By Zachary Gorwitz.
DPR: I’ve always marveled at the creativity and cleverness of The Onion. I recently learned that Onion writers write the headline, and then the story. Talk about the reasoning behind that process.
Sure. Before The Onion started, I was aware of a lot of humor publications and I didn’t really think any of them were that funny. Part of what inspired me to be involved with The Onion was seeing some of the other humor that had been done and not being impressed and thinking, “Well, I could do better than that.” There were things specifically with some of those other publications that bothered me, that I didn’t think were done well, that I wanted to fix. And one of those things was that it was always really hard to get to the joke. The Harvard Lampoon, for example, would have this headline that wasn’t funny, it was barely enticing you to read the piece, and then it was a whole page just filled with copy, a big wall of gray. You would often have to read all the way to the end to get some sort of punch line. That was pretty common with written humor at the time. Mad Magazine and The National Lampoon are the only ones that would do it a little bit differently; there would be more pictures and pop-outs and ways to be drawn into the writing. Steve Martin’s book, for example, was a big influence on me for that reason because I worshipped as a comedian and I thought he was amazing. But his book wasn’t that funny and I was trying to parse out why and a big reason was the headlines weren’t funny, you always had to read to the end of the piece to get the joke. Woody Allen, his stuff was pretty good. But that’s a separate beast because he was writing stuff that was using dramatic structure and I was really focused on comedic structure where it was just a joke beat that was escalated to a finish.
So what we did with The Onion was, well, I was greatly inspired by this book that I discovered early on in the first few years of The Onion that really solidified my strategy: I wanted the work to be funny as soon as you saw it. I wanted you to be laughing. And hopefully that would draw you in to keep reading, and it would just get funnier and funnier. I wanted to start big and end bigger. I didn’t want to start with vague intrigue or “Maybe this will be ok?” because I think on a fundamental level I knew that people don’t like to read. Reading is hard work and homework to a lot of people. Nobody is going to just start reading something; you need to draw them in, you need to invite them. Put out a red carpet for them and make it really easy.
We had already been doing this thing where the headline was funny and the story was funnier. But then I read this great book that I think is still around, it’s called Information Anxiety. It’s all about how there’s so much more information produced now, every minute, than a person who lived in the middle ages would have been exposed to in their entire lifetime. It causes anxiety. As humans, we just can’t process that many options about what’s important to read, what’s not important. The author was a guy who designed instruction manuals for electronics equipment for a living and he also designed the signage in airports. He was the one who laid it out so that you could walk through and intuitively know which way to go to the baggage claim or wherever. And he was all about putting the big, important information first and have that be really getable, readily accessible, in a way so that almost anyone who say it would know what you’re talking about. Then, in smaller letters, have slightly more information that expounds on the main headline. If you really want to drill down, then you can have some walls of copy that really get into the details. It’s almost like a billboard sign on the road. If you’re interested in this, you’ll know immediately what it’s about and you can read more if you want. And so I knew we were on the right track with The Onion because the headline was funny and if someone liked that joke they were going to start reading it. I think that’s worked for us. We never thought of ourselves as a newspaper, so sometimes people think it’s odd that we do the headlines first because if you worked for a newspaper that would be very odd. You want to find out where the story is and then write the story and then, as an afterthought, throw a headline on. Nowadays with the Internet, headlines are much more than an afterthought. You really have to draw people in. We treated it like comedy and humor writing, so we pitch headlines and when we come up with a headline that is really funny that everybody likes then we decide, “Ok yeah, we’re going to run that.” Then we figure out if it’s going to be a big story or a little story and whatever, but it’s all about that first joke. It’s your introduction to the reader and it better make a good impression.
DPR: A controversial topic in the news lately is political correctness and “coddling” on college campuses. Everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to President Obama to student paper columnists have weighed in. No matter which side of the argument you’re on, it seems that we are growing more sensitive as a nation. How do you toe that line as a satirist?
Well, satire has a very clear rule about that arena. I think political correctness is all about making sure that you don’t unnecessarily offend people. That’s the whole point of it. You want terms that are empowering and don’t belittle the oppressed and all this other sort of stuff. You want to be sensitive to people who are in a compromised or minority group or something like that. In satire, we abide by that same rule that journalists do: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In satire, you have to pick the right target for your jokes. If your target deserves to be made fun of, it will work and people will laugh at that. Everyone loves to laugh at somebody who deserves to be laughed at. But if you pick the wrong target, if you’re going after an oppressed group or a minority group or somebody who’s down and out, nobody is going to laugh at that. They feel like it’s wrong and offensive and inappropriate. Political correctness is kind of baked into satire. However, the way we produce it, if it’s done well, it makes people laugh and they enjoy it so that they’re not even thinking about the fact that it’s politically correct. In the real world, political correctness often seems annoying because you have to know all the right terms and all the modern terms for whatever you’re talking about. And that annoys people. It especially annoys the oppressors because they’re so use to using the easy term and they don’t care that it’s offending people. It is nicer to try to learn the “right” term and yes, it can get crazy. I don’t know that I have too much of an opinion because I’m not too politically correct in my own life. In satire, we don’t have to worry about it because the rules are very simple.
