Working

The “How Does a Satirist Work?” Edition

Slate’s Jacob Brogan talks to the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, who mines the news cycle for comedy.

Satirist Alexandra Petri
Satirist Alexandra Petri.

Erik Uecke

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This season on Working, we’re speaking to individuals employed in fields potentially imperiled by the Trump presidency. These are the stories of people doing difficult but important jobs—jobs that may get much more difficult and much more important in the years ahead.

Some might suggest that we’re living in unfunny times: Facing a presidential administration that seems beyond parody, it’s hard to know when—and whether—we should laugh. But that uncertainty doesn’t stop satirist Alexandra Petri, who writes a weekly column for the Washington Post and maintains the comical Compost blog for the publication, from doing her job. “People feel compelled to continue reading and hearing the news. Sometimes you just want somebody to be yelling at it with you as you’re reading it. I think of that as my function,” Petri tells us in this episode of Working.

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Her writing hasn’t always been strictly political, though: When her column began, she aspired to be responsive to whatever was happening on the internet—or at least whatever had the internet up in arms. She still takes that approach, but today, she finds that people are mostly interested in the “stream of terror” that our contemporary climate has engendered. “If that’s what people are looking then that’s what’s helpful to write about,” she says.

Filtered through Petri’s worldview, though, even the most dispiriting news can provide an opportunity for bemusement. “I tend to process stuff by making jokes about it,” she tells us, though she admits, “It’s something that makes me annoying to be around in times of real crisis.” That eagerness to make jokes has turned her into an enormously productive humorist: Her blog features daily output, sometimes even multiple posts a day. Simultaneously, though, she’s also reading the news constantly, taking it in from “morning to night” as she looks for new topics.

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Though Petri has a print column, she enjoys having much of her work appear online. “On the internet you can see people responding in real time,” she says, which may also speak to her enthusiasm for Twitter. She often uses the social media platform to test out jokes—and sometimes to figure out if someone else has made them already. “It’s a great pun dumpster,” she says of her relationship to it. But as Petri explains it, the site also fits smoothly into her working process: As she explains, when she’s working on an article, she’ll occasionally tweet out bits and pieces of it as she goes, referring back to them as she composes the final piece.

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In this episode of Working, she also talks us through her writing process. “Sometimes if you have the idea and you know the format it’s going to take, all you have to do is sit down and crank it out,” Petri tells us. But she also has a folder of ideas in progress—concepts for posts that may come together at some point down the road. “One of the things 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,” Petri adds. For her, that means getting beyond and outside of the cycle to take in history, literature, and other topics that encourage her to ask “broader questions” about current events.

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As she thinks about the role of her work in the present political climate, Petri reflects back on her status as a mirror for other people’s response. As she puts it, “It’s that moment of connection, that moment of seeing that somebody else sees it with you and agrees that the emperor is wearing a very strange outfit today. I think it’s useful in that regard.” In the process, she suggests, satire reminds us that our moment is bizarre.

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“Worst case scenario, nothing I do has any value or purpose, but if I can make someone laugh, I’m at least as useful as a piece of quiche would be,” Petri concludes.

Then in a Slate Plus extra, Petri tells us about Emo Kylo Ren, her popular parody Twitter account that imagines the villain from Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a petulant teenager. If you’re a member, enjoy bonus segments and interview transcripts from Working, plus other great podcast exclusives. You’ll also help Slate hold Donald Trump accountable in our podcasts and on the site as a whole. Start your two-week free trial at slate.com/workingplus.

Email: working@slate.com
Twitter: @Jacob_Brogan