This bonkers election year has raised many questions about the health of our democracy, let alone our entire civilizational project. Perhaps not the most pressing among them, but nevertheless a brain-tickling puzzler, is one for the professional jokers in our midst: How do you satirize a political season that even on its best days seems to have been conjured in a drunken game of Mad Libs by The Onion editorial staff? If you’re a late-night comic, you might keep valiantly flailing; if you’re Carl Diggler, you go meta and recycle the hot air of the professional pundits themselves (and if you’re a web magazine and an improv troupe, you could try this unique live hybrid).
Or, if you’re a playwright who already thinks in terms of dialogue, characters, and drama, you might apply some of those tools to recast this weirder-than-life political season as a kind of antic fan fiction, with occasional dashes of apocalyptic farce. That, at least, is how I’d attempt to describe the irrepressible brilliance of the chipper, goofy, and masterful Alexandra Petri, whose daily Compost blog/column at The Washington Post has become one of the true (few) comic pleasures of this increasingly unfunny campaign season. (Is it a coincidence that her only real competitor for political satire in pixels/print, New York‘s Liz Meriwether, also began as a playwright? We think not.)
The daughter of Tom Petri, a moderate Republican congressman from Wisconsin, Alexandra is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and she’s among the second wave of Washington, D.C.’s playwright-driven ensemble the Welders. She is the recent recipient an Amtrak residency for writers to do their wordsmithing on long-distance train trips; she is the author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences, and along with her own personal Twitter account she is the force behind this essential feed. We spoke to her recently about her take on politics and theatre, and how she keeps her spirits up when things look grim.
Is theatre a useful frame of reference for what’s been happening in the past year? Your column seems to say yes.
When you have sort of an ongoing story like an election, half of the fun of it is seeing these people sort of ossify into characters. So Mitt Romney was the sort of affable robot, for instance. But this year has been an especially interesting exercise in that kind of storytelling, because Donald Trump’s personality is already a sort of a performance, and it really throws off people who would otherwise be sort of quirky individuals; they’re not even visible to scale on the same chart. In an ordinary election, we could have explored John Kasich’s possibilities as a character—all of his long, rambling speeches about his feelings and hopes for the world, and how we’re all a wonderful tapestry of moments (I think he literally said that in his stump speech). Of course, he was wasted on the year when Donald Trump was dominating all the headlines, because Trump is sort of like a sarlacc pit—you can’t really look away.
It seems that there are two huge challenges with writing humorously about this election, and you meet them as well as anyone going. The first is, How do you riff on something that’s already so absurd—that already seems like the work of a not especially inspired satirist?
That is the real question of the election. One of my friends, when we saw that Donald Trump was going to be the nominee, sent me a note on Facebook: “I have to say, I feel really bad for you as a satirist, having to deal with Donald Trump. Everyone else keeps saying it’s a gift, but it’s actually a curse.” I sort of agree with him. Usually the point of parody, like with “SNL” and impressions, is you find something that the person doesn’t notice about themselves that in some way you can exaggerate. But Trump is an exaggeration; he’s like this large balloon, and his interior–how do you get at that? What do you do that he isn’t already doing a better version of himself? I’ve taken refuge in doing dystopian horror. But there are other ways to tackle it. I thought that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s piece in the New York Times Book Review, which did Mrs. Dalloway but from Melania Trump’s perspective, was absolutely fantastic. That was another way in. But you really have to think, How do you get into this? What’s your angle?
The other challenge is to make jokes about a campaign that’s increasingly becoming harder to laugh about. For me the turning point was Trump’s convention speech; people say he’s boring when he reads off a teleprompter, but I find him frighteningly grim and Mussolini-ish when he’s not doing his usual riffing and half-joking off the cuff.
