Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) talks about the county's vaccine rollout and making the tax code more progressive. And D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) talks about disparities in the District's vaccinations and how the pandemic has affected plans to bring a hospital east of the Anacostia River.
“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Mary Poppins isn’t the only person who lives by that motto. It’s shared by Josh Gibson, the man behind the D.C. Council’s unexpectedly funny Twitter account.
If you take a peek at the @councilofdc Twitter feed, you’ll find dry announcements about hearings cut with witty D.C.-centric commentary, roughly photoshopped D.C. flags and tidbits of local history. Gibson’s approach has led to a massive increase in followers.
And power is held to account by Eric Saul and his team of writers at The Takoma Torch, a local satire site. The Torch has poked fun at everything from Montgomery County housing policy to members of Congress and the president.
Gibson and Saul meet us at the intersection of politics and comedy. What’s safe to joke about when you’re running a bureaucratic social media account? What’s the role of political satire in our local community? And will we ever learn the secrets behind D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh’s joke budgets? Tune in to find out.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
MIKAELA LEFRAKWelcome back. I'm Mikaela Lefrak, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Now, when I think of local politics, I usually think about budget hearings, zoning regulations and the occasionally contentious town hall meeting. But it's usually pretty dry and bureaucratic. But somehow, people can make this stuff fun, and sometimes even straight-up hilarious, like they do on "Parks & Rec."
MIKAELA LEFRAKWhen President Trump proposed a military parade in downtown D.C., the D.C. Council was quick to tweet, "Tanks, but no tanks." That one still makes me laugh. (laugh) So, today, we're talking about the intersection of politics and humor with two people who know that world very well. Joining me now to discuss is Josh Gibson, the director of communications for the D.C. Council and the person behind the Council of D.C. Twitter account. I also had the pleasure of profiling Josh for The Washington Post Magazine a few years back, and it's great to speak with you again, Josh.
JOSH GIBSONHey, Mikaela. How are you doing?
LEFRAKGreat. We're also joined by Eric Sault, the creator of The Takoma Torch, a local satirical website. Welcome to the program, Eric.
ERIC SAULThanks for having me, Mikaela.
LEFRAKYeah, it's good to talk to you again, as well. Now, Josh, you are on the D.C. Council's Twitter account, @CouncilofDC, and you often tweet about little-known Washington history, trivia, statehood, lots of D.C.-themed jokes, as well as information about public hearings and the Council's schedule. So, what led you to this unique role within D.C.'s local government?
GIBSONIt was all by accident, like most of the good things in my life. I was unemployed. I was hired -- this was several years ago, I was hired as Phil Mendelson's Council campaign manager, and a big part of my role in that job was communications. It just happened to work out that I would send out these emails that were kind of goofy and silly. And then we went to meet-and-greet events, everyone would say to the chairman, hey, this is, you know, really funny, or I loved that. And so, we got a bit of a following during the campaign. And then once the chairman won, he came back to me and said, "Could you do this for the whole Council?" And that's how I ended up where I am.
LEFRAKNow, a lot of people enjoy the humor on the D.C. Council Twitter, myself included. Why do you think it helps to add this dose of silliness and local history trivia into the Council's online presence?
GIBSONWell, I mean, people are probably tired of hearing me say this. I say it on our podcast all the time, but it really is the Mary Poppins model, where "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." Prior to me taking the job, the feed wasn't super actively maintained, but when it was, it was: The Wilson Building will be closed today because of snow. Or: The hearing on, like you said, zoning regulations will be held at 3:30 in room 120.
GIBSONAnd that's critical information. That's the core of what we do and what we should be communicating, but it's a little hard to take, as it is. So, the question is: What could we mix into that that would keep people interested, and still be in sort of a broadly defined, relevant and appropriate umbrella?
LEFRAKNow, Josh, I would love for you, briefly, to describe for our audience what your office at the D.C. Council in the Wilson Building looks like. Because I remember when I visited, it was unlike any government office I had seen before.
GIBSONWell, I love D.C. history, and I love eBay, and that's a dangerous combination. So, basically, my home, also, is chock full of memorabilia and decorations. But the office is where, particularly, D.C. political and historical stuff goes. So, pretty much every inch of the wall is covered with campaign buttons, campaign posters, historic photographs, old maps, you name it.
LEFRAKNow, Eric, I was looking at the Tacoma Torch website earlier this morning, and I saw a couple headlines there: "Bezos Steps Down as Amazon's CEO to Devote More Time to Completing the Death Star." "Market Manipulation Causes Tacoma Park to Halt Purchasing of Co-op Shares." What first gave you the idea for The Tacoma Torch, and when did you start the site?
