Onion Nation: A Look Inside the Offices of 'The Onion'

By Wells Tower
Sunday, November 16, 2008

If you were a prospective gag headline, you would probably feel about the writers' room at the Onion the way World War II soldiers felt about the view of Omaha Beach as the landing craft doors yawned open. By midafternoon on a Monday, at the paper's SoHo offices in Manhattan, the writers at America's most successful satirical newsweekly had mowed down somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 possible headlines in search of a dozen or so solid comic premises around which an issue of the paper would be built.

In an inversion of the traditional editorial process, the Onion chooses its headlines and then invents stories to fit them. For a headline to have made the first cut, at least two of the six writers in attendance had to okay it, generally an occasion of little fanfare in which a couple of people threw up their hands and murmured with a defeated sigh, "Sure, why the hell not?" Among the survivors were "Sudanese Man Best In Village At Stacking Bodies"; "Really Loud Whistle Guy Takes Every Opportunity To Whistle Loudly"; "Steven Tyler Laid Off From Aerosmith As Band Jobless Rate Hits 20%"; "Kid Not Sure What To Do With Sex And The City Action Figures"; "Bill Clinton Sadly Folds First Lady Dress Back Into Box"; "Price of Gas Rises To Four Expletives Per Gallon"; "50-Year-Old Prince Licks AARP Representative's Face"; and "Op-Ed: It Figures That Right After I Wash My Car, It Rains Blood."

The choicest material -- the staff writers' ideas -- had been pitched this morning, and the writers were sorting through the chaff, the jokes sent in each week by part-time contributors, known in local editorial parlance as "the [expletive] list." The writers fidgeted and slumped in their chairs, visibly oppressed by the haze of failed hilarity thickening in the room.

Fallen cannon fodder included: "Face Of God Seen On Bus Ad For God"; "California Courts To See What Else They Can Marry"; "Meter Attendant Accidentally Tries To Collect Change From Vending Machine"; and the following op-ed: "You're Breaking The Human Half Of My Cyborg Heart," which caused senior writer Dan Guterman to groan and offer a counter-headline, " 'I Suck,' By A Joke."

Though individual writers would ultimately spin into full stories those headlines that survived a second culling, the paper is a thoroughly collaborative effort, with pretty much every member of the staff getting an equal vote. "We find that the creative process works much better when we function as a kind of collective mind," said top editor Joe Randazzo, an unassuming 30-year-old who doesn't radiate any boss-ish swagger in meetings and whom no one on the staff seems scared of or desperate to impress. "There are times when a joke gets mired in semantics, and I have to tell everybody to shut the hell up. But that happens pretty rarely, probably once every couple of issues, when a story needs a definitive yes or no."

Nearly every word that appears in print is conceived, refined, brainstormed and edited in committee, which calls for near-bedsore-inflicting stretches of seat time in the writers' room -- on average, about three solid days of meetings each week. To blunt the tedium, Guterman shuffled poker chips in a slick, one-handed way. Assistant editor Megan Ganz, the only woman on the 10-person full-time writing staff, scratched out Sudoku puzzles. Feature editor Joe Garden crimped and folded a motley horde of paper frogs with the help of a book titled "Animal Origami for the Enthusiast."

Beyond the general grousing about the unending meetings, writers also griped with a sort of doleful pride that their work for the paper was something they toiled at, in at least some far compartment of their minds, during every waking moment of their lives.

"Everything becomes fodder for humor. It's actually a terrible way to go through life," said Guterman during a cigarette break on the sidewalk on Broadway. "You never entirely leave the work. It makes it impossible to have conversations with people. Your mind is incessantly working in this mode."

Story editor Todd Hanson, 39, who is the acknowledged despair specialist and the oldest writer on the staff, took a pull on a cigarette and offered a slightly different spin. "For me, comedy is essentially about personal horror, and transforming that horror into something people can laugh at." Hanson went on, "People always say, 'You should do a book.'"

"I never say that," Guterman interrupted.

"I know," said Hanson. "Who'd want to read it? It'd just be me talking about being depressed. It's much better to take life's horror and disappointment and channel it into humor."

By 5 p.m., the bulk of the day's meetings had drawn to a close, and most of the staffers had gone home, leaving assistant editor Mike DiCenzo and staff writer Seth Reiss to attend a meeting with a few outside contributors who came by to help with the Onion's sports section.

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