It was a very alarming speech in a lot of ways. I was writing to that effect. Especially being there, and watching it with the large face—if you were set-designing an Orwell revival, you couldn’t have done much better. The thing is, both the things he’s advocating when a sort of coherent thought emerges are always something awful, like building a wall and rapists, but also, just what he’s done to what you assume that it’s okay to say in public if you’re running for president. There are some things that are sort of weird and hypocritical that I’m glad we’ve gotten over, like, Oh, you’ve been married multiple times, can you run for president? Well, sure, why not? But the other things—we used to think we were politer than this, and we used to think we were better than this. That to me is distressing. The president isn’t your average human being who’s allowed to go through life thinking dreadful things as long as he doesn’t say them in the street and frighten the horses; they’re a person you’re supposed to be looking up to. It’s like those ads that Hillary’s been doing with the children looking in terror at the television and thinking, “My president’s a bully?” Which is sort of a little heavyhanded, but I get it.
So I’ve loved the columns where you explicitly riff on plays, like “Waiting for Pivot,” or the one where you compared Trump’s day-is-night truthiness to a really creepy production of Taming of the Shrew. But you use a lot of other frames and templates, even just more straightforward opinion columns. Do you make a conscious effort to vary it up?
I do try, to keep it interesting. Theatre can be a very useful lens for looking at things, and also, instead of having to say, “I’m going to come right out and say, I stand in favor of this and that,” you can get a more full-fledged discussion by having somebody say, Here’s a valid point on one side, here’s a valid point on another side. And you can do a sort of more exaggerated version of things than you would if you were just speaking as yourself. It’s sort of a nice organ, where you can pull out a couple of stops, like bass notes and high notes, that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. But I don’t want to people to tune into the Post and be like, “What’s this? It seems like it’s all been dialogue for the past 16 days.” So I’m trying to find that mix. It’s sort of like your late-night shows, where you have a mix of the guy sitting at the desk being like, “Here’s what I think about this—I’m indignant!” And then you’ll have people coming in playing characters. On paper, or on Internet pixels, I’m doing a version of that.
Your father was a moderate Republican congressman from Wisconsin. I didn’t know they still existed.
I know, it’s a dying breed now; there’s no seersucker to be sighted anywhere in the halls of Congress. Which is sad, because I really do think it’s nice to have a two-party system that functions and exchanges ideas, as opposed to sort of bandying words about individuals. It would be nice to disagree about something that wasn’t like, “Is your personal experience valid?”
Does your dad approve of your comedy?
He’s always been very supportive. Growing up, both of my folks have good senses of humor, which they would need to have, raising me. I remember as a kid, he was trying to teach me vocabulary words, and I couldn’t remember the difference between “obdurate” and “obfuscate,” and he was like: “Well, think of my colleagues. ‘Obdurate’ is what they are, and ‘obfuscate’ is what they do.” I’ve never forgotten it.
What’s amazing is that you don’t seem cynical about politics, even having grown up with a politician.
No, quite the contrary. I sometimes worry, Was he doing it wrong? It seems like everyone else is like, “‘House of Cards’ perfectly imitates my family experience growing up.” For me it couldn’t be anything farther from that. Maybe it’s somewhat naïve, but the ideal that was passed down to me was that once you really got to talk to people, they knew what their concerns were and had good ideas of how to fix them, and if you could just get in a room and listen to people, they would have things to say to you. That went for his colleagues across the aisle, that went for his constituents back home—you know, the art of trying to figure out how you can help people do things. So the side of that I got to see growing up was a lot of parades and church functions and bean dinners; I always really liked that, and I think it’s one of the things that pushed me to journalism, because there are only a few professions where you get to go up to people and be like, “Tell me what you’re thinking about things,” for a living. Politics is one of them, and journalism’s another one. I guess I like people, so it’s hard to get too pessimistic about things, although Donald Trump—insofar as he’s less a person than sort of this terrifying bag of wind, he does tend to undermine that.
