Columnist Rex Huppke talks about moving from the Chicago Tribune to a larger audience at USA TODAY

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune

Erstwhile Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke is settling into his new gig at USA TODAY. The “humor(ish)” columnist is from Florida, went through Indiana via a stint with The Associated Press and banked nearly two decades at the Trib. He’s also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago, where he teaches feature and opinion writing.

Huppke talked to E&P after a few weeks nesting in his new editorial home. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Huppke is a trained scientist with a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University. He found the science field “jarring” and took refuge in journalism, getting a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

E&P: Chicago has a history of famous columnists. You’ve got Mike Royko, Roger Ebert, Clarence Page. Does your work draw upon their experiences?

Catch the “E&P Reports” vodcast featuring E&P Publisher Mike Blinder and Rex Huppke at

Huppke: There’s a legacy of just amazing columnists in Chicago. Personally, I really felt lucky to have the chance to be a part of that scene. I used to read Mike Royko growing up in Florida. I grew up in Tampa. He was syndicated, and the Tampa Tribune carried Royko’s columns. There was always something about that that I liked. I wasn’t eyeing a career in journalism at that point. But I read all kinds of columnists: Anna Quinlan in The New York Times, Dave Barry, and Royko was one of them. When I did get up to Chicago and got to write stuff in the same spot that he did, I did not feel worthy of that by any stretch of the imagination, but it was pretty cool.

E&P: Is there anyone you enjoy reading today?

Huppke: USA Today’s got some great people. Suzette Hackney is writing incredible stuff, and Connie Schultz, I really love. I really like Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri, who writes satire, which has been my wheelhouse. She’s amazing; I love her work. I try to read conservative voices and voices more along the lines of my worldview too. I’m on the more liberal side, and I try to get a little bit of everything, which hopefully, most of us do. I read several conservative columnists at The Washington Post, like Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin and George Will, and keep up on other right-leaning publications, like National Review.

E&P: Looking at some of your recent columns, they include “Absurd trucker convoy has me rooting for higher gas prices.” Then you have “Texas’ transgender order isn’t a political winner; It’s cruelty writ large.” What kind of reader response do you typically get?

Huppke: This is my third week right now, so I don’t have a really great sense of that at this point. Readers
are just getting to know me, and I’m getting to know them, so I can’t tell you that I’ve had a specific type of reaction. It’s a much larger audience, of course. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from columns in the Tribune, I wouldn’t anticipate it being too dramatically different. Right now, in this country, people have pretty strong opinions on both sides of most issues. Generally, what I found — and thank goodness for this — is that most of the responses I get to the columns are positive. Usually, especially when I’m writing something that’s humorous or satirical, people seem to appreciate having a chance to laugh about something that might otherwise be a bit scary or whatever. And then, there’s also a smaller undercurrent of grumbling and calling me bad names. If you’re a columnist and you’re only getting positive feedback, you’re not columnizing very well.

E&P: I was surprised to hear you say that you’re getting higher percentages of positive feedback, because I thought most people who would write emails or contact you on Twitter would tend to be the ones who were not really positive.

Huppke: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to underplay the negative; it certainly comes in. But what I think has happened, and I saw this, particularly while Trump was in office and it’s continued, is there’s such a divide right now that’s based on people who believe in things that are actually happening and people who believe in stuff they're being told that is not factual. So you have this kind of split. And I think that for a lot of people on the side that’s grounded in facts, it’s really difficult to see other people on their Facebook feeds or friends and relatives even who are saying things that are just factually untrue and taking them as somehow gospel or something like that. It’s twisted people up a lot, which I completely understand because it is sort of mind-bending. And so, when they read something that satirizes that kind of a situation, it seems to have a cathartic effect. The majority of the nice emails that I’ve received the past five, six years have said, "Oh, thank goodness, I'm so glad to see that somebody else sees things that way or somebody else feels this way." There's almost a relief that they’re not completely losing their minds or something like that. The positive stuff has been higher in volume during this period of the sharp division.

E&P: Do you ever feel pressure to be funny when you’re out with friends or at the proverbial cocktail party?

Huppke: No, I don’t feel pressure to do that. That’s kind of a knee-jerk thing for me. I’ve always been, depending on who you talk to, either funny or a bit of a smart alec or whatever you want to call it — really, since I was a kid. I don’t think of myself as being Mr. Jokes-a-lot or anything like that. But I try to observe the strangeness of things going on around us. Point out things that seem a little askew.

E&P: When you go home, do you indulge in current events, or do you try to back away from that?

Huppke: I’m pretty immersed in things, especially with social media. Over the weekends, I try to find a day to at least largely disconnect just to preserve what’s left of my sanity. We live in a 24-hour news cycle. It’s not like when there were deadlines at 8 p.m., and then nothing happened until 10 or 11 the next morning. It’s going on all the time, and I like to be on top of things and try to find ways to help people understand stuff and cope with it or think about it. So I’m pretty tied in.

E&P: You have a background in chemistry. Do you think you’ll ever write about science?

Huppke: I was a chemical engineer, and when I became a journalist, a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, you’re gonna do science writing, right?’ But honestly, I think my time as a chemical engineer was so jarring to me that I never wanted much to do with it. I do sometimes like to write about science stuff in a funny way — like about quirky discoveries or quirky little scientific developments when there isn’t a lot of big news happening. I like to goof around with some science stuff, but I don’t have a strong focus on that.

E&P: I know you’re happy to be at USA Today, but are there certain things you miss about the Tribune?

Huppke: The Tribune was such a great place. I was there for 19 years. You don’t leave a job after 19 years and not miss the people. But I was ready and excited about the chance to come to a place like this to reach a national or international audience and have the chance to write about virtually anything — and big important topics that are impacting people all over the place. I’m still in Chicago.

E&P: What was the atmosphere at the Trib since Alden Global Capital took over last year?

Huppke: Not fantastic. Alden Global Capital carried with it a reputation that was not ideal if you’re a journalist. You can read about the efforts that reporters, as well as the union there, made to try to find other possible buyers. There was clearly a strong opposition to them taking over.

E&P: Do you have any plans to appear on TV, do any podcasts, documentaries or anything like that?

Huppke: I’m certainly more than open to doing other things. I love getting into other forms of media and talking if there’s something positive that I can weigh in on. I’m always happy to do that somewhere I can be helpful, but I don’t have any specific plans.

E&P: They should get you on Bill Maher’s program.

Huppke: We’ll see. I’m always, well, largely happy. This is week three, so I have no idea exactly where everything’s going to lead here, but mainly I’m just happy to be here and happy to be writing.

Catch the “E&P Reports” vodcast featuring E&P Publisher Mike Blinder and Rex Huppke at

Mary Reardon is a writer and editor based in Wisconsin.


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