November 7, 2017— Alexandra Petri, author of The Washington Post’s ComPost blog, brought laughs and her observations about comedy to the Shorenstein Center. Below are some highlights from her conversation with Center Director Nicco Mele, as well as the full audio recording. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
Writing comedy during the Trump presidency
All you have to do is look around and describe what’s going on and people accuse you of having written surreal horror.
“Some people think well, it’s gotta be easier…given that he has all of these traits, how could it not be easy to write satire and jokes about such a human being? But I actually think it’s more difficult…all you have to do is look around and describe what’s going on and people accuse you of having written surreal horror. Which is great, because I always wanted to also have a side line writing surreal horror.”
“[The White House] sent out one of my columns in their morning email…The idea that the White House, currently constituted, had read an article, or at least the headline of an article, that was clearly satire and had decided to send it to everyone who subscribes, was surprising but not shocking.”
“Twitter’s great because it’s a good place to put puns that otherwise would fill every article and sort of overflow like Strega Nona’s pasta and ruin things. It’s a pun dumpster.”
The role of comedy “news” shows
“I remember our generation used to get a lot of flak about how we watched The Daily Show so much, and everyone was like ‘You’re getting your news from The Daily Show!’ The Daily Show wouldn’t be funny if we were getting our news from The Daily Show. It’s funny because we already know what the news is this week, and we want someone to yell at it with us…[Now] you’ve got all these fake anchors who are trying to tell news stories, like John Oliver—every week he’s trying to add value.”
Satire and misinformation
“The first time that one of my pieces got mistaken for real news had nothing to do with Trump, it was in … a cache of letters was discovered from the creator of Peanuts, Charles M. Schulz, and he had all these love letters, and so I had made a fake cartoon in [Microsoft] Paint of Snoopy saying things like ‘I’m a flawed man,’ and it seemed very obvious A. that it was not an original Charles Schulz drawing, ‘cause it was crudely done in MS paint by me, and B. that this couldn’t possibly have been a real Peanuts comic at any point, but I think it was the Telegraph, picked it up and was like ‘here’s some examples in the comics that totally would have given away that he was having an affair,’ and I thought, oh no!”
“And there was a phase when I was still starting the blog when I would get a lot of comments, like, ‘what is this very poorly written news article that seems made up?’… But I think if you read any of it, usually the point that it’s trying to make is not just ‘I’m lying and you can cite this’—it’s telling a story or making an argument—and so it’s not like a lot of fake news websites that are like…’Hillary Clinton stabbed my uncle’—and that’s really not satire, that’s just a lie.”
“Not everyone can be president.”
“One of the responsibilities of the presidency…is that you have to console the nation and bind up its wounds and speak to the widows and the orphans, and one of the things the Trump presidency has been driving home across the board, in many ways, is that not everyone can be president. Like anyone can be elected president, certainly, but there are certain jobs—like it’s actually hard to be president!…There are tasks that involve skill, and compassion, and delicacy, and I know now that The Rock maybe shouldn’t be president. I mean, maybe he should if he surrounds himself with capable people—I’m sad that we’ve reached a point where this is a statement—The Rock, if he surrounds himself with a good team…”
Finding writing inspiration
“I’ll see something happening and I want to say, does anyone else see that this is also going on? Let me just describe it and we’ll agree that this was a real thing that happened –incredulity.”
Does comedy run the risk of normalizing the Trump administration?
My hope in using humor in a time like this is to remind people what normal used to look like.
“None of this is normal, and I think the function of comedy in a time like this is not to be like, oh here are some fun characters, let’s play with them…my hope in using humor in a time like this is to remind people what normal used to look like, and make a joke that angles back towards that in some way. ‘Cause we know that we’re living in a bizarre time, and to remind people of that—instead of, oh look, our usual ritual where we turn on the press conference and there’s a man screaming that the Statue of Liberty was actually not about welcoming immigrants—she was shoeing them away with her flaming torch!”
“At the Emmys, when Sean Spicer got to roll out, and everyone was like, look how funny it is, we got this man who loves to lie—that’s not funny…Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, 100 percent, put her there, roll her out, have her tell the joke, but Sean Spicer is someone who’s actually doing things that have consequences and that are undermining institutions in really powerful ways, and that’s not OK, and shouldn’t be normal. If you lose that distinction it’s bad.”
“I did go to CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] because I’m in this Stockholm Syndrome place where that’s a fun activity for me…sometimes they’ll have a comic performing there…and it’s usually just ‘you people are too easily offended by things’ based comedy, so it’s like comedy from 30 years ago that people have stopped doing because they’re like, this is no longer a funny joke to us.”
Does Breitbart have a humor columnist?
“I think they think they do.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Olympius.