There’s a lot of talk this election cycle about the rage of the electorate, and that’s not something I really feel in your work. There’s some bewilderment and maybe some outrage, sure…
Indignation! I don’t know, we’ve gotten into the habit—I was going to say over the past few decades, but actually over the past, like, 4,000 years, of sort of insisting that things are apocalyptic and on the verge of ending, that everything before was good and everything now is bad. If you read Aristophanes, of course, he’s grappling with a lot of the same things, except his concerns were a little bit more like, “The boys these days have round rumps, and we used to have lean rumps,” and it’s like, “This is oddly explicit, but I’m glad that you’re concerned.” The idea that things are about to end is an idea we’ve had for as long as is possible, but if you really do genuinely believe that things are about to end, you start to be very careless with your world. Ted Cruz for a while was walking around the campaign trail saying, “The world is on fire” to small children, and they started crying.
I don’t know, I feel like whenever you have East Coast elitists or whatnot talking about, “These poor people and their anger”—if I were reading that, I wouldn’t be like, “This is great, they understand me!” It has this weird feeling like we’re talking in the hallway outside the room. The real difficulty is that people have different sets of facts. And that, I’m not sure how you fix. They’ve done all these studies that if you want to make somebody agree with you about something, you can’t just go up to them and say, “The opposite of what you think is true, and here are the facts,” because they’ll just remember how it made them feel, and they won’t actually retain the information. I keep thinking, when was the last time I changed my mind about anything? ‘Cause if I’m Googling something, I’ll often be like, Well, I have a general idea that this is the case, and I’ll type in, “Why is such-and-such the case?” as opposed to “Is such-and-such the case?” You get the results that you want to get out of that. If I knew how to solve the information problem, then I think we’d solve everything.
So tell me about your plays. Obviously, they’re funny, right?
They tend to be. My most recent one wasn’t entirely, and everyone was like, What’s going on here? One thing I’m very fascinated by is the way that writing allows you to have a conversation both with other people and with other texts. I like to joke that I’ve written more plays with Lady Macbeth in them than Shakespeare did, just because I feel like there are these great characters, and it’s fun to move them around and see what they can do. Fan fiction gets a bad rap, but the idea that you’re taking these pre-existing characters and sort of moving them around—taking a familiar story and riffing, that’s one of the oldest forms of drama.
One of my favorite plays I’ve written was called Tragedy Averted, which was basically like: What if Shakespeare’s tragic heroines all got together and went to summer camp and tried to fix their lives? A lot of this is: People will show up because they’re like, “I know this story, let’s see what she does with it.” Another part of it is, it gives you a way in to talk about things, that if you had to get a whole brand new different character, it would take a while to assemble. Also, as a feminist, I’m like, How can we find female characters who can open their own shows? In Shakespeare there are so many famous, interesting women, some of whom don’t get to have their own shows. So I thought, Why don’t we grab some of these gals out and see if we can do an all-lady show, and people will instantly know who it is and what it’s about? There are so many great actresses, and they always need more roles.
Do you know what show you’re going to do with the Welders, or is that years away?
No, it’s next year, so I’m in the throes of writing it now. It’s sort of a take on Hamlet through the lens of fan fiction, but it’s actually in modern-day setting with a female protagonist. She’s very avidly engrossed in the world of online fan fiction writing, so she uses these stories to help process what’s going on in her own life. You get a lot of silliness; like, Abraham Lincoln is wandering around.
Yeah, what’s a good play without Abraham Lincoln wandering around?
More plays should have that.
Our American Cousin did.
Sorry, too soon?
Tell me about the Amtrak writing residency. Will you get the quiet car? Is booze included?
I’m very excited. I’m trying to figure out which picturesque route I want to ignore totally so I can type into my screen.
I’ve read the Tumblr page of things you’re into but I haven’t asked you the “what are your influences” question. So I’ll ask: Who are you reading right now?
Honestly, what’s been getting me through this election is Benchley. He’s so irrepressibly sunny, and that’s such a delight. He was living through the Great Depression but still, everything he’s writing are like, Here’s your day-to-day concerns. If I was sitting in Philly or Cleveland, I would read a couple of pages of Benchley, then I would go out and face the convention. It was nice to have something that makes you laugh.
Which is why I read you.