DPR: So it’s almost like being politically correct is good for business.
Yeah, the more your resonate with the audience, the funnier it’s going to be. The more accessible you are, the funnier it’s going to be. If you’re offending anybody or a group of people, like let’s say a minority group doesn’t like a joke you’re telling, then you’re going to lose that part of the audience. It’s so hard to find the audience for written humor as it is; you want the most broad possible reach that you can get. So being an equal opportunity offender (that’s just the term they use) is always good business. So they know that you’re fairly making fun of every single act of stupidity that anyone anywhere is doing, regardless of their station.
DPR: But doesn’t it get difficult to write good satire or to come up with good material when you have to be conscious of, like you said, offending everyone equally? You know, you want to use the right term or you want to stay away from this particular group. But there are also those topics that are off limits. You have things like trigger warnings for sexual assault or 9/11 being a very sensitive topic… Beyond making sure no particular group is too offended, how do you approach subjects that might have a lot of potential to be funny but need to be handled delicately?
I’ve never had a problem with a so-called “delicate” subject. You can always find something to satirize about anything, even the idea of political correctness in society. You can satirize any event or any trend. All you have to do is find the right target in that event, whether its historical or a current trend, whatever it is. That’s what it’s all about. If you pick the wrong target, people will perceive it as piling on the oppressed and that won’t work. That won’t be funny. So you pick a deserving target, and a great deserving target is often just our own flaws and shortcomings. And certainly any authority figure or oppressor is a great target.; everybody loves seeing them brought down. There really never a topic that is too sensitive. The more sensitive the better, because people need to relieve that tension.
DPR: Do your stories ever get you into hot water? Which one?
I will be telling a couple stories about that tonight actually. But yeah, definitely. There are a few people who, for some reason, don’t like to be made fun of. And when they do get made fun of, they get really angry and their lawyers call us and it’s really kind of silly. In the old days when The Onion first started, that would happen a lot more often because people didn’t know what The Onion was and they would look at us and say, ‘This newspaper is just ridiculing me. I’m going to sue them.” But now, The Onion is more well known. People think of it more as being Lampooned on SNL. “Oh, now I’m in the club because I’m being made fun of!” In the past, we might have gotten a cease-and-desist letter or a call from an angry lawyer or from a big company that we made fun of. Now, they’ll send us a big box of their products. In terms of people, there are still some that still don’t get it. One is director Michael Bay; whenever we make fun of him, he gets really angry. And Donald Trump is another one; every time we make fun of him, his lawyers call us and say, “You can’t make fun of Donald Trump.” I’m sure he’s getting tired of that now because he’s much more in the public eye than he use to be so hopefully those calls with stop. The Onion is going to keep doing what it always has. Thankfully, we’re pretty well-protected by the first amendment.
DPR: The Charlie Hebdo attacks showed that satire can be more than just harmless political jokes. Have you ever been scared to make a particularly edgy joke? What ran through your mind when you saw those attacks?
Well, I was very saddened obviously; it’s a horrible tragedy. It shouldn’t have happened because that’s all satire should be, words. It’s just words. It’s mystifying to me how insane you would have to be or how little a sense of humor you would have to have to want to kill someone for making fun of you or something you cherish. That’s just weird; that’s totally weird. Get a sense of humor. I want to tell all the terrorists in the world to lighten up and get a sense of humor. But have I ever been scared? Well, when we were first starting out in Madison, we were doing a fair amount of, you know, Christianity-bashing jokes. There was this one crazy who sent us a lot of death threats and showed up at our office one time and we had to get a restraining order against him. Shortly after that, we did some book signings in the area and we were all a little on edge thinking that this guy could easily show up because it was publicly announced and everything. But if you’re a writer of satire, that doesn’t really make you want to stop doing what you’re doing. It just makes you want to protect yourself more. The effect that those people want to have, it’s really impossible. If you’re a satirist, you’re going to do satire. If you’re a mountain climber, you’re going to climb a mountain. Nobody is going to stop you unless they kill you, which I guess they could do. But there’s always going to be more. There’s always going to be more people who are going to do it. That’s why it’s so insane. Like c’mon, as long as you’re not getting hurt, let people do what they do. But obviously, it’s a culture clash, too. We’re so accustomed to our freedom of speech and having this open dialogue unlike people who are terrorists, wherever they come from with what’s probably a pretty draconian political system, where that’s just unthinkable to them. Obviously it’s a problem.
DPR: On a lighter note, what is your all time favorite Onion headline?
I would have to say my all-time favorite Onion headline is from the year 2000 when the Supreme Court gave the presidency to George Bush. The headline was, “Bush: ‘Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.’” And I liked that at the time, I thought it was very clever and very funny. But since that time, that article has proven to be incredibly prescient. Because the writer, who was Todd Hanson, our head writer at the time, predicted so many details about the Bush presidency and laid them all out almost in succession. And that article has been written about in the New York Times and other places as being an amazing prediction of the future. I look back on it now and read it and am astounded by how accurate it was. And funny! It was done in a really funny way. I just think that was, among all the stories we’ve done, one that I would call our best work.