SAULWell, anybody who lives in the D.C. region knows that Tacoma Park is this sort of center of progressive politics. It's full of extremely smart policy wonks and highly educated people. Like California has its Silicon Valley, I would say Tacoma Park might be the policy creek of Maryland. Instead of, you know, billionaire tech geeks, we just create government employees making a competitive salary with solid benefits.
SAULBut, you know, our tiny town of 18,000 people pumps out, you know, major players in the political spectrum. Like, for example, DNC Chair Tom Perez. Most likely Maryland's next governor could be Peter Franchot who lives also in Tacoma Park. Our County Executive, Marc Elrich. You know, there's numerous people here that are well-known in the political world. And the people here are super-engaged in politics. I think teenagers here could outdebate James Carville, if they even knew who he was.
SAULBut I don't know if I would've started this page living anywhere else, because the people here provide endless material for me. We started as a one-off article simply to mock this large debate going on here about the development of a parking lot. And that's called the Tacoma Junction. And, you know, this little parking lot turning into a building was very much like a "Parks & Rec" episode. It was just a simple two-story building going in a parking lot that divided the whole town. People were fighting. There was this big rift among residents.
SAULYou know, at the same time, Jeff Bezos was looking for Amazon's next headquarters. And so, just as a goofy story, I sort of combined the two and wrote an article about, you know, Jeff Bezos bought the property, and he's going to develop it, and what's the going to turn into? And we talked about this giant high-rise coming into this small, little town. And, you know, it was just something humorous. It went well. I didn't think it would go that well, and then I just kept writing.
LEFRAKNow, what's considered funny can often be subjective, and it can also be controversial. Josh, you run social media accounts for the District, so there's only so far that you can go. How do you decide what's fair game and what's going to be funny and acceptable for your audience?
GIBSONIt's something I've developed a feel for, I think, over time. Obviously, at the end of the day everything comes down to: Does this reflect positively on the council. Now, that is sort of a collective social media communication. Does it reflect well? On individual tweets, sometimes I can take a little liberty where I'm a little bit sort of scrunching up my shoulders and being like, ooh, I hope this is okay. But then the sort of sum of everything that goes out, even though it's not what you'd normally expect from a government, what makes me happiest and what makes me know I'm succeeding is when people respond and say I'm so proud to live in D.C. I couldn't be happier. I love the D.C. Council. My government, you know, is better than your government. That's what it's all about. I mean, this isn't a standup routine. This isn't about me. It's about how can I help the Council by being me, with all the, you know, humor and history and whatever else thrown in.
LEFRAKNow, some guy named Tom Sherwood, never heard of him, just tweeted to us, and wants me to ask you if any council member has complained or gotten mad over your questions or your tweets. And I'm curious about that, too. Have you ever overstepped the line?
GIBSONNot really. I mean, there was one time when a citizen tweeted something about -- during, not the World Series run, but an early Nats playoff run. And they said -- they were made I wasn't retweeting their tweet, and they said something like, why haven't you done more for the Nationals, or something like that. And I wrote back, you mean other than building them a $650 million stadium? And that got a ton of retweets and likes. And USA Today -- thankfully, just on their website, not in the newspaper -- wrote up the tweet. And that was kind of a first time I'd gotten a ton of attention for something, and it was mostly positive. But I was a little nervous.
GIBSONFeedback from the council members is -- thank God, and may it always stay this way -- positive. That I think it's kind of like when the chairman would go to campaign events and I was writing the campaign emails that people would bring it up as a topic of conversation and say, oh, did you see this one, or this one's my favorite. And I think the council members mostly get that kind of feedback from citizens.
GIBSONAnd as long as it sort of stays that way and that's positive, you know, every now and again, there might be one where someone's like, are you sure that's something the council should be tweeting? But, again, I think that's positive, and they, you know, hopefully get warm fuzzies from the warm fuzzies the citizens are sending their way.
LEFRAKNow, Eric, from your angle as a political satirist, what's off-limits for you, if anything? And what topics have been the most well-received?
SAULThat's a good question. Off-limits I would say, in the comedy world -- and I'm no expert in that, I've only been doing this two years -- you know, there's a little bit of responsibility, especially when it comes to a term called punching down, which basically means, you know, ridiculing marginalized groups of people, you know, who don't have power to defend themselves.
SAULSo, we take pride in, I guess, making sure our target of our jokes is, you know, people in positions of privilege or power. You know, when WASPs come after us for picking on them, I think we know we did our job right. You know, we try to avoid swearing, although on the rarest occasions, when we thought it was really necessary, we've put some bad words in there. But we want readers' kids to also read the Torch. We have several younger audiences, too, several high school kids who follow us and share our articles. So, we try to keep it clean.
LEFRAKI want to bring in Steven Farnsworth here in Herndon. Steven is a political scientist who also wrote a book on political humor called "Late Night With Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency." Steven, you are on the air. Welcome.
