The best punchlines about Washington traditionally come from outside the Beltway. Local political comedians such as octogenarian Mark Russell or the tourist-friendly Capitol Steps are droll but never as cutting or wise as Jon Stewart (New York), Bill Maher (Los Angeles), or Lewis Black (Silver Spring by upbringing, New York by choice).
Yes, there are funny Washingtonians. Mark Leibovich’s This Town reveled in the vanities of the capital’s Very Important People. Christopher Buckley penned Thank You for Smoking, the funniest DC novel ever—but come to think of it, he’s moved away.
For a previous generation of Washingtonians, the resident funnyman was Art Buchwald, who, with his cigar and horn-rimmed glasses, could have passed for Groucho Marx’s nephew. Buchwald’s Washington Post columns lampooned Nixon’s paranoia and defined 1970s political humor. But with his vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard and A-list friends like Katharine Graham, he was Beltway royalty, even if he played court jester. His satire was mild and today inspires head shakes from those who’ve never heard of Bebe Rebozo or Bert Lance.
Alexandra Petri, a blogger for the Washington Post and author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, a new collection of essays, has a bit of DC royalty about her, too. Her father, Tom Petri, was a moderate Republican congressman, the kind that now exists only in exhibits at the Smithsonian. Alexandra catapulted from National Cathedral School to Harvard, where she ticked off withering lines in the Crimson about her hyper-achieving peers: “Whenever someone inadvertently reveals to me that he is the world’s premier concert saxophonist, I brace myself for the inevitable ‘and.’ ”
After she graduated, Fred Hiatt, the Post’s longtime editorial-page editor, gave Petri her own blog with a groaner of a name, ComPost. (Her Twitter handle, @petridishes, is wittier.) Her task is to write funny—a difficult task in Buchwald’s ’70s, let alone today, when internet memes bloom everywhere at once and vanish just as quickly.
Petri mostly pulls it off. Spying an uptick of Republican strength among aging millennials, Petri recently wrote that “being liberal went along with being young, like the ability to wear leggings as pants, an easy fluency with technology, and the absence of hangovers.” She called Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign, the chain’s widely lambasted attempt to spark discussion about the racial divide, “one pump hubris, three pumps privilege and four shots of I-can’t-even.”
What’s admirable about Petri is her lack of nihilism. Her fellow Post colleague Dana Milbank, while funny and astute, seems determined to see politics as merely absurd, and his humor can appear rote: Attend congressional hearing and chronicle hypocrisy. Laugh, leave, repeat.
The tenor of Petri’s humor, by contrast, is not “They’re all idiots” but “Hey, Senator, you’re acting like an idiot. Let’s be better.” There’s a small downside to her earnestness. Petri lobs her gibes with such symmetry that her humor sometimes feels like a dated paean to evenhandedness—the AP on laughing gas. Buchwald knew that some pols are more deserving of ridicule than others.
This Field Guide isn’t a Washington book: Petri’s best bits could have originated in Dallas as easily as in the District, and they’re more personal, less political. She offers a touching and deeply funny recollection of her passion for Robert E. Lee and Civil War reenactments—not unheard of in adults, rarer among NCS alumnae. Petri writes about coming of age without the heavy-handedness of Lena Dunham’s Girls and with a bit more wisdom. “Anything you loved, however intensely, becomes mortifying the moment you cease to love it,” she observes. She examines her tendency to attract fatherly old men, simply because they enjoy her company: “I must exude an oddly specific musk, like mothballs and racism.”
In an earlier age—one with more sexism and printing presses—a talent like Petri would have spent decades covering 100 other beats before being awarded a column. The upside of our digital-first era is that talent rises quickly, whether it’s an Ezra Klein (who already seems like a graybeard) or a Petri, who doesn’t have to punch tickets as a reporter before taking on the columnist’s mantle. Even the word “column,” with it’s evocation of Greek temples and paper layouts, seems so paleo.
The downside of the internet age is the dearth of editing and the conundrum of unlimited space. Petri’s essays can ramble (as her work for the Postoccasionally does), reflecting the adage “I wrote long because I didn’t have time to make it short.”
But length is a vestigial sin, hardly a venal one. Petri’s heart is in the right place, and so is her lovely pen—right here in This Town. Let’s hope our city can keep her from LA producers, who will come after her for screenplays and pilots. Short on humor and wisdom, Washington can’t afford to lose anyone who’s mastered the alchemy of both.
This article appears in our July 2015 issue of Washingtonian.