at these perpetually increasing stats for each of the subsequent five seasons:
30 published entries, 16th place in the world
74 published entries, fourth place
113 published entries, third place
136 published entries, second place
141 published entries, second place
Who defeated Stevens in those consecutive agonizing runner-up finishes? That would be Jesse Frankovich, a 42-year-old Lansing man who works for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Frankovich didn’t just top the leaderboard—he appeared undefeatable. In that final season mentioned above, Frankovich earned a jaw-dropping 184 published entries in a single year, good for about three and a half per week. Not only did that set an all-time record for most in a single year, but the previous record was set during an era when each entrant could submit an unlimited number of jokes, rather than the 25 per week to which entrants are now limited.
The Magic Johnson and Larry Bird of the Style Invitational share a healthy competition, if not quite a rivalry of hatred. “Jesse occasionally for his work has to travel to DC, and the most recent time he was in DC, I had something else going on. So I have not met him in person,” Stevens admits. “Now and again, we’ll trade a note about something, like ‘That was a good one’ or ‘I had something along the lines of your entry, but not as good as yours.’”
Frankovich echoes the sentiment. “I’m continually impressed by Duncan’s ability to come up with so many entries week after week,” he says. “I also wonder if he suggests a lot of Shakespeare contests, in part because I tend to struggle in them.” (The answer: Stevens indeed suggested the last four Shakespeare-inspired contests through the years, for which he earned 11 total published entries versus Frankovich’s two.)
So after two straight silver medals, could Stevens go for the gold? Starting in March 2020, the race was on.
Frankovich had won the prior three consecutive seasons, and for the four seasons prior to that, the victor was Denton, Texas, actuary Chris Doyle. (FDIC appellate lawyers, transportation department planners, actuaries … who would have guessed the occupations of these humorists?) There was also a geographic impetus at play: for a contest with the word “Washington” right there in the publication’s name, despite a number of DC-area denizens having won first place in an individual weekly contest, none had been declared the sole yearlong champ since Kevin Dopart in 2012–2013. Woodbridge resident Danielle Nowlin did tie with Doyle the first year he won, for the 2013–2014 season, but Stevens wanted to win outright.
In 2020–2021, he didn’t just win; he destroyed the competition. Accumulating 138 published entries, he thoroughly trounced the 97 earned by Frankovich—who, it goes without saying, took second place.
Not that Stevens can necessarily predict which of his lines will prove successful. “I’ll get ink for something and think, ‘That wasn’t even my best entry that week!’” he laughs. But it’s all in the hands of the sole judge, former Post copy-desk chief Pat Myers, nicknamed The Empress by regular entrants. (That’s not an insult; Myers herself has even taken to using the term in self-reference.)
“Duncan has a total deadpan demeanor. He doesn’t come off in the least like a comedian: He doesn’t particularly smile; he doesn’t gesture; he doesn’t crack jokes. He comes off, actually, like the lawyer for a federal banking agency that he is,” says Myers. “But in writing, he is not only astonishingly clever and mechanically flawless in writing song parodies and light verse, but he’s also funny as all get-out.”
In his free time, Stevens competes in the online trivia competition LearnedLeague, for which he once wrote an entire quiz about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. (That English-literature major was finally being put to use.) He also plays Ultimate Frisbee on a DC-area team called the International Disc Alliance, has performed with an improv-comedy troupe at Northern Virginia venues Café Montmartre in Reston and Summers Restaurant & Sports Bar in Arlington, and with his wife raises an 11-year-old daughter, Margaret, and 8-year-old son, Simon.
Stevens met his wife, Rebekah Bundang, at Swarthmore College, where they lived in the same dorm. They were actually both published in the same 2015 Style Invitational contest called “Mess with Our Heads,” which asked for a joking sub-headline that could follow an actual headline from that week’s newspaper. Her winner: “Maryland man ‘touched everyone’s hearts’: Out-of-control surgeon performed unwanted, invasive procedures.” His winner: “First commute goes well at Silver Spring Transit Center: ‘Tomorrow we’ll try a second passenger,’ officials vow.”
He composes 20 or 30 limericks a month for the Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form, or OEDILF, a website attempting to compile a limerick for every single word in existence. Asked to pick his favorite, he cites his entry included in the gr- section: “Poor Bessie the cow’s come to grief. / My pasture’s been plundered; a thief / With unusual whims / Has made off with her limbs. / So now she’s reduced to ground beef.”
Stevens’ rhyming entries are his specialty and resulted in his favorite reply he’s ever received in response to a Style Invitational joke. After he won first place in a song parody contest with a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” rechristened “Have Yourself a Gerrymandered District,” the state’s anti-gerrymandering advocacy organization OneVirginia wrote him a letter thanking him for his advocacy of the issue. Although it’s hard to quantify how many minds were actually persuaded by the lyric “Have yourself a gerrymandered district / Slice and dice the votes / Safe seat, even if they catch you screwing goats.”
Stevens has won first place in 17 weekly contests now, plus second place 19 times—though taking runner-up is almost more fun, due to the Style Invitational’s longtime honor of bestowing a gag gift upon each week’s silver medalist.
“My favorite is a solar-powered Buddha, where if you shine a light on it, it starts rocking back and forth. My daughter has it in her room,” says Stevens, adding that he also won a two-person mini basketball game that you play while wearing the hoops on your head like hats, an “Illumibowl” rotating-color toilet light, and a talking Donald Trump pen “that I couldn’t bear to be in the same house with for too long.”
As for how living in Northern Virginia has influenced his humor, “I have plenty of time on the commute from Vienna to Arlington to come up with entries, at least in non-pandemic times,” says Stevens. He also cites one specific NoVA county as influencing a recent entry, for a January contest asking for new invented words featuring the letters U-N-D-O (in any order) and a definition of the neologism. Stevens’ entry: “Tower of Loudoun: a facility where prisoners are sentenced to an extremely long commute.” That didn’t get published, although another of his entries did instead: “Plagueground: Right now, any indoor recreation facility.”
And now, the $64,000 question: Will he defend his crown as the yearly champion? As of press time, Stevens had retreated to the “lowly” runner-up position with 27 inks, two behind Frankovich with 29.
Maybe he really should start submitting his entries on $20 bills.