Before she turned 30, Alexandria Petri was the winner of the O. Henry Pun Off World Championship (I bet you didn’t even know such a contest existed) where she made puns on the names of every U.S. president in chronological order such as “if Andrew jacks an automobile” and the loser on Jeopardy! Now Petri, a columnist for the Washington Post has written her second book, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why (W.W. Norton & Co. 2020; $17.99—Amazon price), collection of more than 50 new and adapted essays from her Post columns.
If you think someone with a resume like this was a nerd in high school, you’d be right. The only child of a U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin, she wrote a Shakespeare and feline comic book at age eight. Now that is seriously nerdy.
Petri now has taken her humor to a more modern stage. She loves to skewer politics and the somewhat frightening and nonsensical actions our politician’s take.
Is it hard, I ask her, to transform the horrible news we hear into satire and is it a way for her to keep sane?
“I think I tend to be a relatively cheery person and this almost maniacal devotion to hunting for a bright side in gloomy situations can manifest as a kind of satire,” she says in describing the way she writes such columns as “America, please don’t put bleach inside yourself like the president says” and “Know The Signs: How to tell if your grandparent has become an antifa agent” in response to President Trump’s musing that maybe the 75-year-old protestor pushed to the ground in Buffalo was actually an ANTIFA agent trying to block police communication.
It’s a way, she says, of looking at the way your thinking would have to be deranged to see today’s particular monstrosity as great news.
“ I think of writing as a way of trying to make eye contact with people and say, are you seeing this too?, and in that way it is sanity-affirming,” she says. “It helps me feel less alone and remember that other people agree that this is not the way we would like our world to be.”
Sometimes even people who can win national pun contests run out of ideas. What does Petri do when this happens?
“I will usually go for a walk or pick up a book or something that isn’t the news and see if fresh inputs will help my brain along, but sometimes that doesn’t do it and my editor is nice enough to think it’s better only to write when you have something to say,” she says. “I am also grateful that I don’t always have to write jokes; sometimes I will just write a more straightforward column. If I can’t think of anything funny to say, I know I don’t always have to. And the flip side of this is that there are some days when I want to write three columns and have to be restrained from doing so.”
Asked if there is anything else she wants people to know about her book, Petri has a quick answer.
“I hope they will buy it and enjoy its cover,” she says, adding, “everyone please wash your hands and wear a mask and stay safe.”