Politics, The World, Interviews

Satirist Alex Petri is really into the classics, puns and fantasy, and we are so here for it

The Washington Post columnist talks about her motivations, inspiration and distinctive style

The very first thing Alex does when we connect is compliment my shirt. I’m wearing a casual pink top with a tiny writing that says “GIRLS BITE BACK”. I wasn’t even expecting her to read it, small as it is, and she almost abruptly opens with: “I like your shirt!”

Journalist by day and nerd by night – although the two are interchangeable – Miss Petri “offers a light take on the news and political in(s)anity of the day.” Her signature humorous tone is redefining what it means to be a columnist, especially in a time of fake news and social media clickbait. She is the proof that if you make things funny enough, even the most uninterested millennials will listen to political affairs. We named her in our list of 40 Women To Watch 2018 edition.

Alexandra knew from an early age that she wanted to write. She graduated from Harvard in 2010 with a degree in English Literature and a concentration in Classics. In college, she was writing plays and had a column in the university’s newspaper called “Petri Dishes”, which is still her Twitter username.

After an internship at the Washington Post she was offered a job there. At 23 years old she already had her own column, the youngest person ever to get one. “It’s definitely what my Wikipedia page says, I trust it,” she tells me. “They were nice enough to let me have a column on the Saturday page pretty early on.”

Her quick rise to fame, from university newspaper to staff writer at The Washington Post, she attributes to “a combination of tremendous luck and a very kind, understanding boss, and that people on the internet were willing to click on my stuff.” It was like: “Why don’t we put Justin Bieber in the headline every time, because that’s what that SEO is really fixed on.”

Miss Petri has a way of making even the grimmest issues funny. Her writing voice is so unpredictable, she starts talking about something and you never know where it’s going to end. Usually with an unexpected joke or a reference to antiquity or pop culture. Sometimes both. Sometimes Kylo Ren, the teenage megalomaniac villain of the new Star Wars films, compliments Donald Trump and tells him he’s a fan of his work. (By the way, Alex is also the mastermind behind the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account)

“I hope that I take things seriously,” she confesses. “But sometimes when you’re in a serious situation you find yourself making jokes: I feel like at funerals everyone’s always suddenly way more funny than you ever remember them being. There’s this funny quote, and I’m forgetting who it’s by, that says ‘never give a funny card for birthdays, save it for funerals when its cheering effect is needed’.”

We need some cheering effect in today’s America. And then there are many recent events that are so absurd that they already sound like parodies or tragedies. Alex has her own way of dealing with those: “Instead of being like ‘here’s six paragraphs about why it’s absurd’, I will maybe do it in the style of gothic horror.” Some find it hard to make humor of current events, but Alex thinks comedy is exactly what we need: “This is definitely a serious situation, and we all have to get through this together but maybe here’s a pun.” The tagline for her column reads: “Alexandra Petri puts the ‘pun’ in punditry,” as if to say, “you have been warned, you’re leaving the pun-free zone.”

Being a journalist today is “very exciting. Journalism matters, and now it is the time to do it.” In a time like this, when the older generations accuse millennials of believing everything they see on social media and falling for fake news, Miss Petri’s articles are incredibly popular among the young. Her hilarious tweets and her distinctive humor draw people in, and her articles inform audiences of every age group. “People used to make fun of millennials getting their news, quote, unquote, from the Daily Show,” because they didn’t want to sit through the news or read the papers that only stated the facts. “Sometimes you don’t want to just follow it and read the grimmest possible version, you also want a friend yelling at it with you, and I hope I can be that friend.”

Before the 2016 presidential elections, she would often joke that she’d love to have a snow globe where she could see what it would be like to live under the Trump administration, as long as she didn’t have to live in it. But now it’s happening and it’s not so fun to imagine.

I ask Alex what it’s like to be the youngest person in the newsroom, and after taking a moment to think she says: “It’s funny when your youth is your defining characteristic. All of the stuff that you learned in college is still very fresh to you.” But it’s already been a couple of years and she doesn’t feel as young as she was when she started. “Now when I run into people in high school and college, I’m just like ‘tell me all of the trends. Are you still on Snapchat? What is it like?’” We both laugh, and I tell her that no, most people don’t use Snapchat anymore. “I feel very decrepit.” Cue another laugh. “Hopefully I got very aware that I don’t know everything there is to know. I feel like I used to think I knew like 100% of things. You can go back and find really excruciating columns. No, don’t google them, it would be terrible.”

One question has been bugging me the entire time: what drew her to Literature and to Classics? “My first book ever was the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations and it just had all of these really funny quotes stuck together and I just read through all of it and that was how I learned about the world. It also had a lot of Oscar Wilde quotes and I was like ‘I’ve got to read everything this man has done’ and he was always dropping Ancient Greek quotations.”

She took Ancient Greek in high school, joining a class of Latin-savvy seniors who just wanted to “chill”. She loves Greek literature because “it really demystified the idea that there’s ever been this period in time where everyone was doing something in a lofty perfect way. All of Aristophanes is just fart jokes, sex jokes and fart jokes, 100% of the time, and the one thing we preserved from the burning casts of history from 2400 years ago is this giant book of fart jokes.” I tell her, as a tragic Classics nerd myself, that she makes a very good point. “This is what the world is like, and it’s reassuring to see human beings continuing to laugh at the same damn jokes for millennia.”