STEVEN FARNSWORTHThank you. Glad to be here.
LEFRAKYes. Well, I'm curious what your opinion on this conversation is. How do you see this intersection between politics and humor playing out in our society today? What's the importance of it?
FARNSWORTHWell, this is such an important way to get people connected to politics. Whether it's national politics or local politics, the reality is that we live in very contentious times. People are angry, very frustrated. And the idea of sort of the powerless being able to speak a bit more through political humor is a great way to take those people who might think they're better than the rest of us down a peg or two. Whether it's the Jeff Bezos of the world or the people in Washington, there's a big audience for that kind of edge in response to taking the powerful down a peg or two.
LEFRAKAnd how do you see the role of humor in politics changing with this new administration?
FARNSWORTHWell, I think that for many of the late-night comics, in particular, Donald Trump was the gift that kept on giving from day one. From his days as a blustery billionaire in New York to his entry into politics, he was just this larger-than-life figure that created all kinds of opportunities for mockery. The inconsistency of what he said, the way in which he behaved, his sort of larger-than-life personality.
FARNSWORTHI mean, different comics would go in different directions. Some would make fun of how he dresses or his hair or how he looked. Others would make fun of the distance between what he says and what actually happened. But there's no doubt about it, Joe Biden is not nearly the rich vein of humor that Donald Trump was. I think they're really going to be challenged. If you look at "Saturday Night Live," for example, they've struggled into terms of figuring out even who should play Joe Biden.
FARNSWORTHAnd so, there's going to be plenty of mockery, but in 2021 there may still be a focus on the former President Trump, because with impeachment about to start, the trial this week, you've got more opportunities to talk about Trump. And that's where they've really found a goldmine of humor these last four years.
LEFRAKWell, Steven, thank you so much for calling in, for adding your perspective, here. Eric, you feature President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence in quite a few Torch articles. So, I'm curious to hear from you. With the new administration in place, are you worried that you're not going to have any more people in the national government to pick on?
SAULI think at first -- that comes up a lot. People ask me, oh, with Trump gone, now what are you going to do? And to be honest, you know, Trump isn't, by himself, the only source of humor. We have new people coming in. We wrote an article about the, quote-unquote, "Jewish Space Lasers," by Marjorie Taylor Greene. And we have these new, kind of funny people coming into politics. There was comedy before Trump, and there will always be comedy. And I think, you know, it's going to make us work a little harder, but it can be done.
LEFRAKWe just got a tweet from someone, who says: @DCfakemews is a hilarious account. Cats making politics more palatable. That's fake mews, if you didn't hear me before, not news. She says: What's not to love? Now, I believe that site might not be still active, but thank you so much for sharing. Now, Eric, I think we might be breaking news, here, but I heard that you don't actually live in Tacoma Park proper. So, where do you live, and how do the people of Tacoma Park feel about you publishing satire about their beloved people's republic of Tacoma Park?
SAULYes. This is a constant criticism. So, to put everybody's mind at ease -- you know, it's a huge, you know, breaking news event -- I used to live in Tacoma Park. I lived in the city for eight years, and I moved 20 feet outside of Tacoma Park. So, the street in front of my house is the dividing line between Silver Spring and Tacoma Park, and I've lived here for five years. But I'm an architect in the community. I've designed, you know, most of my work there. I consider myself part of the community, all my friends and neighbors. So, I hope that they let me back in into their wonderful world. And, yeah.
LEFRAKMary is calling in from D.C. Mary, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYHi, there. Thank you so much for taking my call.
LEFRAKSure. What's your question?
MARYI just wanted to -- it's sort of a comment. My husband and a group of improvisers in the D.C. area started a satirical news publication during the pandemic called The Cherry Swamp. And it's been such a great outlet to come up with satirical and comedic ways to look at all of the big things that are happening. It's great to have the Tacoma Torch nearby. It's inspirational. And it's been amazing, the following and responses that they've been able to get, especially on Instagram. It just seems like there's a big appetite for looking at what's happening through a satirical lens.
LEFRAKMary, what types of responses has your site been getting?
MARYA lot of following. Like, the Instagram account grew to over a thousand followers in the course of several months. We also get comments from friends and folks who don't know us as well, saying, oh, my gosh, this headline absolutely slayed me. And people really resonating with what they're seeing.
LEFRAKThat's great. Now, Josh, I know that you have grown the Council of DC Twitter account tremendously since you took it over. At this point, how many followers do you have and are you thinking about, as Mary said, moving into different social media channels? Like, are we going to be seeing a TikTok account anytime soon?
