News & Politics

Arianna's Man on the Hill

Eliot Nelson writes DC’s funniest daily roundup.

“I’m a smart-ass,” Nelson says. He’s also the voice behind one of Washington’s most bitingly witty newsletters. Photograph of Nelson by Erik Uecke.

It took being held at gunpoint in his living room for Eliot Nelson to get noticed.

One night in January 2010, three pistol-wielding intruders stormed into a house Nelson shared with three roommates on the 1200 block of DC’s W Street, Northwest. The perps emptied the housemates’ pockets and stole their computers, iPods, and phones.

Nelson got revenge as only an aspiring comedian could: He wrote about it. A slightly melodramatized version of the night–including witty banter with his assailants and a good pistol whipping–ran on the influential humor website McSweeney’s. a robbery of three liberal arts graduates: the police report was the first story Nelson ever submitted.

Two months later, Nelson was in a job interview with Ryan Grim, then a congressional reporter in the Washington bureau of the Huffington Post. Grim, who had read the McSweeney’s piece, was looking for someone to write a daily e-mail rundown about national politics called HuffPost Hill.

“When Ryan hired me, he envisioned it as being satirical,” Nelson said recently.

“Well,” Grim interjected, “not that satirical.”

Almost two years later, HPH–as Nelson’s newsletter is called within the crowded confines of HuffPo’s Washington bureau–is among the most biting, trenchant, and ultimately truthful humor being written.

“0.00032 Percent of Americans Prepare to Caucus: Our Definitive Coverage” was the headline on Nelson’s story as Iowans officially kicked off the presidential election year in January. “Tonight,” he wrote, “100,000 Iowans will help determine the leader of the free world while five million other Americans watch the premiere of ‘Work It,’ an ABC sitcom about two men who find employment by cross-dressing. You can practically *smell* the democracy!”

Nelson, 25, writes with the world-weary style of someone twice his age who has seen everything and found most of it lacking. In person, he’s self-effacing and deferential–like most comedians, nothing like his public persona.

He grew up in Manhattan with a Tisch School of the Arts theater professor as a father and a mother working in real estate. “I’m a smart-ass,” he says, “in a long lineage of smart-asses.”

Nelson graduated in 2008 from Wesleyan, where he says he “wasn’t overtly weird enough to be noticed.” He asked to join the college humor paper but was rejected.

HuffPost Hill, which Nelson writes with a few contributions from colleagues, goes out near the end of the workday, when most of the articles he links to have already been read. But at its best, Nelson’s commentary is more succinct and on the nose than the hard news:

Ron Paul‘s concession speech should inspire the folks at Google Translate to add ‘Meandering Curmudgeon’ as a language.”

Newt Gingrich “reverts to time-tested ‘be a gigantic sourpuss’ strategy after ‘be a populist spokesperson’ strategy backfires.”

In a town as painfully unfunny as Washington, Nelson’s wit stands out. “DC is probably the least self-aware city in America,” he says. “We do a daily attitude adjustment.”

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.