Staff members from The Onion, one of the country’s most popular humor and satire publications, spoke to students Tuesday evening in the University Center Auditorium about what it takes to produce the consistently funny, often controversial publication read by millions of readers each week.
“We’ve developed a philosophy that has made us America’s funniest news source,” John Krewson, staff writer for The Onion since 1991, said. “What we basically do is take the Associated Press style of writing — the very serious and dry style — and put in all the ridiculous crap that we put in our paper. If you tell a really, really outlandish story with a straight face people will like it.”
Such was the case with an article The Onion ran about Congress threatening to leave Washington, D.C., if it didn’t get a new Capitol Building with a retractable roof. The largest newspaper in China picked up the story and ran it as fact, even going so far as to steal the Photoshop-enhanced photograph accompanying the story.
“The Onion is mean. The Onion points out the terribleness of life,” Krewson said, standing in front of an enlarged cover of the paper projected on the screen behind him.
“It’s important to not just be funny,” he said, explaining that The Onion does not shy away from controversial subjects. “But ‘Women: Why don’t they lose some weight?’ — that’s not just funny. It actually has something to say.”
Recent examples of their comedy with a message include “Terri Schiavo dies of embarrassment” and “Cost of living now outweighs benefits.”
One of the popular and consistent parts of The Onion is their response to the “man on the street” interviews many news organizations print — those spontaneous interviews they do with ordinary people about the big issues of the day.
“People answer polls, they answer man-on-the-street interviews, in the voice of the person they want to be — not in the voice of the person they are,” Krewson said, using the example that many people who claim education is the highest priority often end up voting for candidates with opposite views on the subject.
“No one is ever going to answer a poll seriously by saying ‘put them all in camps’ or ‘barefoot and pregnant where they belong,’ ‘shoot them all and let God sort them out — and I mean God and not Allah,’” he explained. “They’re never going to say that, but a lot of people think it. A lot of people do. They’re always going to come off in a different way and we try to reflect that by our evil, evil people in The Onion. Except that we try to make them a little more bold about it.”
For those wondering what it’s like working at a publication like The Onion, the speakers were open and honest.
“(Working at The Onion) is a thing of legend. It’s chocolate-coated unicorn candy fluff daydreams all day long. All we ever do is joke around and we get really stoned and think up funny things to say,” Krewson said. “That’s what people really think. But what it really is is highly structured. It’s a very structured environment in which you stick a bunch of people that don’t take to structure very well.”
Onion staff members are required to present a minimum of 25 potential headlines every Monday — which starts a week long process of choosing the best ideas, writing stories, balancing the types of articles and having the graphics editor find and manipulate images.
“We actually did a (Michael Moore story): ‘Michael Moore honored with new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (called ‘The Waffle Truth’),” explained Mike Loew, graphics editor and the mastermind behind the “Photoshopped” images that appear in the publication. “Ben & Jerry’s actually mixed up a unique batch of that flavor of ice cream for us and sent us like eight pints of it.”
“Two things in the world let you know that you’ve made it in the world of print comedy,” Krewson added. One indication is that Ben & Jerry’s makes you your own ice cream flavor ... the other one is that we got invited to the White House correspondents dinner, he said.
“We were a lot more excited about the ice cream,” he added.
Krewson explained that humor, even in worst of times — such as September 2001, when The Onion first moved to New York City — is necessary. “It’s a safety valve for society. It doesn’t necessarily make things any better, but laughter keeps things from getting worse. ... That’s really, I think, a pretty noble impulse of people and if we can help that noble impulse along at The Onion then it’s a miracle. Then we’ve done our job.”
The online version of The Onion is available online at http://www.theonion.com. The Onion staff have also produced six books and are currently in talks about a major motion picture.