What Journalism Needs Is More Writers Who Can Make You Smile

Andy Ferguson writes funny but lets the humor emerge naturally from his material.

At the Washingtonian I searched hard for writers who could make readers laugh about the city. It wasn’t easy. In the 1970s, the reigning funny writer in Washington was Art Buchwald, a syndicated columnist who did some freelancing. I invited him to lunch at Sans Souci, then the in-crowd restaurant, and asked him to do a humor piece for the Washingtonian. He liked one of the ideas I tossed out and agreed to do it for $1,500. The deadline came and went and I called to ask how he was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I sold that to Playboy for $3,000.”

In July 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth was visiting Washington and Simon Winchester, a British journalist based in DC, wrote a funny piece, “What Do You Say to a Queen.” Eugene McCarthy, after life as a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, teamed with cartoonist Jeff MacNelly in 1978 on a wonderful “Political Bestiary.”

Getting the most laughs in the 1980s was Joe Bob Briggs, a Texas writer who mostly made fun of movies but did some pieces for the Washingtonian when he needed money. The one that got the most laughs was his April 1988 story “Brunch of the Living Dead.” The deck line: “Joe Bob Briggs, king of the drive-in-movie reviewers, turns his redneck eye on Washington’s television pundits.” He had the most fun with the bombastic John McLaughlin and his group.

The star of the 90s was Andrew Ferguson, now at the Weekly Standard and still a feature writer who can make readers smile. Andy had the most fun at the Washingtonian with “Crashing the Country Clubs: You Can Get Into a Country Club If You Have the Time and Money and Can Play the Game, But Don’t Call.” His best moments came when he called clubs like Congressional and Burning Tree to ask: “Hi. My name’s Andy Ferguson, and I was wondering who I might speak to about applying for membership in the club….”

At the Washington Post in the 1970s and 80s, Henry Mitchell did wonderful stories about gardening and life that made everyone smile, and Tony Kornheiser wrote a lot of funny columns, mostly about sports, in the 1980s and 90s but then started making so much money talking on television that his Post columns faded away.

Washington after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2016 election hasn’t seemed as funny. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post gets some smiles. Gene Weingarten, Buchwald’s successor as journalism’s number one  humor columnist, writes a weekly column in the Washington Post Magazine.

I asked one of the city’s smartest journalists what he thinks of him: “Weingarten writes with the sole purpose of trying to make you laugh. Anyone who tries that on a weekly basis has my sympathies. The most effective humor is the kind that occurs along the way while the writer is taking you someplace else. If he’s wearing a big sandwich board that says ‘I’m Being Funny Now,’ he’s made an insurmountable burden for himself. But if he’s explaining an idea or reporting an event or telling a story and the humor emerges naturally from his handling of the material, it will be much more satisfying.”


  1. John Corcoran says

    I well remember the opportunities I had to write humorous pieces for The Washingtonian,in the seventies, ranging from Metrobus Follies,to surviving airports in the area to monthly and annual “Nobody’s Prefect” Awards in Washington. The city and its residents was–as they say in politics and war–a “Target Rich” environment. Jack was a wonderfully supportive editor who rarely messed with the punchlines and sprung for the occasional working lunch to come up with new ideas. Great memories for me, even if I had to bus tables after the lunches.

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