Every writer has had a tough editor at some point in their career; if they’re lucky, they’ve probably gotten an angry letter or two from an aggrieved reader.
Juli Weiner is unique, perhaps, in that the most publicly aggrieved reader of her career happens to be the president of the United States. In 2011, then-private citizen Donald Trump made copious notes on a printout of Weiner’s blog post lampooning his rumored 2012 presidential run, and sent the marked-up page to her Vanity Fair editor, longtime Trump foe Graydon Carter.
“Bad writer!” he wrote next to Weiner’s byline.
Weiner isn’t in journalism anymore, but you can still catch her writing about Trump and other figures from politics, sports and entertainment and every center of power for Last Week Tonight. The weekly talk show, which airs on Sunday nights on HBO, is hosted by British comedian and Daily Show alum John Oliver.
Weiner, an Upper Dublin High School grad who attended Congregation Beth Or growing up, doesn’t particularly miss journalism (aside from “many of the people I worked with” and “their expense accounts”), but it was where she honed her skill as a writer. She wrote for the school newspaper at UDHS, as well as for a magazine at Barnard College. Before blogging for Vanity Fair, she wrote for online native outlets like Huffington Post and Wonkette, where she was also an editor.
The longer she was a journalist, the more she learned “how ill-suited I was for journalism,” she said. “I learned there was an unfortunate amount of overlap between the basic requirements of the job and my personal dislikes: cold calling, participating in Q&As, bothering strangers, checking my voicemail, leaving voicemails for other people, talking on the phone — really the whole gamut of phone-based endeavors.” The 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign trail, she noted, were especially trying times on that front. (Her husband, Michael Grynbaum, remains enmeshed in that world at The New York Times, where he is a reporter.)
But even in those days, comedy was never far from her mind. She used to transcribe episodes of Saturday Night Live, which “really prepared me for exactly two things: comedy writing or court stenographer.” Moreover, one of her favorite publications was (and remains) Spy, which was edited by Kurt Anderson and her future Vanity Fair boss. She fell in love with the combination of “found art, gonzo stunts and research wielded like weaponry,” which happen to be the same things she engages in now at Last Week Tonight.
(Some of Weiner’s favorite Spy gags: “sending checks for increasingly small amounts of money to various celebrities and seeing who bothered cashing them,” “publishing health code violations from popular restaurants” and “putting on an art show and seeing whether collectors could tell the difference between children’s scribbles and modern art.”)
Her decision to actually make the leap from journalism to writing comedy for the small screen was fairly simple.
“I’d always wanted to write for late night,” she said, “and when I heard John Oliver was hiring for a new show on HBO, I applied and was hired. It’s difficult to come up with a less interesting story than that.”
Last Week Tonight premiered in 2014, and has produced countless segments that have earned plaudits from millions of viewers and insults from the subjects of the deeply researched screeds created by Weiner and the rest of the staff (Trump, on Last Week Tonight: “Very boring”).
“The entire process is extremely collaborative, and involves many people tossing around ideas about what we want to say and how we want to say it,” Weiner said. “My day-to-day experience completely depends on the day: Some days I’m in a room with nine other writers coming up with descriptions of Boris Johnson’s hair; other days I’m silently looking through PDFs about the effect of zoning laws on the National Flood Insurance Program — just like I do when hanging around with my friends.”
In the meantime, she’s learned how to spell the name of various European strongmen, save for Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyńsk, and that, horror of horrors, “HBO employees do not get free HBO.”
Weiner is proud of the work she’s done at Last Week Tonight, now in its sixth season, though she’s still working to top her favorite joke made on the show — Russell Crowe responding to Oliver’s purchase of his jockstrap from Cinderella Man by using the proceeds to build the John Oliver Koala Chlamydia Ward.
She makes it home to Philadelphia when she can, where her father still works as a breast cancer surgeon.
“It must be pretty exciting for him to have a daughter whose job is so much more important and high-stakes,” she joked.
A New Yorker since college, the chance to visit a suburban supermarket like Wegman’s remains a real treat as well, especially when Wegman’s Diet Strawberry Lemonade Sparkling Soda is in season.
“If I may address Wegman’s directly for a moment,” she said, “there’s no wrong time to enjoy Diet Strawberry Lemonade Sparking Soda.”
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