GIBSONWell, first, a quick comment for Eric. He shouldn't fret about living outside of Tacoma, because I live in Tampa. (laugh) I don't actually live in Tampa. But, yeah, the following has grown, you know, again, surprisingly and heartwarmingly from about 4,500, when I started. And now we're at just about 52,000. And we grew that honestly. The mayor has way more Twitter followers than we do, but she had two Twitter wars with Trump, and nothing grows your Twitter following more than Twitter wars with Trump. So, we had to kind of, you know, fight and grapple for each of our followers.
GIBSONWe did just recently get into Instagram. Full disclaimer: even though everyone says that you should never do this, we mostly repost our same content across social media channels. But I would say Instagram's been receptive, although it's interesting to see what pops better on Instagram, versus on Twitter. But my heart will always be on Twitter.
LEFRAKWell, we just received a tweet from Councilmember Elissa Silverman. She says: When Josh sells his TV show proposal, "Mendo" -- referring, of course, to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, to the networks, will council members get some royalties for providing critical material? She also says: Kudos to Josh and Eric for making our governments fun to read. Now, Josh, I don't want to get you in trouble, here, but I do have to ask, who, in your opinion, is the funniest councilmember?
GIBSONThere's not a ton to work with, there. I mean, none of them, I think, if I had to describe their personalities, would the first word out of my mouth be "funny." I think Chairman Mendelson -- even though he's my boss's boss, I'm saying this subjectively and honestly -- he's one of those folks, kind of in the tradition of Al Gore or Bob Dole, that if you just see him on TV for a couple minutes, you'll get a sense that he's sort of on the drier side, maybe even boring.
GIBSONBut in person -- just, like, apparently was true with Al Gore and Bob Dole -- super-funny. I mean, a very, again, dry kind of humor, but I think anyone who knows him would describe him as funny.
LEFRAKWell, there's one council member who definitely plays for the laugh, sometimes. That's Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. She's the chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment and a distinguished law professor. But, arguabl,y I'd say her most important contribution to the District is her annual joke budget. Councilmember Cheh says she first got the idea from a colleague of hers at George Washington Law School. Let's take a listen.
COUNCILMEMBER MARY CHEHWe used to send out a joke memo from the dean or from the dean's office, and make fun of various things that were going on around the law school, and also fun of the faculty. So, when I was on the Council, I wanted to do a similar thing, but we quickly realized that it probably wouldn't be good to put these jokes in the mouth of the mayor or her administrators or someone. So, someone came up with the idea, well, let's put it in our budget memo.
LEFRAKCouncilmember Cheh has been releasing joke budgets since 2010. And among past joke budget proposals, she's included syncing the Districts elections to the lunar calendar, a dedicated lane for a Slip & Slide on 16th Street, which I would surely welcome. But Cheh also says that sometimes journalists do take her joke budgets seriously.
CHEHIn particular, I remember the first one. There was a fairly prominent reporter of the major paper in the District of Columbia who called me after the joke memo came out. And she was aghast at what I was proposing money to be spent for and was asking questions about it, going on and on. And I had to pause and say, so-and-so, I hate to tell you this, but that's a joke memo. (laugh) So, yeah, that still happens, even though it's now a thing.
LEFRAKMany thanks to Councilmember Cheh for telling us about her joke budget. Josh, as the communications director of the D.C. Council, do you ever have to clarify that the joke budge is, in fact, a joke?
GIBSONI don't think I've had to answer or take any hits on the joke budget. I was just thinking, as you said it, that it sounds like, given that we're a bureaucracy, that there's a joke budget, like that we only get 20 jokes a year. So, we have to kind of ration them out. But no. I mean, we've had a couple instances of people saying, like, why are you responding to this account like it's serious? You get that it's a spoof account, right? And then, invariably, people will write back. Generally, we'll copy the link to your Post magazine article to clarify that it is technically a real thing.
LEFRAKWell, I'm flattered. Now, Eric, we just have about a minute left, but I'm curious how you want to see the Torch grow in the future.
SAULYeah, that's a good question. I think we're trying something a little bit different. We're not just trying to pump out articles and, you know, make people laugh, although that's most of what we do. We're trying to be more of a community thing. So, you know, we're trying to work on maybe doing a pub crawl in the future, having some parties. We've also created a Facebook group that we do little competitions, little joke games, and the best answer gets a free Torch coffee mug.
SAULSo, we're doing things that, you know, create an interactive back and forth, not just us posting articles and people laughing. So, we're hoping that continues to grow. We've gotten great growth in the last two years. It's been a wild ride.
LEFRAKWonderful. Today's first segment on Amazon's HQ2 design was produced by Ines Renique. Our segment on local political satire was produced by Cydney Grannan. Thanks to all of our guests today. Tomorrow, you can tune in for NPR's special coverage of the impeachment proceedings. I'm Mikaela Lefrak, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you so much for listening.
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